With his two recent books, Democracy Denied (Africa World Press, 2019) and Red-Green Revolution: the Politics and Technology of Eco-Socialism (Political Animal Press, 2018), Boston-based political science professor and author Victor Wallis challenges us to grasp this world by its roots, so that we can make another world possible.
Democracy Denied offers a concise overview of US politics, tracing “exceptional” problems of contemporary American society—from mass incarceration, to weekly mass shootings, to the trillion-dollar succubus of US military spending—back to their historical origins. Red-Green Revolution, meanwhile, locates the openings for a radically different future in the present.
As Wallis makes powerfully clear in both books, the frameworks of US politics and economics that dominate our present all but guarantee the intensification of the crises we face—from spiraling class inequality and xenophobic border brutality, to mass species extinction and catastrophic climate change. We, the people, cannot wait for our existing systems to solve these problems.
Democracy Denied makes a powerful case that US politics is, and has always been, organized so as to suppress democratic participation, insofar as the working-class majority is concerned. This extends from the racist exclusions written into the USA’s founding documents to the ongoing denial of voting rights to over 7 million incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people. It also includes the reactionary relic of the Electoral College (which has helped bring not one but two right-wing presidents to power since 2000, despite losing the popular vote) and rampant schemes of voter suppression and gerrymandering. We might add to Wallis’ account: the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrant residents who form the backbone of the US working class.
In short: American elections systematically lock people out.
And even for those who are allowed in, as Wallis discusses, politics is limited by anti-democratic pressures: from a two-party system that shuts out third-party contenders to the flood of private campaign donations and a corporate-controlled mass media that narrows discussion and encourages mass distraction.
American “democracy” remains a system designed to facilitate minority rule.
What would the USA look like if every single adult in this country were truly empowered to vote and participate fully in the political process? The present system is built to keep us from finding out.
Nonetheless, the “We the People” cover serves the USA as a crucial alibi, casting persistent inequalities as merely momentary exceptions to the “democratic” rule, while branding US imperialist interventions abroad as the work of “freedom” to come.
Key to Wallis’ analysis is that these denials of democracy are not just incidental exceptions, but are woven into the nature of this system itself. It follows from this that while we must influence and even occupy the existing institutions where we can—especially at a crisis moment like the present—the main force for transformation must have deep roots outside the walls of established power. “The Left cannot ignore the discussions taking place within the Democratic Party,” as Wallis puts it, “but it also has to avoid being sucked into them.”
Why is US democracy so undemocratic? Wallis draws us back to this society’s origins in slavery and settler colonialism, which laid the basis for racism as a ruling class strategy to divide, confuse, and weaken the working-class majority ever since. Drawing from the essential work of Theodore Allen, author of The Invention of the White Race, Wallis shows how racism both makes it possible to exploit and repress those at the bottom of society, while at the same time giving the impression to those who are granted “inclusion” that they are “lucky” and hence should pledge loyalty to a system that, nonetheless, fails them, too.
And is there any place where the universal failure of the current system is clearer than the escalating environmental crisis?
Enter Red-Green Revolution.
In this second book, Wallis both diagnoses the devastating ecological effects of capitalism run amok and offers a vision for what a truly different society could look like. This society he calls ecological socialism—or ecosocialism for short. An expression in use for decades on the international left. Such an ecosocialist society would have two essential features. First, it would be a society where production decisions will no longer be dictated by the profit imperatives of super-wealthy capitalists, but instead by the democratic participation of the entire community. Second, ecosocialism would aim at achieving a sustainable balance with nature. And it makes sense: With production decisions in the hands of workers, community members (and informed by science), the long-term needs of people and the planet could be put at the very center of how we plan the economy. This stands in contrast to the current system, which is so focused on short-term profits that it marginalizes life-and-death needs like protecting clean water, topsoil, and breathable air. Such “externalities” don’t show up on the bottom line—therefore, they don’t figure.
Utopian as it may sound, such an ecosocialist Red-Green Revolution is not only necessary, Wallis insists, it is possible.
It is necessary because there can be no such thing as “green capitalism.” Large-scale corporate-sponsored “green” efforts are held back by entrenched industry’s existing investments and sunk costs in toxic process. It’s just not “cost effective” for a capitalist energy industry to lead any significant transition—future generations be damned. Meanwhile, small “green” businesses, however well-intentioned, are limited to mostly niche enterprises, usually serving a relatively privileged clientele. And those new technical “innovations” that corporations love to dazzle us with may be great for stimulating the bottom line, but not for saving the planet. (Thus the constant pressure to “update” our phones every year, notwithstanding the massive piles of toxic trash that such planned obsolescence requires.) In the end, Wallis argues, “corporate environmentalism” amounts to little more than “green washing.” The goal of endless growth on a finite planet is an utterly unsustainable one.
Contrary to its mantra of “efficiency,” capitalism is an incredibly wasteful system, both in terms of its consumption of energy and raw materials, as well as its production of pollution, from plastic in the ocean to carbon in the atmosphere. Wallis emphasizes the need to understand this waste not simply as an “individual” matter but as a “sectoral” issue, targeting those economic and social sectors that are most responsible for doing the damage. Focusing on the military and such wasteful and essentially useless fields as advertising and finance, Wallis encourages activists to target the waste of the capitalist system as such, not only the wastefulness of the fossil fuels used to power it. Alternative energy, he emphasizes, is only a part of the solution we need. (Indeed, as Wallis has the courage to admit, even these “renewable” alternatives, scaled up massively to replace fossil fuels, become far from “green”; a true eco-transition is going to take much more than wind turbines and solar panels.)
As to how we get to ecosocialism from here, Wallis calls for a global mass movement and highlights what he calls “organic links” where the felt interests and concerns of actually existing groups—from factory workers being replaced by fossil fuel-intensive automation to indigenous communities defending the rainforest—point towards the potential for building global alliances.
The labor and ecological movements must converge, Wallis argues, despite a fraught history pitting “Jobs” against “the Environment.” Only by recognizing the legitimate needs of all workers to economic security can green activists potentially win broad popular support for shutting down destructive industries. Conversely, it is only by coming to embrace “worker” interests in a holistic way, encompassing broader community and quality of life issues (such as the need for free quality mass transit in car-congested cities like Boston) that the labor movement can find the social power it too often lacks in this era of decimated union membership.
It is Wallis’ hope that such immediate alliances of “Red” and “Green” can give rise to a mutual transformation that raises the horizons of all involved. Meanwhile, there is hope latent in the very extremity of the situation we face, he argues, for it may compel diverse and unexpected groups to grasp the common capitalist roots of the crisis. Building such an ecosocialist convergence remains the great political task of our time.
Make no mistake, though: Wallis does not offer easy answers. Those looking for ready-made prescriptions may come away disappointed. But his refusal to stand as the final authority is in keeping with Wallis’ philosophy of democratic socialism, which insists that genuine solutions cannot come simply from the top down, but must emerge from a truly participatory political process, involving not just “experts” but people from every walk of life.
Consider yourself invited.
DEMOCRACY DENIED: FIVE LECTURES ON U.S. POLITICS. BY VICTOR WALLIS. AFRICA WORLD PRESS, INC., 2019. 152 PAGES. $19.95.
RED-GREEN REVOLUTION: THE POLITICS AND TECHNOLOGY OF ECOSOCIALISM. BY VICTOR WALLIS. POLITICAL ANIMAL PRESS, 2018. 222 PAGES. $15.60.
This article is part of the Special Climate Crisis Issue of DigBoston (9/19/2019, Vol. 21, Iss. 38) produced in cooperation with the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism as part of the global Covering Climate Now initiative organized by The Nation and Columbia Journalism Review.