“Pessimism of the Intellect and Optimism of the Will”. This phrase sums up how I feel about 2016. I came across this quote in a brilliant book Freedom is a Constant Struggle; Ferguson, Palestine, and the Foundations of a Movement by Angela Y. Davis; a political prisoner in the 1970s, now an academic and author. It is a collection of essays, interviews and speeches in which she reflects on her life and politics, reminding us that it is only through community and collectivity that we can have hope and optimism for the future.
Angela is one of the few women on the Left who has a public and international platform, unlike many other working class and grassroots organisers, a gap that has undeniably led to the fragmentation and weakness of the Left, not just in this country but across the world.
In the chapter “Feminism and Abolition; Theories and Practice,” she questions the concept of what it means to be a woman in the C21st and highlights the role of transgender women and the way in which they are oppressed particularly in the prison system. It is Angela at her best; challenging our views about gender, linking together sexism, racism and the continuing struggle for freedom by all people. She says; “Feminism involves so much more than gender equality. ..Feminism must involve a consciousness of capitalism.”
The title of the book is a reference to a freedom song that was sung during the C20th civil rights movement. Angela uses it to reflect on her historical view of how individuals, such as Martin Luther King , are used to represent the civil rights movement. As she says; “And I wonder, will we ever truly recognise the collective subject of history that was itself produced by radical organising?” She goes on to highlight the role of the anonymous black female domestic workers in Montgomery in the 1950s who refused to ride the segregated buses and without whom there would have not been a boycott movement for Martin Luther King to lead.
Angela constantly reminds us of past history and the key role of grass roots struggles in building radical movements. She comments; “Progressive struggles – whether they are focussed on racism, repression, poverty, or other issues are doomed to fail if they do not also attempt to develop a consciousness of the insidious promotion of capitalist individualism.”
The strength and brilliance of this book is in its wide historical range, linking the past with present day struggles. One of the most shocking facts Angela points out is that there are now more black people incarcerated in the US prison system than there were slaves in the 1850s. And the links between the policing of black people, in places such as Ferguson and people of colour in the C21st, mirrors the use of slave patrols which hunted down escaped slaves. As Angela says “Then, as now, the use of armed representatives of the state was complemented by the use of civilians to perform the violence of the state.”
But this is not a depressing book. Angela shows how oppressed people in places as different as Ferguson and Palestine have recognised the links between their struggles. Many US police forces are now being trained in Israel on “counter terrorist “ training and using the same weaponry. Palestine activists noticed that police in Ferguson were using the same tear gas used against them: through social media they told the Ferguson protestors how to deal with it.
Palestine is a key issue in the book. Angela links the segregation in Palestine with the historical racism in the southern states of the US, the apartheid of South Africa, and the role of the USA in collaborating with these administrations. Angela is a member of the International Political Prisoners Committee which campaigns for the freedom of Palestinian prisoners, and she is involved with the Boycott Disinvestment Sanctions movement. To her the plight of the Palestinians is directly linked to global capitalism and the way in which private corporations such as G4S have insidiously crept into “securing” Palestinian prisoners as well as “policing” schools in the USA. She quotes Nelson Mandela; “We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.”
I have been a lifelong trade unionist and community activist and my recent work of transcribing the minutes of a unique organisation the Manchester and Salford Womens TUC (1895-1919) has confirmed to me the importance of collective action, particularly for poor and working class women. Likewise Angela’s book is a reminder of how we are all part of an important history of radical community actions. As she says “It is in collectivities that we find reservoirs of hope and optimism.”
Freedom is a Constant Struggle was published before the election of Donald Trump, but I think Angela’s summary of what we should all do would not be any different. She says; “We will have to do something extraordinary; We will have to go to great lengths. We cannot go on as usual. We cannot pivot the centre. We cannot be moderated. We will have to be willing to stand up and say no with our combined spirits, our collective intellects and our many bodies.”
Buy it here