Deep reflections for a world on fire: A review of two books by Victor Wallis

A world on fire – from the Amazon to Africa and California to India, shown here – requires that we bring forth a new world from the ashes of the old. – Photo: Reuters

by Joseph G. Ramsey

With his two recent books, “Democracy Denied: Five Lectures on U.S. Politics” (Africa World Press, 2019) and “Red-Green Revolution: the Politics and Technology of Eco-Socialism” (Political Animal Press, 2018), Boston-based author Victor Wallis challenges us to grasp this world by its roots, so that we can make another world possible.

“Democracy Denied” (“DD”) offers a concise overview of U.S politics, tracing “exceptional” problems of contemporary American society – from mass incarceration to weekly mass shootings to the trillion-dollar drain of US military spending – back to their historical origins. “Red-Green Revolution” (“RGR”), 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 aimed at minimizing the voting impact of poor, Black and Brown folks. We might add to Wallis’ account: the denial of citizenship to millions of immigrant residents who form the backbone of the US working-class.

“Neoliberalism” – Art, dated June 2017: Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, 264847, Pendleton Correctional Facility, G-20-2C, 4490 W. Reformatory Road, Pendleton, IN 46064

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 a Senate that overrepresents rural states over urban ones to the flood of private campaign donations and a corporate-controlled mass media that narrows discussion and encourages mass distraction.

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? As Wallis points out, the majority of the population “consistently favors progressive reforms such as universal healthcare, environmental protections, quality public education and taxing the rich.”

But the present system for the most part works to stifle this popular progressive agenda. It’s not a coincidence: American “democracy” remains a system designed to facilitate minority rule.

Nonetheless, the “We the People” cover serves the USA as a crucial alibi, casting persistent race and class 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 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.”

At the razor’s edge of organizing outside of official channels, Wallis highlights the struggles of prisoners as well the need to oppose US Imperialism. (Both topics receive a full chapter treatment.)

It warrants mention that, for decades, Wallis has been a stalwart supporter and correspondent with numerous prisoners, including revolutionary organizers associated with the New Afrikan Black Panther Party (NABPP). As a testament to his long-standing relation with these caged comrades, “Democracy Denied” includes six (astonishing) original works of art drawn by Kevin “Rashid” Johnson, minister of defense for the NAABPP, as well as a generous introduction by Johanna Fernández, longtime scholar-activist, known for her crucial work defending imprisoned revolutionary Mumia Abu-Jamal.

The works of Rashid are worthy of attention in their own right, concentrating in graphic form a sharp indictment of U.S. imperialism, mass incarceration and white supremacy. In line with Wallis’ own system critique, Rashid targets not only the “overt fascist Dope” of Donald Trump but also does not spare the “purveyor of false Hope,” Barack Obama.

Against the grain of a patriotic “democratic socialism” that seeks the path of least resistance, Wallis makes a strong case that challenging US imperialism is crucial to the future of the Left, not only because of the destruction militarism and war wreak on people and the planet but because of the co-optive effect of imperialist and nationalist ideology among (especially white and male) sectors of the U.S, working class.

Why is US democracy so un-democratic? 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. “Underlying all other possible observations about the United States,” as he writes in his very opening sentence, “is the fact that its colonial-settler origins included the subjection of a substantial region of the country to a plantation economy based on slave labor.”

Drawing from the essential work of Theodore Allen, author of “The Invention of the White Race,” Wallis shows how racism both makes it possible for the ruling class to unleash brutal violence against those labelled non-white (see for instance the murderous attack on Fred Hampton and others in the original Black Panther Party), while at the same time giving the impression to those who are granted “inclusion” in the system 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?

Building such an intersectional but class-conscious eco-socialist convergence remains the great political task of our time.

Enter “Red-Green Revolution.”

In this second, heftier 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 eco-socialism for short.

Such an eco-socialist 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, eco-socialism 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 much figure.

Utopian as it may sound, such an eco-socialist 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 costs sunk 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. (See for instance 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 public relations – “green washing” – since the very capitalist imperative of endless growth and expansion is incompatible with life on a finite planet.

Contrary to its mantra of “efficiency,” Wallis shows how capitalism is an incredibly wasteful system, from its consumption of energy and raw materials to its pollution, from plastic in the ocean to carbon in the atmosphere. He emphasizes the need to understand this waste not simply as an “individual” matter (and not just as a “national” one, as if all citizens are all equally to blame for it), but as a “sectoral” issue, targeting the beneficiaries of the economic and social sectors 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 dangers 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, if they are scaled up massively to replace fossil fuels, become far from “green.” Which is to say: A true eco-transition is going to take much more than wind turbines and solar panels.)

As to how we get to eco-socialism 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 workers rendered unemployed by (fossil fuel-intensive) automation to indigenous communities defending the rainforest – point towards the potential for building growing global, majoritarian alliances.

The labor and ecological movements must converge, Wallis argues, despite a fraught history of 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.

A world on fire – extraordinary Arctic heat and record-low sea ice combine to spark tundra fires in Alaska and across the arctic, releasing tons of sequestered carbon into the atmosphere. Here at the treeline in Alaska near the Canadian border, it’s not the trees that are burning so much as the tundra itself, the permafrost having been melted by the climate crisis. – Photo: Tony Chapman, BLM Alaska Fire Service

Conversely, it is only by coming to embrace “worker” interests in a holistic way, encompassing broader community and quality of life issues (from the right to clean water to the need for free quality mass transit in our car-congested cities) that the labor movement can find the social power it too often lacks in an 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 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 – each from its own perspective.

Building such an intersectional but class-conscious eco-socialist convergence remains the great political task of our time. We live in revolutionary times, Wallis points out, by virtue of the fact that “moderate” reforms are totally inadequate to the planetary crisis we face.

Make no mistake, though: Wallis does not offer easy answers. Those looking for ready-made prescriptions as to “what is to be done” 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.

To read, to study, to debate and to share these two essential books by Victor Wallis can be an important step in this larger participatory, revolutionary process. For even in the face of urgent crises that call for immediate action now, the kind of deep and serious thinking that Wallis models remains an absolute necessity if we are to truly bring forth a new world from the ashes of the old.

Joseph G. Ramsey is senior lecturer in English and American Studies at the University of Massachusetts Boston. A writer, scholar and organizer, he is an elected representative of the Faculty Staff Union (FSU/MTA) as well as a founding member of the anti-budget cuts Coalition to Save UMB. His writings have appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education, Inside Higher Ed, Slate, Labor Notes, Jacobin, Radical Teacher, Counterpunch, Cultural Logic, and Socialism and Democracy. He is also editor of four book-length collections, including “Scholactivism” (available online at http://www.worksanddays.net/W&D%202016-2017.html). He can be reached at jgramsey@gmail.com.