A Q+A with BC sociology professor Charles Derber on his new book
Why did you decide to publish a book on “universalizing resistance” at this particular moment in history?
Because our survival is at stake. Universalizing resistance is a path toward dismantling the militarized capitalism before it wipes us all out. Climate change and nuclear war threaten the end of our very existence. Moreover, we face particularly urgent crises of authoritarianism, plutocracy, inequality, racism, xenophobia, and other institutionalized bigotry. We are seeing many “siloed” or single-issue movements rising up to fight slices of the problem. But they need to “universalize” or work closely together on overcoming the system at the root of all their problems.
You’ve done decades of research on American politics. How do you think we got to a place where Americans could elect President Trump… and how do we get beyond him?
Trump is psychologically a wacko, but he is a natural product of the development of our politics since the New Deal era, which ended finally with the Reagan revolution. The Reagan revolution intensified a global corporate system running on the polluted fuels of racism and sexism, and made profit-gouging workers all over the world the operating system of the US. This left the working population in a desperate insecurity and disenfranchisement. The Clinton administration bought into Wall Street and the global system, formally rejecting the New Deal and embracing a Democratic Party built on corporate neoliberalism. So we ended with two parties of business, and labor was out in the cold. Moreover, the left after the 1960s fragmented into an identity politics devoid of any strong class politics, just as Reagan was destroying unions. This created the vacuum in which Trump could win over the white working class, since nobody was speaking for them, and Trump could appeal to their worst prejudices.
What do you say to people who feel that the left has to move to the center in order to win over a majority?
It’s a huge mistake. Bernie Sanders is the most popular politician in the US. The “center” perpetuates the impotence of the Democratic Party and the weakness of the left as it has abandoned anti-systemic policies. The only path to attract an anti-establishment majority is a new movement of universalizing resistance, not just against Trump but the system that created him. This can only arise from grassroots movements universalizing to come together for a new society, working to push Sanders-style “democratic socialism” inside and outside the Democratic Party, toward a deeper change than Sanders himself envisions. By the way, polls show that a majority of millennials reject capitalism and that “socialism” is viewed more favorably than “capitalism” by almost half the population.
Your book includes a full analysis and set of prescriptions for people on the political left, but it also includes short passages from nearly 30 other thinkers. Why was this necessary?
I wanted the book to be a model of the universalizing movement we need. I wanted to lay out a framework, but I wanted inspiring activists and thinkers from all of our social movements to come together and flesh out the universalizing resistance we need from their own perspective. Their short essays are truly inspiring. They ground my analysis in vivid stories—of Standing Rock, Ferguson, cross-racial labor struggles—that show how identity and class politics can be melded into a mass resistance to transform our society.
Boston is considered more left-wing than most other cities in the country. Do you have any special admonitions for Bostonians in the Trump era?
Boston has always been a beacon for resistance—and some of our greatest thinkers and activists have been Bostonians. Consider only Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn, among the greatest leaders for radical change. We have many models of cross-issue organizing in the Boston area, and these can be one model for the country. Trump has catalyzed mass resistance in Boston, with hundreds of thousands coming out in the Women’s March here the day after Trump was elected. Our huge population of students and young people—and the long history of many Boston-based activist organizations—offers hope. But Boston faces the same universalizing challenges as the rest of the country: It is deeply racially divided; its class politics are weak; its left is struggling to find a way to work outside and inside of the Democratic Party. My hope, though, is that Boston might help lead the new wave of universalizing resistance, and the book offers the voice and stories of many Boston-based thinkers and activists.
Charles Derber will be speaking about his new book, Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times, (Routledge, 342 pgs., 2017, available on Amazon) at the Harvard Coop Bookstore on Mon 9.11 at 7pm.