55 Voices for Democracy: Ananya Roy

55 Voices for Democracy: Ananya Roy


We live in an era of stark social and
economic inequality. Across the world the hoarding of wealth by the rich and
powerful rests on the exploitation and impoverishment of marginalized
communities. Such inequality is visibly manifested in our cities. Here in the
City of Angels, inequality is evident in a stark contrast between homes worth $500 million dollars being built in the hills of Bel Air, not far from the Thomas Mann
House or the University of California Los Angeles and the thousands of
unhoused men and women who live and die on the streets of the city. In the United
States, as well as in many other parts of the world, such inequality is not just a
disparity of income it is an expression of the color line. “The problem of the twentieth century,” wrote sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois, “is the problem of the color line.”
The statement accompanied an extraordinary set of infographics that
he and his graduate students put together for an exhibition at the 1900
Exposition Universelle in Paris. Punctuating the Orientalist
displays that typically dominated these colonial fairs, Du Bois presented
detailed statistics and analysis of black subordination in the United States
and situated it in a world system of racial capitalism. Specifically the
routes of the African slave trade that constituted what Paul Gilroy was to call
the “Black Atlantic.” It is no stretch to argue that the problem of the 21st
century is the enduring problem of the color line. We live in an era of
resurgent right-wing nationalism. From India to Brazil, Europe to the
United States, xenophobia is the structuring logic of state power and
statecraft. The color line is evident in violent embodiments. Black killings by
police, Muslim lynchings, human caging and most of all the militarized borders of
desert and sea that are now ghostly and ghastly deathscapes. These deadly
places, crossings that have been deliberately turned into places of death,
today guard fortress Europe and the American homeland. The color line then is not just a map of segregation and exclusion; it is a site of death. A
negation of personhood or what Lisa Marie Cacho has called social death or “racialized rightlessness.” And yet today, as part of this important commemoration of Mann’s radio addresses, here at the Thomas Mann House in the
Pacific Palisades hillsides of Los Angeles, I wish to make a case for
radical democracy. In 1938, in a lecture tour across America, Mann spoke not only of fascism but of the “coming victory of democracy.” Amidst dark times, Mann imagines
the social renewal of democracy arguing that “Europe and the world are
ripe for the consideration of an inclusive reform of the regulation of
natural resources and a redistr ibution of wealth.” Writing at the same historical
conjuncture, Du Bois was to similarly imagine the reconstruction of American
democracy by charting the long struggle for abolitionism and foregrounding the
enduring dreams of emancipated labor and redistributed property and income. These
are, as Robin D.G Kelley notes, “freedom dreams.” It is my contention that our
present era is a renewal not only of extraction, exploitation and exclusion but also our freedom dreams. In the United States, as
the Trump regime has nurtured and institutionalized white supremacy so
there is a robust national discussion about black reparations. As Kelley argues
in “Freedom Dreams,” the question of reparations is fundamentally about black
self-determination. About autonomous institutions and spaces. In the United
States as a neoliberal restructuring of higher education has led to skyrocketing
student debt, $1.5 trillion dollars of debt, so there is growing political
interest in the cancellation of student debt and college for all. In the United
States, as the systemic unhousing of people continues to swell, so there is
the call for a bold and ambitious public housing program, as part of the Green New Deal, as well as for the implementation of national rent control. These are
imaginations and practices of redistribution and decommodification. At
stake is the resocialization of key infrastructures of life-making such as housing and education. This is also vividly apparent in Europe
today, where housing justice movements in cities from Barcelona to Berlin are
insisting on the expropriation and socialization of property owned by
global banks and real estate conglomerates.
Mann was interested “to give the word democracy a broad meaning, a much broader one than the merely political sense of this word would suggest.” I call that broader meaning radical democracy, and key to radical
democracy are these processes of resocialization. But my theorization of
radical democracy also rests on two related points. First the freedom dreams
that animate today’s reconstruction of democracy are not advanced by elite institutions or state power. Instead, they emerge from grassroots organizing and poor people’s movements. They emerge from collective action
forged in the shared condition of precarity. They emerge from sites of
organized abandonment. A phrase I borrow from abolitionist scholar Ruth Wilson
Gilmore to draw attention to what she calls “forgotten places.” The demos of
radical democracy is not the voting electorate or political parties or think
tanks or foundations or even universities. The demos of radical
democracy is tenant unions, debt collectives, movements for black futures,
associations of day laborers and domestic workers, immigrant rights and
Asylum rights organizations, coalitions of the unhoused and landless, networks of indigenous resistance. Democracy is not assured, freedom is not a gift, justice is
not an inheritance. Radical democracy is demanded and created anew at each
historical conjuncture, including this one. Second, in “The Coming Victory of Democracy,” Mann wrestled with the aristocratic nature of
democracy. He argued: “In a democracy which does not respect the
intellectual life and is not guided by it, demagogy has free play.” For a long
time, we have assumed that this intellectual life comes from our
established and elite institutions. The radical democracy of which I dream and
which I see in the making all around me, is driven by rigorous intellectual
visions and durable theorization. And these, many of these, come from forgotten places. Today, sophisticated understandings of property and rent, of
debt and speculation, of assets and welfare, of income and profit come
from social movements. Today, rich frameworks of citizenship and belonging,
of rights and refuge come from hip-hop musicians, incarcerated artists and
border activists. Radical democracy thus requires not only a resocialization of
the infrastructures of life making but also a revalorization of subaltern and
subordinated knowledges. For much of modern history, liberal democracy has
been the effort to keep racial capitalism alive by mildly remedying its
worst predations. Radical democracy is inspired by this question from
decolonial philosopher, Walter Mignolo: “Why would you want to save capitalism
and not save human beings?”

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