Life in Hell: How Capitali$m $aving Capitali$m From Capitali$m Should Fire Our Political Imagination


Professor Ruthie Gilmore, USC

“There is one black man serving a term in the White House, and about one million black men serving terms in the big house...”  

Speaking before a packed house, Professor Ruthie Gilmore, USC, argued that U.S. capitalism has created a climate of ongoing financial disaster and prolonged systemic inequity. Working class people are working harder than before, but are also receiving fewer public benefits, such as affordable access to higher education. Why then, she asks, is there not a sustained working class opposition to capitalism? She proposed that in the past four decades, the U.S. has been through a cultural revolution without a political revolution, creating a facade of fundamental transformation. A revolution of culture without politics mistakenly conflates multiculturalism (such as electing or hiring people of color to be in powerful positions) with fundamental political change. She argued that this conflation creates a false impression that the U.S. is now anti-racist with the election of Barack Obama, even though racism continues to be entrenched in the U.S. economic and political infrastructure.  

Prof. Gilmore suggested that the cultural revolution has led us to imagine racism as “just a matter of bad feeling,” rather than an institutional problem. She discussed what she called the “infrastructure of feeling,” or the way that feeling is manipulated and substituted to create investments in different political projects. For example, she raised the issue of the 1,800 mile border wall built by the U.S. on the Mexico/U.S. border, and the feelings, rather than the analysis, that culminated in and justifies its construction. “That wall,” she explained,“is both a symptom and productive of all kinds of feelings about what is and is not possible.” She argued that the border wall determines who is Mexican, and who is of the United States, who belongs where, and is treated as a producer of “information” in place of critical thinking.

Prof. Gilmore contends that any critical analysis has been stigmatized by rhetoric that is hostile to intellectualism. Militant anti-intellectualism is often championed by those she identifies as having the most to gain if working class people fail to question capitalism as the “normal” way the economy works. She accused right-wing anti-intellectuals of subscribing to what Charles Mills’ calls an “epistemology of ignorance,” or a willful decision to ignore the systemic failures of capitalism and to allow that ignorance to stand in as a true account of the world.

For example, Prof. Gilmore asserted that although the percentage of students who borrow student loans has dramatically risen to over 70% and the average debt of a graduate of a 4-year college is $27,000, student debt and debt peonage has been represented as something that is normal because of the unquestioned assumption that education is a private good rather than a public benefit.  

Gilmore concluded with a discussion about her work with a rural community in south Georgia who refused the trend to build a new prison to improve their local economy, and instead attempted to build a thriving economy through collective marketing and institutional development to leverage the production of their small family farms. In order for success, Prof. Gilmore emphasized, community members needed to think outside the constraints of what could be possible based on capitalist premises. This community’s efforts, she suggests, reveal how sustainable investment of collective resources can be constructed through social terms, not just capital terms. In order to devise strategies to reinvest the social wage with workers who are creating it, we need radical imagination as well as organizing.

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