The following interview, conducted by Liam Hough, appeared in ROAR 0n 26 November 2020: https://roarmag.org/essays/max-haiven-revenge-capitalism-interview/
In his new book, Revenge Capitalism: The Ghosts of Empire, the Demons of Capital, and the Settling of Unpayable Debts, Max Haiven focuses on the question of our collective imagination today. While the neoliberal era has seen the idea of radical social change become in many ways a more alien, elusive goal, the book does not simply provide a catalogue of more options for despair. It is filled with overlapping ideas and schemes and stories of resistance across disparate struggles that span from the present back over the last few centuries.
Contemporary accounts of debt, addiction, urbanization and abolition, among many others, are woven in with insights gleaned from earlier periods of capitalist and colonial expansion and the struggles against them. Through the specifics of these struggles, Haiven draws out the parallels and proximities between our own times and multiple earlier moments — glimpses of radical hope and brutal suppression. These are interspersed with various takes on films, novels, TV shows and other artworks, drawing out the ways revenge and revenge fantasies play out across the cultural spectrum.
The book explores how the history of capitalism up until the present looks when we consider it to be systemically vengeful. With its narratives of economic rationality and order, capitalism continuously takes its pre-emptive revenge from above. Capitalism at the same time has always set the terms for what we understand to be vengeful — projecting this image onto the exploited and oppressed.
This book pushes us to imagine our own counter-narratives, exploring the question of what it might mean to avenge from below the ongoing crimes of this system. It is an ambitious effort at bringing together the voices of so many already embedded in this work; it is more humble in terms of not prescribing a refined theory of next steps forward. In all, it is a work that is packed with visions of struggle and necessary insights that should jolt and inspire further inquiry, discussion and action.
In June, Liam Hough spoke with Max Haiven about the book and why revenge offers a useful lens for thinking about capitalism and the struggle against it, made all the more clear in the time of COVID-19 and the uprisings in the US following the murder of George Floyd.
Liam Hough: What brought you to study revenge at this moment in time?
Max Haiven: I think every book, whether the author admits it or not, comes from personal experience and feelings. I have, like I think many of us, found my blood boiling over the last few years at the kind of injustices we’re seeing around the globe and the impunity of those who perpetuate those injustices.
Specifically, the impunity of a system of capitalism that gets away with horrendous injustices: environmental destruction, the complete disposability of whole groups of human beings, the kind of merciless destruction of society that goes under the name of economic necessity. So I wanted to give a name to the feeling of a kind of vengefulness, and also to name what appeared to me to be the kind of needless, reckless and sort of sadistic quality of capitalist expansion.
Although vengeance might be generally thought of as an exclusively subjective, human phenomenon, I wanted to see what would happen if we attributed it to capitalism. Of course, capitalism as a system has no overarching goal of revenge. It is a system whose ultimate and catastrophic effects nobody has to explicitly intend. It has neither an imagination nor a will-power. It has tendencies that are driven by internal contradictions. But might it make sense, nevertheless, to describe the overall effect of those contradictions as a kind of vengeance against people, against nature?
On one level, the history of capitalism is a series of vengeful campaigns: the suppression of working class struggles, the advance and defense of colonialism and empire. At the same time, capitalism has managed to project vengefulness onto those who have challenged it from below, castigating its opponents as nihilistically, bestially vindictive and celebrating its advocates as champions of peace and law.
In other words, capitalism has seen us tell a one-sided story about revenge, where that system is the conquest of this dark human passion. Capitalism itself defines revenge so as to misdirect our attention from its own vengeful operations.
So in Revenge Capitalism I set out to assemble different stories about that system’s past and present to challenge its own account of itself. I do so because of a faith that the imagination is crucial to how capitalism reproduces itself, and crucial to our ability to mobilize a struggle against it. This includes a struggle over the very meaning and scope of ideas like revenge.
Could you give an overview of the ideas of revenge and avenging and the distinctions between them?
The line between avenging and revenge for me is purposefully vague because I think that there’s an overlap between them. In many circumstances we can’t necessarily tell the difference. But, in general, revenge is the idea of seeking restitution for a harm or repayment of a debt in the same way it was issued. This is the poetic nature of revenge, the kind of neat symmetry or arithmetic of it: they who harmed or robbed you are, themselves, subjected to either that harm or robbery or one that will hurt them in an equally exquisite way.
But most of the time, revenge remains a fantasy: we obsess over an imagined future in which revenge arrives. People actually rarely take revenge, and indeed often the dream of revenge locks us in a kind of stasis where we never take action. In a sense, revenge leaves us locked in the paradigm of the powerful, dreaming of the impossible moment where we have in our hands the very power that hurt or robbed us.
What I call an avenging imaginary, on the other hand, tries to transform the feelings of vindictiveness or vengefulness into a profoundly transformative force. A true avenging of the crime and cruelty that was exacted upon us is to abolish the form of power that allowed that harm to be done in the first place.
A very basic example of this: working people who are treated terribly by their bosses not only dream of revenge against their boss but are encouraged to dream of a day when they will be the boss, where they might be in some position where they can treat others as badly as they’ve been treated.
Alternatively, one might imagine that, were one so empowered, one’s revenge would be to be the proverbial “good boss,” of course leaving the structure of capitalism and bosses intact. Or maybe they will get rich or they will somehow escape their position and then the people that mistreated them will feel bad, because the person that they once mocked is now in a much higher position. Often dreams of revenge are nursed in the cradle to powerlessness and reflect the broader systems of domination.
An avenging imaginary on the other hand says: what if we abolished the kind of hierarchies and the kind of exploitation and oppression that we’re enduring now, rather than trying to seize that kind of power for ourselves? This would mean a real transformation of the way that power works, rather than simply changing the owners or beneficiaries of that power.
This dominant revenge fantasy you describe of becoming a boss — generally we have the waged worker in mind here, right? What about those who have historically at times been excluded or sidelined from this sphere? How do you see feminist perspectives in relation to the dynamics of revenge and avenging in terms of the domestic sphere and wider social relations?
Before looping back to the question of working class women’s politics of avenging, I want to preface it by saying two things. The first is that I think any honest assessment of actually-existing revenge politics right now needs to take as its starting point the fact that we continue to live through an epidemic of masculine revenge against women and trans and non-binary people. Statistically, the vast majority of acts of vengeance which take place on earth are men taking extrajudicial, violent revenge against women, usually family-members, or against non-binary people, usually for refusing to obey the gender or sexual expectations of patriarchy. This has been the case for a very long time.
The second point is that this patriarchal vengeance has long been accompanied by patriarchal cultural orders that have, ironically though tragically, ascribed irrational and socially destructive vengefulness onto women. This is not to deny that women — like all humans — do take revenge, sometimes justified, sometimes not. It is, however, to look at the myth-making around it.
Both patriarchal revenge and the myth-making about women’s revenge play a material role: patriarchal revenge — usually but not always exacted by men, usually but not exclusively on women — is a mechanism of the enforcement of gendered roles that are calibrated to sustain the exploitation of women in the household and formal economy on which capitalism depends.
The threat of queer and trans people to patriarchy is not only cultural; patriarchal revenge against these bodies aims to destroy the living threat they represent to these systems: that lives can be lived outside of what is taken to be the natural order of sex and gender, that other bodies and relationships and social forms are possible. Yet in spite of this, women and trans and non-binary people rarely actually take individualized revenge, despite the incredible injustices and unfairness inflicted upon them, and in spite of reactionary myths to the contrary.
Maybe this brings us to the qualities of feminist and queer organizing against systems of revenge like capitalism or cis/hetero-patriarchy. I think what you see consistently, throughout the history of many strands of feminist and queer struggle, is a refusal to simply appropriate the techniques and methods of capitalist and patriarchal power; such struggles are, as Angela Davis makes clear, interested in abolishing that form of power.
It’s not a real feminist demand to, for instance, simply seize state power, or to have more female CEOs, though recently so-called liberal feminism does indeed make such claims. The more radical feminist demand has been to transform the way in which society and human cooperation is organized and reproduced, beyond the vengeful forms of coercive power characteristic of capitalism and patriarchy and the freelance vengeance required for their reproduction.
I take a lot from these feminist traditions, which I would classify as avenging, although for various reasons not a lot of feminist theorists or organizers have necessarily embraced the language of revenge, perhaps because of the kind of opprobrium women’s revenge has come under over the centuries.
I think something very similar might be said about queer struggles as well: obviously queer revenge is not simply instituting a kind of vengeful homonormativity backed by violence. It is a much more capacious avenging through a liberation of our concepts and practices of love, community, social bonding and affective expression that abolishes the cis/hetero-patriarchal system which takes its explicit and subtle revenges against queer people every day.
You’ve stressed that we don’t have lots of examples of individual revenge against patriarchal violence, and that feminists have been very direct about the need to abolish, not reform, oppressive structures. This resonates with a CLR James quote you use in an early chapter: “The cruelties of property and privilege are always more ferocious than the revenges of poverty and oppression… When history is written the way it ought to be written, it is the moderation and long patience of the masses at which men will wonder, not their ferocity.”
That quote comes from James’s The Black Jacobins, a history of the Haitian Revolution and its importance to world thought and politics. James makes the point throughout the book that, in the dominant white European and American dominant imaginaries of the day, the Haitian Revolution was seen — even until the publication of his book — as a kind of bestial, inchoate and wrathful revenge.
Again, to be clear about the context, in the early 1800s enslaved Black people in the French colony of Saint-Domingue — which would be renamed Haiti after the revolution — as well as the mixed-race Mulatto class, rose up against French colonial rule. Inspired in some ways by rumors of the French Revolution, the uprising would go on to abolish slavery and ending the racial hierarchies that had been imposed within Haiti as part of the colonial order.
The revolution was extremely bloody and led to the establishment of the first nation-state created out of a successful uprising of the enslaved. The Haitian Revolution was seen by Europeans and white Americans as this kind of brutal, bestial form of revenge, largely because, in their racist imaginations, Black people could not be responsible political subjects with complex yearnings for things like liberté, égalité, fraternité.
James’ quotation alerts us to two things. In the first instance, the European imaginary of the Haitian Revolution as a kind of meaningless festival of blood masked the fact that the everyday, normalized sadism of slavery and racial ordering that had existed on Saint-Domingue until the revolution was much, much worse. The absolute lowest depths of human depravity were mined by the slave-owning class; what they did sears the imagination with images that one can’t unsee, a daily, grinding, sadistic, needless cruelty. The violence and revenge of the revolutionary moment then, needs to be contextualized within what had, at that point, been 300 years of normalized, institutionalized revenge and torture on the island. James is very careful to catalogue these horrors that were exacted by the slave-owners precisely to make his point.
The cruelty and sadism of the French slave regime on Saint-Domingue, and other slave regimes in Jamaica and in other colonies in the Caribbean and elsewhere, was justified in part because of the idea, propounded among the slave-owners and their supporters, that Black people were inherently and pathologically vengeful. If they, the slavers, let the boot up from their neck for a moment, revenge would be swift. And so pre-emptive, pre-eventive revenge was normalized as necessary.
The slave-owning class was able to hide their own vengefulness by projecting it onto their Other. I return to this pattern multiple times in my book, though it’s not altogether an original point, having been made in a different way by Fanon with regards to questions of violence.
Revenge Capitalism was published a few months into the COVID-19 pandemic and includes some of your thoughts on this and the “new normal” we might be facing. Added to this we have the huge uprisings in the wake of the murder of George Floyd. How does the current moment look in terms of capitalism’s vengefulness and a potential politics of avenging?
I think what both the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd and others have done is to once again reveal the naked vengefulness of racial capitalism for all to see. In the case of the pandemic, the rates of suffering and mortality from the disease, and the rates of economic precarity it has exacerbated, track very closely to the often-unspoken value hierarchies of life within the merciless form of capitalism that we endure today. In the United Kingdom or the United States, Black and racialized people are suffering at much higher rates. Proletarians, working paycheck to paycheck, are being hit hardest.
Once again, this so-called natural disaster is anything but “natural.” It is a disaster that emerges from revenge capitalism and it reaffirms and re-entrenches revenge capitalism. Again, here the vengeance is the systemic outcome, not the explicit intent, though of course we have the old Malthusians creeping into public discourse, arguing in various ways that death, poverty and pain are somehow all for the best.
I think the context of the pandemic and the systemic revenge it reveals helps explain why the murder of George Floyd has kicked off huge demonstrations not only in the United States but all around the world. First and foremost they are demonstrations for the value of Black lives, but in a way they stand in for, and demand, a kind of re-evaluation of the value of life beyond the hierarchies and metric of global racial capitalism. And that’s why I think so many people identify with them, even if they’re not Black or from the United States.
The police murder of George Floyd revealed that the United States is not finished with taking revenge on Black people for being Black. It has been the modus operandi of the United States since the British colonial period, which was built on slavery and on recruiting elements of the non-Black working class population into a fidelity to American capitalism in part through anti-Black racism.
In a strange way, completely unwarranted and often sadistic, spectacularized revenge against Black people has been the means by which certain forms of class compromise have been secured, which has allowed the United States to turn into the world’s pre-eminent superpower. So systemic anti-Black revenge is in a sense a global question.
That revenge continues apace. It’s a revenge that is sometimes systemic and structural in the forms of poverty, ill-health and environmental racism that Black people in the United States are made to endure, as well as worse access to health services, social services, educational services and the like. But it’s also a systemic revenge that often rears its head as vigilante or freelance violence by police, by military, and everyday white people, who entitle themselves to enact forms of anti-Black violence, for a whole variety of trumped-up reasons.
When we zoom out far enough we can recognize this pattern of anti-Black revenge at the core of the United States national economy, from housing to labor to the military to health. And it has to be admitted that this is not just a kind of cultural pathology of the United States. It has been integral to the formation and the sustenance of the United States capitalist economy and, via that, the world economy, which today continues to pivot around the United States, though perhaps that’s shifting.
That’s to say nothing of the way that other colonial powers historically have benefited from the enslavement of Black people and from regimes of exploitation and extraction based on racialized violence. We could also point to, for instance, the British exploitation of the subcontinent of India, or of North-American Indigenous people and on and on and on and on. The myth of the vengeful Other has been used in all these cases to justify the normalized, banalized and acceptable vengeance of regimes of racial oppression and exploitation.
You say in the preface that much of what you see where you live in the city of Thunder Bay embodies this systemic revenge. You’re involved there with a community platform, Wiindo Debwe Mosewin. Could you talk about that work a bit and how this has influenced your perspective?
Thunder Bay is a small, remote Canadian city that, to cut a long story short, vies to be the nation’s “capital” of racism, murder and violence. Recent independent government reports have found widespread systemic racism in the city’s police and other bodies.
Wiindo Debwe Mosewin is an all-volunteer feminist, abolitionist street patrol. It’s run by both Indigenous Anishinaabe people and non-Indigenous people (like me) here in the city. And its work is generally to patrol the streets, through a variety of means: we drive around in cars or trucks or on bikes or in kayaks. We simply try and keep people safe in a number of different ways. Sometimes we hand out food and water to people. We ask after people. We carry naloxone (narcan) kits in case people are having overdoses because opioids are a huge problem here. We’re trained in nonviolent de-escalation tactics and we do a variety of other activities simply to, as we put it, produce safety in our community.
We’re inspired, on the one hand, by the long legacy of abolitionist ideas that come largely out of the Black radical tradition, mostly in the US, which encourage us to begin the work now to produce the alternative forms of community safety and care that are going to replace police and prisons. But the other major influence is Indigenous governance systems. The terminology here gets a little bit difficult in English because the language is obsessed with very clear distinctions between realms of politics, spirituality, science and art. Within Anishinaabe thought, as Leanne Betasamosake Simpson makes clear, those lines are not in any way drawn in the same way and there is an awareness of fluidity.
So Indigenous governance as we practice it in Wiindo Debwe Mosewin, for instance, instructs us that we work with a millennia-old clan system that the Anishinaabe have developed in order to orchestrate a kind of division of social labor to reproduce society based on values of care, peace, autonomy and reciprocity. We work with various forms of traditional healing — both in terms of the use of plant medicines but also in terms of ceremonies that help people overcome trauma and pain. We are trying to practice “two-eyed seeing”: merging non-Indigenous theories and ways with radical Indigenous world-views and practices. We practice a kind of “sous-veillance,” a careful watching of power “from below.”
There are a number of ways in which this work has influenced Revenge Capitalism. One is that I’m living in a place where colonialism is still being waged in all of its naked violence. In the last few weeks we just had another Indigenous person die in custody at the jail here, and nobody asks any questions. The rates of overdose from opioids are staggering. We just had another report — and we get reports all the time — of Indigenous people being beaten up by the police, or just by white people driving around, beaten up for sport.
This occurs in a context where the Canadian nation state, in spite of claims to a kind of neoliberal “reconciliation” with Indigenous people and an official policy of gentle multiculturalism, depends on this violence in order to continue to enact the kinds of resource extractive regimes that are the bedrock of its capitalist political economy: mining, pipelines, building new highways, new railways.
This has always been the political economy of Canada, and it is, as Patrick Wolfe observed, dependent on the elimination of Indigenous people as land-based, sovereign peoples. So I have a horrifying front-row seat to observe precisely how vengeful capitalism can be at its colonial frontiers.
Second, in being directly involved with a group like this, which has as one of its tasks to observe and catalogue police violence especially against Indigenous people, I see how an apparatus that commits itself to law and order can actually act vengefully, though no one necessarily intends that vengeance or would admit it. Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore and other abolitionist thinkers in the United States have already alerted us to the fact that prisons and their associated carceral apparatus are — profitable — mechanisms of retribution rather than civil protection, let alone healing and reform.
In a similar way, the kinds of revenge politics that I talk about throughout the book operate largely anonymously and silently, through systems and structures. And on the flipside, the police in Thunder Bay, like everywhere, advertize themselves as necessary to prevent revenge. The great lie of the state-form and its police is that without them, society would descend into “barbarism,” which is silently defined as the unmitigated and constant eruption of revenge.
Finally, here in Thunder Bay, and through Wiindo Debwe Mosewin, I’ve been exposed to some of the ways in which Indigenous cultures have, for millennia, created frameworks for healing, for conflict resolution, and for thinking about caring for each other and caring for society that don’t rely on top-down oppressive forms of power, and are not vengeful.
These methods are, in fact, about curing and overcoming vengefulness in order to create the greater good. It’s a very different model of thinking about law and thinking about justice and thinking about solidarity. I want to stress, however, that I have only glimpsed such frameworks and practices by proximity and would certainly not claim to in any way comprehend them, except by contrast to what is today the colonial norm.
Your whole framework is very much informed by abolitionist thought, stemming mostly from the Black radical tradition in North America as I understand it. One aspect of this is the call for treason to whiteness; could you give an historical or contemporary example of how this looks in practice? There’s a risk this call can be reduced to simply another slogan or can seem just vague or overly abstract.
The example I would take from my own context is that just before the pandemic Canada was in a massive national uprising against oil and gas — including fracked gas — pipelines, which had become extremely charismatic and successful in shutting down large swathes of the country in protest. It was centered around the struggle of a particular Indigenous nation, the Wet’suwet’en, in the Westernmost province of British Columbia, but it had broadened out to massive movements throughout the nation-state.
Indigenous people and, importantly, many non-Indigenous people were blockading highways and railways and occupying government offices and the private property of corporations. This massive and historical uprising was, in fact, threatening to unseat the reigning government. Sadly, given the ecology of global news media, this uprising received little attention, but was much more threatening to power in many ways than the more widely-covered — and also very important — Standing Rock protests south of the border in 2016.
First and foremost, this was an expression of a new generation of Indigenous struggle that is profoundly well-organized, militant and strategic. But I think it’s also a great example of non-Indigenous people in Canada putting their bodies on the line and breaking ranks with the kind of racial capitalist and colonial order of the country.
We are, in a sense, saying that, in fact, our futures depend on Indigenous rights — not simply rights under the Canadian constitution within liberal capitalist democracy, but rights derived from Indigenous sovereignty and which are based on a completely different relationship to land and community beyond the liberal capitalist norm.
That, to me, is a kind of treason against whiteness, and it is important to stress that much of the leadership among non-Indigenous people in these movements do not benefit from whiteness. When I speak of treason to whiteness, a term I take up from a longer history of abolitionist thought in the United States, I am speaking of treason towards the structuring ideal of whiteness, the horizon of whiteness.
Canada as a project — even before it was officially an independent nation — was founded on settler colonialism: the elimination of Indigenous people to make way for white settlement and resource extraction. Today, that settler colonialism has been predicated on a kind of state-sponsored multiculturalism, where so long as Canadians from a whole variety of different backgrounds are willing to accept that their future is playing a role in a system of capitalism based on resource exploitation and the exploitation of labor, then everybody has a place.
Of course, it is a forked-tongued promise, because non-white Canadians still suffer profound racism in all sorts of different ways, and there is profound racism in the immigration system which permits certain bodies to even become “Canadian” in the first place. But the myth in Canada is that as long as you come here and you work hard and you contribute to the kind of mainstream capitalist society that is based on the seizure of Indigenous land and the exploitation of Indigenous territories, then you are welcome. This is the horizon of whiteness I am speaking of, of which my family, for instance, are the beneficiaries — today having “become white,” though once they would not have been accepted as such.
What we saw in those uprisings was a mass treason to that mythology, to the mythology of white-led multiculturalism that has been the mainstay of Canadian politics for the last 50 years, and is certainly central to the brand of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. Importantly, it’s not centered on a bunch of people who benefit from whiteness getting up and saying “we’re no longer white” or even “we’re so sorry for our white privilege,” but rather non-Indigenous people standing together with Indigenous people and saying “we demand a different future beyond racial capitalism, beyond the colonial project.” We do not know what that will look like, we are inventing it.
One concept I encountered for the first time in the book was reconcilophilia, which definitely gives a name to a very familiar process. You use it in relation to the palatable images of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, and a general top-down push to gloss over deep social conflicts as fully resolved in our times, no longer up for discussion.
Yes, I identify this tendency towards reconcilophilia with the representations of Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela. But I want to begin by saying that the reconcilophilia I’m identifying and critiquing is not about those revolutionaries themselves. I’m identifying the way that their legacies have been taken up. Each of those figures was a very complex, problematic historical figure in his own right, each with a sophisticated, contextual and historically specific political philosophy within which peace, reconciliation and forgiveness had a strategic place.
My critique of reconcilophilia is of a discourse, common on the left too, in which this complexity and history is erased in favor of the decontextualized fetishization of abstract ideals of forgiveness and non-violence. Such manoeuvres, which I think are actually the narcissism of the privileged, participate in a violent erasure of all of the other radicals in the milieu of these three revolutionaries who were presenting other strategies and whose activities were part of the context of these thinkers’ victories.
Who does the fetishization of these figures serve? My argument in the book is that, ultimately, it serves those who want to maintain and defend the status quo. It maintains the idea that true social change can’t happen through violence or anger, which is patently false, and, further, that those who are dissatisfied should satisfy themselves with using the established channels for social change, for instance electoral democracy.
The fetishization of these three figures is used as a kind of bludgeon to castigate and demonize anyone who says that these mainstream methods of creating change are not enough. Were those three revolutionary figures still alive, they would likely be horrified at the way in which their legacy has been manipulated to attack the very people that they would have stood in solidarity with, and in the hands of the very people who would have condemned them.
We’ve seen the way that the spirit of Dr Martin Luther King gets invoked by the most heinous racists in the United States in order to try and restore order, claiming he would have condemned the riots and uprisings. We’ve seen the way in which the legacy of Nelson Mandela, all his complexity reduced to a kind of liberal sloganeering, gets wielded in order to defend neocolonial regimes and belittle those who are standing up to them around the world.
There is a way that the love of the abstract ideal of reconciliation operates as a kind of vindictive tool in the hands of those who want to defend and maintain the status quo. This is a key point in Glen Coulthard’s excellent book Red Skin, White Masks in which he catalogues all the way Canadian settler colonialism is advanced through compelling Indigenous people to reconcile themselves with it, and the importance of resentment and refusal for opening new — or restoring old — methods of thinking and feeling together in revolutionary ways.
One theme of your book is the parallels today with the rise of Nazism and fascism in Europe in the 20th Century. You frame the working class up to that period as having had a kind of conscious drive to avenge. Could you discuss your reading of Walter Benjamin and his take on the complicity of the German Social Democrats of the time in paving the way for Nazism?
Walter Benjamin was a German Jewish philosopher and critic active in the 1920s and 30s who died while fleeing the Nazis in the early 1940s. He worked on his “Theses on the Philosophy of History” throughout the last years of his life and the text, in a way, acts as a summary of his final thoughts. It is a brilliant and quite moving essay that I’ve returned to many times.
The particular thing I draw on in this book is the following strange passage:
Not man or men but the struggling, oppressed [proletarian] class itself is the depository of historical knowledge. In Marx it appears as the last enslaved class, as the avenger that completes the task of liberation in the name of generations of the downtrodden. This conviction, which had a brief resurgence in the Spartacist group, has always been objectionable to Social Democrats. Within three decades they managed virtually to erase the name of Blanqui [the formidable “professional” French revolutionary of the 19th century], though it had been the rallying sound that had reverberated through the preceding century. Social Democracy thought fit to assign to the working class the role of the redeemer of future generations, in this way cutting the sinews of its greatest strength. This training made the working class forget both its hatred and its spirit of sacrifice, for both are nourished by the image of enslaved ancestors rather than that of liberated grandchildren.
To recap, the Social Democrats were the dominant workers’ political party in Germany. In the context of the First World War, there were splits within that party between a radical communist flank led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg called the Sparticists and a reformist, conservative flank led by Friedrich Ebert and others. As the First World War ground to a halt, there was a revolution in Germany that ousted the aristocracy and a section of the bourgeoisie, and the Social Democrats took power. But in order to take and maintain power, Ebert and the other leading Social Democrats essentially ordered the execution of Luxemburg and Liebknecht to prevent them from leading a full-scale communist revolution.
Now, one can never propose counterfactual histories conclusively, but it’s very likely that, had the Sparticists actually successfully had their revolution, the whole history of the world would have been very different. Had both Germany and Russia manifested communist governments, the Soviet Union might not have been led to take its fateful turn towards authoritarianism and militarism, and many other countries might have also had communist revolutions in that period, thanks to the support of these two nations. The 20th century might have been completely different.
In any case, 20 years after the murder of the Sparticist leadership, when Benjamin is writing the “Theses on the Philosophy of History” under the cloud of Nazi rule, he returns to this moment, arguing that not only did the Social Democrats quench the revolutionary moment, they also did something that would eventually lead to the rise of the Nazis: they momentarily placated the working class by insisting that, essentially, the movement towards their liberation would come through reformist progress and the march of technology.
But, as Benjamin writes, “this cuts the sinews of its greatest strength,” a resentment and spirit of sacrifice that have always animated working class struggle in some way. He goes on to say that the revolutionary dream of the working class is not only of liberated grandchildren but of avenged ancestors: Capitalism and systems of domination need to be made to pay for all of the generations upon generations of struggle that have been quashed and destroyed, for the accumulation of misery they represent. I’ve always found this passage extremely enigmatic and really promising and I think it speaks to at least two things.
On the one hand, I think what Benjamin is saying is that, when the Social Democrats refused to take up this proletarian spirit of vengeance and sacrifice and mobilize them towards collective liberation, these spirits or affects became resources for the authoritarian imagination. Vengeance, of course, was perhaps the key affect of Nazism even if, like today, fascists and racists then wrapped themselves in the flag of “love” of the nation and the race.
But what is that avenging of the ancestors that Benjamin is speaking of? We can interpret it in a very direct sense as the actual avenging of the lives of parents and grandparents or children or other loved-ones who literally starved in the late-teens and early twenties of the 20th century because of various capitalist cruelties, domestic or foreign. And we can talk about the “legitimate desire for revenge” — to quote Fanon — that working people might have towards their bosses and other people who constantly fuck them over. But I think Benjamin is not just talking about the particular targets or acts of revenge; he is also talking about avenging as a kind of revolutionary overturning of society so that the kind of violence and cruelty that has been exacted upon you, as an oppressed or exploited person, can never be enacted on anyone else ever again.
The deepest form of revenge against capitalism isn’t just to line a bunch of capitalists up against a wall and shoot them, because, of course, those same guns will soon be used upon you or your comrades. Rather, a true avenging it is to abolish the source of capitalism and of capitalists to begin with, to radically transform the nature of power
Finally, staying with the topic of anger, and the pressures to deny, contain, or manage excesses of anger — could you touch on how you look at this towards the end of the book? You engage with the question of the anger of the marginalized, the oppressed, particularly from abolitionist and feminist perspectives, but also that of certain increasingly precarious and outright reactionary white populations.
In the book I try to draw a line between revenge and anger. They’re obviously connected, but it’s useful to hold them apart for critical and political reasons. In the book’s conclusion I engage with the Black feminist tradition, of thinking through the “uses of anger,” to paraphrase Audre Lorde, and the importance of dwelling with anger and learning from anger, which she and bell hooks propose.
What I think both of them suggest is that there’s a strong tendency to try and quash anger and to sweep anger under the rug because we think it looks bad in movements. But the question is, to whom does it look bad, and — to go back to Benjamin’s question — what is risked when we insist that anger be banished? Neither of them speak about revenge explicitly that I could find, but I think both speak more generally to the histories of feminist thought about how to respond to power and domination.
As we discussed, there is a long history of white supremacist cis/hetero-patriarchal capitalism weilding the accusation of revenge against its Others as a way to disguise and normalize its of banal and unceasing revenge, and for perhaps this reason these thinkers rarely engage the term directly. But I take from their work inspiration for my own attempt to separate out this notion of avenging in contrast to revenge.
Avenging is not about seizing power and exacting harm on those who created or benefited from systems of oppression. Rather, it strives to abolish the source of harm and oppression in the first place. I think both hooks and Lorde are suggesting that we need to develop structures and capacities for anger that allow us to move towards this kind of avenging.
At the same time, I think we are called to engage also with the rage of the entitled, the so-called “privileged,” and those who are the beneficiaries of systems of power. The success of right-wing politicians of late has been, in part, their ability to whip up and harness that anger. It is, of course, misdirected, but ultimately it emerges from a circumstance of pain, alienation and uncertainty.
One of the examples I use in the book is the opioid crisis in the United States, which has so far claimed the lives of at least half a million people in that country, and claims dozens of lives every year in Thunder Bay. It has affected Americans from all backgrounds, but for various reasons it has been presented as almost exclusively affecting poor white people, part of the staggering and sorrowful rise of so-called “deaths from despair” that has seen life expectancy drop among middle and working class white people in many US jurisdictions.
One of the things I argue in the book is that we need to recognize that the epidemic of prescription opioid use in the US thrived in contexts where white people felt alienated, or where they’ve been rendered surplussed by capitalism, for instance in Appalachia or the Rust Belt. Deindustrialization has essentially left many people without a meaningful means to contribute to their society and they are increasingly dependent on various forms of government aid. These are white people who imagined that they were entitled to a kind of belonging and security within the racial capitalist state, that a promise is now being betrayed. In the absence of structural analysis of capitalism it is very easily whipped into a kind of racist lather of political anger by the likes of Donald Trump, and the kind of media properties like Fox News, on which he depends and in which his fate is entangled.
I think what we need to reckon with is the fact that on the one hand, yes, the sources of the anger are real: the existential experience of being basically forgotten and abandoned by society is a real experience for those people. So, too, is the real experience of people who are even not so economically precarious but simply are alienated, deeply alienated, even by their success within the racial capitalist order. For instance, those who are increasingly addicted to prescription opioids in exurbs of major cities or in the suburbs, who actually are not doing that badly relative to other Americans, and yet who still feel that their life is meaningless and boring and has nothing to offer.
We need to somehow, on the one hand, be able to acknowledge and even to a degree sympathize with that pain, at the very same time that we’re able to hold in our minds the reality that the reason why many racialized people, and especially Black people, in the United States are not feeling alienated and betrayed by the American Dream is because they never were allowed to enjoy it in the first place. And that in fact the American Dream that is now being denied to so many white people, if it ever existed, was based on its denial to so many others. And, indeed, that revenge for the failure of the American Dream has historically often been exacted against non-white people not only in the realm of reactionary politics but also sickening freelance violence.
So there’s a sense that we need to be able to hold these multiple contradictory things together if we’re going to understand the complexity of the currents of racism and capitalism in our moment. It’s like complex climatic systems: even those with access to the best models and the most amazing super-computers have a difficult time modelling the effects of climate change because there’s so many factors, there’s so much going on.
There is a kind of constant work of trying to read the data, interpret the data, theorize the data, and come up with a conclusive picture. And yet, just in the same way that climate scientists don’t deny the effects of anthropogenic climate change just because they can’t create a perfect model, in the same way we can not deny the existence or the importance of the entanglement of racism, capitalism and patriarchy, simply because it’s too complex to theorize in one model. We need to somehow find ways of dwelling with that complexity, and sharing that complexity, and educating ourselves about it. And of course, acting.