What would you call the times we are living in? Are we in a crisis, in multiple crises, in a catastrophe?
I would call this an epochal crisis — for two reasons. First, it’s not merely sectoral but general, a crisis of the entire social order. It’s not “only” economic, nor “only” ecological, nor “only” a political crisis or a crisis of care, but it’s all those things at once, converging with and exacerbating one another.
General crises of this sort are quite rare. In the course of roughly 500 years of capitalist history, we’ve only had four such crises, where the entire social order has been widely experienced as unviable.
The second reason for thinking our crisis is epochal is that it is systemic. The massive irrationalities and injustices we experience are not accidental — they’re deeply rooted in the structure and dynamics of our social order. And that is, of course, a capitalist social order — although a historically specific form of capitalism, of course.
You describe our contemporary form of capitalism as “cannibal capitalism”. What do you mean by that?
Capitalist economies have a built-in tendency to devour their own background conditions. They are structurally primed to gobble up nature and the wealth and health of racialized peoples, to guzzle our capacities for care work and public action. That’s why capitalist crises are not “merely” economic, but also social, political, and ecological. And it’s also why the system’s contradictions are not “only” located within a given realm, like the “falling rate of profit” described by Marx, which is internal to the economy.
Rather, capitalism also harbours inter-realm contradictions, such as those analysed by that other great theorist of capitalist crisis, Karl Polanyi. Polanyi diagnosed crisis tendencies grounded in clashes between the system’s economic value logic, on the one hand, and the logics of natural and social reproduction, on the other hand.
Those trans-economic contradictions of capitalism are the drivers of the trans-economic aspects of our current crisis — its social, political and ecological aspects. To get a full understanding of this crisis, as well as of previous general crises, you need to integrate insights from both Marx and Polanyi. Through that lens, we can see that capitalism not only exploits free proletarians in factories, but also consumes the “non-economic” supports that make such exploitation possible: the families that produce and sustain “labour power”, the states that maintain property rights and supply essential infrastructure and pubic goods, the natural processes that sustain life-enabling ecosystems and “raw materials”.
This dynamic, which I consider a form of cannibalism, is built into every form of capitalism. Every form is primed to cannibalize nature, to cannibalize care work and social reproduction, to cannibalize the wealth and health of semi-free workers, especially but not only that of racialized populations, and, lastly, to cannibalize the political realm, the public powers we need to address all these problems.
It is the cannibal nature of capitalism, then, that inclines the system to multi-dimensional crises and multiple forms of injustice: crises of ecology and politics as well as economics, injustices of gender/sex and of race/ethnicity/empire as well as of class in the traditional sense.
Why then has capitalism itself not fallen victim to these internal self-eroding dynamics?
Capitalism’s history amounts to a sequence in which periods of general crisis, when the system is unravelling, alternate with periods of structural reform, when its design gets overhauled. Each overhaul responds to the previous crisis — the new design is aimed at softening the system’s contradictory cannibalistic dynamics.
A good example is so-called social-democratic or New Deal capitalism, the form that immediately preceded our current, neoliberal phase. This adaptation was a direct reaction to the crisis of liberal/colonial industrial capitalism manifest in the severe depressions and world wars of the first half of the twentieth century. That crisis was rooted in capital’s gluttonous free-riding on all resources to which it helped itself freely but failed to replenish or repair.
The social-democratic “fix” involved the use of state power to restrain capital “for its own good” through regulation, social service provision, demand management, etc. These policies worked for a few decades, albeit better for some people than for others, but the resulting regime was neither truly just nor truly sustainable. So, it comes as no surprise that it began to unravel in the 1970s and 1980s, leading to another systemic adaption in the 1990s, which brought the neoliberal globalized capitalism we have today.
What is specific about the form of capitalism that we experience today?
It is particularly vicious and predatory. Neoliberal capitalism liberates the system’s inherent cannibalistic tendencies from the restraints imposed by the previous regime. So, it relentlessly eats away our capacities for care and solidarity, at our infrastructures and political spaces, at our living and working conditions, at nature’s capacities to replenish and reproduce itself.
We can see this very clearly in the COVID-19 pandemic, which lays bare the full extent of the system’s perversity, its multiple irrationalities and injustices. To my mind, COVID is a revelatory x-ray of our social order. In it, we see how neoliberalism has sharpened all of cannibal capitalism’s contradictions to a fever pitch. So, how would I describe our current situation? We’re in a very hot mess, all around.
What are the effects of this situation on people living through this historic time?
Living under the terrible pressure of this acute general crisis, many people are defecting from the prevailing common sense that previously more or less held things together. They no longer believe that free markets are the solution to their problems, that governments need only “remove all the red tape” and let the market do its magic. They are turning away from entrenched elites and mainstream political parties.
This adds a new dimension to the crisis, which now includes what Antonio Gramsci called a “crisis of hegemony”. People are looking for new, out-of-the-box solutions. On the one hand, this represents an opening for emancipatory left-wing projects, but it also has a dark side: many gravitate to authoritarian strong men who engage in vicious scapegoating of minorities. Every country has its own version of this, be it the alt-right white supremacy movement in the United States or the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany.
But there are also more progressive answers, aren’t there?
Yes, we can also see a lot of left-wing energy: proliferating protests, attempts to form new parties, and a growing hunger for emancipatory engagement. But so far all this activism remains dispersed and fragmented — it doesn’t rise to the level of a counterhegemony, let alone converge on a shared project.
One reason is that capitalism in general, and our capitalism in particular, present an enormous complexity of life conditions. Not everyone experiences the crisis in the same way. There’s a lot to protest and movements often grab the one aspect that they perceive as especially pressing. For some, this is police shootings. For others, it’s low wages or precarious work. For still others, it’s rising sea levels, extreme heat, and wildfires or the unavailability of high-quality affordable childcare.
In other words, people are in motion in many places around many issues. All of these are real issues. Efforts to solve them through democratic collective action are not only rational but can lead to more expansive solidarities and to broader, more radical projects. For that to happen, however, it’s necessary to for people to connect the dots — to see that all the various problems generating dispersed protest are grounded in one and the same social system: namely, the especially predatory, cannibalistic present form of capitalism. We need to make visible the connections between different struggles that are too often obscured.
How can we overcome the obscuring of these connections ? What kinds of demands and framings could bring people together instead?
I think the first step — and I’m now speaking both as a critical theorist and as an activist — is to disclose the interconnections of these phenomena. To give people a map that connects the dots, enabling protests movements to locate themselves in relation to others, to find potential allies and eventually join forces. I don’t mean this in a Leninist sense — it’s not about subordinating some supposedly “secondary” issues to allegedly more important ones. It’s rather about reformulating one’s claims in ways that open the door to cooperation and encourage broader projects.
Through this type of process, it might be possible to win over at least some, maybe even many, people who now gravitate to right-wing populism. I don’t mean the committed authoritarians or “principled” racists — they are unreachable and not worth the breath. But they don’t exhaust the populist ranks. There are also lots of people who haven’t been exposed to credible left alternatives, and absent such exposure, when there’s no one offering a good class-line that speaks to them, they end up voting for right-wing parties. We should change that by offering them something better.
Is it our task as socialists to show those looking for connections the bigger picture?
Absolutely. Look, whether it’s the Trumpists in the US or the AfD in Germany, these guys have a narrative. Of course, their narrative does not embrace everybody — on the contrary, it embraces some precisely buy excluding others. Unfortunately, a lot of people find it quite convincing.
What we need is something that can compete effectively with that — that can be even more powerful and convincing. Progressive neoliberalism (with its stress on breaking glass ceilings and “putting black faces in high places”) is not the answer. Everybody can see that it’s a failure. With this in disrepute, there’s an opening for developing forms of feminism, anti-racism, eco-politics, and democratic politics that are oriented to an expanded understanding of the working class and pivotal change.
What would a viable left alternative that could make a difference look like?
We need an alliance of feminist, anti-racist, pro-democracy, environmental, and labour movements. Such an alliance could be powerful if each of the participating groups saw its specific problems as stemming from the same perverse social system as the others’, and converged on the aim of transforming that system.
This doesn’t require that they merge their differences in some abstract universalism. On the contrary, each element of the coalition can and should maintain and develop its specific political identity, while sharing a diagnosis of the status quo.
The concept of “intersectionality” aims to capture this sort of practice, insofar as it points to multiple problems that intersect yet share a common cause. When it comes to change and transformation, however, intersectionality might not suffice. What we rather need is a stronger sense of solidarity, something we can share.
Does this also imply a new understanding of the revolutionary subject of today — the working class?
Yes, that’s exactly what I was just hinting at. We need to turn away from the traditional understanding of the working class, which focused on free proletarians who perform industrialized labour in return for a wage. Certainly, that’s an important face of capitalist labour, but not the whole story.
Capitalism also depends on unfree or dependent workers, whose labour is expropriated, as opposed to exploited, and who are racialized and constructed as violable. These workers, too, belong to the working class, as does another major group of capitalism’s workers: those gendered care workers, unpaid or underpaid, on whom capital also free-rides.
Both racialized sub-work and gendered care work are essential to capital accumulation. Without them, there could be no exploited workers, no raw materials, no commodity production, surplus value, or capital. So, capitalism relies on not one, but three different faces of labour, functionally interconnected in one and the same social system, and these faces of labour are transforming today.
Much traditional manufacturing work has been offshored to semi-peripheral regions, where labour rights are weak and unions are non-existent. Much social reproductive work now takes the form of low-wage service work, performed in public institutions and for-profit firms by deportable migrants, with no secure residency rights. In both cases, the labour is “semi-free”, as the workers lack actionable rights and political protections.
The conclusion I draw is that we need to develop an enlarged view of the “working class”, one that encompasses all three faces of capitalist labour in their mutual intersections. Such a view could provide the basis for an enlarged coalition, one with the political heft and breadth of vision to become an emancipatory counterhegemonic bloc.
How exactly can movements make use of this concept and why is it crucial for their success today?
Every movement, whatever its focus, should be class-sensitive in the expanded sense I just outlined. Feminism, for example, should become a “feminism of the 99%”, as opposed to the corporate feminism aimed at “cracking the glass ceiling”. Likewise, eco-politics should become trans-environmental, linked to other emancipatory claims and struggles — single-issue versions are really “environmentalisms of the rich.” Labour movements must incorporate both “#MeToo” claims for a workplace free of harassment and assault and the claims of sub-workers and care workers.
These are only two examples for what is needed in constructing a counter-hegemonic block. The climate-labour turn is another great example. Looking at two sectors from a mutually connecting perspective has helped to overcome this deeply mistaken idea of ecology being a single-issue movement or something that pertains only to those in relatively secure situations.
By connecting labour struggles with social reproduction, ecology, and democracy, we gain the chance to attract a broad popular base. A Left that implements this sort of strategy has the chance could give the other forces in play a real run for their money. It could go toe-to-toe with right-wing populists, on the one hand, and corporate liberals, on the other.
Many people have been mobilized by the idea that “another world is possible”. This appears somewhat diminished in the face of the urgency of the climate crisis.
Of course, the timeframe of the ecological crisis requires major forms of transformative action. Some might become passive and discouraged by the fact that there’s not much time, but we’re also seeing a real sense of urgency, and a lot of energy, trying to rise to the occasion.
I’m heartened by the amount of engagement and the rise of new generations of young activists. In some respect, this reminds me of the late 1960s when I became a radical left activist. Nowadays, as a professor, I’m encountering tremendous demand among students who want to learn about eco-Marxism and socialism — subjects that weren’t particularly popular in previous decades.
So you see reason to be optimistic about the future?
What I see is an enormous interest in making connections. We’re past the moment in which young radicals were focused on constituting a separate voice. People now feel that the urgency not to separate but to connect. The popularity of intersectionality, eco-Marxism, and social-reproduction feminism are symptoms of that desire for connection. I see a lot of creativity and energy among those who trying to develop new radical frameworks that can make these connections. It’s a good time to be an intellectual.
The interview was conducted by Nathalie Steinert.