April 2020


                               Photo by :      Mostafa Meraji (Unsplash)


What’s in a social justice diet?


It’s perfectly possible to eat with equality and sustainability as priorities.

Billions of dollars are spent telling individuals how to eat healthy. But even if you follow EAT-Lancet’s planet-friendly diet to a T, and your dinner plate is filled with gluten-free nutrivore fare, vegan locavore leafy greens, and ovo-pescatarian (wild caught!) omega-3’s, it still might be missing something. America’s industrialized food production and the dire nature of our planetary health raise the question: How do we add climate and social justice to our diet?

This year, members of the federal Dietary Guidelines Advisory Committee will convene to update their recommendations. But this effort to help guide Americans toward a “balanced” diet is also the product of lobbying by the dairy, grain, and meat industries, which have long been accused of pursuing dollars at the expense of health.

Considering the impact of environmental racism and the number of food deserts in the United States, it’s clear that food production and consumption are not just about personal decisions. It’s about politics and systems that determine who has healthy grocery options available and who does not. Existing guidelines not only ignore the needs of the climate and rely on intensive factory farming practices, but they assign blame for poor bodily health and quality of life based on “choices” that, for many people, simply do not exist.

What would it look like to be able to eat with justice—social, racial, economic, and climate—in mind?


Honor tribal treaties and food systems.

Before we talk about eating, we have to talk about the land on which our food is grown. In contrast to the American colonial prioritization of extracting resources from the ground, rivers, and oceans, Indigenous food systems are built on a relationship with the land. But when Native peoples were forced to leave their lands—along with their soils and place-based expertise—they were robbed of the healthy diets they had developed over generations.

Genocide, forced assimilation, creation of reservation territories, and continuance of anti-Native policies have dispossessed Native people of two kinds of wealth: the ability to truly self-govern and manage their land, and the ability to build capital, which would enable individuals to make choices about how to live a healthy lifestyle.

“What we’ve noticed, and what I’ve aimed to do, is promote the simple enrichment of diets through our traditional foods, because we know that eating just one traditional food meal a week changes the blood,” says Valerie Segrest, a member of the Muckleshoot tribe and a director with the Native American Agriculture Fund. According to a 2019 U.N. report, Indigenous peoples steward 80 percent of the world’s biodiversity—plant and animal species that are essential to climate health.

But the U.S. government has an abysmal record of breaching treaties made with Native governments. And by replacing Native food systems with industrialized versions, Segrest says the U.S. harms the land and public health simultaneously. Native leaders, U.S. scientists, and public health officials say that chronic diseases, including diabetes, didn’t exist in Native communities until the mid-20th century. Now, Native people have the highest rate of diabetes of any racial and ethnic group in the U.S.

Segrest has worked with all of the tribes in Washington state to teach the importance of traditional ingredients and says that Native foods are the remedy to this health crisis: “What’s good for an Indian is good for everybody.”


Grow knowledge and anti-racist practices.

Ayanna Jones is a Black farmer, educator, and community organizer in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She lives in a majority-Black community, which runs up against a number of institutionalized racist practices. “Food justice is huge for us,” Jones says, detailing how her community’s food options are limited to local grocery stores that often sell low-quality or spoiled produce.

The stores offering higher quality and healthier options are intentionally located in the wealthy White communities, where customers are thought to be more interested in and able to pay for them. For those who can afford to travel to these neighborhoods to shop, their dollars end up leaving their own communities.

With this in mind, Jones says she began to think about what it would look like to grow her own food, to become self-sufficient. She wanted to find a way to show young people in the community that their bodies were worthy of food that is not rotten or laden with sugar and salt.

In 2015, Jones started the Sankofa Village Community Garden to provide anti-food-apartheid education and community programs, including gardening for seniors and summer camps for youth. Here she teaches young people how to produce their own food and how their bodies feel when they eat food that’s good for them.

“I give them that mental food,” Jones says. “They’re discovering the myths they’ve been given about food and food justice.” But even when one learns that sugar-filled cereal won’t sustain a child throughout the school day, if parents aren’t paid a wage that allows them to purchase healthier options, it’s difficult to turn knowledge into action. Still, Jones believes that “information is power”—that knowing is better than not knowing. “I’m growing to educate,” she says.


Shift food policy by buying regionally.

In nearly every corner of the country, it’s cheaper to purchase a liter of soda than it is to buy a head of broccoli; a 2013 study found that a “healthy” diet cost $550 more per person per year than an “unhealthy” one. For a family of four, that’s an extra $2,200 each year. “The system is set up to feed poor people more poorly,” says fifth-generation farmer Andy Dunham, who runs an organic vegetable operation in Grinnell, Iowa. “The only reason that soda is so cheap [is because] the United States government subsidizes the hell out of those crops: sugar cane and corn.” Billions of federal dollars are disbursed annually growing Big-Ag products: corn, soybeans, wheat, cotton, and rice, and to industries like big beef and big pork rather than small family farmers.

“I don’t think people have any idea about how much we spend on policy that [is] environmentally degrading,” Dunham says. To combat today’s industrial production, he calls for establishing ecologically diverse farming systems and a managed grazing system that allows soil to sequester carbon. And empowering people to know the difference. If consumers and voters understand the environmental implications of what they’re purchasing and which businesses they’re supporting through their consumption, then food policy at the federal level might look different. “Having a food literate society allows for policy to be sane,” he says.

In terms of what that translates to on the plate, Dunham says climate justice eating is about having a region-based diet. That doesn’t always mean picking plants over meat; it means taking into consideration where your food was raised and what kinds of energy, chemicals, and transport went into that process. You may need to change your approach to menu planning to reflect what’s in season, rather than relying on production somewhere that’s enjoying summer during your winter. This approach supports local farmers and keeps the carbon footprint of your food relatively low.


Support community-run collectives.

All forms of structural inequalities are made visible in the industrialized food system—from production to consumption, says Victor Brazelton, a community activist and educator with Planting Justice, an Oakland, California-based grassroots organization that works to cultivate food sovereignty, economic justice, and community healing through individual and communal empowerment. Planting Justice hires organizers, farmers, and activists who were formerly incarcerated. Part of its work is to combat current-day colonization and community displacement by building access to organic food through community gardens and educating kids about what healthy food looks and tastes like. “Food is medicine,” Brazelton says. Sustainable farming practices heal people and the planet.

“Community first starts wherever you are,” Brazelton adds, which includes acknowledging and collaborating with the people who originally stewarded the land. In the East Bay of California, the state government forced Ohlone tribes from their land through violence, but despite this, they still live and practice Ohlone culture today in what’s now called Oakland. Planting Justice developed a partnership with the Sogorea Te’ Land Trust, which works to repossess stolen Ohlone land. Planting Justice is currently working to pay off a 2-acre land parcel, and when it does, it will hand the deed over to the Land Trust.

“What’s really important is people having agency over their food,” says Molly Scalise of FRESHFARM, a D.C.-based food justice organization. FRESHFARM brings healthy food directly to communities through farmers markets, in-school programs, and gleaning programs, which distribute unsold produce to shelters. The organization also runs a farm-share through local schools, where parents can purchase produce at a subsidized rate using SNAP benefits. Scalise says this is necessarily a collaborative effort with D.C. residents to make sure it’s “not invasive or intrusive.” She says solutions arise from working with neighbors and communities.

The goal is making options more accessible to consumers in order to impact community health while ensuring that local farms remain profitable.


Develop relationship-oriented food systems.

How can we begin to talk about justice when those most impacted have the least access to decision-making tools and systems? That question is at the center of Jamie Harvie’s work. Harvie is the executive director of the Institute for a Sustainable Future, which works to build solutions for ecological health through advocacy and research. A food justice diet, he says, must mitigate climate impact, reduce poverty, and ensure that decision-making processes include those most impacted.

Ultimately, Harvie says, what’s good for the climate will be good for people too. But White, Western, colonial systems have conditioned many of us out of the understanding that food systems and communal health are connected.

Food justice must return systems to communities, Harvie explains. Organizations like Oregon Rural Action tackle food injustice from a farming and policy perspective, by working to change state laws that allow farmers to sell directly to consumers, as well as collaborating with the state’s Department of Energy to provide low-interest loans to schools upgrading their energy systems, and building access to local farmers markets. Local food systems that are communally owned and operated allow for communal wealth creation. This means that food is not only eaten in the same region where it is produced, but the financial and public health benefits uplift the community as well.

Tying together food and climate justice isn’t an intellectual exercise, Harvie notes. Justice work, in any form, is about creating and sustaining relationships with one another, including the relationships with the Earth and our food systems. We have to do the hard work of moving from a transactional, colonial, and capitalist model of feeding ourselves to a relational model of feeding and caring for each other.


This article was first published in YES! Magazine under a different stand-first and lead image.


By                :                     Ray Levy-Uyeda

Date            :                     September 15, 2020

Source        :                     Open Democracy




Youth of color disproportionately represented in the justice system


Teenagers and youth across the country commit the same types of crimes – carrying a weapon, drinking alcohol, smoking marijuana and fighting – but even as the number of incarcerated youth has declined, disparities affecting young people of color have continued to grow.

This overrepresentation of minority youth is only half of the picture, a study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed, along with other reports. 

Youth of color account for 28% of the U.S. population in 2017, according to a study from the Pew Research Center. However, they represented 67% of offenders in residential placement, according to Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention. 

Joshua Rovner, a senior advocacy associate for the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C., said there isn’t a significant difference between the crimes committed by youth of different ethnicities. The overrepresentation of youth of color in the juvenile justice system originates from systemic inequalities. 

“There are differences, but none of the differences are big enough to explain the differences in arrests,” Rovner said. 

He said the disparity gets worse at every step through the juvenile justice system. 

Nationally, Black youth are five times more likely to be detained or confined than white youth, the Sentencing Project reported. Native American youth are three times more likely and Latino youth are roughly two times more likely than white youth. 

Growing up in Rochester, Minnesota, Dylan Sutter said he always helped out his single mother, took care of his younger siblings, never got into trouble and dreamed of playing college basketball.

Today, after a long history with the juvenile justice system, the 21-year-old sits in a cell in the Faribault Correctional Facility, where he’s serving a five-year sentence for burglary. 

“I never had problems with him when he was very young,” said his mother, Leslie Sutter. “He was never a troubled young man that I saw. But now when he describes things to me and he’s written me letters, he says, ‘Mom, I always felt like it was part of my future and my destiny to go to prison like my dad did.'”Experts point to many factors contributing to these disparities, including the disproportionate presence of police in communities of color. 

Minority youth lack “the benefit of the doubt,” said Tanya Washington, a senior associate for the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore in its Juvenile Justice Strategy Group.

“I think (it’s) assuming that the behavior that (white youth) are engaged in warrants a call to their parents and a non-justice system resolution, versus youth of color, (which) almost by default involves police, in handcuffs, and a judge and a charge,” Washington said. 

Marcy Mistrett, the CEO of Campaign for Youth Justice in Washington, D.C., says some young people encounter law enforcement multiple times in a day: Near public housing. In schools. At a bus station. By basketball courts.

“I think we just forget how pervasive law enforcement is in the lives of Black and brown children,” Mistrett said. 

Adryann Glenn, 41, grew up in public housing in Herndon, Virginia. As a Black male in the U.S., he said, he felt targeted by law enforcement. He was arrested for the first time at age 14 for bringing a gun to school.  

“I’m still very conscious of (the fact that) I can’t make one mistake – and that’s inhumane to think that you can’t make a mistake in life – but the simplest mistake because of my criminal past, I go directly to jail, and it’s been that way since I was 14 years old,” Glenn said. 

Glenn, now a criminal justice advocate, said his story is not unique.

“I don’t have any friends – literally none of the guys I work with – there’s not any of us who have not been incarcerated for one reason or another, or detained at least,” he said. 

Sutter said he, too, felt he had a “target on his back” as a minority student in a mostly white school. He once was suspended for arguing with a friend, and he noticed the punishments he received were harsher than white classmates were given. 

“I felt in high school, the principal and the administration had their eye on me a little too much,” he said. 

The presence of school resource officers often leads students into the justice system, known as the school-to-prison pipeline, for more arbitrary offenses. 

“I made a lot of mistakes and I maybe earned that target on my back,” Sutter said. “But even when I thought I was doing the right thing and wasn’t involved in any trouble, I felt like they still were out to get me.”

Black youth are the most overrepresented minority group, according to the Sentencing Project. In six states – New Jersey, Wisconsin, Montana, Delaware, Connecticut and Massachusetts – they are at least 10 times more likely to be held, which is twice the national average. 

Disparities continue to grow in some states.

Kentucky decreased the overall detention rate for youth by 20% from 2014 to 2017, but detentions of Black children grew by 30% in 2017, according to the Kentucky Juvenile Justice Oversight Council. 

Even during the COVID-19 pandemic, when some detainees are being released to reduce their risk of infection, white youth are being released at higher rates than Black youth, a recent Annie E. Casey Foundation report found.

Black juveniles represent about 54% of youth transferred to the adult system, according to the Campaign for Youth Justice. 

Rachel Antonuccio, a juvenile public defender in Johnson County, Iowa, represents juveniles facing charges in adult court. She said most of the children she represents are kids of color in a state the Census Bureau says is 85% white non-Hispanic. 

“The initial charge is based on police discretion, and that’s how you start in adult court,” she said. “My concern is that racism in the police system is responsible for quite a bit of this, frankly. And then, racism across systems. That’s where it starts.” 

Police officers and college students surveyed by the American Psychology Association found that “Black (children) were rated as more culpable than Latinos, and Latinos were rated as more culpable than Whites.”  


Black youth treated differently

Black children as young as 13 have been viewed as adults, the report said.

“In other words, our findings suggest that, although most children are allowed to be innocent until adulthood, Black children may be perceived as innocent only until deemed suspicious,” it stated. 

Kameron Johnson, the chief juvenile public defender in Travis County, Texas, said perception of age is important to consider. 

Black children have “the same gestures and mannerisms, say, that a white child would, but (officers) are seeing them in different ways,” he said. 

Johnson said Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old killed by Cleveland police in 2014 while playing with a pellet gun, was prejudged by officers responding to a 911 call of a man brandishing a gun.

“They pulled a gun on him,” Johnson said. “The officer viewed him as threatening. And then the response (was), ‘Oh, he looked older than he was.'” 

Rice’s death, at the hands of law enforcement, is one of many that inspired the Black Lives Matter movement, which continues to gain traction through protests and national efforts to reform police departments.

The adultification of juveniles particularly affects youth of color, said Samantha Mellerson, the chief of strategy and impact at The W. Haywood Burns Institute, which works towards eliminating racial and ethnic disparities. 

“In a training session once, somebody (pointed out) the Dennis the Menace cartoon,” Mellerson recalled. “What would that look like if that was the Black boy? Totally different.” 

Mellerson said assumptions about children of color are unfair and that minority kids feel they can’t be kids.

Glenn said he grew up knowing police would assume he was older than he was. 

“Where I come from, in my type of neighborhood, you’re an adult as soon as you’re over 5 foot, 5 inches, that’s the way the police deal with you,” Glenn said. “They don’t deal with you like a child, they deal with you like an adult.”

Latino juveniles also face adultification, according to a 2016 report from the Northwestern Journal of Law & Social Policy, which stated, “Black and Latino boys were more likely than white boys to be seen as older by law enforcement and legal actors.” 

Black and Latina girls are not exempt either. Minority girls have a higher likelihood of being incarcerated compared with white girls. 

Black girls made up 34% of youth in U.S. detention facilities in 2019, while Hispanic girls accounted for 22%, according to the U.S. Department of Justice. In 2015, more than 6 out of every 10 females in residential placement were minorities.

Iliana Pujols, 22, was expelled from high school after getting into an altercation with another girl. Pujols said police officers never asked her side of the story. 

“The immediate assumption was that I was the aggressor because I was a little bit bigger than the other girl,” said Pujols, who is Latina. “They thought I was over 18, but I’ve always presented myself as a very mature person, and an older person, so nobody knew that I was 16 years old at the time.”

Latino and Native American youth encounter unique biases within the juvenile justice system. Their identities are underreported and misrepresented in data, and they often face prejudice from law enforcement, experts said. 

Hispanic youth on average are detained about two times more often than white youth, according to the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention.

Edgar Ibarra, 27, said he felt police targeted him and presumed he was in a gang because of his Chicano Indigenous identity. 

Growing up fatherless, and with his mother constantly working, Ibarra said he had little guidance. Watsonville did not have enough youth services, Ibarra said, and he struggled to find a path in life. 

“The people that we looked up to were just kind of like the guys hanging out around our blocks around the neighborhood,” Ibarra recalled. 

He was convicted for the first time at the age of 15 in Santa Clara, California, of assault and robbery. He was in the Preston Castle Reform School from 2008 to 2013. 

Although Ibarra said he was not in a gang at the time, the juvenile justice system always treated him like he was. Police often would approach him and his friends if they were walking in a group, performing “tattoo checks” and taking down personal information. 

When he was 12, Ibarra was stopped by a police officer, asked to take off his shirt so his gang-related tattoos could be photographed – but he had none. 

“They’d put your name on there, they would determine what gang you were already going to be a part of and begin the whole process,” he said. 

Presumed gang affiliation is a prejudice most Latino youth face, said Washington, D.C., attorney Julie Swaney, which often is based on the assumption that a Latino or Hispanic surname means gang involvement.

“That already stigmatizes the child who may not be involved at all in any type of gang activity,” Swaney said.

Ibarra said his mother, who wasn’t a citizen at the time of his conviction, was barely involved in the legal process. 

“She never spoke up in court because she was scared that they might question her and she might get deported,” he said. “I thought that she was just the kind of the normal, soft-spoken … Mexican mother (who) just doesn’t want to change anything.”

Today, Ibarra works for Motivation Individual Leadership for Public Advancement (MILPA), an organization staffed by formerly incarcerated people whose mission is to “cultivate” change-makers. His work focuses on helping Latino youth avoid or navigate the justice system, using his own experiences to provide insight. 

In Utah, Montana and Pennsylvania, Latino youth are more than three times as likely to be held in placement than white youth, and in Massachusetts they’re more than seven times as likely, according to the Sentencing Project.

Like Sutter, Ibarra said going to jail felt like the path he was destined to take.

“I thought (going to jail) was OK, it was normalized,” Ibarra said. “It should’ve never been normalized, it should’ve never been internalized nor should ever have been OK, but growing up at the time, that’s what it was.”

Jaime Arredondo, executive director of CAPACES Leadership Institute, an organization focused on leadership development within Latino communities, said he worries about the effect of disproportionate incarceration has on Latino youth. 

“We’re losing our youth, we’re losing our workers, we’re losing a brother, a sister, a potential entrepreneur, a taxpayer,” he said. 


Statistics on Latinos ‘unreliable’

No uniform system of data collection exists to identify youth as Hispanic and Latino when they’re detained, according to Melissa Sickmund, director of the National Center for Juvenile Justice. Some systems, but not all, include multiracial as an identifier. 

Rovner said data surrounding incarceration rates of Latino and Native youth can be unreliable. Often Latino or Hispanic youth are categorized solely as white, and Native youth are identified as Latino or Hispanic. 

“The fact that the data is aggregated, or disaggregated, and just grouped in such a way that each kid only gets one ethnicity,” said Rovner from the Sentencing Project. “Well, half of Native youth in this country are also Latino, but they get categorized only as one or the other.”

Data from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention shows Native American youth are nearly three times as likely to be detained or committed than white youth, but Native Americans account for less than 2% of the U.S. population, according to the Census Bureau.  

“Native American youth are bearing the brunt of this in an epic way as well,” said Tshaka Barrows, CEO of the W. Haywood Burns Institute. “But it’s rarely discussed.”  

A 15-year-old boy from Wyoming received 20 years in prison after bringing two loaded guns to school when he was 14. He pled guilty to assault and possession of a firearm with unlawful intent. Dale Warner, originally from the Lakota Sioux Tribe on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, faced difficult circumstances growing up, according to his adoptive family. 

Warner developed a fetal alcohol syndrome disorder as a baby, a common issue in Native American communities plagued by higher rates of alcoholism and a lack of preventative resources, a BMC Public Health study stated.  

His adoptive father, Scott Warner, said his son met a harsher judicial process than white youth who had committed similar crimes in Gillette. 

“I honestly think race had something to do with it, because it just seems weird how the other cases, and I’m going to say there’s probably three or four of them, never saw the light of day as far as adult court or any of that,” Scott Warner said. “Yet my son all a sudden has 20 years in prison.”

Swaney, the Washington attorney who works on the Criminal Justice Act Panel and the Juvenile Delinquency Panel, said the solution is preventing kids from ever getting to the courthouse door. 

“If they need to be in the court system because of the severity of the offense or because there just has been repetitive activity of that nature, then we need to focus more on what types of things are actually effective at preventing or solving some of those problems,” she said. 

LaTasha DeLoach, co-chair of the Iowa Disproportionate Minority Contact Committee, said it is important to use data to create solutions for disparities and create positive results for minority communities.  

“I really believe the answer is always there.” she said. “It’s about us finding it and finding the things that are impacting kids that are ending up in this space.” 



Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw is a Murray Endowment fellow.

This report is part of Kids Imprisoned, a project produced by the Carnegie-Knight News21 initiative, a national investigative reporting project by top college journalism students and recent graduates from across the country. It is headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.


By             :            Mikhayla Hughes-Shaw, Nicole Sroka and Victoria Traxler/News21

Date         :             September 2, 2020

Source     :             Cronkite New




Book Review: A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice by Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman


In A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice, Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman explore how comedy can serve to advance a social justice agenda. Drawing on her own experience of writing and producing comedy shows in Berlin, Christine Sweeney finds that this book offers answers to questions she has long been pondering: how do we open up social research and discourse to wider audiences; how do we highlight the absurdities of our world, making us laugh and think? 

A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice. Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman. University of California Press. 2020.

‘If you’re thinking, you’re not laughing. Rule one of comedy,’ my stand-up teacher continued, ‘plenty of political comedians are skilled at this kind of humour, leave political or issue humour to them’. But if I wasn’t allowed to use politics and current events as comedy material, what would that leave? Stale observations about Tinder dates, eccentric people on the bus and worn-out gendered stereotypes? What is the dreadful state of current events if not prime material for comedy?

That’s right: I went from earning a master’s degree at LSE to a stand-up comedy class. I’ve also taken classes in improv, sketch-writing and sketch producing. How does someone go from a career in policy analysis to full-on immersion in the Frankfurt School of critical theory to chasing English-language open-mic nights in Berlin? For me, comedy was a coping mechanism I’d developed over the past few years of particular political uncertainty. Making jokes of everything was a salve for the sting of total disillusionment. It was an antidote to the earnest and material worlds of economics and politics, which I had come to regard with total cynicism and hopelessness. Once professionally driven to ‘make the world a better place’, the unexpected results of elections and referendums shattered my (naive and overly optimistic) world. I turned away from analysing and solving problems I felt were unsolvable.

With the state of the world, I might offer a revision to my stand-up teacher’s advice on political comedy: ‘If you’re thinking, you’re crying, not laughing.’ From a place of relative privilege, I wanted to stop crying when I thought about global problems of inequality and climate change. Laughing seemed to be the only alternative. However, I felt frustrated with a constructed dichotomy of the silly and serious when, more often than not, I found myself laughing and crying at the same cycle of news. In avoiding actually doing something about it, did I really have to choose between laughing and crying?

And we are more comfortable in knowing or being directed towards when we are meant to be silly versus sombre. Everyone knows the uncomfortable feeling of reacting to a joke that wasn’t intended to be a joke, or taking something seriously that was said in jest. Being able to manipulate people’s reactions with storytelling and context is a power I first witnessed seeing Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up special Nanette. In it, she points out the heartbreaking real-life experiences of violence, poverty and homophobia that inspired her comedy. She has her live audience laughing before uncomfortably pausing when she explains the punchlines of her previous comedy sets. It’s an emotional rollercoaster that she manoeuvres using a dry tone and comedic timing, skills she honed during her previous career as an art history scholar. Her audience came for the comedy, but perhaps left with a deeper understanding of everyday homophobia and the male gaze in classical art.

How does a former academic learn to make others laugh? They research. And nothing makes a joke funnier than explaining it. In A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar: The Serious Role of Comedy in Social Justice, co-authors Caty Borum Chattoo and Lauren Feldman do just that: they explain the joke. Or rather, they explain how comedy can serve to advance a social justice agenda. Perhaps Borum Chattoo and Feldman would argue that activism and comedy are each made better when they collaborate. With overlapping backgrounds in communication scholarship, media strategy in the context of social change and justice, comedy and creative media production, the authors bring a veritable Venn diagram of perspectives. The central argument is that ‘comedy’s potential for public influence in the context of social issues is newly powerful in the digital media age’. They suggest that comedy isn’t a tool for social justice strategic communications, but rather an artform to depict what public radio would call ‘the world’s most pressing issues’.

The book examines how different forms of mediated comedy, including satirical news, scripted episodic TV, comedy documentary, stand-up comedy and sketch, have the unique potential to increase message and issue attention, disarm audiences, lower resistance to persuasion, break down social barriers and stimulate sharing and discussion. If this sounds like a practical handbook for communication strategists more than an academic discourse analysis, you’d be partially correct. As someone who is professionally indecisive and curious to a fault, I’ve spent time in academia, social justice and comedy. My brain is constantly making jokes, and then overanalysing those jokes to a point where I am a bit too silly for academia and a bit too serious for comedy; this book quite eerily spoke to me.

A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar doesn’t argue for or against comedy as a vehicle for social justice. Rather, it lays out how convergence culture, the power of the media consumer to influence the media producer, has allowed for ‘niche’ comedy, from comedians previously regarded as ‘niche’, to use identity or format to send a message via a larger platform, thanks to technology. Whereas mediated comedy used to be censored by mass-market demands, ratings and the tastes of executive gatekeepers, streaming has expanded and diversified platforms for emerging voices.

In a world where news and entertainment are interspersed on news feeds, and ‘news’ takes on a double-meaning of current public and private events, ‘The News’ has expanded to cover more frivolous topics, like gossip and the personal lives of public figures. At the same time, entertainment has taken on more serious topics. The internet’s globalisation of both news and entertainment has also expanded access to diverse commentary on this content. An optimistic reading of technology’s power to connect us would suggest that it also has the power to build empathy, giving us access to the experiences and perspectives of others. According to Borum Chattoo and Feldman, comedy, sharing a joke, requires that comedians and audiences have a common understanding of current affairs, in order to then distort that reality. Global access to news media expands our shared library of comedic ‘material’. Those who deliver that comedy can describe the absurdity they experience every day. To quote fictional comedienne Miriam ‘Midge’ Maisel, otherwise known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel:

Comedy is fueled by oppression, by the lack of power, by sadness and disappointment, by abandonment and humiliation. Now, who the hell does that describe more than women? Judging by those standards, only women should be funny.

If oppression, lack of power, sadness and disappointment are the stuff of great comedy, perhaps we are in a Golden Age of humour. The mechanics of turning this dark matter into something that is at once funny and thought-provoking is another major theme of the book. Borum Chattoo and Feldman describe the ways in which satirical comedians like Jon Stewart, John Oliver and Samantha Bee effectively break down complex concepts, particularly in US and global politics, for issue awareness and social change. For example, ahead of the 2012 US presidential elections, Stephen Colbert made campaign finance law understandable, describing how money is effectively laundered to legally fund candidates. While his audience may not had gone out of their way to study complex campaign finance law, on his show comedy served as a primer to get people to pay attention. This is the role of comedy in social justice. Getting us to pay attention.

From a social science research perspective, Borum Chattoo and Feldman sprinkle in studies demonstrating comedy’s ability to promote information retention. In another, 20 minutes of stand-up comedy was comparable to 20 minutes of exercise in terms of promoting positive wellbeing. Other studies show the ways in which comedy induces ‘arousal and mirth’, disarming us and making us more playful. This openness helps us to see the world in new ways.

While satirical news shows like Trevor Noah’s The Daily Show and Oliver’s Last Week Tonight often preach to a progressive choir, scripted episodic television has the power to introduce social issues and diverse viewpoints to wider audiences. Borum Chattoo and Feldman give the example of Black-ish, a US family sitcom created by Kenya Barris. With Nielsen data suggesting that as many as 80 per cent of the show’s viewers since the 2016-17 season are not Black (62), the show has brought themes of racism and police brutality to those who may not have had personal experience of or previous engagement with these topics. Scripted television, particularly in the US, has served as a ‘centralised system of storytelling that shapes perceived social reality of its audiences’, or cultivation theory. Through this centralised storytelling, contact hypothesis suggests that ‘positive interactions between members of diverse social groups can reduce prejudice, providing opportunity to learn more about other groups’. In other words, scripted television has the power to build familiarity with those seemingly unfamiliar to us in our everyday lives, meeting viewers where they are in their understanding of cultural, gender and race issues.

A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar analyses other comedic forms like stand-up and sketch, which offer more intimate and agile modes of social commentary. Comedians can use deeply personal narratives to illuminate social justice issues, reframing the experiences of marginalised groups. Sketch comedy from shows like Saturday Night Live can more nimbly tackle news cycles with short-form parodies of current events.

Borum Chattoo and Feldman helpfully use specific global issues like climate change, poverty and inequality as examples of how comedy can bring people together to understand and care about the kind of topics that leave us feeling overwhelmed and helpless. When conventional news reporting shows the bleak realities of global warming and growing wealth inequality, comedy offers a way through fatigue and despair while staying engaged. Borum Chattoo and Feldman note that while environmentalists and humanitarians have long been doing the hard work of activism, they can be seen as didactic and aggressive.

Mediated ‘poverty porn’, images of starving children first featured in 1980s telethons to raise money for charities, has further fatigued audiences. These mediated narratives of poverty, while originally intended to build empathy, have reinforced damaging economic archetypes. A 2017 United Nations report on US poverty cited ‘caricatured narratives’ of poverty in the public mind, portraying the wealthy as moral and hardworking, and the poor as lazy and backward. Comedy has the power to challenge these narratives, skewering the status quo and the absurdities of systems that reinforce inequality. Crucial to social justice comedy’s ability to reframe narratives is punching up, rather than punching down: creating spaces for those who have experienced poverty to tell their own stories. In many cases, promoting storytelling involves expanding the comedy stage for comedians who have experienced poverty.

Among the most relatable chapters of Borum Chattoo and Feldman’s book are those focused on comedians’ perspectives as accidental or intentional social activists. Comedians like Hasan Minhaj (Netflix’s Patriot Act), Francesca Ramsey (MTV’s Decoded) and Issa Rae (HBO’s Insecure) share how, as members of marginalised communities in the US, they struggled to access the traditional stand-up club circuits, and instead got their start on platforms like YouTube.

While club circuits of the past have rewarded ‘lowest common denominator’ humour that speaks to mainstream (traditionally white, cisgender, heterosexual male) audiences, social media removed traditional gatekeepers, connecting audiences with comedians who reflected their own experiences. For many of these comedians, their lived experiences, real stories of discrimination and abuse, serve as their material in ways that can highlight the absurdity of racism and sexism embedded in mainstream culture. These comedians use humour to build empathy, illuminate, demystify, mock power, instruct, educate, humanise and represent. When your everyday experience of racism and sexism has not been previously represented, it becomes topical and imbued with social justice, whether intentional or not.

But what about when non-comedians seek to use humour to advance social justice agendas or when media executives and entertainers seek research and expertise to strengthen social justice comedy? Borum Chattoo and Feldman use interviews with emerging social justice communication firms and studio executives to suggest how activists and comedians can more effectively collaborate, making what is funny more informed, and what is informational more funny. They describe a careful balance of social activism groups serving as an information resource for entertainment, while respecting comedians as artists with creative licence. Too much information can outweigh comedy, while too little can trivialise serious topics.

Who is A Comedian and an Activist Walk into a Bar written for? The vagueness of the intended audience is both a strength and weakness of the book, further illustrating the oppositional forces of serious academic analysis that cause us to sit up straight and pay attention, and the comedy that disarms us and makes us laugh. The book offers answers to many of the questions I’ve had since grad school: how do we open up social research and discourse to wider audiences; how do we highlight the absurdities of our world, making us laugh and think? Comedy that does this well doesn’t make light of serious issues; it sheds light on them (sorry!). Bringing together researchers, activists and comedians can only serve to support more informed, engaged and hopeful audiences.


This review originally appeared at the LSE Review of Books.

Christine Sweeney writes and produces comedy shows in Berlin. Before that, she researched gender representation in media and earned an MSc in Media and Communications at LSE. Before that, she worked in international development and tech policy.


Date                 :                  October 18th, 2020

Source             :                  LSE USCentre American Polictics & Policy



Why the fight for climate justice is a fight for justice itself


Movements are overlapping to take an intersectional approach to activism

Ask any guide, teacher or life coach, and they’ll tell you that the first step to breaking a pattern is identifying and recognizing exactly what it is.

When it comes to patterns of injustice, it appears COVID-19 and climate change are taking care of this first step for us.

The pandemic is exposing the vast inequalities in health and income across the globe. Racial and ethnic minorities are far more likely to die or be hospitalized after contracting the coronavirus. And in much of the Global South, lockdown measures have left children facing malnutrition and migrant workers stranded and out of work.

Similarly, 80 years from now, climate change could kill as many people as all infectious diseases, and these deaths will be concentrated in the world’s poorest countries.

There are countless more examples of injustices caused by inequitable global systems – from climate-induced migration to uneven access to health care to plagues of locusts causing food insecurity. It would be an injustice in itself to try and capture them all here.

What matters more is realizing that these are not different patterns of injustice that resemble one another. Rather, climate justice, social justice and racial justice are all one and the same.

So too, then, is the fight against them.

“We have to tackle these crises collectively, or we cannot tackle them at all,” says Varshini Prakash, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement in the U.S., who featured in a recent GLF Live.

“We need to address the inherent inequalities in our system that lead to some people breathing worse-quality air, experiencing the brunt of storms and being able to recover far slower than other people,” Prakash says. “Those inequalities almost always fall along lines of race, class and gender.”


The trails of legacies

The next step in tackling these injustices is a step backward, to understand the historical roots of where we are now. Global inequality has increased dramatically over the last 200 years, driven in large part by colonialism and industrialization, which drove economic development in Europe and its settler colonies but hindered it in other parts of the world. Climate change is exacerbating this inequality: the gap between the richest and poorest 10 percent of countries is now 25 percent wider than it would have been without global warming, according to one study.

In many cases, colonization also degraded the landscapes of colonized nations, making them particularly vulnerable to natural disasters, such as hurricanes. Deforestation in India has been attributed to the construction of railways by British colonialists, while much of the Caribbean was stripped of its forests to build plantations.

In Jamaica, for example, the colonial plantation economy has left a legacy of dependence on intensive agriculture, with sugar, bananas, cocoa and coffee still among the country’s major commodity exports. Slash-and-burn practices are widespread and, with their dangers amplified by climate change and global warming, are contributing to bushfires and deforestation. “A lot of these practices were inherited from colonialism – the idea of having to burn away vegetation to create space for added agricultural production,” says Jhannel Tomlinson, a Jamaican climate adaptation researcher and activist.

“Habits are hard to break,” Tomlinson adds, “and because these practices have been passed down through generations, it’s very difficult to tell farmers that they’re harming the environment, because this is all they know, and it’s hard for them to transition to a more sustainable way of farming.”


Intersectionality in environmentalism

Jumping back to the present, and into the climate space specifically, many activists are now calling for an intersectional approach to tackling injustices. The term ‘intersectionality’ refers to how different forms of social identity such as race, ethnicity, gender, class and sexuality overlap, particularly in the experiences of marginalized groups that often face multiple layers of oppression.

“It doesn’t make sense to just focus on a binary view, [such as] that all women are vulnerable and all men are privileged,” says Bimbika Sijapati Basnett, a researcher on gender and co-author of a CIFOR manual on intersectionality in forestry. “Issues of vulnerability that are faced by urban women, for instance, are much more linked to issues around pollution, waste and water management, whereas in rural areas, it’s more about agriculture.”

Rather than neatly dividing people into distinct categories, Sijapati Basnett believes it is important to recognize how overlapping identities can affect how they experience oppression. Much of her work focuses on Nepal, where caste, social class, gender and ethnicity all intersect to form complex identities that evolve over time.

“Sometimes development programs set quotas for low-caste women or ethnic-minority women without understanding that there are hierarchies within those groups,” she says, noting that some ethnic minority groups are in fact quite affluent. “We need to understand broad parameters of social difference but also have the flexibility to adapt and change.”


Diversifying the climate movement

Flexibility also means recognizing that some practices can unintentionally exclude people from these marginalized groups. The movement to ban plastic straws, for example, has been criticized as ableist, as it ignores the needs of people who might be unable to pick up a cup. Similarly, climate activist group Extinction Rebellion has been called out (and apologized) for relying on mass-arrest tactics that inherently exclude people of color.

Many climate activists of color have spoken out about the challenges of participating in a movement that, across much of the Global North, remains predominantly white and middle-class. “In a lot of places, I am usually the only person of color, which is a huge responsibility,” said Danick Trouwloon, a Netherlands-based activist originally from the Caribbean island of Curaçao. “All the faces are on you, and you become like an ambassador for any experiences with color. I struggled a lot with that.”

Yet communities on the frontline of the climate crisis have much to offer the climate movement, and Prakash believes it is crucial to ensure that they take an active role. “Many of the things that Greta Thunberg has been saying have been said by lots of Indigenous, black and brown leaders, particularly from island nations, for so long,” she points out. “And yet they have not been uplifted in nearly the same way.”

“Those closest to the pain can speak toward the solutions that we need with the greatest clarity,” adds Prakash. “It is absolutely essential that those folks have a place in our movements, otherwise we’re going to have major blind spots.”

This year’s mass demonstrations for racial justice are prompting many in the climate movement to engage more deeply with issues of race and ethnicity. “Something that I find really positive over the past month is how easy these discussions are to have now,” says Trouwloon. “In the past, you could often feel the tension in the room when racism was mentioned, but I think now people are really listening to each other.”

“That conversation is being had much more often now, and there’s a lot more space for me to say things that may be uncomfortable – but I speak to my experience.”


Building climate solidarity

One of the more uncomfortable realities of the climate crisis is the need for the world’s affluent citizens to cut their excess consumption and carbon footprints.

Global resource consumption is currently around 70 percent over the Earth’s regenerative capacity, according to the Global Footprint Network. Most of that excess is attributable to the Global North, with the average person in North America consuming almost six times as many resources as the average person in Africa, and around five times the planet’s biocapacity.

Some scholars and activists argue that the Global North has a moral duty to drastically cut its excess consumption in order to allow resources for the Global South to attain a decent standard of living. This process, often referred to as degrowth or a transition to a steady-state economy, involves a paradigm shift away from infinite growth in consumption and towards the pursuit of sufficiency.

Tomlinson believes the first step toward reducing consumption is at the individual level. “As individuals in the Global North, you need to recognize how you are contributing to these challenges and to see how you can live greener and cleaner,” she says.

And with funding at a premium for many grassroots climate-change projects, Tomlinson believes donations and volunteering can also make a crucial difference. “Where possible, individuals can contribute in cash, or in expertise to assist local communities in implementing these projects,” she suggests.

Equally important is the need to build solidarity across racial, ethnic, socioeconomic and intergenerational lines. “Our allies in the Global North increasingly have a role to play in amplifying our voices,” Tomlinson continues. “They can utilize these platforms to highlight our plight in the Global South and to share some of the challenges we face.”

“It is an all-hands-on-deck moment to stop the climate crisis,” Prakash agrees. “Let’s be clear about that: young people cannot do it by ourselves – we definitely need other generations to team up with.”

Strengthening ties with the Global South could also bring valuable lessons for the climate movement in the Global North – such as learning from island communities on how to deal with scarce resources. “You have to make do with what you have,” Trouwloon says. “If you lose a fishery, you’ve lost that fishery. You can’t move up along the coast and find another area to exploit.

“That could be a metaphor for the entire planet – how we’re also an island in the universe. If we make a mess out of it, we don’t really have a Planet B.”


By                    :                    Ming Chun Tang

Date                :                    September 7, 2020

Source            :                    Landscape News



  1. The “Crisis of Democracy” Around the World Is a Crisis of the Working Class
  2. How Sudan Transitions
  3. Leading an online social movement requires offline work
  4. Social movements in Corona times: new constraints, new practices

The “Crisis of Democracy” Around the World Is a Crisis of the Working Class


Our global crisis of democracy is real, but its solution isn't rebuilding political norms. It's rebuilding working-class power.


This article is reprinted from Catalyst: A Journal of Theory and Strategy, a publication from the Jacobin Foundation. For a footnoted version, see the Catalyst essay. Right now, you can subscribe to the print edition of Catalyst for just $20.


Review of Steven Levitsky & Daniel Ziblatt, How Democracies Die (Crown, 2018); Yascha Mounk, The People vs. Democracy (Harvard University Press, 2018); Benjamin Page & Martin Gilens, Democracy in America? (University of Chicago Press, 2018); and Chantal Mouffe, For a Left Populism (Verso, 2019).


Last spring, the world was treated to the ghastly spectacle of Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro exchanging soccer jerseys and back-slaps in the White House. Practically speaking, their meeting amounted to little more than lunch and a photo opportunity. But it carried a great deal of symbolic weight. It represented the convergence of reactionary political trends in the Americas and around the world, and it reinforced the perception that democracy is retreating before a cohort of strongmen striding the global stage.

Hand-wringing over the “age of the strongman” has become a staple of mainstream punditry. There is, of course, much to be worried about. In addition to Trump and Bolsonaro, nationalist and authoritarian forces seem to have the upper hand in an alarming number of countries. Xi Jinping has abolished China’s presidential term limits, centralized power, and enshrined “Xi Jinping Thought” in the country’s constitution. Narendra Modi and his aggressive brand of Hindu nationalism won a huge victory in India’s elections earlier this year. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdo?an responded to the recent coup attempt by cracking down on opposition parties and journalists, and his government has effectively suspended democracy in the country’s Kurdish regions. Viktor Orbán continues to consolidate his ultranationalist regime in Hungary; Rodrigo Duterte’s “war on drugs” has killed twenty thousand Filipinos and incited violence against journalists and critics; Abdel Fattah el-Sisi has cleared the way to hold power in Egypt until 2034; Vladimir Putin’s autocratic presidency has no end in sight. While claims of incipient global fascism are overblown, there’s no doubt that this is, as Gramsci’s famous epigram puts it, a time of monsters.

These developments, as well as the broader “populist moment” that spawned them, have made politicians, journalists, and scholars very anxious about the future. They have fueled a cottage industry of think pieces and books dedicated to diagnosing the “democratic recession” that is shaking elite confidence in the durability of Western-style liberal democracy. Indeed, a trip to any bookstore today will greet the visitor with an array of bloodcurdling titles announcing democracy’s impending doom. While anxiety about the durability of democratic government is nothing new, the breadth and depth of pessimism about its prospects marks a sharp contrast with the triumphalism of the post–Cold War years.

The current angst recalls an earlier episode of hand-wringing among the upper echelons of society. In 1975, the Trilateral Commission published a now infamous book called The Crisis of Democracy, a report on the “governability of democracies” from the perspective of the world’s political and economic elites. In his chapter on the United States, Samuel Huntington surveyed the American scene and concluded that the “democratic surge” of the 1960s produced both “a substantial increase in governmental activity and a substantial decrease in government authority.” In every area of American life, groups who had hitherto accepted their marginal and subordinate positions in society had become increasingly assertive, more willing to challenge the holders of power and privilege, more likely to claim their right to participate in the decisions that affected their lives.

For many, this would seem like a positive development, a harbinger of the full extension of democratic rights and freedoms to those who had been previously excluded. For Huntington, however, this was cause for alarm. Demands for a massive expansion of welfare spending put too many burdens on the system while the emergence of “adversarial” media and critical intellectuals repulsed by Vietnam and Watergate undermined the effectiveness of traditional political leadership. Instead of a greater degree of democratic participation, the country needed a “moderation in democracy” that would keep the twin dangers of popular mobilization and ballooning public expenditures in check. Democracy, in other words, had to be saved from itself through a reassertion of elite authority against those who would take it too far if given the chance: striking public employees, militant African Americans, tenured radicals, student protestors.

The financial crash of 2008, like the economic crisis of the early 1970s, marked the beginning of an interregnum in the history of capitalist rule. An interregnum begins when the previously dominant regime, in this case the neoliberal order, suffers a shock of sufficient magnitude to prevent it from keeping potential hegemonic alternatives off the political agenda. The near collapse of the global economy fractured political systems and has fostered an atmosphere of confusion and chaos across the capitalist world. Instead of a relatively stable equilibrium, we find an absence of consensus among elites, the reemergence of competing economic strategies, a decrease in the effectiveness of key institutions, and a realignment of social forces, particularly in the realm of party politics. This last point seems particularly salient today, and constitutes an important difference between the present moment and the 1970s. As Rune Møller Stahl has argued, today’s interregnum not only entails a crisis of the previously dominant economic strategy but a deep crisis of the institutions of representative democracy as well.

This crisis stems above all from the fact that the vast majority of citizens across the advanced capitalist democracies have been systematically prevented from translating their needs, interests, and preferences into effective political representation. Over the last forty years, elites in country after country have followed Huntington’s advice all too well. They have effectively smashed organized labor, rolled back the welfare state and restructured it along neoliberal lines, and shoved the genie of popular mobilization back into the bottle. By any measure, this counterrevolution was a huge success for those who waged it. The “democratic distemper” that so worried Huntington and his co-thinkers was put down, not just in the United States but around the world.

This reassertion of elite dominance generated the defining trends of our time: the massive explosion of inequality, the dismantling of working-class organizations, and stagnant or declining living standards for the vast majority. In the United States, today’s real wage for workers is the same as it was in the 1970s, despite the significant increase in productivity growth that has occurred since then. This gloomy situation is undoubtedly the main cause of the political fractures that are so frightening to the punditocracy. Research has shown that dissatisfaction with the state of democratic politics is strongly related to popular views about the current economic situation as well as assessments of how the average person’s welfare has changed over the last two decades. The list of countries where these assessments are the most negative should not be surprising: Greece, Mexico, Spain, Brazil, Italy, and Tunisia, among others. The United States is in the same neighborhood as the United Kingdom and Hungary, which tracks nicely with political developments in all three countries.

What appears as a crisis of democracy is fundamentally a crisis of the world’s working classes. Universal suffrage and substantively representative institutions are, to a significant extent, the product of struggles from below — and the key actor in these struggles has almost everywhere been the organized working class. It is no accident that the global decline of the labor movement has coincided with many of the most troubling developments of our time: extreme inequality, the hollowing of democratic politics, the return of the racist and nationalist right. Unfortunately, much of the recent commentary on the health of democracy overlooks both the class-struggle origins of democratic politics and the dismantling of collective working-class organizations. Often, the result is an overreliance on cultural explanations of democratic backsliding, and prescriptions that reinforce the mistaken notion that the prudence of elites is democracy’s best defense.

Two recent books — How Democracies Die by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt and The People vs. Democracy by Yascha Mounk — exemplify this conservative approach to the crisis of contemporary democracy. Like their predecessors in the Trilateral Commission, these authors’ primary concern is strengthening the position of incumbent elites and the institutions they control under the pretense of protecting and consolidating democratic politics. Then as now, the key maneuver is redefining democracy as a system of elite-driven conflict management rather than popular control of government. Whatever measures of social and political reform they recommend seek to restore the status quo that prevailed before the financial crisis, instead of reducing elite domination or enhancing popular capacities for democratic rule.

Not all assessments of democracy’s ailing fortunes look to incumbent elites to save the people from themselves. Democracy in America? by Benjamin Page and Martin Gilens and For a Left Populism by Chantal Mouffe both recognize that the problem with democracy today is not that there is too much of it, but rather far too little. Page and Gilens exhaustively document the ways in which economic elites dominate the US political system, and how the scope of government activity is severely constrained by capitalist class power. For her part, Mouffe’s work is primarily concerned with formulating a political strategy capable of guiding an effective popular challenge to that power. Both these books make important contributions to understanding the contemporary impasse of democratic politics. Unfortunately, however, neither of them offers a satisfying answer to the question of what is to be done about it, and how. Both tend to reduce the defeat of organized labor to just one explanatory factor among many, and both fail to adequately elaborate the constituencies, agencies, and strategies that would allow a movement for democracy to act upon their often valuable insights.

More Fuel for the Fire

What do we mean by democracy? For our purposes here, democracy is defined by three basic conditions: regular and free election of representatives on the basis of universal and equal suffrage, responsibility of the state bureaucratic and administrative machinery to the popularly elected government, and basic guarantees of freedom of expression and association as well as the protection of individual rights against arbitrary state action. There is widespread agreement that the emergence of political democracy is intimately related to the rise of capitalist social relations, but the nature of that relationship has often been misunderstood. For many scholars, the key development is the emergence of a capitalist class with an interest in breaking apart the fusion of the state with the landowning classes that defined feudalism. Many Marxist accounts of the rise of democracy have also viewed the capitalist class as the main actor in this process, reinforcing the widely held but mistaken notion that basic political rights and freedoms have a bourgeois provenance.

A number of important works, however, have effectively demolished the notion that political democracy is an organic byproduct of capitalist development or the handiwork of the bourgeoisie. Democratic rights and freedoms did not result from the gradual and peaceful spread of wealth, literacy, and urbanization, but rather social upheavals resulting from war and class conflict. It was the emergence of the working class and the labor movement that opened the path to democratization, not the rise to power of the capitalist class. To the extent that they exist, democratic rights and freedoms are the fruit of hard-fought victories won from and defended against the bourgeoisie.

The history of the right to vote shows that the lower classes had to fight their way into the political system by presenting elites with a credible revolutionary threat. The founders of modern representative governments shared the assumption that political participation should be restricted to men of wealth and property. In country after country, elites resisted pressures from below when they could and were forced into concessions when they could not. Political rights were therefore not granted from above, but conquered through mass action by the subordinate and excluded, above all by the organized working classes. The labor movement was not the only social agent that fought for and won the extension of democratic rights and freedoms; in many countries, sections of the middle classes played an important role as well. But the weight of evidence in support of the basic premise is overwhelming. The working class, not the bourgeoisie or other elite actors, has been the most consistent champion of democratic politics around the world. The measure of working-class strength and organization is the measure of democracy itself.

In How Democracies Die, Levitsky and Ziblatt pin much of the blame for democratic backsliding on the actions (or nonactions) of elites. They do not, however, take them to task for busting unions or gutting the welfare state, but rather for aiding and abetting the process of “norm erosion.” For Levitsky and Ziblatt, the establishment and maintenance of democracy ultimately depends on a culture of mutual toleration among elite-level political adversaries. “All successful democracies,” they argue, “rely on informal rules that, though not found in the constitution or any laws, are widely known and respected. In the case of American democracy, this has been vital.” While institutions also play a major role in safeguarding democratic politics, norms are the final bulwark that is supposed to be activated in case of emergency.

False hopes in elite prudence also mar Mounk’s widely discussed work, The People vs. Democracy. Mounk has set himself up as a leading scourge of “populism” in recent years, which in his usage encompasses any political expression he finds to be insufficiently respectful of mainstream political norms. Mounk is not wrong to observe that the relationship between liberalism and democracy seems to be unraveling, and that the underpinnings of liberal democracy are under mounting stress. But his palpable distrust in mass politics prevents him from providing effective answers to the burning questions of our political moment.

For the norm-erosion school, Donald Trump represents the failure of elites to defend a culture of civility and mutual toleration. Figures like Trump always threaten to emerge in periods of turbulence, but it is the job of traditional political leaders, in this view, to prevent them from ever making it onto a ballot in the first place. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, this was much easier to accomplish in the era of political bosses and smoke-filled rooms. By taking important decisions like presidential nominations out of the hands of elites and giving them to voters, reformers have unintentionally eliminated an important part of the “peer review process” and opened the door to “populist outsiders.” Democracy, in their view, can best be protected by political elites with enough prudence to maintain the guardrails and prevent a slide toward demagoguery and extremism.

By contrast, Mounk’s diagnosis of the causes of democratic malaise is actually fairly incisive. He concedes that political systems in countries like the United States and Britain were founded “not to manifest but to oppose democracy,” and that whatever democratic legitimacy they enjoy today was the product of struggles from below. In recent decades, however, this partial democratization of representative institutions has been significantly eroded. There has been a general shift in power away from parliaments and toward bureaucratic agencies, independent central banks, international treaties, and other institutions that insulate elite decision-makers from popular accountability. Even where decisions haven’t been taken out of the realm of democratic contestation, the views and preferences of the majority are often not translated into public policy. Private interests have captured the political system, elites are socially disconnected from the mass of the population, and many supposed democracies have been reduced to little more than competitive oligarchies. The result is mass disillusionment in democratic politics and the emergence of new forces willing and able to take advantage of the situation.

Despite this greater degree of diagnostic clarity, Mounk fails to carry through the logic of the analysis to its conclusion, which would be a reassertion of the need for mass politics and struggles from below — the forces that brought us democratic politics in the first place. For him, the resurgence of electoral participation and the emergence of new political forces is a source of alarm, not potential democratic renewal. “There is good reason to think,” Mounk argues, “that the recent thawing of the party system is far from benign” because they “do not just provide ideological alternatives within the democratic system — they challenge key rules and norms of the system itself.” This dread of “populism” encompasses a disparate array of political forces, from Marine Le Pen, Fidesz, and Alternative für Deutschland — a far-right party with neo-Nazi roots — to Podemos, Syriza, and Jeremy Corbyn. Such capaciousness renders the concept utterly meaningless and reduces it to a tool of political demonology rather than sober analysis.

This impulse to confine political conflict to a narrow range acceptable to elites leads Levitsky and Ziblatt down some very strange interpretive paths. Take their analysis of the coup in Chile, for example. In their view, “politics without guardrails killed democracy in Chile,” an outcome for which the Allende government and its opponents were equally responsible. In reality, neither domestic elites nor the US government could accept the fact that the Popular Unity coalition was elected to see through a democratic transition to socialism in Chile. This process would have required, of course, an irreversible shift in economic and political power from industrialists and landowners to the working class and its allies. In short, it would have entailed a fundamental clash of interests, not simply “incompatible worldviews” or “partisan rivalries.” Levitsky and Ziblatt give us little sense that rational perceptions of power and interest might necessarily result in political conflicts that cannot be forestalled through mutual toleration or institutional forbearance.

This weakness becomes even more obvious when they attempt to explain the origins of the US Civil War. According to Levitsky and Ziblatt, democratic norms were not strong in the early American republic. Republicans and Federalists considered their opponents to be mortal enemies and sought to destroy them by almost any means necessary. But over time, a fresh crop of career politicians like Martin Van Buren lowered the temperature and instituted a politics of tolerance and forbearance. This new culture of democratic norms began to unravel, however, under the pressure of conflict over slavery. The country’s fragile norms of mutual toleration were destroyed, and previously unthinkable modes of political activity became acceptable on both sides of the slavery question. Before long, a bloody war broke out, during which President Lincoln suspended habeas corpus and issued legally questionable executive orders. After the shooting stopped, the triumphant Union imposed military rule on the states of the former Confederacy. “Mutual toleration was established only after the issue of racial equality was removed from the political agenda,” after the abandonment of Reconstruction and the establishment of Jim Crow in the South.

Levitsky and Ziblatt are at pains to stress that they don’t view slavery or segregation as good things. But their relentless advocacy of mutual toleration necessarily leads them to a both sides–ism that elides fundamental problems of the modern state. In their view, there’s no political disagreement that can’t be dealt with in a spirit of courtesy and reciprocity. But history has shown that conflict — whether at the ballot box, in the streets, or on the field of battle — is sometimes necessary and unavoidable. Elite-level cooperation and compromise simply could not defuse the slavery crisis. As William Seward argued in his famous speech on the eve of the Civil War, the failure to apprehend the “irrepressible conflict” between free labor and slavery induced “so many unsuccessful attempts at final compromise … and it is the existence of this great fact that renders all such pretended compromises, when made, vain and ephemeral.” Conflict is the essence of democratic politics, and there are moments when the fulfillment of democratic justice requires the overthrow of traditional norms, come what may.

The rising generation of young adults has come of age in a period of rampant inequality and blatant political corruption. It is therefore no surprise that this cohort is highly receptive to political appeals from outside the mainstream, including various forms of radical and socialist politics. This flowering of youthful radicalism should be a particular cause for concern, according to Mounk. Unlike the older generations, who lived through the horrors of fascism and actually existing socialism, today’s young adults have little idea of what it would mean for them to live under a different kind of system. Rather than a source of hope, they represent to Mounk a potentially disruptive anti-systemic force that unscrupulous populists won’t hesitate to mobilize if given the chance. Mounk’s condescending alarmism about millennials has been challenged by a number of academics, who accuse him of misrepresenting survey data concerning their views on democracy. But even if his claims concerning young adults’ questionable commitment to democracy were empirically grounded, his explanation for those views would still miss the mark. Youthful discontent with the status quo is driven above all by the fact that young adults cannot expect to do as well or better than their parents did — to say nothing of the looming ecological catastrophe that incumbent elites are doing far too little to address. They want more democracy, not less.

Levitsky and Ziblatt evince a moment of lucidity toward the end of their book, as they search for ways to address the problems of democracy. Something should be done, in their view, to reduce the vast social inequalities that are exacerbating racial and religious resentments in the United States. They’re certainly not wrong about this, but how could a program of redistribution be achieved without a dramatic increase in popular pressure? Levitsky and Ziblatt want a prudently managed reduction of the sources of political conflict. But, as Frederick Douglass memorably put it, you can’t raise crops without plowing up the ground.

To his credit, Mounk recognizes that the current order is in serious need of renovation. But his prescriptions for dealing with the challenges of our time would only pour more fuel on the fire. He wants one, two, many Emmanuel Macrons, an impulse belied by the rebellion of the gilets jaunes. He recognizes the need to raise labor’s bargaining power in a globalized economy, but he emphasizes skill development for individual workers at the expense of collective organization. The same goes for his program to modernize the welfare state, which is premised upon economic flexibility and entrepreneurialism, not the reduction of market dependency or boosting the security and collective strength of the working classes.

In the end, we are once again left to rely on the prudence of elites to deliver us from the current impasse. “Unlikely as it might seem at the moment,” Mounk argues, “the only realistic solution to the crisis of government accountability (and, most likely, the larger crisis of democratic norms) is therefore a negotiated settlement, in which both sides agree to disarm” and political leaders agree to once again observe the unwritten rules of the game. The likes of Mounk, Levitsky, and Ziblatt want nothing more than a return to normalcy. But observance of this very normalcy is what brought us to our dire state of affairs. Macron and Obama are on one side of the coin; Le Pen and Trump are on the other.

American Oligarchy

Fortunately, not everyone agrees that the ills of democracy can be cured by less democracy. Much of the best recent work on the dysfunctions of the US political system has come out of mainstream Americanist political science, a subfield that has long been criticized for its detachment from issues of public concern. In 2001, the American Political Science Association (APSA) established the Task Force on Inequality and American Democracy, and three years later it issued an incisive report that laid out an ambitious research agenda for the field. Over the last fifteen years, important studies by Jacob Hacker, Suzanne Mettler, Martin Gilens, and others have analyzed the massive growth in inequality in the United States and its negative impact on an already counter-majoritarian political system.

In Democracy in America?, Page and Gilens survey the dire state of American politics and call for a thoroughgoing program of democratic renovation. For them, the fundamental failure of the system is the fact that it does not consistently and effectively translate majority preferences into public policy. The interaction of extreme wealth concentration with the undemocratic features of the US constitutional order has made it nearly impossible for citizens to exercise popular control over the government. A small group of very wealthy donors exerts a huge degree of influence over what kinds of actors can get into the political game, as well as the kinds of issues that make their way onto the agenda in the first place. The result is a political system that “often reflects the wishes of those with money, not the wishes of the millions of ordinary citizens who turn out every two years to choose among the preapproved, money-vetted candidates for federal office.”

On the basis of their research, Page and Gilens reach a remarkable and widely reported finding: ordinary Americans have essentially zero independent influence over politics and policymaking at the national level. Working- and middle-class people get the policies they want when these preferences coincide with the preferences of the rich — if the rich don’t want it, it’s not very likely to get through Congress. Page and Gilens call this regime a “democracy by coincidence,” a description that doesn’t offer much consolation to those of us who equate democracy with popular rule. They also find that even the richest and most influential Americans often fail to translate their preferences into policy. Wealthy people and corporations almost always succeed at blocking policy changes they don’t want, which tend to be the very policy changes the vast majority wants most — particularly higher taxes on the rich and redistributive social programs. But according to Page and Gilens, even policy changes overwhelmingly supported by the rich have only a fifty-fifty chance of being adopted. The deliberately byzantine design of the US constitutional order (separation of powers, federalism, veto points, etc.) can make it difficult to achieve much of anything through political action.

Even so, it’s quite clear that the rich have little reason to complain about this state of affairs. By investing even a relatively small portion of their massive resources into politics, they’ve made Lenin’s dictum that politics is a concentrated expression of economics all too real. And since the systematic bias toward policy drift mostly benefits those who already hold wealth and power, there is little incentive for them to upend the system, no matter how much they might complain about gridlock and red tape.

Unlike Mounk, Page and Gilens follow the logic of their analysis to the end by calling for a “social movement for democracy” to weaken the overwhelming political power of the rich. To this end, they draw inspiration from the familiar highlights of American popular democracy: Populism, the New Deal period, the Civil Rights Movement. Page and Gilens are rare in recognizing the importance of organized labor to political democracy, and the role that strong unions have played in bringing a modicum of popular power into US politics. But they are ultimately analysts, not strategists. They give us little sense of how the movement they call for might be constructed, and their temperamental preference for moderation cuts against the grain of their own proposals. They are critical of the drift toward oligarchy because, in their view, this has moved the country away from a time when US politics was ostensibly more “moderate, bipartisan, and reasonably democratic.” They call on moderate candidates to run for office, and they deplore the outsize influence that the most strongly partisan activists and voters exercise through primary elections. All of this sits uncomfortably against their comprehensive program for political reconstruction, which includes demands for proportional representation in the House of Representatives, abolition of the Electoral College, a constitutional convention to democratize the Senate and other institutions that can’t feasibly be reorganized under the current Constitution, stripping federal courts of jurisdiction over key political issues, and packing the Supreme Court to dilute its power. This is a recipe for disruption on a massive scale, tantamount to the establishment of a new US republic. Instead of a restoration of bipartisan comity, Page and Gilens have given us an agenda for political revolution, whether they want to acknowledge it or not.

Still, these criticisms do not detract from the valuable contributions that Page and Gilens have made. Their focus on challenging the undemocratic nature of the political regime should be taken up by the resurgent US left, and their call for a wide-ranging movement against the rich is welcome and perhaps unexpected, coming as it does from a pair of rather mainstream political scientists.

Who Are “We”?

Which strategy, then, should guide the movement for democratic renewal? This is the question that Chantal Mouffe has been trying to answer for the last four decades, and her recent book For a Left Populism refines and summarizes many of the key themes of her work. With her late husband, Ernesto Laclau, Mouffe developed the theoretical and strategic vocabulary that informs contemporary movements for “radical democracy” in Europe and the Americas. Anyone who has spent time on the radical left since the 1980s has been directly or indirectly exposed to their ideas, particularly their reformulation of Antonio Gramsci’s concept of hegemonic politics. In their landmark work Hegemony and Socialist Strategy (hereafter HSS), Laclau and Mouffe praised Gramsci’s approach to political strategy in the advanced capitalist countries. But in their view, he failed to carry through his analysis to its ostensibly logical end: a rejection of Marxism’s “class essentialism” and its insistence on the organized working class as the leading force for radical social transformation. The working-class movement would still play a role in the movement for radical democracy, but as just one link in a “chain of equivalence” in which no single actor or set of demands carried any particular social weight or strategic importance. Here was the theoretical justification for the “movement of movements” perspective that has been the Left’s default position in the post–Cold War era.

Before entering into a critical assessment of Mouffe’s main themes, it is worth taking a moment to register the important strategic questions that she gets right in the book. Mouffe offers an incisive critique of the horizontalist approach to political organization that has dominated the radical left since the end of the Cold War So long as post-2008 protest formations remained within a horizontalist framework, one that refused any meaningful articulation with existing political institutions, their impact and staying power was limited. They had to turn from protest to politics in order to broaden their appeal and institutionalize their demands, and in doing so they have reinvigorated an organizational form that had been repudiated as an outmoded relic of the twentieth century: the political party. The massive growth of the Corbyn-led Labour Party, the unexpected success of Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaigns, and the emergence of new radical political formations in Europe and Latin America show that, as Mouffe argues, political parties are not obsolete and can be reactivated to advance popular goals and aspirations. Relatedly, the return of the party shows that, contrary to the advocates of horizontalist politics, representation itself is not the problem. The problem with political institutions today is that they are insufficiently representative of the needs and interests of the vast majority. In Mouffe’s view, therefore, the “remedy does not lie in abolishing representation but in making our institutions more representative.” Finally, and perhaps most controversially, Mouffe is correct to argue that the nation-state is still the most strategically decisive institutional level in world politics. For decades, the Left has tended to evacuate the arena of national-level politics in two directions: downward toward autonomist localisms, and upward toward often quite blurry conceptions of transnational politics. Whether we like it or not, the nation-state is still the primary framework through which many of our most pressing problems will have to be addressed and resolved.

Despite these strengths, however, Mouffe’s book bears many of the flaws and limitations of the “discursive turn” in radical politics that she and Laclau did so much to inaugurate in the 1980s. According to Mouffe, the traditional parties of the Left are in crisis because their conceptions of politics are still trapped by a supposedly outmoded dependence on economic and sociological categories. If the Left wants to break out of its impasse and take advantage of the opportunities before it, it must adopt a “discursive strategy of construction of the political frontier between ‘the people’ and ‘the oligarchy.’” The people, in this face-off, represent a “collective will that results from the mobilization of common affects in defense of equality and social justice” and against the chauvinistic politics of right-wing populism. The demands of working people, immigrants, queer people, precarious elements of the middle class, and others should be united in a negative opposition to a common adversary, with “democracy” and “citizenship” serving as the signifiers that bind the various elements together.

These arguments will be familiar to anyone who dutifully worked their way through HSS. Indeed, For a Left Populism reiterates and distills many of the key arguments from that foundational book. The crucial moment in the passage highlighted above is the emphasis on common affects in defense of an abstract value called “democracy.” Such a conception drains democracy of its social content; when translated into practice, it is a politics of style, culture, and discourse — not interests, a concept that is rejected along with the “privileged” status the Left has traditionally assigned to the working class and class politics.

Even so, Mouffe cannot help but take into account the fact that the recovery of class politics must be a central aspect of any strategy for democratic renewal in the present moment. “In fact,” she concedes, “it could be argued that the situation today is the opposite of the one we criticized thirty years ago, and that it is ‘working-class’ demands that are now neglected.” This is certainly the case, but the fact that she shows no sense of responsibility for this situation is rather frustrating. What’s more, today’s “populist moment” signals the crisis of “a set of political-economic practices aimed at imposing the rule of the market … and limiting the role of the state to the protection of private property rights, free markets and free trade.” Considering the crucial importance of political economy in the present moment, Mouffe concludes, the effective construction of a people requires “reasserting the importance of the ‘social question.’”

This constitutes a welcome recalibration of the perspective she and Laclau advanced in HSS, which argued for the full autonomization of politics and ideology from any kind of social basis. Mouffe’s belated rediscovery of political economy, however, sits awkwardly next to her emphasis on common affects over common interests. It also cuts against the grain of her own analysis of Thatcherism, which she takes to be the paradigmatic example of a hegemonic project. Following Stuart Hall, she views Thatcherism as primarily a cultural and ideological phenomenon, and its success as definitive proof of the bankruptcy of “essentialist” class politics. While Thatcher was advancing a new understanding of the values of liberty and equality, an ideological reinterpretation made possible by the crisis of the postwar order, the Labour Party and the trade unions remained prisoners of their congenital economism. Trapped in a conceptual framework inherited from a bygone era, they were “thereby unable to resist the assault of forces opposed to the Keynesian model and this opened the way for the cultural and ideological victory of the neoliberal project.”

Thatcherism undoubtedly had a strong cultural, ideological, and mediatic aspect to it. But the core of the project was a ruthless class war against the labor movement, the Left’s social and organizational backbone, backed by the raw force of state power. Indeed, Thatcher herself understood her project as an attempt to remake Britain’s economic order in the service of her larger political and ideological goals. As she put it in a now infamous 1981 interview,

What’s irritated me about the whole direction of politics in the last 30 years is that it’s always been towards the collectivist society. People have forgotten about the personal society. And they say: do I count, do I matter? To which the short answer is, yes. And therefore, it isn’t that I set out on economic policies; it’s that I set out really to change the approach, and changing the economics is the means of changing that approach. If you change the approach you really are after the heart and soul of the nation. Economics are the method; the object is to change the heart and soul.

Mouffe fundamentally misunderstands why Marxists and socialists have traditionally emphasized the political centrality of the organized working class. She summarily dismisses those “sectors of the left who keep reducing politics to the contradiction of capital/labor and attribute an ontological privilege to the working class, presented as the vehicle for the socialist revolution.” The problem with this formulation is that the socialist emphasis on the working class isn’t ontological, nor is it an expression of some sort of abstract preference. It’s a strategic inference drawn from an analysis of the dynamics of capitalism and class relations. If capital constitutes the main center of power in our society and constitutes the main barrier to the establishment of a truly democratic polity, then it follows that the working-class movement must play a leading role in that struggle.

If the Left truly wants to learn from Thatcherism’s success, it must recover its grounding in the material conditions of working people’s lives. This obviously does not entail a rejection of cultural and ideological interventions, as these will be key to recreating a strong and widely held working-class political identity. But it does entail a strong emphasis on rebuilding working-class organization to the level where it can effectively wield power in the workplace and in politics. Such a commitment cannot be carried out in the absence of a program and a politics that is addressed first and foremost to meeting the material needs and interests of the vast majority. In the absence of such class-based power, abstract appeals to democracy and citizenship may redound much more to the benefit of the Right, not the Left. It’s no accident that right-wing appeals to “take back control” in the name of “the people” have succeeded so well in a context of widespread social disorganization and material deprivation.

In this sense, Mouffe’s brand of left populism may be just as much a symptom of the fractures that have produced figures like Trump than a cure for them. This is reflected perhaps most clearly in Mouffe’s argument for the importance of individual leadership figures in the construction of a people. Since her conception of collective will is grounded in affect and not interest, something must provide the glue that binds the people together. In this case, that binding agent is shared support for a charismatic leader. Indeed, almost every radical movement of our time is closely associated with a leadership figure whose name is virtually synonymous with the movement itself. The trend began in South America, where Lula da Silva and Hugo Chávez stood at the head of popular political movements in Brazil and Venezuela, and has since migrated to Europe and North America. Podemos is inconceivable without Pablo Iglesias; France Insoumise without Jean-Luc Mélenchon; the new radicalism in the Labour Party without Jeremy Corbyn; the resurgent US left without Bernie Sanders; Mexican national reformism without AMLO. The sociologist Paolo Gerbaudo describes this dynamic as a form of “distributed centralization,” which combines a mediatic “hyperleader” at the top with an engaged but largely reactive “superbase” at the bottom. Unlike the mass parties that preceded them, these new formations tend to lack the extensive network of physical structures, intermediate party cadres, and local branches and sections that used to play a major role in making decisions and setting policies. Today’s most successful politicians, whether of the Right or the Left, have learned how to use new digital media to bypass intermediaries and appeal directly to a mass audience, particularly among younger people.

This phenomenon poses obvious dangers. The difficulties that popular movements in Venezuela and Brazil have faced in the absence of their leaders may well offer the left populist forces of Europe and North America an image of their own future. Even so, there is probably no way to avoid the need for charismatic leadership to help overcome the deficiency of popular organization, at least in the short term. Forty years of neoliberalism have disorganized the working classes and undermined the mass political parties that gave them shape through much of the twentieth century. In the current period, leadership figures will continue to play a key role in giving voice to discontent and, hopefully, shaping it into a more stable political expression. The big question, of course, is whether these leaders are willing and able to stimulate mass organization beyond their own projects, and whether the new formations they’re associated with can ultimately outgrow their current dependence on them.


In the meantime, the erosion of democracy’s social substratum will continue to present morbid symptoms in the United States and elsewhere. The hollowing out of civil society and class-based organizations has provided fertile ground for the most antisocial tendencies to thrive, including the alarming proliferation of xenophobic, white supremacist killers incubated on the internet. Whereas historical fascisms grew in a context of intensive party-political and civil society organization, today’s radical right is an expression of profound social disintegration. It is, in the words of Marco Revelli, “the formless form that social malaise and impulses to protest take on in societies that have been pulverized and reworked by globalization and total finance,” and which are highly susceptible to the kinds of disinformation and paranoia that digital technology is so effective at spreading. The main locus of far-right radicalization today isn’t the local branch of a fascist mass party, but rather the anonymized world of online discussion forums and group chats. This is the deeply anti-political environment that has given us the twinned phenomena of Donald Trump and the extremely online mass shooter.


The combination of social disorganization and the breakdown of effective interest representation is a dangerous cocktail. Dictatorship is not on the agenda in capitalist democracies, but this situation has allowed the forces of the radical right to advance their agenda quite effectively through the existing political systems — not least because it reinforces popular cynicism about the value of deliberative and representative democracy. The current sociopolitical terrain is, in many respects, much more favorable to the Right than what remains of the Left, and it will continue to be so in many capitalist democracies, barring significant reversals of fortune.

Still, the situation is far from hopeless — particularly in the United States. Bernie Sanders’s first presidential campaign sparked the beginnings of a revival of the long-dormant US left. The stunning growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the election of figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib are among the fruits of that campaign. Sanders’s second campaign has the potential to push these developments even further, even if he doesn’t win the Democratic Party primary campaign or the presidency. It represents a significant opportunity to promote social organization on a mass scale, for as Sanders himself constantly reminds his supporters, there is no way he will be able to break the domination of the billionaire class on his own, even with the powers of the US presidency behind him. His campaign slogan is “Not Me, Us.” This isn’t just cheap campaign talk. Sanders’s campaign is demonstrating its commitment to mass organizing and popular mobilization by using his lists to turn supporters out to picket lines, and to encourage the development of organizing skills among his base.

This is where the other major development in US politics, the modest but unmistakable return of the strike, is so important. The US labor movement has been mired in a seemingly endless decline since the 1970s. Structural changes in the economy, combined with an employers’ offensive supported by politicians, has cut the rate of private sector unionization from roughly 25 percent to just 6.5 percent. Public sector unions were much more successful in maintaining their position, but the erosion of unions in the private sector left them very vulnerable to political and judicial attacks. These culminated in a recent Supreme Court decision called Janus v. American Federation of State County and Municipal Employees, in which the conservative majority imposed a so-called “right-to-work” regime on public employment nationwide. This means that union membership in the public sector is now totally voluntary in all fifty states, a significant threat to the to the unions’ organizational and financial security.

All of these pressures, however, seem to have finally aroused a fighting spirit among US workers. Close to 400,000 public education workers went on strike in 2018, bravely led by workers in West Virginia and other Republican-dominated states where public employee strikes are illegal. There were also upsurges in strike activity among health care workers, hotel employees, telecommunications workers, and even in the technology sector, where Google employees walked out in protest of sexual harassment and Big Tech’s collusion with the military-industrial complex. While it may be premature to herald the coming of a strike wave, more American workers went on strike in 2018 than in any other year since the 1980s. Whether this results in a recovery of union organization or the reversal of anti-worker laws still remains to be seen.

The leftward ferment in the electoral arena, combined with the tentative steps toward working-class reorganization, are grounds for hope in democratic renewal. In this context, the most important contribution that Bernie Sanders has made is not his advocacy of Medicare for All or tuition-free public higher education, as welcome and necessary as these demands are. It is his call for a political revolution in the United States. The nascent socialist movement should develop this call into a program for democratic revolution, one that links the democratization of political institutions with support for working-class organizational capacity in politics, the economy, and every arena of social life. This may not be what the ersatz guardians of democracy have in mind, but it is the only genuine cure for democracy’s morbid symptoms.


Chris Maisano is a Jacobin contributing editor and a member of Democratic Socialists of America.


By                            :               Chris Maisano

Source                     :               Jacobin Magazine


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How Sudan Transitions


Sudan’s path to democracy has been a rocky one, and there are several key players who need to ensure it never returns to an autocratic state

Now that the absolute power of autocracy has collapsed in Sudan and the people’s revolution has succeeded in creating a power-sharing mechanism between the Transitional Military Council and the civilian Forces of Freedom and Change (FFC), the challenge now is for this Sovereign Council to successfully manage the situation until general elections are held in 2022. In the meantime, the council must prevent the repetition of the cultural and ideological warfare of the past that had prevented the country from achieving peace and security.

The Sudanese situation will prove no exception to the tumultuousness that followed the Arab Spring in other countries, which were opened up to new possibilities. It will require patience, perseverance, and purpose to achieve equality, freedom, and social justice.

Despite all the provocations and atrocities committed by anti-revolutionary forces, the demonstrators remained peaceful throughout the uprising. Continuation on the path to peace is the moral parameter that defeated warmongers and the forces of tyranny. With a civilian prime minister forming a diverse and inclusive cabinet, the odds of a successful transition are increasing day by day despite some disappointment and discord among some civil society groups.

While reason now prevails over ideological rifts, political demagogy and partisan politics did initially delay the transition process. However, given the gap between the youth and the older generation, the society of knowledge (or the digital society) appears to have won. They were able to defeat the regime, which the older generations had failed to do for the past thirty years.

All the more critical is that the ousted president and his associates were living in a state of delusion and self-deception while completely underestimating the capability of youth equipped with their digital devices. In a matter of five months, they succeeded in ousting the regime. Of course other factors, including economic conditions, also played a part in accelerating the regime’s collapse.

In fact, the economy was in complete meltdown by the time young Sudanese men and women took to the streets; the currency lost its value by more than 300 percent in just six months, and the inflation rate soared above double digits, bringing the ailing regime to a complete standstill. Former President Omar Al-Bashir found himself increasingly backed into a corner and forced to make piecemeal concessions.

The regime used three tactics to thwart the attempts for democratic change: declaring a state of emergency to allow the army and security apparatus to use lethal means to put down the uprising; reshuffling the government to include the familiar faces of the regime; and finally declaring that Al-Bashir would stand shoulder to shoulder with the Sudanese people. To understand Al-Bashir’s failure, one must trace the evolution of the Sudanese revolution, its key players, and the recommendations for a long-term agenda for a successful transition to a democratic society.

Revolutionary Development

The sociological evolution of this uprising traces back to the days when armed groups formed in the desert far west in Darfur and from the trenches in the Nuba Mountains and Blue Nile, yearning for freedom and social justice. It was a triumphant moment when the youth in the regions of Nyala, Al-Geneina, Blue Nile, and Atbara, the working-class city in the River Nile State in northeastern Sudan, lit the revolutionary torch of change and revived the spirit of the nation on December 19, 2018. This spirit quickly spread from city to city, and this historic moment not only unified the conscience of the nation, but soon became a journey of self-redemption and soul searching.

The slogan that united Sudanese civil society against the regime’s tyranny was, “You arrogant racist, we are all Darfur!” This was a critical outcry that condemned the policy of division and hate orchestrated for three decades by the regime and its apparatus to suppress voices for change. Citizens in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains had paid the revolutionary premium; they went through the agony of genocide and the destruction of their livelihood.

The genocide in Darfur resulted in the deaths of more than 300,000, the destruction of more than three thousand villages, and the displacement of more than four million people. It destroyed the region’s social fabric, which could take decades to restore. The genocide also damaged the country’s reputation and led to the indictment of Al-Bashir, and expected indictments of at least fifty-two high-ranking officials by the International Court of Justice.

These crimes should not only be seen as the responsibility of the ousted government, but also that of past generations who allowed such crimes to take place. The sacrifices of the people of Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains should not be forgotten in the mist of the political turmoil. It is time to help the victims heal and compensate them both financially and morally.

As rightly said by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, the most important priorities for the Sudanese transitional government are peace, social justice, and economic development. During this transition and afterward, respecting human lives and reversing the suffering of internally displaced persons (IDPs) and refugees across the country should be the tool for measuring the success of this transitional government.

The transitional government must also address the increasing discontent from decades of marginalization in Darfur, Kordofan, and eastern Sudan. Among the IDPs and refugee camps, there is an increasing fear that the same elites are applying only cosmetic changes to continue the old tactics of deception and ethnopolitics. It is important that the entire transitional government visit these camps to listen to key stakeholders before taking any steps in the peace process.

Signing settlements with armed movements is necessary, but not entirely sufficient, to have peace. The government should start first with the IDPs and refugees before taking steps to initiate the peace process. If achieving peace is the popular demand, then the government must listen and act. Peace is not about creating positions and rewarding political leaders—that would be a fatal exercise—but about changing the dynamics of the power structure. This means establishing partnerships to empower the rural community and the marginalized sectors of society living in IDP camps and shantytowns.

The Key Players and their Adversaries

The call of the hour is preventing the transitional period from erupting into chaos. In other words, the Sovereign Council must move to stimulate collective action and constructive dialogue to lead the political process to a complete democratic transition. This should lead us to inspect the revolution’s key players, the igniters of the revolution, and the secondary players who are acting on behalf of political parties.

Transitional Military Council

The adversaries of the uprising were led by the Transitional Military Council (TMC), which opportunistically shifted its position to wear the hat of the savior of the revolution, before its intentions were revealed in the aftermath of the June 3, 2019 massacre. The TMC was accused of killing dozens of protesters at a sit-in in front of the military headquarters, and dumping their bodies into the River Nile. The public was outraged and the country was shut down in civil disobedience.

After massive demonstrations on June 30 and under public pressure, the TMC retreated and acquiesced to discuss the establishment of a civilian-led government. The TMC was dissolved after the agreement on August 20, 2019, as a result of the Draft Constitutional Declaration to have the Sovereign Council replace it. The Sovereign Council is composed of eleven members— five members of the military appointed by the TMC, five civilians appointed by the FFC, and one jointly appointed member.

Sudanese Professionals Association

Many consider the Sudanese Professionals Association (SPA) to be the principal actor. The political parties joined in the call for change—after the SPA had laid much of the groundwork—under the umbrella of the Alliance for Freedom and Change, which includes Sudan Call (the Umma Party, the Sudanese Congress Party, the Sudan Liberation Movement, and the Justice and Equality Movement) and the National Consensus Forces (NCF), consisting of the Sudanese Communist Party and the Sudanese Baath Party.

This paradoxical combination of political opportunism and sharply divided political parties overshadowed the advances achieved by the SPA and Sudanese youth. There are sixteen trade unions comprising the SPA, seventeen political and armed groups in Sudan Call and eleven political entities forming the NCF. There are twenty-nine political entities that do not belong to any group. Most youth do not belong to any established political force and are skeptical that the above-mentioned armed and political parties can manage the transition. Unlike the older generations who want to reap their fruit of long struggle against Al-Bashir, the country’s youth are keen to replace the old political system with more effective institutions without diminishing the role of the state in providing safety nets.

The Rapid Support Forces

The Rapid Support Forces (RSF), a paramilitary outfit, and their leader General Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo, aka Hemeti, played a critical role in bringing about political change in Sudan, and many have commended Hemeti’s role in regime change. However, a lack of experience and his recent history as a tool of the ousted regime will always constrain his ambition to govern the country.

The RSF was created by the old regime to be loyal and quell dissidence because the government was not eager to settle the prolonged wars on Sudan’s peripheries. No organization or politician should make the mistake of supporting the RSF in their efforts to govern; doing so would push the country toward brinkmanship politics that could tip the country to civil war. True, the RSF has the means to seize power, but it is impossible for it to govern. Ruling a country like Sudan is challenging; it is too big to govern by force and the country is deeply politicized, beset by disparate armed groups, and burdened by an economic crisis.

Sudan needs collective wisdom to be governed. The best course of action for the RSF is to integrate into the Armed Forces and protect the transition. The alternative is for it not to be part of Sudan’s future. The course of action for the armed groups following a peace agreement should be disarmament, demobilization, and reintegration. Overall, the Armed Forces should be gradually reduced after the peace process concludes. With peace established in Darfur, the Nuba Mountains, and Blue Nile, there will be no need to have a standing army of 400,000 men. Resources should be directed to the development and restructuring of the army into smaller and more robust units to safeguard the peace.

The Egyptian influence

Egypt and Sudan have had historical ties that were marked by people-to-people exchanges, which have moved beyond the legacies of the colonial era. The relationship should be built on safeguarding mutual interests.

Egypt followed a cautious, wait-and-see approach as the events unfolded in Khartoum, but public opinion in Sudan has interpreted this negatively. The previous regime had repeatedly asked Egypt to expel members of the Sudanese opposition and armed groups from its territory. While the government in Egypt refused these requests on more than one occasion, it nevertheless preferred to see the continued survival of Sudan’s political institutions, particularly the army.

Egypt’s primary concern is to maintain stability on its southern border, and to avoid the kind of chaos and insecurity that exists in eastern Libya today. Egypt’s best move is to invest in boosting economic relations and strengthening people­to-people ties in order to build trust and move beyond the current distrust. It is important that Egypt supports the civilian transition government and advises its partners in the region to refrain from interfering in a country that is already on the brink of chaos.

The youth and grassroots mobilization

Sudanese youth, who had been deprived of their democratic rights and oppressed for nearly three decades, have risen up to challenge the entrenched autocratic system. This is the country’s third popular revolution since its independence in 1956, when it embarked on a painful journey to establish national identity and a government for the people.

The 2019 revolution is unique compared to similar movements in 1964 and 1985 because it is youth-led and not affiliated with any political parties. It was triggered through social media, with a blue Facebook profile image representing peace for Sudan and a hashtag #BlueforSudan. The ousted regime had encountered many existential threats, but this one was a fatal vortex that felled the autocracy. The regime lost its central nervous system when its military machine was rendered ineffective in the face of young people armed with social media. The youth’s mobilization tactics were robust and challenged the regime’s propaganda, fabrication, and distortion of facts. The youth uprising was a social movement that broke away from older generations in its genuine wish for change. It departed from the old politics of division and opportunism by the rentier elites who were interested in seizing the state.

The new generation is non-ideological and deeply believes in the universal values of inclusivity and tolerance. Slogans of freedom, peace, and social justice were the mottos of the revolution in the face of the autocratic norms of oppression. The regime as always played for time to allow the revolutionary wave to pass, but this was not effective this time. The youth were organized and mobilized to push for accountability, peace, and job opportunities. Given the weakness of the political parties, they filled the political vacuum and are now shaping the future.

The international community

Sudan has been a focus of the international community for three decades, which has acknowledged that the region cannot afford to see another fractured country like Syria, Libya, and Yemen. Sudan is too big to be ignored, which is why the neighboring countries of Chad, Ethiopia, Egypt, and South Sudan collectively pushed harder for the Draft Constitutional Declaration to administer and manage the transitional phase.

The international community mounted pressure, particularly from Ethiopia, to bring the parties together. For example, the African Union invoked tenets of its charter to downgrade Sudan’s membership status until the TMC transferred power to a civilian government. African mediation used two tracks: one track was led by an African Union team, and the other by the Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed, who on October 10 won the Nobel Peace Prize for peace initiatives on his own country’s border with Eritrea. Ahmed put forward a proposal honoring the previous agreement between the FFC and the TMC, in which the FFC would form a civilian government led by a prime minister it would appoint. They were given 77 percent representation in the legislative branch. The point of contention was in the composition of the Sovereign Council.

Meanwhile, the international community led by the Troika (the United States, the UK, and Norway), the EU, and some permanent members of the United Nations Security Council called for a civilian-led transition and holding accountable those who commit atrocities in Sudan. The EU strongly predicated any economic aid to Sudan on a civilian-led transition, a policy which has borne fruit. It is now clear that the Sudanese people were not ready to roll back the clock to succumb to military rule again. The June 30 protest led by the youth, the SPA, and the FFC was a major demonstration after the successful call for civil disobedience on June 9.

The international community must stand behind them and ensure that the deep divisions among regional powers, which overshadowed peaceful settlements in Yemen, Libya, and Syria, do not (re)surface when it comes to Sudan. Instead, they should work toward Sudan’s long-term stability, strengthen its institutions to share the benefits, and address the challenges together.

Revolution and Long-Term Agenda

To overcome some of these challenges, the forces of change need to manage the transitional process to empower an inclusive civilian-led government with wider representation, moving beyond the Nile River Belt. In the meantime, the process of regime change through popular uprising is in itself an educational tool for the public to practice the politics of governing. This process inevitably leads to a bigger debate on the quality of leadership; meritocracy-based governance should be the cornerstone to rebuild institutions.

Equally important, these new institutions must have a mandate to control political behavior by determining the rules of the game, the strategies, checks and balances, and reward systems, to which politicians must adhere. The accountability of the leadership will pave the road to creating a healthy environment and robust democratic institutions.

Call for a New Brand of Leadership

In Sudan, not all leaders are corrupt, but corrupt regimes breed corrupt leadership. There is an opportunity for a new political system to cultivate and harvest quality leadership from this young generation of activists. This is not without its challenges, however, as Sudan faces a national crisis in its multiplicity of political divisions based on familial, political, ideological, tribal, and regional affiliations. The fragmentation has increased political animosity and has bred incompetent, ineffective, and corrupt leadership.

In the past few decades, politics became the profession du jour of those who have no profession. The previous regime encouraged degenerate leadership types, but like a plague, they must be removed. The autocracy produced a leadership of high school dropouts, and kleptocrats who had ascended to the highest positions on the political ladder. For this morally bankrupt leadership, politics and public office is not a call for duty or service, but a job and political opportunity for self-enrichment. These types of leaders’ ingrained criminal attitudes and behaviors should not be a part of Sudan’s future political fabric.

Nobel laureate George Akerlof once said that in the absence of information in the market, the bad cars (lemons) chase out the good cars (peaches). In Sudan, we have political lemons; good leaders were chased out and we were left with the mediocre. The current political leadership is not acceptable. Some leaders have occupied the political space for the last three decades or more. Their hold on power becomes a function of how far the leader is willing to indulge the country in politics of division.

To counter this, there should be a new set of public standards and litmus tests to determine who should be trusted to lead the nation as it moves forward; providing public service should be understood as a sense of duty and responsibility. Public service is a noble purpose, it should not be associated with criminality and ineptness. Today, the most capable people have fled the political scene due to decades of negative stigma. This plague needs to be addressed before the political process is to be initiated in order to have full democratic institutions, and before the capable members of society return to political life.

Political environment

The modernization of Sudan’s political environment requires that more than 124 political and rebel movements be consolidated into five or six major entities led by competent leaders who will move the country forward. In order to create this momentum, the country needs a real vibrant civil society and think tanks to enrich the policy debate on critical issues such as reforming labor laws, the pension system, education, healthcare, judiciary, security, agriculture, and government administration.

Applying these reforms will require professionalization or technocratization of politics and policies. Technocrats should lead the reform based on evidence and away from politics to put the country on the path to success. Civil society will set the agenda and participate as stakeholders to enrich and improve the policy process and its outcomes.


So many countries started on the path to successful revolution but were thwarted by political division and distrust. As long as the Sudanese people remain united against all forms of division and gerrymandering, the blue symbol of the revolution, reflecting the beauty of the Nile River, will outlast the political maneuvers of the remnants of the old political class.

The militants in the government have attempted many times to derail healthy political discourse. To ensure their efforts are thwarted, the new transitional government’s role is to build consensus to ensure the political process leads to an elected government. The transitional government should set the foundation for the separation of powers so that future elected governments have the capacity to generate policies without sharing power with non-elected bodies. In addition, there is an urgent need to have a national covenant to consolidate the political processes. This would ensure that no party is allowed to invest resources to create non-democratic regimes though military coups, or turn to violence and tribal domination.

The adequate safeguarding of these principles requires educating the public to recognize that democratic procedures and institutions are the most essential elements for governing collectively in a society recovering from civil wars and genocide. All are subjected to the mechanism of conflict resolution in accordance with specific laws, procedures, and institutions established to govern.

Civil liberties

Civil society is essential for political society to implement its values. It is important to encourage the creation of social, cultural, and political associations to advance dialogue and for society to move beyond elections to a truly pluralistic society with effective policy debate. It goes beyond the formal political institutions in shaping agendas and influencing the decision makers. It is incumbent upon society to put a high value on the core institutions of a democratic society, including political parties, elections, electoral rules, and political leadership.

For three decades, civil liberties were curtailed in Sudan. The state discriminated against its citizens based on regional, tribal, and geographical categories, especially in Darfur.. The state allowed forces from the National Intelligence and Security Service and the RSF to have free reign to commit crimes, while independent civil associations were banned.

Social justice

Ninety percent of the population is living in poverty or relative poverty, which means that democracy will have no value to the common man if the trickle-down economy ceases to work. Therefore, society’s endorsement of the political system must be contingent upon the capacity of the system to provide opportunities to advance. No one is demanding free handouts, but allowing for equal opportunity is essential.

The transitional government, and the one which succeeds it, should ensure equitable access and rights to education and healthcare. Economically, marginalized areas must be given priority access to education, healthcare, and opportunities to open businesses. All historical injustices must be addressed to chart a new beginning which entails the retirement of old political classes responsible for these atrocities and injustices.

Uphold the rule of law

During this transition, the state must uphold the rule of law. All citizens should be equal in receiving legal guarantees for freedoms and independent association. In the meantime, the leadership of the ousted regime should be held accountable for the war crimes they have committed. All the actors complicit in the crimes in Darfur, Blue Nile, and Nuba Mountains should be brought to justice. The people of Darfur must be guaranteed their day in court with those who committed genocide, perhaps in the International Criminal Court.

The transitional government must also begin a process to establish a commission to investigate corruption cases and refer them to court. Asset recovery at home and abroad is a priority—as of today, some are still looting the country’s resources. Many from the old regime are transferring assets they looted through corruption. Punishing these kleptocrats and those guilty of genocide for their crimes helps the nation heal. Therefore, an independent judicial system, supported by civil society, becomes all the more necessary to advance the rule of law and establish a new political culture.

Reconfiguration of autocratic institutions

The previous regime departed from the norms of other similar autocratic regimes, such as having hierarchical institutions, by destroying the bureaucracy and creating parallel institutions to protect themselves from accountability. The regime created multiple armies, a web of security apparatuses, and quasi-government economic institutions exempt from constraints and owned by individuals. The central bank did not function independently and was a lending arm to the Ministry of Finance. The army, the most hierarchical organization today, is an institution led by generals who lost their professional standards because they were recruited through the political process. The most important criterion for appointing officials was loyalty, which was the regime’s way of keeping institutions away from the control of adversaries.

The civilian and military leaders were more interested in business deals and promotions, or using their status to enrich themselves rather than developing the nation. A great number of the military rank-and-file is incompetent and corrupt. They lost their standards by dealing in the money market. This is why a rudimentary force such as the RSF has taken over military garrisons and armaments, including the military airbases.

This all forms a considerable challenge for the new government, which now must realign the military institutions and restructure them to perform their basic functions. Some actors in the bureaucracy, particularly in the army, should not be allowed any authority or influence that could lead to destabilizing the democratic state. The RSF and the rebel armies should be integrated into the Sudanese Army and their institutions should be reconfigured.

Political society

A civilian-led government should have greater institutional, symbolic, and absorptive capacities than military leaders to advance the agenda for democratic transition. For the civilian leadership to advance, all forms of military presence in cities and villages should disappear. Only the police force with a minimal security presence should be allowed. This will give the political society room to flourish and give the leadership the capacity to rebuild the state.

Previously, the outgoing regime represented by the TMC worked to derail the transition process. The civilian leadership needs the support of the key players and stakeholders domestically and internationally to thwart the military leaders who aim to split and undermine it. The revolution was initiated by civilians, and they should lead the transition to undo the dictatorship and create an enabling environment of healthy and inclusive dialogue to resolve the critical issues they inherited from the previous non-democratic state.


It cannot be stressed enough that the unity of the Sudanese people toward the common purpose will be key for a complete civilian-led transition. Dialogue with all regional countries is a must for a new beginning. All are looking for a Sudan that is at peace with itself and its neighbors.


Hamid Eltgani Ali is an associate professor and former chair of the Department of Public Policy and Administration at the American University in Cairo. Along with co-founding the public policy program, he served as director of AUC’s Master of Global Affairs. Ali is widely published, and for a decade has been working with parties to the Sudanese conflict to implement democratic transition and reconstruction.


By                            :               Hamid Eltgani Ali

Date                         :               Winter 2020

Source                     :               The Cairo Review of Global Affairs


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Leading an online social movement requires offline work


Today, most social movements around the world are digital in some capacity. When a hashtag seems enough to start a movement, social media promise to replace the role of leaders in setting a movement’s goals, coordinating action and inspiring a following.

Our research set out to test the belief that leadership was no longer necessary in online activism by drawing on the experience of several recent movements in Canada. What we found was more complicated and interesting than a simple vanishing act by protest leaders: social media enable new kinds of leadership to form.

The ease with which messages spread through social media may be the most fascinating aspect of digital activism, but it hides the labour of message creation, curation and coordination required to transform chatter into action.

We studied Canadian movements over the past five years and found that leadership labour is performed by individual participants who aren’t necessarily identified as traditional leaders. These individuals work in the background rather than standing out in front lines and front pages. Day by day, hour by hour, they perform the painstaking tasks of articulating the message of the movement, connecting collaborators and supporters, or initiating action on the issue.

Crafting messages

During the 2014 teachers’ strike in British Columbia, some parents started pressuring the government to negotiate with the teachers’ union. One idea caught on: parents with children at home because of the strike would organize playdates at the local offices of politicians. The #MLAPlaydate initiative was born on Twitter and Facebook.

The idea itself was the brainchild of three citizens who took notice of each other’s tweets at the early stage of the strike. Backstage conversations through tweets, email and phone calls led to the creation of #MLAPlaydate. They broadcast their call through Twitter and a blog that described the format of their playful protest. What made the message powerful, they explained, was that:


It’s a way that anyone could play. You could play by tweeting, what we and others did. You can play by taking a meme or photo and commenting on it, so by making it, sort of like, open source activism versus traditional command and control … you allow other people to get more involved.


While the three had crafted the message, they saw themselves as a coordination hub rather than as leaders in control. They created spaces for discussion of parents’ views on the teachers’ strike and helped translate these discussions into action.

Online influencers

Crafting the message is not enough. The message must be picked up and circulated.

When causes are embraced by social media accounts with many followers, their involvement amplifies the message and boosts the collective action. In other cases, such accounts grow in popularity due to the dense network of connections their owners have in the local community.

The organizers of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) events in Calgary were already embedded in local Indigenous communities and had ties to other activists through past work with Idle No More or Women’s Marches. They drew on these past connections and experiences to organize their own MMIW protests. They used Facebook to disseminate information and calls for action not only locally, but also to reach into the national network of Indigenous activists.

These organizers were already in the thick of things locally and digitally. This leadership role consisted of spreading and sharing the movement’s goals and objectives, which they achieved through existing networks grown from involvement and commitment to the values behind the issue. Calgary Sisters in Spirit committee member Michelle Robinson captured it this way:

… our locations and our numbers can change, but Facebook is kind of a constant. So that’s where we encourage and invite people and let people know this is happening.


Doing the work

The word caretaker brings to mind the image of hands-on labour; with digital activism, this caretaking role describes a leader stepping up to do the work and investing time and effort in countless essential tasks. These leaders distinguish themselves by carrying out tasks such as making signs, sharing petitions or cleaning up after a gathering.

For citizens coordinating the Calgary network that assists arriving Syrian refugees with donated household items, participation in the Refugees Welcome movement took every free moment of the day as they did the heavy lifting online and offline. One organizer shared:


we would finish work and, no dinner, just head down to the warehouse from the time the warehouse opened ‘till closing. … we were there pretty much every single day.


These activities stretched them financially and personally, but their commitment kept them going. Nobody appointed or elected them. These individuals emerged as leaders when they stepped up to do the work that needed to be done.

Online leadership matters

What matters is crafting powerful messages, spreading this message across physical and digital networks and doing the heavy lifting of organizing work. In some cases, the same citizens performed all three leadership roles. In others, different participants stepped into one of them when needed. While the individuals playing these roles may sometimes appear interchangeable, transient and anonymous, leadership itself remains central to any form of activism.

There were no special qualities required to make an ordinary citizen a leader. What mattered was the degree to which they cared about the issue. For some, taking this kind of leadership role represented a peak in a long trajectory of activism and dedication to a cause. For others, the issue at hand struck a particularly sensitive chord or hit close to home. Then, the density of social ties, digital skills and communicative creativity turned into valuable resources.

This means that for activist organizations and social movements nowadays, it is not so important to focus on electing leaders, but on making available mechanisms and avenues for their self-selection. Build open channels for conversation, connection and work. Leaders will come.

By                            :               Delia Dumitrica, Maria Bakardjieva and Mylynn Felt

Date                         :               April 2, 2020

Source                     :               The Conversation


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Social movements in Corona times: new constraints, new practices


Movements compensate for the lack of collective actions in public spaces, laying the groundwork for future mobilization to shape a time post-Corona crisis.


The Covid-19 pandemic is changing social movements worldwide. The current state of emergency, social isolation and the ban on meetings are only the beginning. The pandemic is causing large social, political and economic costs through rising unemployment, increasing poverty and a further widening of inequality, racism and marginalization of the already weak.

In this situation, social movements are desperately needed. At the moment many community activist, engaged citizens, and civil society volunteers make important contributions to contain the spread of the virus by calling off public demonstrations, supporting protective health standards, and providing solidarity work. Yet the current crisis is also putting significant constraints on social movements. Movements try to find new ways to compensate for the lack of collective actions in public spaces and lay the groundwork for future mobilization in order to shape a time post-Corona crisis.

One important element is the increasing amount of digital activities through which movements at the moment try to compensate for offline actions. Even though online petitions and digital activism have grown rapidly in recent decades, classic street protests, sit-ins or squatting and other collective actions in public space remain a central medium of influence for social movements. Fridays for Future, unteilbar, blockupy/occupy, the Alter Globalization Movement: we know them because of their size and regularity of their street protests. Protest events are important as they are reported in the media and the concerns and topics are discussed publicly. They are, however, also important in order to politicize andempower people and ‘win’ them for prefigurative actions.

International protest events such as the Global Climate Strike or the Global Women’s March help to construct transnational solidarities. Joint actions help to create an understanding that there are similar problems in many countries around the world, and that we must act together to tackle the major issues. Global social movements advocate equality, openness, and acceptance while at the same time recognizing national, regional or local differences and particularities. Resistance against exclusion, inequality, racism and re-nationalization is needed, but the scope for action is considerably limited, not only due to the ban on meetings, but also due to rapidly declining resources. Many activists also have to deal with their own difficult situations, rising precarity, and the threat of unemployment. This gives further room for neoliberal, nationalist, and racist tendencies in societies.

Many activists also have to deal with their own difficult situations, rising precarity, and the threat of unemployment.

Digital infrastructures are also important for the organization and preparation of protest. It is the particular combination of online networking and offline protest that leads to a bigger resonance. Online activism can facilitate exchanges, but it rarely receives great public resonance without offline actions. Many activists are currently relocating their activities to the online world. Still, it remains doubtful whether a digital strike, or occupy via livestream can generate as much attention as a strike on the street.

In addition: Corona dominates the media and the individual attention economy. This makes it even more difficult to generate attention for example for human rights violations and extreme emergency situations in refugee camps such as Moria on Lesbos. There seem to be however differences across movements. In the fundamental restructuring of the economy, some topics might receive more attention than others. Climate change activism and demands for environmental justice for example could connect with emerging political debates on the new green deal.

Climate change activism and demands for environmental justice for example could connect with emerging political debates on the new green deal.

In general, movements operate with particular creativity under critical circumstances. They create new symbols of solidarity, social distance direct actions, and new online spaces where people exchange ideas and generate knowledge. All these things can be a source for the diffusion of alternative reimaginations of the future, which will come earlier than we have expected in the past. Fridays For Future, for example, organizes Webinars, and offers educational formats on the subject of climate, society and crisis under the motto 'Unite Behind The Science'. On the international day against racism, a refugee support organization in Germany used the hastag #leavenoonebehind to share symbols of solidarity with all those affected by racism. There are similar calls e.g. to #refugees welcome with over 600.000 posts, or #noborders with 150,000 posts on Instagram. Community support activism is rapidly spreading, new help hotlines e.g. against domestic violence start operating and new digital tools are created for free for connecting solidarity work.

All of these actions are significant beyond their immediate act of expressing solidarity. Even if the current crisis currently triggers a concentration of power, a silencing of criticism, and the undermining of democratic processes: in the medium and long term, a post-corona order must be established which ends the state of immediate emergency.

The pandemic painfully reveals the weaknesses of the current systems e.g. in the healthcare systems, in the global economy, in climate-, refugee- or gender equality politics, the imbalances between states, to name a few. The collective creative potential from below is required to create new ideas and democratic procedures, but also the mobilizing potential to turn this knowledge into practice to shape the societies to come.


By                            :               Sabrina Zajak

Date                         :               April 7, 2020

Source                     :               Open Democracy


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