Keith Hart on Sun, 14 Oct 2018 10:08:58 +0200 (CEST)

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Re: <nettime> elections in Brazil / media

Thanks, Brian. I am not in Chicago with you nor am I in Rio with my friend. It is a privilege to get front line accounts from both of you. But you, more than anyone on this list, push for a wider comparative perspective and the shocking developments in Brazil invite such comparison. In the last half century or more, capitalism's global trajectory has often been described in eschatological terms ("late capitalism" -- the denouement we seek is just round the corner), where western decadence has sometimes been confused with an imminent world revolution. The question of where we stand in the history of capitalism is more nuanced than that.

My mentor, C L R James, was saying in from the 1970s that there are only two world revolutions left -- the second Russian revolution and the second American revolution. Anna Grimshaw and I edited for publication his American Civilization, written originally around 1950, where he lays out a case for viewing the movement, energy and contradictions of American society as decisive for our world if we are to achieve genuine democracy. And I agree with him. The question remains, however, where we are in that historical process. We already got the second Russian revolution wrong after all.

I don't doubt -- nor does anyone else -- that current developments in the US will be decisive for the planet's immediate future. The forces unleashed by or through Trump are potentially devastating, as are the less convincing elements of resistance to them. The conviction of a Chicago cop for murder, the first for a long time, may well be seen as a great victory, but how does it measure against the claim of a leading presidential candidate that the military dictatorship did not go far enough in killing and torturing its opponents or the illegal impeachment and imprisonment of Workers Party leaders who were not defeated electorally? #metoo is impressive, but how does it compare with Bolsonaro telling LGBTs should go back into the closet or else? What struck me about my Brazilian friend's letter was his sense that disaster is inevitable not just probable.

The unthinkable already happens regularly in the US today; but after all his attacks on the media, Trump now finds it convenient to tell us that the Saudi killing of a "reporter" makes it a particularly heinous crime. No eventuality, however horrendous or liberating, should be ruled out, sooner or later. Timing is crucial. In January 1917 Lenin told the Swiss comrades that he didn't expect a revolution in his lifetime. In July he advised the Bolsheviks that they stay out of any revolutionary surge. In September he was the only one of them who advised joining the revolution and by October the revolution was a done deal. He later published a letter ("Marxism and Insurgency") explaining this apparently capricious change of mind in such a short period. His explanation is in general terms. What he doesn't say there is that between July and September 2 million soldiers pulled out of the Eastern front and returned home, many still with their guns. The Minister of War, Kerenski, occupied St Petersburg to put down a workers' uprising. And so on. Yet the party wanted to stay put and Lenin alone said they should move. He saw the movement of people and the party didn't.

Historical comparison, especially of revolutions, is important if we want to claim that the contemporary situation anywhere is intolerable and something is going to blow soon. I made no predictions, but wondered if the example of Brazil throws light on current struggles in the US, put them in perspective. Mostly I argued that these "insurgencies" have highly particular dynamics and need close historical analysis, both local and comparative.

Best, Keith

On Sun, Oct 14, 2018 at 12:52 AM Brian Holmes <> wrote:
Keith, I would be glad that you are right, because I do not have any desire for the kinds of conflicts brewing now, not in the country where I live, nor anywhere. I want to be clear on one thing though, because I apparently was not:

If you look at Germany's civil war after 1918 in the aftermath of  the Russian revolution and in Weimar Berlin, a free-for-all broke out in the streets between ideologically driven factions. Nothing in the US today remotely compares with this, certainly not Chicago police killing black young men as usual.

What happened in Chicago was highly unusual: a police officer was *convicted* for killing a black youth. This was a great victory for many reasons (given that police officers are almost never convicted of anything in this city). It also meant there was no reason for what people in the city widely feared would happen in the case of non-conviction, namely a major riot. In fact, the police were out everywhere in force, out of fear from higher up that one of their colleagues would be set free. Had a riot happened - a big one I mean, with fire etc - I think the federal administration would have likely found a way to make good on its oft-reiterated threats of sending the national guard and/or army into the city. Under the present polarized circumstances, such a confrontation could spin out of control, legitimizing hard-right policing and vigilanteeism as we saw in the wake of the big racialized conflicts of the late 1960s.

Social relations are very tense here, and while of course you are right that the US is a very powerful and institutionally stable country, still there are major sectors of the former industrial working classes who are very resentful about a lot of the changes that happened during the neoliberal period, and rightly so in some senses. That resentment has been stirred up in the forms of nationalism and racism and what you might call "policism" (as distinguished from militarism) and although it is quite different from what's going on in Brazil, it's also connected as part of a larger period shift, as you would seem to agree.

The US has tremendous economic and military strength, but the legitimacy of its institutions domestically is at the lowest point I have ever seen. That could be an opening for positive change, and for better or worse, it could ultimately produce a yet stronger and resilient system. Many people would like to see a more just society ready to face things like Hurricane Michael, as opposed to getting into another war or simply falling into deeper polarization and political paralysis. That desire for positive change is where all the social movements are coming from (Me Too, Black Lives Matter, Standing Rock and there will be more). But currently there is a response of intense right-wing hatred toward those movements, and to all environmental claims, and to Latin American immigration, and to Chinese economic power, and the list goes on. I am far from alone in the feeling that the old order is breaking down and the future is uncertain.

It could be just a blip, and if people mobilize in the right way, all this could in retrospect look like an important stimulus for much-needed change. But we are not there yet. Trump may not be Bolsonaro, the South Side of Chicago may not be Rocinho, and you are definitely right that this is not anywhere near civil war; but ideological shifts in the US always have far-reaching consequences, as they did after 1970s for example. And at street level, there have never been so many guns in private hands, nor such incredible aggression from increasingly militarized police. I assure you, this moment is really excruciating.

best, Brian
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Keith Hart
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