Sasha Lilley: What would Karl do? Radicals reflect on the current incarnation of global capital


This week we welcome Sasha Lilley, to discuss her new book, Capital and Its Discontents: Conversations with Radical Thinkers in a Time of Tumult.

Sasha Lilley is a writer and radio broadcaster. She’s the co-founder and host of the critically acclaimed program of radical ideas, Against the Grain. She is also the series editor of PM Press’ political economy imprint, Spectre.

Leading this interview will be Angie Coiro. Angie is a freelance interviewer and journalist living on the San Francisco peninsula. Her radio and television credits include Mother Jones Radio on Air America; Friday Forum on KQED in San Francisco; and Spotlight! on KCSM-TV. Angie’s the recipient of numerous awards for her interviewing work, including public radio’s national PRNDI award. She shares her 1923 cottage with three cats and countless scavenged artsy bits.

Welcome to Inkwell, Sasha and Angie!

Angie Coiro:

Thanks, Julie. Sasha, welcome, it’s marvelous to have you here.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to address the goal of the book before we get into its contents. And I’m coming at it from an angle much in the news this last year or so.

The overriding element of political discourse these days is polarity. Not only do we have more opportunity than ever to seek news and perspective only from sources we agree with; but behavioral and neurological scientists are piling up the evidence that facts bounce off of already-convinced brains without making a dent.

For example, a global warming denier, a 9/11 truther, a birther, are all but immune to new information that undermines what they already believe.

A poll out last week showed that 44 percent on the right, 37 percent on the left, get their news from sources they believe are sympathetic to their point of view.

So not only can we exclude information sources that doesn’t fit our world view—our brains, especially the conservative brain according to some sources, aren’t open to whatever unpleasant facts might slip by our filters.

The more sharply this picture of how our political brains function has come into focus, the more I wonder: what does this tell us about the function and best use of new information?

Here you have a new collection of insights and analysis from Noam Chomsky, Tariq Ali, and other bright lights. It examines the realities and fallacies of capitalism. The book looks squarely at the crises eating away at America and the dreams of its citizens, and lessons from around the world that could lead us out of the mess.

Ideally, who will read it? What’s it for? Are you seeking to change minds, bring new information to those already active on the left, bring new bodies to the cause?

Sasha Lilley:

Let me first say how pleased I am to be part of a discussion on the Well—and thanks so much to you, Angie, for leading it. I’m really looking forward to conversing with you and others here.

One of the themes of the book is how economic crises shape peoples’ political views—such as their support for the free market or for capitalism as a system—and whether crises are necessarily auspicious for left perspectives or the renewal of the radical left. I would argue that it’s not automatically the case that crises are good for the left, although they can be (a GlobeScan poll released last month shows that between 2009 and 2010 the support of the free market by Americans earning less than $20,000 a year fell from 76 percent to 44 percent). Equally they’re often good for the right—as can be seen with the growth of far right parties in Europe and to a lesser extent with the Tea Party in the U.S. What one tends to see is that economic crises lead to greater political polarization to both the left and right.

And perhaps this is reflected in the media choices people make—although I would suggest that this has its own separate logic, related in many ways to how the internet parcels up information for various niches, most particularly so as to sell products to different consumers.

Is it a bad thing for those on the left to not read views from the right? I certainly believe that we ignore the ideas and the strategies of conservatives to our detriment. Their agenda is very much that of whittling away the accomplishments of the left (feminism, the Civil Rights movement, gay rights, environmentalism, etc), as meagre as they may seem at times, and shaping political discourse and actions that push a corporate agenda, often with a homespun, grassroots veneer. That said, I think that all of us—whether we spend most of our time on progressive blogs or not—are saturated by rightwing ideology in all aspects of our lives, whether we know it or not. That is the air we breathe if we live in the United States (where a center right politician like Obama gets branded a Communist). I think part of the task we face is sorting out how these ideas permeate our lives and the effects they have on political protest and other forms of oppositional activity.

With that in mind, Capital and Its Discontents is written for those who might identify as left-leaning, with the belief that providing nuanced and illuminating insights into the system we’re living in—its strengths and its weaknesses (as well as our strengths and weaknesses)—would benefit a renewed left. And that’s definitely the agenda of the book: to contribute to the revitalization of leftwing politics and movements. I think we’re living through quite interesting times, after a period of general decline for the left over the past three decades. I hope that the some of the ideas in the book, by folks like Mike Davis, Noam Chomsky, Ellen Meiksins Wood, David Harvey, and others, might help bolster a reinvigoration of what have been very rich radical traditions in this country.


This is going to be a great conversation…thanks so much Sasha and Angie for doing this.

For me, it’s been like going into the “Way back machine” and returning to the dialogues of the 60s and 70s….very refreshing to get new inputs to what is currently being discussed on the “Left”…

I’m too eclectic to label myself anymore, but your book has shaken my tree…and that’s a good thing.

From a structural perspective you seem to bring a magnifying lens to the Global North/South political/economic systems now in place, diagnose the various dynamics taking place as the system crumbles, and invite speakers to express themselves as to what is taking place in the “New Left” movement as well as examine what is taking place in the “Old Right.” Is that too simplistic an overview?

Sasha Lilley:

It’s very gratifying to know that the book has moved you in some way. I was not around for those discussions in the 1960s and 70s, being of a younger generation of radicals, but I believe that many of the same questions are being grappled with yet again.

Your summary of the book is quite accurate. Perhaps a different way of framing it would be to say that the book attempts to look at the system we live under today—especially the form capitalism has taken in the last three decades, which is often termed neoliberalism (and politically associated with both the established right and the center, including social democratic parties in Europe)—its inner workings, contours, and vulnerabilities, while also looking at how the strength of what I’m calling the left has declined over the that same period, especially in North America. So the book tries to come to terms with the legacies of the Old Left and the New Left, as well as the anti-globalization movement and more recent radical protest movements.


I’m very much looking forward to this conversation. I circle back to Angie’s opening question: how do progressives shape thought, language, and argument to hook the attention of people with minds made up? A revitalized left can’t reach a wider audience unless and until our facts and our points seep into conscious awareness. How to break the pattern of huddling together behind walls with those of like mind?

Sasha Lilley:

You’re absolutely right, W., that one of the failures of the left has been an inability to speak to those with different views of the world. There are obviously genuine structural obstacles that we face in getting left ideas out to others (the media being one of them). But we would be wrong to blame those impediments solely for the problem. I think that as the left has contracted over the past many years, it has created a certain degree of insularity, and perhaps many have even lost faith that we can be successful in talking to others and changing their minds. But that’s a real mistake.

This sort of insularity has shaped the sorts of actions and forms of protest that we adopt—often it seems like we’re simply preaching to the converted, rather than trying to engage with those who don’t share our views. One of the contributors to the book, John Sanbonmatsu, argues that there were two strains of thought within the New Left about how to organize, which have left an enduring legacy. The Civil Rights movement had an orientation towards what he calls “the politics of strategy”—of figuring out how to have the most effect on those who were either opponents or not on the side of the movement and acting accordingly. The other strain he terms “the politics of expression”—of just getting out there and expressing one’s outrage, whether or not it has any impact on people who aren’t yet with us or the powers that be. I’m afraid the second tendency has won out, by and large. Often our politics, ideas, and actions are oriented toward insiders, not outsiders. (That said, so is my book. My hope is by addressing these issues within the left, it can become more effective and powerful.)

Angie Coiro:

Which segues neatly into my next thought [referring to W’s post], which is the crippling element of fear. W’s term “conscious awareness” is key here. We’re least conscious when we’re acting out of fear. One note the Right plays brilliantly is insecurity: it’s worth sacrificing your civil rights for safety; the economy will continue to fall apart if we tax the multi-millionaires. They’re very, very good at this.

The Left needs to hone its message to pierce the fear—or at least acknowledge the fear of joblessness, home loss, poverty, before we can make progress. Sasha, how did your many interviewees confront the topic of fear or insecurity? What role do they play in how we move forward? (I’ll cite one example in the next post.)

Angie Coiro:

Sam Gindin (Canadian activist and educator) responds to a question about the lag between when people are hit by a crisis, and when they respond—where in that picture are the opportunities?:

“There’s going to be more volatility. There’s going to be more pressure on people to pay for the exit to this crisis. Insecurity isn’t going away. Inequality isn’t going away. People see the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, they see the kind of resources the state can mobilize when it’s trying to save the banks and they can contrast it to the state’s intervention in other ways. They’re cynical. They’re skeptical. I don’t think you have to convince people that capitalism isn’t wonderful. You just have to convince them that there is something they can do about it.” [Emphasis mine – AC]

So to risk a cliche here, Gindin paints these times of insecurity and volatility as a teachable moment. Your other interviewees span the globe, and bring perspectives from not just different professional avenues but different eras. Is that their experience, that citizens in a time of economic volatility can be moved to challenge the guts of their economic systems?

Sasha Lilley:

Those are really important points, Angie. I think the consensus amongst the people I spoke with was that moments like this—moments of crisis—can be opportunities for the left, but are not necessarily or automatically that. As I mentioned earlier, they can be opportunities for the right, who are a lot better organized than the left, and they can also be times when people just focus on survival, and pull inward. As Sam Gindin emphasized in the conversation you cited, many people are deeply pessimistic at the possibility of change. I think that’s a block that’s going to take a while to overcome. Yet there are moments when things burst through, such as in Wisconsin, when people see others coming out and they are inspired to join them. (It also makes me think of what I’ve read of the late 1950s and early 60s, where the Civil Rights movements and the Free Speech Movement bubbled up out of times of fear and cynicism about change following the McCarthy Era—so it can happen.)

Fear and politics—and the politics of fear—are questions that fascinate me. Partly because there are some segments of the left that think we should also use fear to motivate people, such as against very real threats like global warming. I really disagree. Fear tends to be paralyzing and I don’t think it serves the left. In fact, there have been a number of studies about the dissimilar brain activity of progressives and conservatives, indicating that conservatives have particularly high activity in the parts of the brain that are connected to fear. Perhaps one might conclude that fear trends rightward.

That doesn’t, of course, answer your question about what to do about the pervasive politics of fear. I think a start is to consider that sustained social movements tend to grow out of some feeling of hope, not fear, and that can be contagious (just look at what has been happening across North Africa and the Middle East, where people have defied fear because of their hopes for a better society). I believe that one serious problem we face is that leftists have lost sight of our vision for a better world—it’s easier for us to articulate what we’re against, than what we’re for. Some of this, I think, comes out of the experience of horribly failed experiments like the USSR and China. But I also believe that we on the left have ended up internalizing the mantra, most famously stated by Margaret Thatcher, that There is No Alternative to free market capitalism (often known as TINA). Yet unless we can articulate a vision for a world that is substantially different than the one we’re in—that is able to address the massive dislocations and ravages that capitalism inflicts on the environment, the extinctions crisis, the enormous polarizations in wealth and well-being, the speed up of people’s work lives, and so on—we’re not going to be very successful.


Sasha, I like your point about shifting from expressive to strategic politics—a rift I noted in my bio of Carey McWilliams, who favored the latter. I also like your urge to move from critique to prescription. About insularity and audience: How important is it for those prescriptions to be clearly and memorably stated? I’m struck by how successful the right has been with its simplistic formulations, repeated endlessly, and I worry that the left’s capacity (penchant?) for nuance misses the visceral aspect of politics, which some political psychologists (like Drew Westen) have argued is critical. (Fear is part of that, of course.)


It seems to me that the left is too much interested in ideas and nuance—and put them before anything else. Viscera is exactly what is missing. Until we learn to appeal to the gut, we lose a potentially wider audience. Fear is, of course, the easiest, cheapest, fastest, most compelling gut-hook, but there are others.

Sasha Lilley:

Very interesting about Carey McWilliams, P. I agree with you and W. about the importance of appealing to people in ways that they can easily absorb and that have an emotional resonance with them. Those are questions taken up in the very useful book Re:Imagining Change: How to Use Story-based Strategy to Win Campaigns, Build Movements, and Change the World by the folks at smartMeme, which explores how progressives often send mixed messages and do not harness the power of visual or emotional ways of framing issues.

But it’s worth remembering as well that the right has spent millions of dollars since at least the 1930s to try to orient people away from their natural affinity to the basic principles of the left: solidarity, greed is bad, helping others is good, etc.

I would also add that I don’t entirely agree that the left is overly caught up with ideas and complexity, although I would concur, as I mentioned, that it doesn’t do the best job of transmitting ideas to others. I actually think that ideas are really important—that our presumptions about the world around us (whether we’re conscious of them or not) shape what we think is possible. And I also believe that we need to deeply understand what we’re up against, because it can help us realize that the system we face is not monolithic, that elites are not all-powerful, that with strategic thinking we might be able to advance, and so on. That isn’t of course a substitute for action—it should ideally facilitate more effective action.

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