Vijay Prashad’s discussions with Frank Barat in Struggle Makes Us Human give insights into a host of problems and possibilities facing the left, finds Jamal Elaheebocus
The covid pandemic has exposed the brutality of the capitalist system globally and its fundamental inability to protect the lives and livelihoods of the majority of people. Governments across the world, from the Johnson government here in Britain to Bolsonaro in Brazil and Modi in India, catastrophically failed to implement effective measures quick enough, causing thousands of unnecessary deaths, and used the crisis to increase the wealth of the richest in society.
Vijay Prashad’s latest book, Struggle Makes Us Human, is an accessible and informative discussion of the multiple crises facing this capitalist system today and the potential for building the movement for socialism. Talking to Frank Barat (who edited the book) in the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, Prashad discusses a wide range of issues from debt cancellation and imperialism to the Covid pandemic and the crisis of democracy.
The book sets out key issues which require our focus as socialists and clearly explains the crises which face capitalism at the moment. While portraying the immense harm capitalism has caused to people across the planet, Prashad also manages to articulate an optimistic view of the future and the potential for change through the mass movements of the left.
Prashad begins by addresses the worrying failures of liberal democracy across the planet. He talks about the way in which the democratic system in capitalist states in reality is little more than the ability to vote, given the fact that the mainstream media and the billionaire class have significant influence over messaging during election campaigns, as seen during the Corbyn and Sanders campaigns.
Prashad argues that one solution to this is more deliberative democracy, whereby communities discuss solutions to problems rather than relying on largely unaccountable elected representatives. He uses the example of Cuba as an example of this deliberative democracy: ‘Take Cuba, for instance, where there are neighbourhood committees that draw people in to deliberate about how to run things … These are experiments to decentralise sovereignty and power’ (p.9). It could well be objected that Cuba is otherwise an authoritarian state, but if it allows for some participatory democracy at a local level, that at least begs the question why it hasn’t been tried in this country.
Prashad also rightly emphasises the importance of mass movements, which historically have made the largest advancements towards equality, peace and justice compared to liberal democracy and elections. It took mass movements to gain the vote for all, but making the vote meaningful requires the continued intervention of mass mobilisations.
The dangers of atomisation
One key issue which reoccurs throughout the discussion is the way in which capitalism is destroying our ability to interact with others. Prashad puts this down to two phenomena in particular: the rise of ‘platform capitalism’ and the fetishization of commodities.
Prashad describes how the pandemic has further accelerated the dominance of online platforms, such as Amazon, for people to shop at. This leads to a detachment whereby everything can be ordered straight to our homes, reducing our interactions with others in shops. Prashad writes:
‘the mall in itself as a social institution in many countries will start to vanish. Human interaction in these basic ways will slowly start to vanish, as people interact with their computers to buy from computers which are then managed at many removes from a human being’ (p.15).
This has also drastically increased the intensity of work. Whereas shop workers on the high street wait for customers and have time to chat to co-workers, many now have to work online where they take orders non-stop for the majority of the day.
Part Two addresses more global issues, with Prashad explaining how imperialism continues to wreak havoc and decimate poorer communities. Prashad argues that one of the key demands for socialists should be the scrapping of debt owed by Third World countries, which now totals around $14 trillion.
Prashad demonstrates how this debt holds back Third World countries, preventing them from investing in healthcare, education and housing. He argues: ‘Developing countries cannot breathe because they have $11 trillion of debt sitting like a huge brick on their head’ (p.117). Alongside this, the stranglehold of the US treasury and the IMF has significantly hampered the development of these countries, which are forced into adopting austerity measures to pay back debt.
Prashad also talks eloquently about the way that US imperialism has decimated cultures globally. The ‘Americanisation’ of societies, through multinationals like McDonald’s and Burger King, has led to the sovereignty of other countries being undermined and their cultures side-lined.
Later in the book, Prashad offers clear and concrete ways the left can improve the communication of our ideas and convince more people that socialism offers the solutions to the problems facing people globally. One crucial point which Prashad makes repeatedly is making our ideas relevant and relatable to people today. Prashad argues that we need to explain to people the ‘actual, practical aspects of engineering social life to solve people’s problems’ (p.141).
This is particularly relevant to the Covid pandemic, where the argument for public health has never been stronger. Prashad makes the case, for example, for public-health offices in every community, which contain doctors, nurses and therapists and which are freely available to everyone in the community.
It is ideas like these which have the ability to transform people’s lives, particularly the most oppressed, and these ideas must be communicated in order to show the potential for a socialist society to raise the quality of life of all. However, as Prashad argues, people do not need perfect ideas ‘injected’ into them to become radical; they learn through collective struggle.
Prashad also makes this important argument: ‘We don’t want a left that is angry and always protesting; we want a left which has the full range of human feeling.’ This means we must go beyond being (rightfully) angry at issues in society and imagine the possible society we can create in the future, which can make the most of human potential and which will give people the hope that is at times missing.
While the layout of the book as a discussion means no one topic is dealt with in great depth, that is not a bad thing. It instead gives a basic grounding in the current issues facing society as a whole and the problems for the left, while giving insight into the opportunities we have for the future.
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