How should social movements relate to the state in this struggle? In the face of corporate power and market forces, the state is seen as an important bulwark to protect its citizens from from capital, yet as we have discussed social movements also face the most violence from from the state.
Olufemi: It’s right that there is something of a tension, but it’s worth pointing out that It’s not coercive power as such that movements for justice should oppose. The Cuban revolutionaries, the Mozambican Liberation Front, the fighters of Cape Verde, Angola and Zimbabwe all used coercive power in order to rid themselves of colonialism. Sometimes the conversation about coercive power in the guise of the state or anyone else gets excessively moralized. Power in general is a tool, and how we morally evaluate it depends on how it’s used and to what ends.
Having said that, I think what we should focus on is finding ways to exploit the state and more specifically, exploit the differences between the interests of the state and of capital. State and capital have been too ‘buddy buddy ‘over the past few decades, and the inability of social movements to play one off against the other has led to the neoliberal consensus. And that has led to the politics of abandonment and to contractions in state responsibilities without compensatory gains for most of the people on the earth.
And so I think demands for public control of the state and for assigning the state responsibility for roles that have been taken up by purely extractive corporate colonial institutions is a good tactical option.
What do you consider are some of the changing dynamics you see going forward related to coercive state power?
Achille: In a book I published a few years ago, I referred to something I called the ‘Becoming Black of the World’. In the western Atlantic world under plantation slavery, people deemed to be black used to be ruled under very specific dispensation, the Code Noir, the Black code. This was a juridical mechanism that allowed rulers to treat so-called Black people in a way no one else was treated.
Today we can see neoliberalism is in crisis and thus has to rely more and more on an illiberal state to buttress its goals. This means that more and more people will be ruled under the Black Code. More people will be governed as if they were Black people, with all that entails: wanton violence, disenfranchisement, exposure to all kinds of risks, premature death.
This universalisation of the Black code will be going on as the world is burning, the planet is burning, having reached its limits. So because of ecological breakdown, our world is becoming more and more inhospitable to life itself. So if we reflect on planetary habitability, then we have to think seriously about how to create convergences between the struggle against racism and ecological struggles to regenerate our planet. The two are inseparable.
The third dynamic will be technological change, which has become our biotope, the milieu or environment which is increasingly defining who we are as well as our future. This will involve new struggles to recapture technology for human emancipation as well as emancipation at large. We need an emancipation, which includes humans and non-humans, because the fate of the humans is now more than ever before tied to the fate of other species. The times we live in require a multi-species project.
Olufemi: I could not possibly agree more with what Achille said. If I could, I would shout it from an air horn everywhere in the world.
I think the analysis of the Code Noir and the way it has led to a racially stratified world is key. One thing that people may acknowledge but don’t seem to integrate into their more systemic picture is that actually being Black did not necessarily mean you were enslaved in the sense of chattel slavery. There were also populations of freed people, mixed race people who experienced a different mixture of political restrictions and political rights. Yet being Black meant that that it could happen to you and that it was very likely if you were in the wrong part of the world in the wrong century.
That is not to diminish the history of racial domination, but clarify the nature of the system. Similarly, if we look at the other end of the pole of the racial hierarchy, being white didn’t mean that you were in charge, it meant that there was a floor, a level of labor exploitation that you wouldn’t get below, that you wouldn’t be treated as property.
I think reconfiguring these categorical terms into probabilistic terms helps make sense of Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s definition of racism as group differences and vulnerability to premature death as well as Achille’s point about how the world in an era of ecological and climate crisis is becoming blacker.
We have to realise our fate is linked to the fate of the entire human species – and not the fake species that race portrays itself as – as well tied to our dependence on the larger ecology, animals, plants, air, the water. Until we can see our fates are connected, we’ll be in trouble.
A lot of the rights and privileges that some people treated as built into whiteness are in fact contingent on the particular social structure they live in, their wealth and power to distribute it in discriminatory ways. So it’s because the United States has the wealth that it was able to create a middle class that had economic privileges above and beyond its racialized underclass. Rights and freedom are contingent upon a people’s nation, its geopolitical position, which is contingent on economic production. These in turn are contingent on the sky, the rain, the air and the water, the plants and the animals, things that we will no longer have the luxury of taking for granted in this century.
And so the rights and protections that people think are categorically built into their position in the social hierarchy are in fact contingent on the particular ways that the world has developed and also changing.
Most of us who are able bodied and resourced have long had the privilege of going outside unmasked, and yet now find ourselves unable to do the things that we thought were built into our social position. We find ourselves being denied that expected privilege for reasons related to happenings in the natural world and responses from our social system. That’s increasingly going to be the story of the politics of the century.
We have to realise our fate is linked to the fate of the entire human species – and not the fake species that race portrays itself as – as well as tied to our dependence on the larger ecology, animals, plants, air, the water. Until we can see our fates are connected, we’ll be in trouble.
But there’s reassuring actions in that direction. To give just two sets of examples: In the United States, where I’m based, there are exciting trends in labor movements. There’s been a resurgence of “Bargaining for the Common Good” – a practice of organized workers making contract demands in partnership with and in pursuit of benefits for a broader community. What’s more: last year in Minneapolis, thousands of members of the Service Employees International Union (many of whom were immigrants from countries including Somalia, Nepal, Mexico, and Ecuador) led what some are calling the “first climate strike” in US history: bargaining explicitly over wages, gender discrimination, and changes to working conditions to lower the carbon emissions of their work.
In South Africa, there are attempts to build broader, people centered social and political ecologies: from community kitchens and public food gardens at the University of the Free State to the wider struggle for food sovereignty throughout the country. These efforts seem of an important kind with the national Climate Justice Charter’s (CJC) attempt to combat corporate control over water. The CJC also connects these to community ownership of renewable energy. Taken together, it’s a really instructive set of struggles that is worth learning from, I think. And if we can learn from it, we can find a version of it to do that makes sense where we’re at.
This is an edited transcript of a conversation with Olúfémi Táíwò and Achille Mbembe led by Nick Buxton and Shaun Matsheza of TNI. Achille Mbembe is a philosopher, political scientist, and public intellectual and a professor at the Wits Institute for Social and Economic Research in Johannesburg, South Africa. His many works include On the Postcolony (2001), Critique of Black Reason (2016), Necropolitics (2019), Out of the Dark Night: Essays on Decolonization (2020) and Brutalisme (2020). Olúfémi Táíwò is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University and a frequent writer on issues of climate justice, racism, and colonialism.