We’re being crushed by inequality. Where’s the revolution?

Books| by Gregory Beatty

Why Don’t The Poor Rise Up?
Edited by Michael Truscello & Ajamu Nangwaya
AK Press

Why Don’t the Poor Rise Up? is the title of a new anthology co-edited by Mount Royal University associate English professor Michael Truscello and Toronto-based post-secondary educator Ajamu Nangwaya.

Featuring essays by over 20 international contributors, and an introduction by Affiong L. Affiong, executive director of Moyo Pan Afrikan Solidarity Centre in Ghana, the book covers provocative ground.

Looking for an excuse to get out of Regina? On Oct. 13, Truscello will speak in Saskatoon at the University of Saskatchewan. I reached him before then at his Calgary home.

The book shares its title with a 2015 New York Times op-ed by American academic and journalist Thomas Edsall. Was that the impetus for the project?

It provided impetus, although the question of why don’t the poor rise up is always part of revolutionary thinking. But the op-ed was recognition that even capitalist media like The New York Times and The Economist are perplexed there isn’t more opposition to the system given the record levels of inequality, runaway climate change, and other [oppressive] facets of the current order. That suggested there was a new level of awareness, and the moment was ripe for popular revolt.

A certain amount of naiveté attaches to the question, doesn’t it, considering the range of financial, legal, social and police/military tools dominant society has to enforce order?

The title is not a condemnation of the poor. Instead, we’re asking contributors from around the world what they think are the primary obstacles to popular revolt. We also wanted to point to ways the poor are overcoming some of those obstacles.

One topic that’s come up in our office is poor white voters voting against their interests by supporting conservative parties that always implement policies favouring corporate and upper income interests. One factor your contributors point to is race.

One of the ways white supremacy functions is that it gives general privileges to white members of the working class. This often derails their potential support for anti-capitalist politics. Three or four essays discuss how white supremacy divides the working class and often directs people to vote against their interests.

We saw an example of that last November with Trump’s election?

I think all our contributors would say Trump isn’t the issue. The system that produces Trump is the issue. The problem is in structural forms of oppression, not one particularly monstrous individual. As one contributor points out, historically, the poor sometimes will support fascism to pursue what they perceive as satisfying their material needs.

Ultimately, the ability of people to act in their best interests is a question of agency, isn’t it?

Absolutely, and I don’t think people in the so-called middle class appreciate the barriers produced by poverty. The higher mortality rates, incidence of mental health issues, the challenges of finding shelter and healthy food, mobility. There are many ways that our society is structurally designed to inhibit the poor and provide more opportunity for the rich.

What were some of the successful tactics your contributors identified for developing agency?

Organizational capacity is exceedingly important, so there’s a need to move beyond mobilizing people for the occasional demonstration. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we need long-term organizational capacity or we won’t be able to counter a system of oppression of this scale.

One thing that struck me was the value of grassroots economic activity.

We do foreground the practical advantages of economic cooperatives. One chapter on San Cristóbal de las Casas, Mexico, for instance, discusses an economy that is moneyless. It doesn’t ignore the centrality of exchange in our lives, but through the use of local resources it tries to create a new definition of value that isn’t based on capitalist economics.

Is one challenge to cooperation the isolating nature of modern life some contributors mention?

Capitalism both produces alienation and profits from that alienation, and one contributor does talk about restoring sociability and finding ways to create a new public commons that was lost in the neoliberal era where everyone is encouraged to operate as entrepreneurial automatons. You don’t concern yourself with other people or the public at large, you simply work on self-improvement, whether it’s through educational credentials, job experience or whatever.

The restoration of sociability is going to be an enormous challenge, but we’ve already seen early attempts such as Occupy Wall Street, the Arab Spring, and the “square occupations” of the last decade. You could look at them as failed experiments, but they’re important because they’re large numbers of people trying to overcome capitalist alienation.

When I think of what was going on with religion in the 1960s with liberation theology, that offered sociability. Now we have the Christian Right, with its prosperity gospel that aligns with capitalist values.

We have two chapters on religion. One contributor talks about the transformation of black churches from places where liberation was discussed and preached to places of apology and forgiveness. A second talks about the spiritual exploitation of the poor, and how Christianity really defends the existence of poverty — that the poor will always be with us.

It also placates the poor by holding out the promise of heaven?

The basic pitch of organized religion is ‘don’t worry about the horrific conditions of this life, your reward will come in the next life’. That’s been noted by leftists going back to at least Marx; that religion dissuades people from fighting for their material necessities.

Do you think globalization has given capital even more power through international trade agreements and the emergence of transnational corporations?

Corporate globalization is an extension of colonialism in past centuries. Many of the same structures that existed then continue to define the way our world is organized today. That it devalues human lives and the environment is beyond contest.

Might the current climate crisis be the tipping point? We can maybe finesse social inequality, but when we’re dealing with massive degradation of the environment we all depend on, could it be a rallying point?

While it’s possible ecological collapse could become a common cause for people, we’re also seeing how that’s fuelling forms of nostalgia and other reactionary politics. So as obvious at it might seem to some of us, you have to continue to articulate why dramatic social transformation is necessary.

Do you see the ballot box as a viable way for the poor to achieve some advances through greater organization and voter turnout?

There will be different opinions among our contributors. Some might say there is limited potential for minor reforms through elections. But I think most revolutionaries would say you can’t vote away the dictatorship of capital.

The basic fantasy of our politics is that we are a middle class society, and not fundamentally dependent on maintaining an underclass of impoverished people. That’s the central message of the book — that capitalism can’t solve poverty because capitalism creates poverty.

People these days live increasingly with precarious, part-time employment. That gives owners leverage over workers. They fear falling even further behind, so they accept pretty well any conditions of employment. Capitalism creates a tremendous amount of anxiety and depression, and it feeds on that. The best thing for people to do is not to internalize that but use it to organize and fight back. ❧

 This interview has been lightly edited.