Antonio Gramsci in his prison notebooks has a theory of elaboration, which I think is very important. Gramsci argued that people in a capitalist system absorb ideas from a variety of sources — family, education, media, workplaces — and that the totality of these notions forms what he calls “common sense.” Now this common sense is useful because it explains a great deal about the world as it is — and how it appears. But there are fundamental elements of the world that remain difficult to fully understand. There are contradictions that make no sense.
Gramsci says that the mass of the people experience reality through a contradictory consciousness. Gramsci argues that the communist or the socialist goes among the people, interacts with them, and listens intently to their common sense. Then the communist activist or journalist critically elaborates upon their common sense, takes this contradictory common sense and elaborates it into “good sense” or philosophy. Good socialist nonfiction writing does not assume that it emerges from the genius of the writer or an inspiration — but it comes from being absorbed by the common sense around us, and by being honest about elaborating it into philosophy of good sense.
To come at this from another level: socialist writing is about democracy, about seeing readers as part of our process and not as consumers who must buy the commodities we produce. Socialist writing should be a conversation.
Art cannot by itself change the world. It can provide insight and perhaps an epiphany — but it does not change the relations of power in the world. For that, one needs organizational power and struggle.
But art at the same time must be free to engage with contradictory consciousness without a predetermined end — the ends of politics, for instance. If a political line drives the process of elaboration, then we would know the answer to our question before we began our studies among the people. In order to best understand social relations, socialist writing and art must have freedom to come as close as possible to the contradictory common sense and produce — again in conversation with the people, with one’s comrades — the good sense of our times.
W. E. B Du Bois in Souls of Black Folk asked a question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” This was his detonator sentence. It carried the entire book with it. People of African descent in the United States had been made — through slavery and Jim Crow codes — to experience a subdued dignity. That was Du Bois’s point.
I came at it from a different place. In my second book, Karma of Brown Folk, I developed an argument about race in the United States, and why certain races stood for success while others stood for failure. This hierarchy of races allows white supremacy to make the claim that it is not after all racist.
South Asians in particular, but other Asian Americans as well, entered the United States after 1965 with advanced degrees. Their success story was written by immigration law, so that their “genius” was not through natural selection but by state selection. Nonetheless, South Asians were being positioned, against African Americans, as a success story. Drawing from Du Bois’s detonator sentence, I asked, “How does it feel to be a solution?” That question grounded the book.
One of my other books — The Darker Nations — is about the Third World Project, the political movement of the formerly colonized states on the world stage. The term “Third World” had become resonant with disparagement — state failure, corruption, violence. But this was a phenomenon of the 1980s, when the Third World Project had been, as I wrote, assassinated. From the 1920s to the 1980s, the term referred to that immense struggle to produce an alternative inter-state system. So the detonator sentence for that book — in fact the first sentence — ran, “The Third World is not a place, but a project.” In other words, the disparagement — which is about places in the world that had been reduced to penury and hopelessness — could not account for the political struggle — the project.
Writing should be crisp, not for itself — because there is a new aestheticization of writing, a kind of writing for its own sake. I have many friends who say that V. S. Naipaul — forget his politics — is a great writer. I’m not keen on this kind of attitude.
Writing is a form of communication. The point of writing is to reach someone, to say something. What you say is relevant, of course. But I don’t want to get dogmatic. I like to read people I might not agree with, certainly, and I can judge them by the basis of their ability to tell me what they think. This is not clarity, but precision. Is the writing precise? Why should writing be spare or precise? Because it must be able to evoke something in a reader. The reader should not have to run for cover because the author has fired off clichés — a fusillade of dead words. Writers must pay special attention to evoking something in the reader. Even texts on development should attempt to reach the heart of the readers — not to manipulate them, but to interest them.
I think socialist writing has an important and very difficult challenge. One of the things that has become clear to me is that once human beings surrender to the present, the idea of the future wears thin. There is only a present. The present stretches on into infinity. When we say tomorrow, we mean only tomorrow in time, but not in epochal terms. Tomorrow will look like today. The sensation of an endless present greets us each day. Change is never going to come.
That feeling — of futility — is the greatest detriment to the socialist imagination. Socialist writing, to my mind, has to help break that fatalism and create what Arundhati Roy calls “a new imagination” — an imagination of a different kind of world, with different priorities and different sensibilities.
But more than anything else, the socialist should not write in a register of anguish or even merely anger. For gloom and doom does not help clarify the future, the possibility of the future.
I’ve been saying that the time of the present is over, and that the time of the future is at hand. What this means is not that we are on the threshold of a breakthrough, but that the managers of our world order are not capable of solving our problems. That means that the present has no solutions for us. We need to seek our solutions from the future, from a different way of ordering our needs and our luxuries, our excesses and our scarcities.
We don’t need texts of frustration and rage, but texts that suggest inevitability, the idea that we have in our marrow that this present of ours is simply not able to deal with our problems of inequality, climate catastrophes, war and so on, and that we not only need an alternative but that in our struggles an alternative is at hand. In other words, the time of the future exists in our struggles. Our writing has to capture that sensation.
[...] The ugliness of the neo-fascists emboldens violence against ordinary people but protects the wealth of the oligarchy. This is the Violence of Fools. Vigilance by sensitive people is essential. None of this is normal. To see it as such is a defeat. We live in an age of the abnormal, an age of monsters, an age of the strongmen, the devastation of humanity, the ache of decent people.
You are part of the leadership of a popular movement that has just seized power in your country. Your commitment is not to bourgeois nationalism, but to socialism. You are from a country that had been under colonial rule and then neo-colonial subordination or else from a country that was not formally colonised but nonetheless experienced the full weight of imperialism. Your economy is in tatters, its raw materials drawn out of the country, its people reduced to labour on the global commodity chain gang. Your country has not been able to forge an independent foreign policy, nor a capacious social policy. A popular upsurge that began with an anti-IMF riot brings you to power. The window of possibility for your government has begun to close just as its opens.
What will you do?
The US ambassador – accompanied by a delegation of local representatives of monopoly capital firms and the local oligarchy – comes to see you and your comrades. This gaggle of important people flutter about, coming to ensure that your government will set aside its grand promises to the people and – after some mild transfer payment schemes to tackle the terrible poverty – will resume the status quo. After all, says the US ambassador, the status quo has been good for the country. The FDI flowed in, the IMF report of its staff visit has been productive, the GDP is high, the currency is relatively stable and the oligarchy – well, the oligarchy has been the pride of the nation. The ambassador wags a finger in your face – arms deals have to be signed, military agreements have to ratified. The boat is on an even keel, says the ambassador. No sense in rocking it.
You knew that this delegation would come to see you. Nothing they say or do surprises you. Countries like yours – countries of backwardness (takhalluf) – do not control their destiny. Colonial rule altered the structure of politics and economics as well as of society. Old notables had been side-lined or absorbed into the new world where they become merely representatives of forces that lived elsewhere. The new elites that emerged represented the interests of themselves certainly, but also of external forces – not their own populations who had been reduced to rubble by the plunder of colonial rule. Poverty came alongside illiteracy and disease. Backwardness was not the fault of your culture, but of this imperialist history. Your movement came out of the slums, where the bulk of your people live. They have spoken to you. They have given you their programme of action. They want you to act.
When your people won independence or overthrew your monarchy fifty years ago, the new elites seized power. They offered up your raw materials and your workers for rock bottom prices, as long as they got a cut of the profits. That is what they had won independence for – to increase their share of the theft. This large-scale bribe was then replicated down the class ladder as your country became a country of bribe-taking rather than social initiative. No development could come to your country, whose social advancement was blocked by structural obstacles such as the terms of trade for your primary products and your reliance upon finance from the old colonial powers. Your rich minerals and rich agricultural products find their prices fluctuate and remain low, while the prices of manufactured goods that you import from the imperialist powers increase. The gap between these two leaves your public exchequer in permanent debt. You borrow money from the banks of the imperialist countries and you use their currency for your international trade – both drawing you in to what you know is the imperialism of high finance. Underdevelopment is the only development that your country experiences.
Your group of revolutionaries had spent the decades under the clouds of IMF warfare studying the ‘unilateral adjustment’ thrust upon your country. You discover Samir Amin, who gives you that concept of unilateral adjustment. It means that the policy framework for any government of your country will be channelled by rules devised elsewhere, rules that benefit the old colonial powers and impoverish your own country. Even socialists are trapped by this unilateral adjustment. Structures such as unequal exchange and old-fashioned plunder vampirically diminish the wealth of your country. Your country was forced to adapt to the needs and interests of the old colonial powers. You can never be free.
This is the moment for you to test the theory of delinking – the concept you absorb from Samir Amin. To delink is not to break from the world and isolate oneself. Isolation is not possible. If you do break with the unilateral adjustment, you will either be overthrown in a coup or a military intervention in the name of saving civilians or you will be under sanctions and embargos for decades. You do not want to isolate yourself. You are an internationalist. To delink means to fight to set an alternative framework for your relations with the world, to force others to adjust to the needs and interests of the working-class and peasantry in your country and in other countries. Delinking, you read in Samir Amin, means to ‘modify the conditions of globalization’.
fucking hell, this is so good
the recommendations are:
[...] Each of these caravans comes with determination to flee places that the people think have failed them. It brings to mind the words of the Somali-British poet Warsan Shire,
no one leaves home unless home is the mouth of a shark you only run for the border when you see the whole city running as well
[...] It does not help that the United States, the dragon that whips its tail and breathes fire into these countries, at the same time advertises itself as a ‘land of opportunity’. US military force and capital has no borders; only people of limited means run into these borders. [...]
Words like ‘refugee’ (and even ‘migrant’) mislead. They reduce people to categories that suggest powerlessness. It is as if the person on the road in these caravans or on the boats in the Mediterranean Sea are to be pitied (if you are a person of sensitive disposition) or hated (if you are a person who has forgotten what it means to be human). But the people walking or on the boats are not without their own aspirations and energy, without their own sense of what they are doing and why they are doing it.
When they cross the unforgiving borders, they get to work: building homes, finding work, raising children [...]. They earn money and then turn around to send it to their families who are at home. Even in the Zaatari refugee camp in Mafraq (Jordan), there are money transfer agencies that take cash from Syrian refugees and send it to their relatives inside Syria. The lines outside these agencies around the world suggest the immense feeling of humanity that motivates the people who are displaced.
The World Bank calculates that displaced people sent a total of $613 billion in remittances to their home countries, most of them in the Global South. To put this into context, the total overseas development aid amounted to $142.6 billion. In other words, workers who live perilously – and there are 258 million of them – send four and a half times more money to their home countries than do the wealthy states of North America and Europe. Even more scandalous, monopoly money transfer firms such as Western Union and MoneyGram take a fee that amounts to between 7% and 10%. The total garnishment from these workers amounts to $30 billion per year.
Capital and weapons slip past the border guards without care. People are held back by the borders. It is this immobility that acts as an economic knife into the gut of the worlds billions. The lack of free mobility of people facilitates lower (super-exploited) wages in some parts of the world as against others. Those who are able to cross borders, but have either no papers or have limited papers, are vulnerable to employers who super-exploit their vulnerability. In other words, on both sides of the border the displaced people have to struggle to get by with super-exploited wages and poor working conditions.