A conversation between Astra Taylor And Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor.
Two intellectual and movement leaders talk candidly about the growing mass rejection of capitalism—and the challenges of converting that into real socialist organization.
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor and Astra Taylor — no relation, except their friendship — are two of the Gen X socialist intellectuals and movement leaders bridging the “Boomer” activists, radicalized in the 1960s, with the millennials and zoomers politically educated in the internet age.
Keeanga, a professor at Northwestern University and New Yorker columnist, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in History and won a prestigious MacArthur “genius” award while also an unabashed socialist. (She was a committed member of the International Socialist Organization until just before its dissolution in 2019). Astra is a co-founder of the Debt Collective, a socialist debtors’ union whose decade-long organizing effort took student debt cancellation — one of the most audacious demands made upon capitalism — to the doorstep of the White House and the pen of President Joe Biden.
The two comrades held a freewheeling hour-long conversation about the complexities of organizing through the death throes of neoliberalism, a flailing Democratic establishment and a rising authoritarian Right. They shared their journeys to socialism, took on tough questions from reform and revolution to identity politics and electoral politics, and spoke candidly about organizing fatigue and their personal visions of human liberation under socialism. Astra imagines “the freedom to ask better, more interesting questions. … Not ‘Should 10 billionaires have the wealth of 50% of humanity?’ but ‘Hey, how do we make decisions together?’” For Keeanga, socialism opens the door to “really engage fully in what it means to be human.”
Astra: Growing up in Georgia, “socialism” was a word I never heard. Now there’s a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) chapter in my hometown, Athens.
Keeanga: Socialism has, I think, received a much wider hearing in the U.S. as an alternative form of governance and is taken much more seriously today than when I was in high school in the 1980s. There has been a dramatic decline in American exceptionalism. People look at their lives and they look around this country and very few think, “Wow, isn’t it great to be an American? You can drown in debt, you can be unable to pay your bills, you can get killed by the police — this is the greatest country on Earth!”
I joined the International Socialist Organization (ISO) in 1988. I was selling one of their newspapers in a grocery store parking lot at one point, and someone told me to go back to Russia. Which was an experience.
With the collapse of the Soviet Union, there are fewer ideological enemies for the U.S. to point to when looking to deflect from the abject failures of American capitalism.
Astra: I’m curious how you first came to socialism.
Keeanga: I describe myself being not a red-diaper baby, but a Black-diaper baby. My father was an organizer for the Black Workers Congress, which was a Black radical organization oriented around the Black working class in Detroit under the auspices of the League of Revolutionary Black Workers. That was a backdrop for my politics.
Another influence is much more specific. My high school in Dallas invited mayoral candidates to speak at a school-wide assembly, including someone from the Socialist Workers Party. Seven or eight of us agreed the person from the SWP had by far the most compelling political program. And so we became contacts of the SWP, and we hung out in their bookstore, Pathfinder — which, as luck would have it, was about three or four blocks from where I lived. The meetings were big and they were bilingual [Spanish and English], and it was really unlike any other kind of experience that I had. Within a matter of months, I joined the Young Socialist Alliance.
I later moved to Buffalo, N.Y., to live with my dad. When I was 16, Desmond Tutu came to Buffalo, and the International Socialist Organization was selling their paper out front. I got their newspaper, went to some meetings and eventually joined.
Astra: So you actually encountered socialism in high school, which is what we’re told is happening all over the country. I also love that the newspapers worked on you. Amazing recruitment.
My joke is that I’m a tie-dye diaper baby. So that means that I heard a lot about John Lennon, but not Lenin. It was a countercultural milieu and yet socialism was not a word you ever heard.
But my very libertarian, diehard Ayn Randian grandmother could tell from the time I was like, 8, that something was wrong with me, and she started giving me pro-capitalist comics and books. And the more I read, the more I was like, “Wow, this is some toxic logic here. It’s all about making money and big business and selfishness.”
Then I moved to New York when I was 19 and eventually realized there was this political orientation called socialism, I was like, “Oh, that fits my politics. This is the antithetical pole.”
That was around the year 2000. I didn’t actually join an organization until I joined DSA, 16 or 17 years later. Which is telling — to me, you can’t really be a socialist alone. To be honest, I had a bit of reluctance about being a joiner. I had to come to a politics of collaboration and disciplining yourself to be in an organization with other people.
Today’s equivalent of young me would probably find socialism a lot more easily than me in the ’90s, when I didn’t feel like there was any political community at all. I never encountered anyone handing out left-wing newspapers in Georgia, that’s for sure. But now there’s social media spreading these ideas.
Keeanga: Social media has been a factor, and then obviously the 2016 and 2020 campaigns of Bernie Sanders exponentially changed the general attitude around socialism. After 40 years of Reaganism preaching that government was horrible and bad and the root of all evil, the Sanders campaigns helped to popularize the idea that we could use the resources of this wealthy country to actually alleviate pain and suffering.
And then the pandemic happened, and people could see with their own two eyes that the government could actually create a floor through which it agreed people shouldn’t fall. And so today there’s much more sympathy for socialism, especially among young people who see their future disintegrating in front of their eyes and ask, “Is American capitalism, is the market, really the best that the human race can do?”
On The Pandemic
Keeanga: A kind of social cohesion was beginning to develop, ironically enough, amidst the Covid lockdown, when we were all forced to separate from each other. What it did was show the extreme extent to which we are connected. It showed how much humans actually need each other, how much we need to help each other.
Part of today’s right-wing backlash is not just about critical race theory, it’s not just about attacking gender and gender identity — it’s also this kind of madness of returning to a kind of abject individualism, that you actually shouldn’t care about your neighbor, of “fuck everyone.” And that is what American capitalism in particular has always thrived on, which is why this is such a venal, racist, really awful country. Those with access to power and wealth and authority go to such lengths to divide people from each other.
Astra: You mentioned Covid policies. There was this amazing expansion of the welfare state for a year or two, and now it’s basically been totally decimated. They didn’t roll it back because it was too expensive or because it didn’t have positive social effects — but rather because it worked. Child poverty went down to historic lows, it was reduced by 30%. That’s why it was stripped back; it was undone because it improved people’s lives and, briefly, made them less exploitable. Workers started having more leverage and being choosier about what jobs to take, the student loans payment pause allowed people to pay down other debts or save a bit of money or pay a family member’s rent, and so on. The expanded welfare state was more of a threat to the economy than Covid itself, in a sense.
But also, that expansion wasn’t really because of the strength of the Left. And so the Left wasn’t there to protect it. That’s the risk of skipping steps, skipping building the base and building power at the ground — you ultimately don’t have the power to hold onto gains.
Keeanga: I think that’s a really crucial point. So there’s this emergency Covid state that is implemented to save the economy, and then the protests in the summer of 2020 erupt. And Joe Biden essentially saves his candidacy by saying that he will make those measures permanent and “build back better.” But the political energy that was developed through those protests ultimately was siphoned into Biden’s campaign and eventual victory in November 2020 and the Georgia Senate races in December 2020 and January 2021. But it didn’t happen. There was not a single protest around Build Back Better and forcing the Democratic Party to honor its promises and honor that it was the protest of 2020 that swept Biden into office in the first place.
Astra: I think of the Child Tax Credit. Hypothetically, you could have done real organizing around that. You have money in families’ pockets. Even the president wants to make it permanent or extend it. And there was nary a peep from the public. And partly that lack of public support was because it was a policy that was the brainchild of nonprofits and NGOs, who saw the stimulus package as a kind of shortcut to get it on the agenda instead of building a movement to demand it. If such a movement existed, I’d be more optimistic about recent attempts by some Democrats to reintroduce it.
People felt, I guess, they’d been given a gift from on high, and then the gift was taken away. We need to make clear that public policies are not gifts. You’re entitled to support, and to benefit over the long term. You deserve this. But you have to fight for it.
Astra: I think we are in a moment of disappointment post-Bernie. I feel that from a lot of my leftist friends. The right wing is gaining steam. It feels like we’ve always been swimming upstream, but now even more so than we were a couple years ago. My solution is just to keep organizing and keep going, which might be kind of delusional but it’s how I am. The current political and cultural dynamics are pretty awful, but we have no choice but to keep plowing ahead.
Keeanga: On the one hand, socialism is getting a much wider hearing. On the other hand, socialist organizations are, I think, in complete crisis and collapse. We know that communists, socialists and other radicals played key roles in most social reform movements in U.S. history, but in the last 20 or 30 years, those kinds of organizations have had trouble reaching beyond the margins. Of course, I have also been involved as a socialist in important struggles to end the death penalty in Illinois, to fight police abuse and corruption in Chicago — but the ability to turn that into longer lasting commitment to the social project of social transformation was always much harder.
Obviously, the DSA hasn’t collapsed. But I often wonder what their particular strategy and orientation is. Chapters are very involved in organizing, but when you see the massive attacks from the Right — whether it’s on policing, Cop City, climate, abortion — it’s often hard to find the weight of the DSA, an organizational force with tens of thousands of members, in these political struggles. I think it would be an important role for DSA to demonstrate, in live action, the power of the politics, strategy and tactics of socialists. That could help the socialist movement grow.
So there remains a big gap between the kind of openness to the idea of socialism, and then the ability for the socialist Left to capitalize on that and to actually recruit into actual organization.
Astra: Absolutely we need to bridge that gap. I think the conversation about organizing is better than it’s been in my lifetime, but that’s an incredibly low bar. We are seeing a renewed attention to the labor movement, and experiments like the Debt Collective and the DSA exist at a scale they didn’t before.
There’s still a kind of post-Bernie challenge about hitching the fate of socialist politics just to elections. Elections can be moments of mass political education, and they can get ideas on the agenda, but they’re not actually how you build power in the long term. How do we use elections to build a base without getting totally sucked into the vortex? Because we don’t just need good people, or even good socialists, in office. That’s not enough to get things done. We need organized movements that can back them up by challenging the rule of capital, and that can also hold them accountable.
My own experience with the Debt Collective, a debtors’ union, is that it’s really tough work to build something from scratch. There’s the strategic part of it — questions about the opposition, where the levers of power are that you might reach, about short and long term goals —and there’s the emotional labor. You’re constantly having to push on people, whether it’s pushing them to engage with you and get involved or pushing our adversaries, which for an introvert like myself is super draining. And of course the opposition is pushing back. The history of the Left is one of organizations facing all sorts of external threats and being sabotaged in all sorts of ways — but we still have to somehow do the work of building these organizations. And it’s hard.
Keeanga: I don’t think there’s some new trick or new thing that has to be unveiled. If anything, what the new or different thing might be is that we have to rebuild a mass movement that is multiracial.
There are two things that have made me gravitate to that idea. One is the post-1960s growth and development of a Black political class and a Black elite, which I think has really led to a permanent fracture of the Black community in uniting in struggle against racism. The management of Black communities through Black apparatchiks raises questions about finding new allies in the struggle against austerity and against the politics of retrenchment and revanchism.
Conversely, the always-existing divergence of interests among white people has become even more stark. All these crazy numbers about the racial wealth gap are done on an aggregate basis, so we’re combining the wealth of Bill Gates and Jeff Bezos with the white auto worker to come up with these outrageous distinctions. Even when the white auto worker is still making more than the Black service worker, the median income for white families is $78,000, and for Black families it’s $48,000. That’s a substantial difference — but no one is talking about the billions and millions that are hoarded by white rulers. No one is talking about that racial wealth gap.
I think the Left is still stuck with a really old analysis of ordinary white people that essentially leaves them out of our movements by just condemning people as hopelessly privileged, as a kind of permanent forever-enemy.
Astra: We all know how fragile certain kinds of economic privilege are. It just takes one unexpected illness. I took my mom to the emergency room last week, and the woman comes by with a cart and says, “Before you can see a doctor, you can pay $1,000 cash now and get a 25% discount, or we can bill you later at the full sticker price.” In other words, they charge you an additional 25% for not having the money on hand.
A lot of people have something to gain from a different political economy, and it is absolutely imperative that we create movements that invite people in and find that common cause. I don’t think either of us think you have to erase differences, right? The trick is finding points of connection and overlap — like being able to walk outside without choking on smoke or passing out from the heat, for example. Or not worrying that getting cancer will bankrupt you if it doesn’t kill you first.
Of course people won’t just spontaneously come together around these issues — we need to organize people around their commonalities. But I really believe that we’re in a situation that isn’t good for the vast majority of people. It’s an anti-human system. I actually don’t think it’s good for the billionaires either — they seem totally miserable and weird and toxic. I think it’d be much better for them if we expropriated their wealth and said, “Sorry, you have to be more normal.”
I do think you have to be committed to that kind of solidarity of bridging differences and then really do the work of inviting people in based on those identities and categories, or specific problems they have. At the Debt Collective, we’ve been recruiting actively with older people — anyone over 50 who has student debt — partly to combat the stereotype that this is just a problem for young people. If you can’t pay it off when you’re young, things just get worse and worse as you get older. And just by naming that and calling people in, we now have these amazing assemblies with people well into their 80s coming out and finding, “Oh, this is a space for me. I’m welcome here, too.”
You can’t just expect people to join your universalistic movement — you have to name people’s experiences. This is the insight of identity politics, that you have to name people’s problems and then bring them into a coalition. You can’t just pretend experiential differences and structural inequities don’t exist. And I think socialism is key — an economic analysis is key — to actually having an umbrella worth being brought under.
Keeanga: Absolutely. I think we need more class polarization. Which is to say that identity politics has been weaponized so that people of any identity think they can invoke that to create their own coalition. So you have “all women unite” and any woman will do, whether it’s Hillary Clinton or a low-wage Walmart worker. “Trust Black women,” and it doesn’t matter if it’s Kamala Harris or the disproportionate number of Black women who are evicted from their rental homes.
I think we need more polarization that says, “Just because you suffer from some form of oppression does not give you entry into a working-class formation trying to create powerful, working-class people.” It’s not giving you an equal voice in this movement, unless you become—
Astra: —a full-on class traitor. Unless you recognize that the fights waged by people in lower income and wealth brackets really are your fights, too. Because ultimately we’re talking about planetary habitability.
Keeanga: When I think about where we are in this ongoing struggle — is it just a constant repetition of what we’ve done in the past? — I think there are new developments that require new strategies, new tactics. I think we need a mass movement built on the interests of working-class people. As you point out, that might include class traitors, but there must be a political commitment that this is a struggle on the interest of the working class, which we know is multiethnic, multigendered, multinational. That is the kind of movement that we have to build right now.
Astra: I think our critiques of political economy have to apply to our movements. If we want our organizations and movements to be small ‘d’ democratic, then it’s really important to pay attention to how they’re funded.
I mean, the Debt Collective gets grants. We need grants, I want more grants. Movements need resources. And it’s hard when you’re mobilizing people based on their lack of wealth to get them to pay for membership or to sustain a group financially. But I’m just 100% convinced that we will never reach the scale of power we want if we are completely dependent on foundation funding and the whims of wealthy donors. It just comes with too many terms and conditions and restrictions and fickleness. Democracy does have a price, it turns out.
Keeanga: I think that it is wildly accurate that foundation money has become unavoidable. To me, it makes the need for democracy within organizations and social movements even more important. How do we determine how those resources being utilized? Who is making the decisions instead of the formulation that exists now — an executive director, a professionalized core of organizers? The wider membership base is either used to demonstrate why a particular grant is needed or mobilized to show up for things, but they’re not intrinsically involved in the decision making. The flood of foundation dollars goes hand in hand with the crisis of democracy and accountability in our social movements. We can’t actually have the type of breakthrough that we’re describing without democratic input and participation of people who might constitute a mass movement.
Astra: That’s why I think DSA is so important. I will confess here to having totally fallen off on going to any meetings or paying my dues. But, in theory, a robust, self-directed social movement that is not dependent on philanthropy dollars is so essential. I have been in foundation circles listening in on their assessments of the progressive landscape and whatnot, and it’s always striking to me how DSA is never mentioned as a formation. They can’t even acknowledge that there could possibly be an organic institution that engages thousands of people and isn’t beholden to laundered money from the foundation world.
Which is part of why the labor movement is such an enormous threat and so relentlessly under attack. This idea that it’s actually funded by workers for workers is such a powerful and necessary idea. Otherwise what happens is that these professional, progressive nonprofit groups somehow become the movement. And that is something we need to relentlessly push against.
On Reform Vs. Revolution
Keeanga: Reform or revolution? I think it’s still a good question to ask.
Participating in reform movements is still essential, both to making life livable for people on a daily basis and to radicalizing people. It’s how people become revolutionaries. I’ve said many times: No one is born a revolutionary. Often when people radicalize to the Left, it is through a kind of constant disappointment with the inability or ineptness of the status quo, the existing system, its political representatives to deliver those things which do make life livable. The Great Depression really broke the common-sense notion that people were poor because there was something wrong with them. That laid the ground for the kind of mass radicalization of people to become workplace militants, Socialists, Communists.
The question for organizers, or people who are part of socialist organizations, or who see themselves as part of the Left, is to try to generalize beyond a particular struggle that people are in. To generalize to show that this is not just about abortion, or the price of rent, or the price of groceries or just about climate, but how all of these things are connected to a system of capitalism that is dependent on the exploitation of human beings, of animals, of the Earth itself. And that is incompatible with human life, or with life at all. Sometimes you need not just action, but people with a social theory of how the world actually functions, and an alternative.
Astra: I resist the reform versus revolution binary a little bit because, where’s the revolution button? If that was an option, then we could mash it.
I don’t think you can just remake human beings like you’re wiping a slate clean. People are shaped by history, we’re shaped by our traumas and our positive experiences. So when we’re fighting for something like student debt cancellation, how can we frame that as a pit stop to a radically democratic, reparative higher education? We don’t just want people to have some debt relief — we want to completely change the way education is conceived of and structured.
The same goes for medical debt or rent debt cancellation. How can those demands, and the solidarity we build to win them, help us get closer to universal healthcare and green social housing? Ultimately, we want a democratic socialist society. Those registers are not incompatible.
Reform can be a stepping stone. When we look at the Right, we can see it pretty clearly: 40-odd years of tiny reforms, nurturing those little baby judges, taking them to conferences, giving them fellowships, packing the courts — and then it ends up at a pretty revolutionary point that, guess what, this is going to be minority rule by the Supreme Court.
And those shifts — those reactionary, right-wing, ultimately revolutionary reforms — have made left-wing reforms, let alone left-wing revolution, much harder to achieve. Ultimately, we are facing a Supreme Court where any modest reform is going to be sabotaged. Social movements can’t give up in the face of that, but we also can’t rely on business as usual. We can’t just fight and pass legislation and then accept that six people are going to say, “No, sorry, you have to live on a planet that’s literally on fire.”
Keeanga: We need to reject the legitimacy of this monarchical institution.
Astra: Right, we need to challenge liberal complacency and romanticism about the judicial branch — as though the Supreme Court doesn’t have a long history of being a major obstacle to democratic progress. That’s why outside power is so important.
Keeanga: There are particular reforms — and then there’s “reformism” as an approach that only sees politics within the confines of the existing political system. The contemporary example would be a steadfast belief in electoralism as the only way to conceive of political change.
I think that idea of reformism is rapidly becoming nonviable for most people. In some ways, Barack Obama’s campaigns were the dying gasp of electoralism. Obviously it hasn’t completely died out, but a lot of young people, disaffected people, believed the Obama campaign when it said it came from the people and would do the people’s will. And it just didn’t. It was so quick, the way that it just didn’t. If Barack Obama — with this narrative that he was an organizer and he was from the outside and different — can’t deliver change, then why on earth would we believe it from Joe Biden, a dinosaur of the political establishment? Or Hillary Clinton, a dinosaur of the political establishment? Or any other crook the Democratic Party offers up?
I think the failures of that campaign are why Occupy Wall Street was so explosive, why Black Lives Matter was so explosive, why #MeToo erupted. These were all a kind of acknowledgment that we’re actually not going to vote our way out of this. I think the 2020 uprising in some ways reflected that.
But without a real organized alternative, it can turn into apathy and passivity. And you just get people kind of dropping out of elections, right? That has been a thing in Philadelphia with Black participation, which peaked with Obama. It can also radicalize people to the Right.
On The Power Of The Right
Keeanga: The way that the Republican Party moves further and further and further to the right begins to feel existential in a way that leads to shortcuts and to short-term solutions — like getting Democrats into office to avoid the pain of Republican rule. That’s part of the calculus that has to be figured out.
The Right thinks it has discovered a winning formula of trans genocide and attacking history and anything that talks about racism as systemic.
Astra: And even when they’re in the minority role, those Republican antics give Democrats cover to be like, “Well, hey, at least we’re not them. And if you criticize us, you are only helping their cause.” That’s very palpable to me right now when the Supreme Court might decide its case on Joe Biden’s student debt relief plan any day. [Editor’s note: Soon after this conversation, the Court struck down the president’s issuance of partial debt relief to more than 40 million borrowers. At press time, the administration was pursuing a sluggish rulemaking process.] The Debt Collective’s message, loud and clear, is that student debt cancellation was never in the Supreme Court’s hands — the president has multiple legal authorities and options to deliver on his promise. And you can just feel the Democrats bristling at that. They’re like, “How can you say that he still has power here? That makes him look bad — and look at these monsters on the other side.”
But the problem is that if you just go with the corporate Democrat approach, you ultimately end up feeding those very monsters that they say they’re against. They don’t want us to be honest about the power they possess, and that could be used right this minute to dramatically improve people’s lives.
Keeanga: The Right offers explanations for what is happening. Trump offers a coalition of the Muslims, the Mexicans and the Blacks as the explanation for what’s wrong, and you get some uptick of support for reactionaries like Trump. He got — not huge support — but what I think is not an insignificant boost of support from Black voters, mostly Black men, but also Black women. And so it means that there’s some urgency to the Left being able to offer people something, not just, “Fight, fight oppose.” Often what is being offered is condemnation and relentless criticism — not really a positive kind of view of a different kind of world.
Astra: The Right is offering people a really, really bleak set of solutions — essentially, step on the more vulnerable so that you get to keep tottering on your little ledge. One reason we need a robust Left is because, when there isn’t a Left actually naming the real problems people face, the Right picks them up in this faux-populist way.
My first social movement was the global justice movement protests against the International Monetary Fund circa 2000, and then there were the Occupy protests in 2011. In both cases, the Democrats didn’t want to hear what was being said by people in the streets. And then the Right twists the message around in a destructive way, with Trump railing against NAFTA and Tucker Carlson pretending to stand up for workers and Marco Rubio bashing neoliberalism and economic elites, as he does in his new book. It’s a through-the-looking-glass version of the Left. What the Left does, in its best moments, is speak to people’s grievances and then offer them something positive: You can actually have a better world, not just one where you’re better off than someone who’s worse off.
On Human Liberation
Astra: At your most optimistic, what does human liberation under socialism look like?
Keeanga: Freedom for capitalists is the freedom to buy, the freedom to sell, the freedom to starve. Socialism means living in a society that is not organized around exploitation. It means really having the ability to self-determine one’s life, to make decisions free from economic coercion, to really engage fully in what it means to be human — which is not to work desperately for one’s entire life only to die alone or broke or in debt, which is the reality for the vast majority of people in our society.
Astra: I think you just beautifully debunked the idea that capitalism is about freedom at all. It’s the freedom to exploit or be exploited — to live at the expense of others and the planet — or to be houseless and indebted and without medical care. We need to refuse to accept that as a remotely reasonable definition of freedom.
But I’m inclined to think freedom is always a concept that has tensions. If capitalism is a society where capital rules, then socialism is a world where the social or society rules. And that society is far from self-evident. It is something we have to make, and it is something that can change. We’re not just free as individuals; we are in relationship to each other. We find our freedom to live, to be secure, to breathe clean air, to be nourished, to have a complex society where people have to do all sorts of different things, by also having obligations and living within limits, and living with respect. And that’s a good thing. I see us as fundamentally indebted to our ancestors and to the planet and as having not only rights, but duties or obligations.
My vision of socialism is always that it’s a world where we’d have the freedom to ask better, more interesting questions, or where we could be preoccupied with better questions than whether 10 billionaires should have the wealth of 50% of humanity. Questions like, how do we make decisions together? Who is in this community? Who’s outside? How do we live within limits? Can we invent some stuff that actually serves human purposes instead of extractive ones? I imagine a world where a lot of things are unsettled and open to debate, but we’re not having to deal with inane, hateful, transphobic, ableist, racist, destructive questions every day. It’s a world where we get to have better problems, more interesting ones.
Keeanga: To me, socialism has never died — the idea of democratic decision-making about the way a society distributes and shares its wealth and resources — because that resonates most with what it means to be human. Humans are social beings who enjoy each other’s company, who like to co-create, to live among one another. Capitalism is the antithesis of all that.