The video of Ananya Roy’s speech can be viewed below.
We live in an era of stark social and economic inequality. Across the world, the hoarding of wealth by the rich and powerful rests on the exploitation and impoverishment of marginalized communities. Such inequality is visibly manifested in our cities. Here, in the City of Angels, as homes worth $500 million are built in the hills of Bel Air, not far from the Thomas Mann House and the University of California, Los Angeles, so thousands of unhoused men and women live and die on the streets. In the United States, as well as in many other parts of the world, such inequality is not just a disparity of income; it is an expression of the color-line.
“The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, “is the problem of the color line.” The statement accompanied an extraordinary set of infographics that he and his graduate students put together for an exhibition at the 1900 Exposition Universelle of Paris (Wilson, 2018). Puncturing the Orientalist displays that typically dominated these colonial fairs, Du Bois presented detailed statistics and displays of Black subordination in the United States and situated it a world-system of racial capitalism, specifically the routes of the African slave trade that constituted what Paul Gilroy (1993) was to call the Black Atlantic.
It is no stretch to argue that the problem of the 21st century is the enduring problem of the color line. We live in an era of resurgent right-wing nationalism. From India to Brazil, Europe to the United States, xenophobia is a structuring logic of state power and statecraft. The color line is evident in violent embodiments: Black killings by police, Muslim lynchings, human caging, and most of all at the militarized borders of desert and sea that are ghostly and ghastly deathscapes. These deadly places, crossings that have been deliberately turned into places of death, today guard Fortress Europe and the American homeland. The color line then is not just a map of segregation and exclusion; it is a site of death, a negation of personhood, or what Lisa Marie Cacho (2012) has called “racialized rightlessness.”
And yet today, as part of this important commemoration of Mann’s radio addresses, here at the Thomas Mann House in the Pacific Palisades hillsides of Los Angeles, I wish to make a case for radical democracy. In 1938, in a lecture tour across America, Mann spoke not only of fascism but also of “the coming victory of democracy.” Amidst dark times, Mann (1938: 78, 55) imagines the social renewal of democracy, arguing that “Europe and the world are ripe for the consideration of an inclusive reform of the regulation of natural resources, and the redistribution of wealth.” Writing at the same historical conjuncture, Du Bois (1935) was to similarly imagine the reconstruction of American democracy by charting the long struggle for abolitionism and foregrounding the enduring dreams of emancipated labor and redistributed property and income. These are, as Robin D.G. Kelley (2002) has noted, “freedom dreams.”
It is my contention that our present era is a renewal not only of extraction, exploitation, and exclusion, but also of freedom dreams. In the United States, as the Trump regime has nurtured and institutionalized white supremacy, so there is a robust national discussion about Black reparations. As Kelley (2002) argues in Freedom Dreams, the question of reparations is fundamentally about Black self-determination, including autonomous institutions and spaces. In the United States, as the neoliberal restructuring of higher education has led to skyrocketing student debt, $1.5 trillion of debt, so there is growing political interest in the cancellation of student debt and in a new set of commitments to college for all. In the United States, as the systematic unhousing of people continues to swell, so there is the call for a bold and ambitious public housing program, as part of the Green New Deal, as well as for the implementation of national rent control.
These are imaginations and practices of redistribution and decommodification. At stake is the resocialization of the key infrastructures of life-making: such as housing and education. This is vividly apparent in Europe today, where housing justice movements in cities from Barcelona to Berlin, are insisting on the expropriation and socialization of property owned by global banks and large real-estate conglomerates. Mann (1938: 20) was interested “to give the word democracy a broad meaning, a much broader one than the merely political sense of this word would suggest.” I call that broader meaning radical democracy, and key to radical democracy are processes of resocialization.
But my theorization of radical democracy also rests on two related points. First, the freedom dreams that animate today’s reconstruction of democracy are not advanced by elite institutions or state power. Instead, they emerge from grassroots organizing and poor people’s movements. They emerge from collective action forged in the shared condition of precarity. They emerge from sites of “organized abandonment,” a phrase I borrow from abolitionist scholar, Ruth Wilson Gilmore (2008) to draw attention to “forgotten places.” The demos of radical democracy is not the voting electorate or political parties or think tanks or foundations or even universities. The demos of radical democracy is made up of tenant unions, debt collectives, movements for Black futures, associations of day laborers and domestic workers, immigrant rights and asylum rights organizations, coalitions of the unhoused and landless, networks of Indigenous resistance. Democracy is not assured. Freedom is not a gift. Justice is not an inheritance. Radical democracy is demanded and created anew at each historical conjuncture, including this one.
Second, in The Coming Victory of Democracy, Mann (1938: 38) wrestled with the aristocratic nature of democracy. He argued: “In a democracy which does not respect the intellectual life, and is not guided by it, demagogy has free play.” For a long time, we have assumed that this intellectual life comes from our established and elite institutions. The radical democracy of which I dream, and which I see in the making all around me, is driven by rigorous intellectual visions and global theorizations. And these often come from forgotten places. Today, sophisticated understandings of property and rent, of debt and speculation, of assets and welfare, of income and profit, come from social movements. Today, rich frameworks of citizenship and belonging, of rights and refuge, come from hip-hop musicians, incarcerated artists, and border activists. Radical democracy thus requires not only a resocialization of the infrastructures of life-making but also a revalorization of subaltern and subordinated knowledges.
For much of modern history, liberal democracy has been the effort to keep racial capitalism alive by mildly remedying its worst predations. Radical democracy is inspired by this question from decolonial philosopher, Walter Mignolo (2010: 178): “Why would you want to save capitalism and not save human beings?”
Cacho, L.M. 2012. Social Death: Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.
Du Bois, W.E.B. 1935 (2007 edition). Black Reconstruction in America: An Essay Toward a History of the Part Which Black Folk Played in the Attempt to Reconstruct Democracy in America, 1860-1880. New York: Oxford University Press.
Gilmore, R. W. 2008. “Forgotten Places and the Seeds of Grassroots Planning” in C. Hale, ed. Engaging Contradictions: Theory, Politics, and Methods of Activist Scholarship. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Gilroy, P. 1993. The Black Atlantic: Modernity and Double Consciousness. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Kelley, R.D.G. 2002. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press.
Mann, T. 1938. The Coming Victory of Democracy. London: Secker and Warburg.
Mignolo, W. 2010. “Epistemic Disobedience, Independent Thought, and Decolonial Freedom” Theory, Culture & Society 26, 7-8, 159-181.
Wilson, M. 2018. “The Cartography of W.E.B. Du Bois’s Color Line” in W. Battle-Baptiste and B. Rusert, eds. W.E.B. Du Bois’s Data Portraits. New York: Princeton Architectural Press.