Detail from the cover art of Beyond Market Dystopia: New Ways of Living, Socialist Register 2020
The world was a very different place when Robin DG Kelley’s renowned book Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination was first published in 2002. As the reality of post-9/11 America and the war on terror hardened into a dystopian, jingoistic consensus, and as the global economy careened towards impending catastrophe, the possibility of a future in which peace, justice, and equality reigned had all but disappeared. And yet, as people in the darkest of times throughout human history have done, many still had the audacity to dream of—and fight for—something better. Now, 20 years later, as we face the reality that unchecked capitalist pillage, endless war, and climate catastrophe have put humanity on a path to mutually assured destruction, the future seems bleaker than ever, and the possibility of averting disaster feels more unattainable than ever. How do we confront the enormity of all this devastation and still keep fighting? How can we keep hope alive that we can save ourselves, humanity, and the planet when the world around us gives us so little cause for hope? As we continue the impossible struggle for a better world, how do we deal with constant failure without succumbing to defeat?
In this special interview, TRNN Editor-in-Chief Maximillian Alvarez and Kelley grapple with these questions and discuss the continued necessity of freedom dreaming—and fighting like hell—in the face of catastrophe. Robin DG Kelley is currently the Distinguished Professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in US History in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research has explored the history of social movements in the US, the African diaspora, and Africa; Black intellectuals; music and visual culture; surrealism, and Marxism, among other vital topics. His essays have been published in general publications and academic journals across the board, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, The Nation, Monthly Review, New York Times, Color Lines, Social Text ,The Black Scholar, Journal of Palestine Studies, and Boston Review. He has authored and edited numerous influential books, including Africa Speaks, America Answers: Modern Jazz in Revolutionary Times; Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original; Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class; and Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression.
Maximillian Alvarez: Welcome, everyone, to The Real News Network. My name is Maximillian Alvarez. I’m the editor-in-chief here at The Real News, and it’s great to have you all with us. As you all know, here at The Real News we do our best week in, week out to not only report on the people, issues, and struggles that are so often forgotten by corporate media, and we also try to bring you the human voices and deeper context that get lost behind the headlines. From workers organizing in their workplaces, to the victims of the prison-industrial complex, to grassroots efforts by everyday people around the world who are fighting for a better world. But we also try to compliment that coverage with deeper conversations that help us unpack and interrogate the larger complex forces that have shaped our world into what it is, and that also help us do the hard work of imagining something better and getting there together.
We’re going to be bringing y’all more of these deeper conversations moving forward here at The Real News, and I, frankly, could not be more honored to be joined by our guest today to help us kick off that effort. I’m joined today by none other than professor Robin D.G. Kelley, a thinker, scholar, and activist whose work and heart and impact on the world truly need no introduction, but I’m going to do it anyway. So, professor Kelley is currently the distinguished professor and Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in US History in the Department of History at the University of California, Los Angeles. His research has explored the history of social movements in the US, the African diaspora and Africa, Black intellectuals, music and visual culture, surrealism, Marxism, among other vital topics.
You’d be hard pressed to find publications that have not featured professor Kelley’s work, but his essays have been published in general publications in academic journals across the board, including the Journal of American History, American Historical Review, The Nation, Monthly Review, The New York Times, Color Lines, Social Text, The Black Scholar, The Journal of Palestine Studies, and Boston Review. His authored and edited books are as incredible and invaluable as they are numerous. I won’t embarrass him by reading all of them, but some of the titles include Africa Speaks America Answers: Modern Jazz and Revolutionary Times; Thelonious Monk: The Life and Times of an American Original; Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination; Race Rebels: Culture, Politics, and the Black Working Class; and Hammer and Hoe: Alabama Communists During the Great Depression. Professor Kelley, Robin, thank you so much for joining me today.
Robin Kelley: Thank you so much. I’m such a big fan, so I’m kind of nervous.
Maximillian Alvarez: So I mean, that’s wild for me to hear, as a tremendous fan of yours who is also very nervous, but it genuinely is an honor to finally get a chance to talk to you. I know we’ve met briefly once in the past, and I feel myself, after things are happening in the world, always wondering what your thoughts would be and going back to your work for clarity. And so I thank you first as we start for all your amazing work, and thank you again for taking time to sit down and chat with me today. Now, I truly have so much that I want to talk to you about and I’ve been wanting to talk to you about for a long time. Folks watching may remember that when the Amazon union drive was happening in Bessemer, Alabama, there was a lot of attention happening there.
I went down to Bessemer to report on that and speak to some of the workers there and the organizers with the union. I know that a lot of people were looking to your past work for clarity and understanding about this struggle and about the history of Black workers’ struggles in Alabama. There was a lot there that I wanted to ask you about then, but as we speak, you have just finished writing a new introduction and epilogue to your world renowned book, Freedom Dreams, which was first published in 2002. And this new intro and epilogue is for the upcoming 20th anniversary edition. Now, Freedom Dreams has been cited and discussed and revered more times than I can count since its original publication, and that actually made it quite interesting for me to go back and look at the original copy that I have, and study the curiously sparse description on the back of the book.
And I guess for people who are watching or listening, here’s what the back of the book in the original edition says. So, it says, “Kelley unearths freedom dreams in this exciting history of renegade intellectuals and artists of the African diaspora in the 20th century. Focusing on the visions of activists from C.L.R. James to Aime Cesaire and Malcolm X, Kelley writes of the hope that communism offered, the mindscapes of surrealism, the transformative potential of radical feminism, and of the 400-year-old dream of reparations for slavery and Jim Crow.” Now, obviously the book is much more, much much more than that. And no back of the cover description can ever really do justice to work like Freedom Dreams. But I guess what made me smile when I was rereading this description was the thought that the book has become so much more itself over the past 18, 19 years.
And of course the context for the book’s reception, the world in which we live and dream, has changed tremendously in that time as well. And I know that it’s often a kind of standard interview question when reprinted editions come out, but given the fact that we just had the 20th anniversary of 9/11, preceded by the Biden administration announcing that it would be ending the 20-year US war in Afghanistan, I found myself really flexing my brain and trying really hard to think about the ways that our lives and our world have changed in that same period. And I know because I had the honor of reading your new introduction and epilogue to Freedom Dreams that you’ve been thinking a lot about this question, too. And so, I guess I wanted to start us off by asking what that process revealed to you, that process of trying to account for the changed worlds in which your book first appeared and is now going to be republished 20 years later.
Robin Kelley: Right, no, that’s a great question. And I need to change that back cover. I mean, I actually, I never, I don’t know if I ever read it, because I don’t write that copy. That’s the editors. But what I will say, though, is that, no, the exact context for writing that book, for pulling the book together, were sort of two events that really framed it. One was the murder and eventual acquittal of the police officers who killed Amadou Diallo. And it was literally participating in that demonstration down Fifth Avenue in February 2000 that inspired the book in the first place. And then you frame that with the election of George W. Bush, the stolen election of George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, the Homeland Security which predates the war in Afghanistan. I mean, they were preparing, they were gearing up for that, and then the war.
I finished the book literally after Barbara Lee had made her famous stance against authorization of the war, and the war was happening, bombs raining down in Afghanistan, and I’m writing it literally when this is happening. And it was also post 9/11. The immediate period of post 9/11 into the war was the context of thinking about the last 20 years, essentially from that moment. I always have to remind people that for all the assumptions about my sense of optimism and the sense that Freedom Dreams is simply about ignoring the reality we have and imagining a new one. On the contrary, it’s precisely the reality of war and violence, and would appear to be endless war and this Homeland Security, the war on terror, which of course came home very much in the streets against Muslims, South Asians, the war as it played out in Guantanamo Bay, all that, that’s the context for thinking about Freedom Dreams. Because, again, every one of the stories I focus on are moments in which movements are trying to imagine a different possibility in the midst of some of the worst excesses of racial capitalism.
Whether it’s the Jim Crow period, or the end of Reconstruction where the quest for a Black Homeland itself is a struggle against the, the right wing, or the bourbon Southern [oversold] reconstruction. The worst conditions produce the necessity to imagine something other than what they’re living, but then there’s the other part of it, is how do you make that happen? So if we take the last 20 years, what I’ve seen… I mean, there’s one narrative, which is not the narrative I accept, is we went from George W. Bush to the election of Barack Obama and the fulfillment of the dream. And look where we are now. And all these things have opened up. When, in fact, what we’ve seen is the consolidation of neoliberalism in a war empire overseen by the first Black president.
Every one of the stories I focus on are moments in which movements are trying to imagine a different possibility in the midst of some of the worst excesses of racial capitalism.
But with that comes the eruption of an anti-police, anti-state violence movement, an abolitionist movement under Obama. That’s the comment. That’s not to say it didn’t exist before that, but it erupts in that moment. It erupts in a moment of liberal democracy, a liberal democratic regime. So we have abolition, we have what I would argue is a research and labor movement. We get to the Amazon struggle not because it was magical, not only because of the pandemic, but because of all the organizing that emerged in the first part of the 20th century in spite of some of the AFL-CIO leadership. The fight for $15, for example. The rural workers in the South, the struggle around undocumented workers and the rights of migrant workers, which is a labor struggle. All this is happening in the early 20th century up until where we are now. Plus a continuation of antimilitarism, antiwar, the struggle against the war on terror and all that emerges.
And that’s why we can get to, in the spring of 2020, 26 million people in the streets, not all simply because of the live lynching of George Floyd or the killing of Breonna Taylor, but because of the mobilization that really began anti-Clinton, anti-Bush, and then continue anti-Obama resisting militarism, resisting the war on terror and militarism, and resisting the shrinking of labor rights and to continue upward reorganization of finance capital and tax policy, which then created even more massive inequalities than we had before. And of course, sandwiched in between that, as we know, I don’t have to say it, is Occupy, which was another blow against the neoliberal order. And if anyone says it’s a failure, I would beg to differ because many of the people came out of the Occupy movement went on to do some of this other work.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I mean, I think that the second decade of the 21st century, I think, really does provide an interesting frame for looking at the concept of freedom dreams. That these social movements that have erupted, but as you rightly point out, they didn’t erupt out of nowhere. I mean, there was a lot of deep organizing work that made these things happen, whether that be in the labor movement. Like I think about the Chicago teachers’ strike, and when was that? 2012? That happened because workers in that union said the union leadership isn’t doing crap, so we’re actually going to run for office. And they did, they took over the union, they gave it a more progressive heading, and they organized around that. And that’s what gave them the ability to strike the way that they did when they did.
Same thing goes for, like you said, the other movements against racial capitalism, and the violent police state, and the labor movement as it’s developed over the past 10 years. But in a lot of ways, those movements have emerged out of this horrifying reality, in which people have been forced to confront the reality that the dreams produced by this reality are not good enough for us. And that’s, I guess, to take a step back, that’s where I was sitting with this over the past few days, because it is really hard to put yourself back in the immediate post 9/11 period.
I think for anyone, like for me, as I’ve admitted many, many times before, I grew up very conservative, very Catholic. I saw in the… With the tweet storm and social media storm at the 20 year anniversary of 9/11, a lot of people were saying oh, I never bought into the hype. I was there in the streets and God bless the people who resisted that. I very much bought into it. I was there hook line and sinker, our family had Fox News on all the time. And I’ve talked on my podcast, Working People, and other interviews about our conservative upbringing. But the reason that I bring it up is that there’s always the… Even the concept of Freedom Dreams, right, is not necessarily value-laden either way.
There are very bad freedom dreams that many people have been sold on. And I think of Reagan and the dream of his America and the corporate and political and cultural consensus that built around that after the ’80s, my family was very much swept in that. For my family, for my father who was a Mexican immigrant, grew up dirt poor. I remember he was the first person I ever interviewed on my show Working People where I interview workers and talk to them, write about their lives and their jobs and dreams and struggles. I remember him saying very vividly that his mom died when he was six. He was split up from his siblings when he was eight, and they were brought over the United States separately, took a long time for them to reconnect, which was hard for us to see growing up because our tios and tías were all around, but they had been separate for a long time.
And I remember my dad saying that he was working at a car wash in high school, and he had this realization that he was like, this is not why my mom made my great grandma promise to bring me to the United States. I was meant to do more than this. And so the very first person my dad voted for when he became a citizen was Ronald Reagan. And because Reagan’s freedom dream fused itself to that immigrant dream like this, he was sold like so many people were, on this belief that if we follow this script, it will in fact free more of us to be the people that we want to be, to live the lives that we want to live. And I guess where I’m getting with this is that for me, and even for my dad and the rest of our family, I think that it was in the wake of the great recession that that dream finally crumbled. And the reality of the world that we were living in really started to set in. And I think that for me, at least, but I imagine for a lot of other people, that’s where that need to dream better or dream differently emerged in the second decade of the 21st century.
Robin Kelley: Right. Exactly. And that’s why social movements really matter because that dream could easily slip into another set of dreams. In other words, the crumbling of the economy, the collapse of the housing crisis, the whole mortgage crisis, that could easily translate into greater xenophobia. Arguments about we need better banks, not just bigger banks. In fact, part of the discourse around the subprime mortgage crisis was that it was these people of color who couldn’t afford, who are buying houses that they couldn’t afford. And then this is the explanation. But I think what made a difference is Occupy, for example, had a different language, a different discourse, a different way of framing the crisis. And by simply saying it’s the 1%, we are the 99%, we’re all victims of that, it gave a kind of class language and explanation for something that someone who’s fascist leaning could have easily flipped into a different kind of utopia to respond to it.
And that’s why I think about the second half of the 21st century and all the movements that emerged, some of them have [their] roots in the 90s, but I think not just Black Lives Matter, or groups like the new Poor People’s Campaign, for example, but I think about… I write about Detroit in my epilogue. And in Detroit, you have the Boggs Center to nurture community leadership. You have groups emerging like Eastside Solutionaries and all these different grassroots organizations that are saying look, we have a different understanding of the crisis. And in fact, we’re not going to play the game of only turning to the state for answers and for solutions. We’re going to figure out a way not to avoid the state, but to create those solutions on the ground, to take expertise back.
And so you get another way in which freedom dreams manifest itself. And that’s in the form of community gardens, cooperatives, abolitionist ways of reducing police presence in neighborhoods, certain kinds of community public safety, using community land trust, for example. That’s a state process to be able to take abandoned lands and properties and transform them into community based spaces, whether it’s for farming, housing, or whatever’s needed. And so what you end up getting is a kind of new architecture. And if Freedom Dreams is anything, it’s about actually collectively enacting a vision of society that you think is not just liberatory, but sustainable.
And that to me is where I see that the second half of… The first 20 years of the 21st century is very much about people creating these kinds of liberated zones, these spaces. Whether seasonal through electoral politics like in Jackson, Mississippi, for example, or through other means in Detroit, or through other means in here in LA, where they actually are practicing what they’re saying and giving an example of what it looks like to not have to rely on a fascist, a charismatic leader, elected officials to basically find solutions to these problems. It’s not a new idea because the anti-war, the anti-nuclear organizing in the 1980s was about stripping the Pentagon of expertise, and saying that we know about weapons, weapons are not good, and we’re not going to allow you to use the language of why we need to have peace through nuclear armaments. And we’re going to take that back and make some of these kinds of demands. And it was very effective.
So I think that if we always remember that freedom dreams is always collective, always related to social movements and social struggles, it’s discursive, in a sense. It’s always about trying to take back a narrative that says we have to be dependent on all these forces rather than we be the driver of these forces. That the state that we come to believe is so great.
Sometimes that state, not sometimes, but it’s very much a product of a fascist state, a corporate state, a colonial state. Which leads me to one last thing about this. One of the very exciting things that have happened in the 21st century, it’s not new, but it’s resurgent, and that is the struggle for decolonization. And I write about this as well where you have groups like the Red Nation, for example, which put out this amazing manifesto, the Red Deal, which for me, is one of the richest, most robust examples of what freedom dreams could look like that I’ve ever read and seen in practice. So, decolonization was not something that was always on our radar as something that was even realistic. We thought, okay, we did that. That was back in the ’60s and ’70s.
When of course we didn’t, obviously. So to make the demand in the midst of Jeff Bezos making all this money, in the myths of the Biden-Harris administration waging war on Haitians, and bombing Syria, and doing all this stuff. To say we need to decolonize Turtle Island and give the land back. That’s like, oh, that’s a pipe dream. Oh, no, it’s not. That is to freedom dreams that could open up possibilities for the whole nation, if not the world. And so those are the things I think are worth pursuing because it’s like a giant leap. A giant leap from saying oh, if we can only get the George Floyd Act passed, we can actually reduce harm on part of the police, versus give the land back. What does that mean?
So to me, that’s where I think I’m almost more excited, if not more, I hate hopeful, but I could see a much clearer, broader vision both in decolonization movements in basically gendered movements of nonconforming, non binary, transgender movements that, say, is opening up the possibility of decolonizing the body. I could see all these as real openings that go way beyond, I think, what we were talking about in 2002.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I agree that, I don’t know, whether you wanted to call it hopeful or just a positive development in this direction. That again is another reason why it’s useful to try to think, put yourself back into the shoes of your former self, and try to see yourself outside of yourself to evaluate how you and the world that you live in have changed in that time. When I said it was difficult, I always think about back when I was teaching at the University of Michigan, my students always loved the speech from David Foster Wallace where he gives this famous anecdote about two younger fish swimming in the ocean, an older fish swims past and he says morning boys, how’s the water? And the two younger fish go, they look at each other and they say, what the hell is water?
And there is so much of the reality that we live in that we’re soaked in that just seems like it was always there. And the very fact that you brought up Bessemer, the very fact that labor struggle like that would be international news, was unthinkable to myself in 2001. The very notion. I remember being on a jury where the cop was the one accused and during the voir dire process, the prosecutor asked everyone would you have trouble believing that a cop was lying? And old person after old person said yes, I can’t do it, and so they were kicked off the jury. The fact that more people have at least broken that unquestioned faith in the righteousness and good intentions of the police is significant.
But I wanted to ask what the essential political and even existential function is of that dreaming, because like you said and then you’ve said many times before, like I’m not preaching a wide-eyed optimism that ignores the reality that we’re in. I’m talking about the function that dreaming of a different world serves for people who were being crushed by the world in which they currently exist in. And I think that was a really beautiful example you brought up with Detroit, because I have this book of interviews that I did with workers during the height of the COVID pandemic last winter. And I interviewed this one amazing woman in Detroit, Courtney Smith, who’s originally from Iowa. She moved to Detroit. And I asked her, I was like, why did you move in the middle of a pandemic? She’s a single mom, grew up in poverty, and didn’t have any roots in Detroit.
And she was like, well, what I realized when I went there was that the apocalypse has already happened in Detroit. Capitalism has already destroyed Detroit. And so people there have had to learn to live together out of that rubble, and they’ve learned to rely on each other more than I’ve seen anywhere else in the country. And that really hit me. And it made me reflect on what that relationship is, that life-saving relationship between being amidst the apocalyptic reality in which there seems to be no way out, and dreaming better. I guess, how do you unpack that for folks?
Robin Kelley: Right. Right. That’s a great example. And in fact, if you don’t mind, let me try to unpack it with Detroit because it’s just such a great concrete example. And this is where, again, if there wasn’t a BOK Center, if there wasn’t a Feedom Freedom Growers, which is a collective farm, an amazing space which is not just a farm, but it’s almost like a school community center that’s run by Myrtle Curtis. Anyway, so you have that space. You have all these different spaces where people are trying to figure out how to turn this apocalyptic mass of Detroit dealing with bankruptcy, dealing with capital flight, dealing with just disinvestment in the city since 1967 and turn it into something. So they had to have a vision.
So it wasn’t just that trees just sprouted up through the abandoned buildings, which they did, but it’s like, how do we turn this into something? And that vision required people coming together, and whether it’s creating bookstores, having poetry readings, all of these farms that are basically networks of relationships, music culture, all this stuff is happening within this space. Some of that goes back to Detroit Summer, which was developed by the Boggs in 1992, and a lot of young people came through, there sort of like Freedom Summer from Mississippi, but they would do basic things like clean up, transform the neighborhood, teach young people how to grow food. And right now, the school district in Detroit, I think something like a third or maybe half of the food is organic food that’s grown locally by these farms.
So they figured out how to do this in a way that I think is amazing. You have the Detroit Food Justice Task Force. You also have people, artists, creating windmills that are used for public use. This is not for private use. Creating other forms of energy. Kids in high school coming up with experimental forms of producing energy so that they could be off the grid. And then of course the central story in Detroit has been a struggle around water. And this is where the late Charity Hicks is a very important figure in that she was an organizer. She and the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and a lot of different movements, I can’t name them all, were at the forefront of fighting the privatization of water both in Detroit, in Flint, in Highland Park.
And in that community organizing work, they were figuring out different ways to make sure that people could have affordable water and to resist privatization. So in doing all that work, they created new relationships with each other, new community, new forms of public safety. And all of this cannot have been done without strategy, without organizing, without collective work. And so for them, freedom dreaming is a practice. As I say, they turned the noun into a verb by putting into practice and figuring out what works and what doesn’t work. And so now a lot of people are moving to Detroit.
The point isn’t that everyone should have a garden. The point is that the work of gardening is a collective work of coming together to produce solutions to the crisis.
The problem is, and here’s the downside, is that as they transformed Detroit and make it sustainable and livable, now they’re fighting gentrification, now they’re fighting actual local policies by the neoliberal mayor who can mobilize the police to accidentally wreck some of the Black-owned collective, Black-run collective farms and then give subsidies to young white urban professionals to have their own farms, have their own gardens, which is not really the point. The point isn’t that everyone should have a garden. The point is that the work of gardening is a collective work of coming together to produce solutions to the crisis. And this whole time to think about how to be sustainable, how to have clean energy, and how to create spaces where people can live in livable homes. And so all that’s happening as we speak, literally, it has been happening even before there was much talk about the impending climate crisis. I mean, they’ve been doing this for 40, 50 years.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. I mean, I suppose it’s the elephant in the room, but it’s really going to be the elephant in the room for every conversation that we have for the rest of our lifetimes. Right? There is no conversation from which the reality of climate change is absent. And I think that that’s a really important reality for us to all sit with, but it does, especially when I think about climate change and the disastrous future that we are hurtling towards and that in many ways we are already starting to experience. It does make me circle back to that question of the essential political and existential function of dreaming. And I guess I’ll try to explain what I mean by that for viewers and listeners.
Let’s talk about Bessemer for a second, because we brought that up. And I know that it was something that we were all invested in. It was a portal through which we collectively, many of us, were momentarily allowed to dream of what the future could look like if this emerging or emergent behemoth of Amazon had more democratic control, if workers had more collective power and more say over their workplaces, over how the economy is run so on and so forth. And in the wake of the union defeat, which, granted, we now know Amazon did a lot of underhanded and illegal shit, but in a lot of ways, the goal was essentially achieved, to squash that unionization effort.
There was this uncomfortable chorus that emerged after that union defeat by folks in the labor movement or adjacent to the labor movement kind of berating those of us who invested hope in this struggle and the people fighting there in Bessemer, berating us for essentially dreaming too much, for imbuing this struggle with too much, because they feared that the ensuing demoralization after this defeat was going to set us back even farther. And that’s something that I’ve been sitting with quite a lot. I have tons of disagreements with that take, whether it be from Jane McAlevey or others, but I think that it does hinge on something that I myself have preached quite a bit. And I’m trying to thread these things together. Because I tend to believe, even in my most cynical moments, that people do genuinely want to live in a more just and equitable and sustainable society.
And I do believe that is what drives things like the moral outrage that we saw last month when Haitian refugees were being brutalized at the US-Mexico border, when we see images of police terrorizing Black and Brown people around the country, there’s a well of goodness that that outrage comes from. But I think that so many people, especially in the United States, so many people in this country have an aversion to caring more than that and to trying and investing more in the fight to change it. Not because we’re unfeeling, not because we’re callous, but because we’ve been well-trained in how much it hurts to be disappointed by a system that refuses to budge against our pleas. And so, if you see this horror, and you invest in the humanity of the people who are being brutalized by the system, and you desperately want to believe that it can be changed, and the system does what it always does, which is try to push that hope back, try to tell you to shut up and that this is the only way things can be, that hurts. That does demoralize you in a lot of ways.
Just like I can understand the fear that a demoralization after a significant labor defeat could set the labor movement back. But I guess to tie this all together, it does make me think about again, how lifesaving and essential that dreaming is when you are in the midst of something that is so unbearable. I remember this, one of my favorite quotes from Nietzsche, in I think it’s The Gay Science, where he has this quote where he said, “I woke in the midst of this dream, but only to the realization that I myself was dreaming and that I have to go on dreaming lest I perish just like a sleepwalker has to go on dreaming lest he fall.”
I always took, like, a, like, emo, like, Nietzschean understanding of that, right? That everything is a concocted false reality, yada, yada, yada, and that you have to participate in the fiction to live. But I actually now, in the context of everything that we’re discussing, and rereading your book, I actually have a different take on that. Like that to not dream, to have that dreaming beaten out of you is what death looks like. That is when the game is up.
Robin Kelley: That is true. And in fact, could you imagine the alternative scenario that is if the union in Bessemer decided, you know what? Strategically, we’re probably not going to win this so we shouldn’t even try, we wouldn’t be talking about it. But with the world wouldn’t have been mobilizing around this particular campaign even though it might’ve been a loss in the short run. I mean, think about what… Well, just two things: think about what they won, and then secondly, think about what they were up against. So part of what they won was, I don’t think that the Warrior Met mine strike, which involved 1100 mine workers in Tuscaloosa would have… They [wouldn’t] have gone on strike had it not been for the Amazon campaign. I mean, we wouldn’t even know about the Warrior mine strike, which was really an intense struggle at the… They emerged around the same time, because of all the attention that was directed at Bessemer, that part of Alabama.
And I think that’s really, really important. It was a David-Goliath story and if you read C.L.R James enough, you realize that losses are wins as well. But if you think about the struggle in a protracted way, that there were really important lessons that were learned about the capacity of Amazon to spend huge amounts of money to defeat the union. I mean, the union couldn’t have been that weak. If it was that weak, why spend $10,000 a day, right? On consultants and on basically a kind of warfare, which turned out to be illegal. I mean, that’s the thing. They get cited. Amazon gets cited for illegal labor practices in terms of their anti-union activity. So there’s that.
The other thing which I think is really, really important is that this is where politics comes in, and power comes in. It’s really important to be able to dream about the capacity to transform this really oppressive workplace into something that’s useful and helpful. That’s something that’s uplifting, jobs that actually can pay not just a living wage, but not damage the body. These are just basic. These are not like… They’re not even saying we want workers’ control and to own Amazon. That’s another thing. They’re saying, we want decent wages and working conditions. And to say that that’s like a dream, to me is this really tamping down.
But having said that, one of the things that allowed Amazon to win was a history of right-to-work state and anti-union laws that were in the books from 1953. So if you take a long view of the historical context, the Cold War, Cold War repression, Jim Crow, all this stuff made possible an anti-union regime, which is not reflective of the people of Alabama. It’s reflective of those who rule. And that regime with the right wing turn and Trumpism consolidated itself in 2016 by being able to make that law a constitutional amendment.
And so, you basically are going against the hardest nut to crack. Why is that? So, well, we shouldn’t have done that. We should have picked an easier spot. Well, when Dr. King and SCLC decided, we’re going to try to de-segregate the South, we’re gonna go to the hardest nut to crack, that’s Birmingham. And that’s where they went. And they didn’t win immediately, but I tell you one thing, what they won in Birmingham in ’63 may have created the conditions for another emergent labor movement in the ’70s and ’80s, which laid the foundation for what happened at Amazon.
If we think of the struggle, as Vincent Harding would call it, a river, then we have no choice but to imagine where that river is going to go, because if you don’t know, we can’t just let the current take us. We’ve got to navigate it. And when you navigate it, then you’ve got to try to know exactly where you’re going and why are you going there? And I just, I think, to me, this is really fundamental in separating out the new age way of wishing and hoping and dreaming something good happen, and actually figuring out strategically how to make that happen, and why. Because as you take that journey, things start to shift and change.
Maximillian Alvarez: Right. And I think that again, I guess maybe whether we’re talking about the labor movement as such, whether we’re talking about movements for racial justice, movements for decolonization, and movements to deal with, adequately, the reality of climate catastrophe. I suppose the real thing to point out to people is the forces, like you said, the forces that are driving this, they’re happening. Whether we want to talk about, I don’t know, like… Strategy is essential, strategy is not a choice. Because the world is pushing you towards this end, whether you want to or not. So in a lot of ways you have no choice but to fight. You have no choice but to strategize. You have no choice.
Well, I mean, I guess the one choice is between doing that or just yeah, laying down and letting the river take you where it will, but we know where that’s going. It’s speeding up towards the waterfall, so yeah, you can do it if you want. But don’t delude yourself into thinking that the same powers that brought us to this situation are going to somehow craft a solution to it. Whether we’re looking at the police state, whether we’re looking at the reality of climate change, what evidence do you currently have to suggest that, again, that technocratic ruling class that wants you to believe that it has your best interest in mind, and that it will direct society towards where it needs to go, is going to come up with a solution that is going to avert a truly apocalyptic climate catastrophe in our future?
And so this is by way of, I suppose, [rounding this out], I can’t thank you enough for your time, but I know I don’t want to keep you for too long, but in a lot of ways I’ve been building up to asking the main question here. Because it was a question that I had when I was watching your appearances after the Bessemer election. It’s a question that I’ve had ever since. And it’s one that I feel like you’ve studied really in depth and have spoken about very beautifully. But it’s an essential question. This isn’t just a historiography question. This is a question of how do we face up to that task? How do we make it happen? How do we do in the face of that destruction? And I suppose the question, put bluntly, whether it be Bessemer, whether it be the Paris Climate Accords, or a general election, or what have you. How do we deal with failure without succumbing to defeat?
Robin Kelley: So how do we deal with failure without succumbing to defeat? That’s a hard question, and yet the irony in all of this in terms of my answer is that I would turn to the great surrealist writer, Peter Naville, who coined the term ‘revolutionary pessimism.’ Of course, pessimism, the P-word, people don’t associate that with me. In certain ways, the P-word really is not associated with me. That’s another debate. But when he talks about revolutionary pessimism, he’s saying we can’t be fatalistic. And so, part of that sense of defeat is the failures and saying at resignation that there’s no way we can win. We keep losing. There’s no way we can win. Instead, it’s a recognition that winning is really hard, and it’s really hard because we’re up against a catastrophe. So it’s not just Naville, it’s people like Walter Benjamin and others who are dealing with fascism, and they’re like, we see the catastrophe.
But what they were rejecting was two different kinds of optimisms: One that says, look, you just have to… The arc of justice bends. The arc bends towards justice. You just have to keep going and keep electing people. And that this is a social democratic idea that you can elect socialism to power. And so what they’re up against is like the [inaudible] and the social Democrats to say, well, you just have to build the party and keep working at it and get your people in office. And we can do this slowly in the evolutionary way. And they’re like no, that doesn’t work. The second optimism was just the optimism, the Stalinist. Say look, no, we got a social state, we got a five-year plan. In five years, we’re going to basically eliminate unemployment. We’re going to eliminate poverty. We’re going to do this. And they’re like no, that’s an optimism that’s also not democratic, nor is it transformative.
We need a pessimism that says this is a catastrophe so therefore we have no choice but to fight. We have no choice but to fight. It’s not as if we have the luxury to give up. We can’t. It’s like, we’re pushing back against the barriers that are about to crush us. So if we say you know what? We’re defeated. We don’t have a choice. We just don’t. And we’ve been in those situations where… I mean, I don’t know. I’ve been in situations with just a wild dog, and I’m trying to deal with the dog, and I [don’t like] dogs. I was like, I could either stand here and try to fight the dog and try to get control. Or just bite me. Whatever.
We need a pessimism that says this is a catastrophe so therefore we have no choice but to fight.
And I think it’s really important to recognize that once we know that we’re up against catastrophes that will, as you had said before, if we let the river flow, we know where we’re going to end up. We don’t have the luxury for defeat. What we can do though, is celebrate the wins, recognize that winning sometimes doesn’t mean winning a campaign, but it means finding ways to be together and stay together and engage in forms, in what Fred Moten and Stefano Harney called ‘fugitive planning,’ and then we live another day to keep that fight going. Because there’s something about the process that transforms us. It makes us in some ways, both steel, S-T-E-E-L, but also makes us soft, open hearts. Being able to absorb and love and care about one another. And sometimes in the middle of the barricades, your ability to care for another, or care for the community, or be cared for, and to accept that is the greatest victory you’re going to have.
And that to me is, this is how we live our lives. And I’ve seen that before. I see it in all these places I talk about. And I’ve seen in every single one of those movements I write about in Freedom Dreams. The capacity to say look, we may be dealing with the worst of it. We may have lost it by the vote. We may have lost our land. We may be in cages. We may be fighting, fighting, fighting in the middle of a depression, or fighting a war that just seems like it’s endless. But we still find ways to be together and fight the next day knowing that we’re accountable to these movements, we’re accountable to the people that we claim to represent. And if we don’t fight, then who’s going to do it, and what’s going to happen? The outcome. So that’s my answer to the question, which is that it’s what it is.
Maximillian Alvarez: It’s what it is. And again, I could truly talk to you for hours, but I want to be respectful of your time. So that is professor, author, activist, all around incredible person Robin D.G. Kelley. Robin, thank you so much for joining me today.
Robin Kelley: Maximillian, thank you so much. I really appreciate it and I look forward to more conversations.
Maximillian Alvarez: Likewise, brother. And to everyone watching this, Maximillian Alvarez at The Real News Network. Thank you so much for watching. And before you leave, please head on over to therealnews.com/support. Become a sustainer of our work so we can keep bringing you conversations and coverage just like this. Thanks so much for watching.
Source: The Real News Network, October 18, 2021, https://therealnews.com/robin-dg-kelley-on-fighting-for-freedom-in-the-darkness-of-capitalist-dystopia