Above Photo: Zoran Svilar.
Amidst capitalist crises, social movements are telling new stories about what it means to be human, revealing our collective power to refuse and create.
The global pandemic unfolds amidst a world of uprisings. Some have seen huge numbers gather in the streets and become ungovernable, including the victorious farmer’s strike in India, the efforts to expropriate the landlords in Berlin, the mass refusal of anti-Black police violence in the US, and the mobilizations against the neoliberal regime in Chile.
Elsewhere, in Chiapas, Kerala, Rojava and an archipelago of smaller “zones to defend,” the uprisings take more sustained forms as people reinvent or reclaim life in common. Indigenous people around the world are refusing to allow their lands and lives to be sacrificed on the altar of extractive capitalism. The great global struggle against capitalism’s climate apocalypse is escalating.
Other uprisings are occurring on the level of everyday life. A whole generation is rising up against the authoritarian regimes of the gender binary that were forged in the crucible of capitalist and colonial patriarchy. Others are refusing to be labeled as pathologically “mentally ill” for their vulnerability and interdependence. They, along with queer, feminist and decolonial struggles are seeking to reinvent the fabric of sociality, mutual aid and care and in so doing helping us envision the futures we are called to create.
What connects these struggles in this moment, when the fate of the world hangs in the balance? Perhaps they are not only struggles against domination but struggles to tell new collective stories about who we are as human beings in an interdependent world. I am seeking a common undercurrent in all these struggles. In spite of their differences and disagreements, together they are opening a space for imagining who “we” are and who “we” might yet become, beyond colonialism and capitalism’s prized subject, homo oeconomicus, and the ruined world made in his image. They are not only telling these stories in theory or culture but also through their very actions which show us not only that another world is possible but that it has always been here, among us and between us, striving for freedom.
We are fighting back, but we are not yet winning. We now have no choice but to win, though we don’t yet know what victory will mean. But what seems increasingly clear is that people everywhere are reinventing the world in a million different ways. In the shadow of a global system of capitalism that seeks to turn all forms of human cooperation and care into commodities, we are developing new ways of relating to one another, new ways of imagining and practicing the collective power-to-become, new ways of governing ourselves, new ways of organizing an economy to sustain us in relation to the complex earth of which we are a part. In telling a story of our collective refusal and reinvention through our actions, we are making a new world real within the ruins of the old.
Against Homo Oeconomicus
In an age when our technologies are capable of changing and destroying the ecosphere on which we depend, humanity stands at a historic crossroads. And yet in this dangerous moment, even our conception of what we are and what we are capable of has been shaped by the very system of global racial capitalism that brought us to this dire moment.
Jamaican writer Sylvia Wynter argues that we appear to be the only species who transform ourselves through stories. A cooperative species, the stories we tell about who and what is desirable fundamentally shape social organization, economic provisioning and the way we cooperate with one another and with the more-than-human (“natural”) world. Sometimes these stories are explicit, including shared myths, narratives and cultural media. Sometimes they are implicit, embodied in unspoken ideologies, cloaked in scientific arguments or encoded in religion. Through transformative storytelling humans create a dazzling multitude of forms of life. These stories make sense under and help to reproduce overarching cosmologies which often go unquestioned, but that define what it means to be human, what it means to grapple with our unique entanglements with one another and the world. In this sense, the collective stories we tell are crucial to how we come to recognize our cooperative potential. But they can also facilitate monumental cruelty and violence, especially when certain people are, through those stories, cast as subhuman, or when the dominant myth of the human is shaped by logics of domination.
Today’s global regime of neocolonial racial capitalism is held in place by just such a cosmology, a self-perpetuating set of stories about what it means to be human. As Wynter argues, this cosmology has been under development since before the invasion of the Americas in 1492 by European male elites and is today built around the figure of the able-bodied, wealthy, self-interested and competitive white man: homo oeconomicus. Retroactively, this mythical figure is presented as the natural and true expression of human nature: the survival of the fittest, the war of all against all. With roots in the world-defining event of the transatlantic slave trade, and with anti-Blackness as its fundamental platform, the mythos of homo oeconomicus fundamentally disavows and denigrates other ways of being human, other ways of organizing social and political and economic life, in order to present its own reign as natural, justified and inevitable. Forged in five centuries of the subhumanization of non-Europeans, as well as the subjugation of women and the exploitation of the earth, the story of homo oeconomicus has unleashed a form of global capitalism that threatens to annihilate even the very species, humanity, that narrates it.
In spite of their differences and disagreements, together movements are opening a space for imagining who “we” are and who “we” might yet become.
As Peter Fleming argues, in line with Wynter, to the extent we tell ourselves a story of society in which homo oeconomicus is the main character, we come to co-create that society. And that society is destroying the world as we, each in isolation, are compelled to seek to compete to protect ourselves from the destructive power of that system which we are co-creating. It is a colonial, capitalist society oriented around homo oeconomicus that has created the climate crisis. Today, the idealization of that figure encourages two catastrophic courses of action: On the one hand, business elites and neoliberals argue that the only way to address climate change is to incentivize homo oeconomicus to solve the problem through carbon taxes, cap-and-trade schemes and subsidies. On the other, the reactionaries and eco-fascists insist on a dark “realism” of diminishing resources which justifies homo oeconomici banding together into increasingly paranoid and violent ethnostates.
This set of stories, with homo oeconomicus as its main character, fundamentally undermines the kinds of global solidarity we need to deal with our global dilemmas. It also dictates that those who cannot or will not embrace the truth of homo oeconomicus have only themselves to blame for their cruel fate: Indigenous people who have other cosmologies, racialized people who were never intended to participate in capitalism as anything more than slaves or workers, women and trans people who refuse to abide by the patriarchal logic of competition and indifference, those who are not considered “able” within capitalism’s logic of work-and-compete. All these and more are presented as failed and doomed.
The great lie of global colonial capitalism in its current neoliberal manifestation is that we can all be or become homo oeconomicus or, indeed, that we have always been him the whole time, underneath, and that those who will survive and be celebrated are those who embrace this reality. But in reality only a handful can or will succeed in emulating his figure and helping reproduce his world and reap the rewards. Beyond that, the reality is that this figure has almost nothing to do with how we actually live our lives, which are in fact sustained and made meaningful by relationships of reciprocity, care, dependence, non-competitive exchange and what Richard Gilman-Opalsky calls the “communism of love.” Other cosmologies have existed and continue to exist, other ways of approaching the riddle of what we are and of our powers to cooperate and shape our world.
The task before us is not only to act in resistance to the world made by and for homo oeconomicus but to, in such collective action, prove to ourselves we can tell a radically different story about who we are and, in so doing, make that story real.
The Struggle For Humanities, Plural
My suggestion here is that many of the movements we have seen over the past decade, in spite of their vast diversity and abundant disagreements, share at some level an implicit or explicit rejection of the grim paradigm of homo oeconomicus. They each, in their own way, either propose or experiment with other, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist ways of being human. Though none of these movements is perfect and free of contradictions, each is based on and helps tell a different story about who and what matters, of what is of value in the world and of what it means to be part of a species with the unique power to drastically shape its world.
For instance, in Chile and Argentina, feminism has been at the forefront of rebellions against neoliberalism in ways that prioritize not only reproductive justice, but also the importance of the work of social reproduction, whose devaluation has always been at the core of capitalism’s paradigm. In place of a colonial capitalist worldview, in which competition and extraction are key, these movements promote a logic of care, reciprocity and ecological entanglement. From Beirut to Belarus to Brazil, young people are rising up to reject the regimes that adjudicate who should live and who should die or be left to suffer. Across Europe and around the world, youth echo an increasingly desperate scream that their futures not be cancelled by corporate climate terrorism, demanding that those who claim to represent “the people” move beyond their obedience to some ghoulish belief that markets must come first. Others are taking matters of climate into their own hands through actions that range from forming new ecological communities and commoning initiatives to militant forms of sabotage.
Around the world, new waves of unionization and worker militancy (including of the tech and gig workers) are challenging the neoliberal ideal of the flexible worker who competes tooth and nail against their colleagues for the right to survive. To this we can add the wave of efforts to revivify community gardens, neighborhood economies, transition towns and radical degrowth practices that envision growing an insurgent economy within the ruins of capitalism.
The movement for Black Lives, while its present iteration originated in the United States, has inspired worldwide protests led by members of the expansive African diaspora, who have always been placed at the lowest rung of the ladder of humanity that has a white, European homo oeconomicus enthroning itself at the top. Manifestations insisting that Black lives indeed matter have transformed the political stage in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and beyond. Inspired by the resistance of South African students in the past decade, this movement has also encouraged a vast wave of struggles to remove or tear down the statues of homo oeconomicus’s ancestors: the colonial and capitalist warlords of history who today, from their plinths, enforce obedience to white supremacy. Beyond merely being symbolic, these movements aim to unseat homo oeconomicus from his throne and avenge the subhumanization of generation upon generation of enslaved people, women, trans and nonbinary people, disabled people and workers.
To this we must add the incredible imaginative and political power gathered around demands for the abolition of prisons and police, often stemming from the protagonism of incarcerated people themselves. Here, in the face of relentless subhumanization and scapegoating which justify a regime of carceral vengeance, the insistence on the humanity of those who are incarcerated fundamentally undermines the presumptions of homo oeconomicus.
Likewise, Indigenous uprisings around the world, notably in Canada, Brazil, India and the United States, represent the resurgence of forms of being human that have survived the wars of annihilation waged against them by colonial capitalism and now emerge on the world stage to lead the turning of the tide. The steadfast determination of the Palestinian people continues to resonate around the world, with the understanding that whatever techniques of dehumanization we allow to be enacted against the Palestinians may be enacted against any of us, sooner or later. In Rojava, Chiapas and a multitude of smaller enclaves like the zad or an archipelago of squatted houses and social centers, militants have reclaimed their place on the earth, with the earth, as part of the earth as a space to remember and reinvent what it might mean to be human.
Movements, in their own way, either propose or experiment with other, anti-colonial and anti-capitalist ways of being human.
Yet today’s struggles are not only visible in the streets and on the barricades, as important as these theatres may be. They also occur on the level of everyday life.
Without diminishing the vital support many receive from psychopharmaceuticals, care activists are insisting that a generation’s depression and anxiety are not personal faults but public, shared problems, including being trapped in an omnicidal system. Dismissed by their elders as a spoiled generation, young people today are learning from decades of disability activists how to build communities of care and mutual aid in the face of a completely justified “epidemic” of what the biomedical system classifies as “mental illness.” To be human, in this view, is to be vulnerable and dependent on one another, a far cry from the wretched, alienated, competitive version of the human promoted by colonial capitalism. These movements, too, learn from the history of queer and trans struggles which continue to this day and whose refusal to succumb quietly to AIDS has shown us how viruses (including SARS-Cov2) are always already political.
Such movements have been inspired by a long legacy of feminist organizing where the personal has always been political, a recognition emblematized by a new wave of struggles over reproductive freedom that make the links explicitly to the way patriarchy and racial capitalism have always worked hand-in-hand. At stake is the recognition that, in a world that insists on making us choose between individualism or dehumanization, one must become many to reinvent new forms of kinship, solidarity, collective power, love, thriving and joy.
The deceptively simple, profoundly honest slogan that “no one is illegal” strikes at the very rotten heart of colonial capitalism’s Malthusian premise and defies the power of the border to determine who will live and who will die based on imaginary distinctions made violently real through five centuries years of racist imperialism. Like calls for both a global basic guaranteed income or basic guaranteed services, it takes as its premise not the myth of ruthless scarcity but the promise of global abundance, a promise so far denied by a horrifyingly racist global division of wealth, the residue of five centuries of colonial pillage.
The past ten years has also seen struggles that do not so neatly fit into such a vision, or that are animated by contradictory tendencies. The uprisings in the Arab world, the global Occupy Movement, the Movement of the Squares in Spain and Greece, the Gezi Park reclamation in Turkey, the Hong Kong demonstrations and other struggles that staged takeovers of public space necessarily opened themselves up to a wide variety of ideological positions. However, within these, the radical left played a central role in opening up new spaces for grassroots, participatory democracy and built infrastructures of collective care and mutual aid. These fundamentally moved these struggles outside of the conventional bounds of liberal representative democracy and transformed them into experimental zones for new forms of human cooperation and autogestion.
Even the electoral turn, including the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns in the North Atlantic, the municipalist turn towards institutions in some parts of Southern Europe and beyond has been marked by a refusal of the idea that the state is destined to be little more than the enforcer of neoliberalism or the vehicle for a murderous nationalism. Here, they have learned from and built on the optimism of the Pink Tide in the first decade of the 21st century and that today animate hopes of its revival in Latin America. In an attempt to ride (some might say capture) the momentum of grassroots movements, new left party formations are being forced to move beyond a vision of a better managed capitalism and contend with the need to remake politics at the level of everyday life. And yet in the wake of their electoral and political defeats, movements once again are faced with the question of how the desires and dreams expressed in the streets can find the power to change the world.
Beyond A System Of Revenge
Though focused on the struggles of the Black diaspora and the particular forms of oppression that emerge from the legacies of slavery on which global capitalism was built, Wynter’s writing invites a much wider cross section of humanity to liberate itself from a neoliberal orthodoxy and cosmology. This cosmology even constrains some of the most radical movements of our day. Though they might reject neoliberalism or even capitalism, many remain concerned with proposing the better management of scarce resources and of populations.
Today, we are adrift in cynical public relations gambits that seek to appropriate the language and spirit of struggles to sell us on “green consumerism” or fool us into thinking that new technology like blockchains or cryptocurrencies will, in and of themselves, lead to human liberation. At the same time, stories of movement struggle, when told through the individualizing and manichean lens of capitalist entertainment industries, are transmuted into liberalist fantasies that justify the status quo.
In the face of this, we need, more than ever, powerful and inspiring stories of collective struggle and transformation. More broadly, we need forms of writing, theory and storytelling that reveal to us what it means to take action for the world of which we are a part, not as isolated individuals but as common movements. But even beyond new modes of verbal, written or artistic storytelling, we also need to tell ourselves such stories in the streets, in our actions, in the comedy and tragedy of material struggle.
We need, more than ever, powerful and inspiring stories of collective struggle and transformation.
The task before us is monumental and unprecedented. We must, on the one hand, follow the Zapatistas in striving for “a world in which many worlds fit.” At the same time, somehow, we need to take responsibility for ourselves as a global species with profound and terrible powers to transform itself and the world.
The ideological architects of neoliberalism told us the story that their system of free market globalization was the only one that could truly and safely express and contain the aspirations of our global species. Only if we all submitted to the peaceful rule of the market would we be safe from ourselves: the great ideological, religious and ethnic struggles would fade away as an inherently greedy species took their competitive drives to the fair capitalist arena. Revenge, xenophobia, ignorance and scarcity would be conquered. It was an appealing dream, not only because it promised us a kind of peace that would literally be the “end of history” but because it would be so easy: rather than some kind of global awakening and transformation, all we had to do was sit back, relax and act “normally” as homo oeconomicus.
And yet now, almost half a century into the neoliberal revolution, much of our world is in ruins, or perhaps more accurately the ruination of the planet, which began with the capture of slaves and invasion of the “new world,” now is reaching its terrifying endgame. Though it promised the final conquest of revenge as a human political drama, global colonial capitalism has become a system of revenge. Not only has it fostered the growth of far-right revenge politics, it also, without anyone intending or orchestrating it, is taking a strange revenge on our species, notably through climate chaos but also the mass murder of migrants, the mass incarceration of racialized people, and the universal terror of socioeconomic abandonment that haunts us all.
We are now faced with the grim reality that, even if we were to somehow, magically, summon a global revolution that could fulfill our dreams, we would inherit a damaged world. Climate tipping points have been triggered. Generations have been traumatized. In their desperation to protect their property and privilege, the ruling class has bred the hellhounds of reactionary hatred and resentment and given them a taste for flesh. The world and our bodies are laced with toxins. We have, each and every one of us, become habituated to a form of capitalist survival that, in small or large ways, seeks to turn us into agents of the system’s reproduction. These wounds will take generations of intentional effort to heal.
And yet in spite of this we persist in struggle, we thrive in solidarity and we are reconnecting with our birthright: mutual aid and interdependent collective becoming. The question before us is how we can tell a new, different story about who “we” are, “we” the many, the many “we’s”. How can we tell a story through our actions that helps us remember and rekindle our powers of refusal and co-creation in ways that make the world larger, not more confined, that entitle us to claim the wealth we cooperatively produce rather than seek the scraps leftover from a system of death? This storytelling is occurring all around us and will not only be found in visionary works of theory or literature, though these are indeed vital. They are, most importantly, stories told in the doing of daily life and that speak from the character of our struggles. We can tell another story of what it means to be human, or many stories, and make those stories real.