Bree Newsome Bass: “Capitalism Has to Collapse”

“Capitalism is the unfolding catastrophe,” says Bree Newsome Bass. “It’s this thing that has grabbed us all in its arms and it is just plummeting down.” In this episode of “Movement Memos,” Kelly Hayes talks with activist and artist Bree Newsome Bass about long COVID, voting rights and getting organized in these times.

Music by Son Monarcas and Amaranth Cove

TRANSCRIPT

Note: This a rush transcript and has been lightly edited for clarity. Copy may not be in its final form.

Kelly Hayes: Welcome to “Movement Memos,” a Truthout podcast about things you should know if you want to change the world. I’m your host, writer and organizer, Kelly Hayes. We talk a lot on this show about how to build the relationships and analysis we need to create movements that can win. Today, as we launch the fourth season of this show, I am grateful to be joined by activist Bree Newsome Bass, as we talk about long COVID, voting rights and getting organized in these times.

Bree is widely known for removing the Confederate flag from the South Carolina state house grounds in 2015. But Bree is also an artist, a filmmaker and a housing organizer, and to some of us, she is a regular presence in our lives, as she dispenses the kind of wisdom and analysis that gives social media real utility for activists and organizers. In recent years, I have felt a particular solidarity with Bree, even though we didn’t know each other, because we are both organizers who try to use Twitter as a platform for education and mobilization, and we were both called alarmists, on a regular basis, for being blunt about Trumpism and the rising threat of right-wing authoritarianism. When you tell people that their reality is not as secure as they thought it was, you will often be punished for it, and that’s something that a number of our guests on the show have experienced. But Bree has drawn more fire than most, because we are living through a very high-stakes culture war, and her removal of that flag was an explosive cultural moment. But no matter what the right-wingers and trolls have thrown at her, Bree has continued to use her platform to rally people in constructive ways.

I recently saw someone post on social media that despite hating “what the left needs to do right now” think pieces, they could really use something of that sort right now. This episode is not that think piece, but I hope our reflections here can fulfill a similar purpose in helping people to orient themselves as we wade through this moment.

When entire swaths of people are deemed disposable in our society, those losses are framed by the powerful as inevitable. Because there’s really no other way to market what we’re being sold. The refrain that “Omicron is mild” drives public policy, but Dr Fauci has stated there is no reason to believe rates of long COVID will be different with Omicron, so the narrative that “everyone will get Omicron” is not only harmful to immunocompromised and disabled people here and now, but also makes millions of people available for future debilitation. Workers and students are being forced into the path of Omicron, regardless of whether they can afford health care. Public officials call Omicron mild without discussing long COVID and who will and won’t have access to long term care, sick days or disability benefits. Health care workers are being told to return to work before they’ve recovered from the virus. Children are staging walkouts because their teachers’ efforts to demand safe conditions in schools have been shut down by the powerful. Bree had some thoughts to share on the broadening of disposability in the age of Omicron.

Bree Newsome: I think that there has always been a dynamic where the government only served the interest of certain people, right? And I think that it tends to kind of fluctuate as is necessary to maintain itself. So if there are certain times when it served the self-preservation of the system to say that immigrants can be a part of American capitalism, then that’s what would be embraced. And then if it seemed like it would serve the interest to scapegoat immigrants, then that’s what we pivot to, right? And so I think what we are getting another glimpse of, I guess, is what it looks like when the government completely abandons us. And again, we have seen that play out in so many different forms and fashion and to varying degrees.

It started with the prison population before it was in the total population. People who were incarcerated were just left to have COVID just break through the facilities – no kind of plan, no kind of regard, not even a part of the conversation. It was a struggle for people in long-term care facilities to really get any kind of attention. And so there was not even real mention of people who were incarcerated. We’ve seen what happens after several natural disasters where there’s no real government response, especially not in the immediate. And so I think that we have to keep that in mind. I think we have to think in terms of what happens if we can’t use the cell phone, we can’t communicate through social media, we can’t rely on there to be clean water in the pipes. We can’t rely on there to be food stocked at the grocery store.

What do we do? How do we organize ourselves for that moment? And I mean, I think that’s where mutual aid has to come into play. I think that we have to think very seriously about who we are physically connected to on a local level where we can physically share resources.

I don’t think it’s about accepting any kind of inevitability. We don’t want things to fall apart, right? We don’t want to end up living in a war zone where we have no clean water because that is absolutely a mass death situation. And there’s no amount of organizing or preparation we can do that can prevent that from being a mass death situation. So the goal is to have that resilient plan, that plan for resiliency there and to have those connections and community there as kind of like our base of operation, while we organize and resist and fight.

And I mean, that’s why I’m so in favor of mass movement. I love seeing the students walking out and the teachers protesting and the nurses. The more people stand up at once, the more likelihood we have of preventing that ultimate disaster. Because it’s collapsing one way or the other. I mean, that’s the last thing I’ll say on that. We know that it is, the system is shutting down one way or the other. One way is that ecological disaster causes it to collapse in a chaotic way. Right? And the other way is that we shut it down in an organized fashion, which is what can happen if we mass mobilize.

KH: Like me, Bree has been especially concerned about the sense of inevitability that has been marketed to the public around Omicron.

BNB: I really think it’s important for everyone to understand the gap that exists between what the pandemic response should look like and what it does look like. And I do definitely feel like with the Omicron wave in particular, what we are getting right now is a mass PR strategy to get us to resign ourselves to what the pandemic response looks like. And not talk about what it should look like or what it needs to look like in order for us to actually end the pandemic. There’s going to be another variant. What’s weird to me about the Omicron situation is that now a lot of people are talking about it as though this will just be over in a couple of weeks. They’re even sometimes just focusing on the situation in New York as though we’re not going to have peaks and waves in other regions after this. They’re talking as though there’s not long-term health effects that we know of from Omicron. They’re speaking as though Delta is not still out there. Right?

They’re speaking as though there’s not evidence that you can get reinfected with Omicron. So this idea that we just have to accept this as an inevitability and there’s nothing more that we can do – I don’t agree with that, right? There’s definitely things that we could still do, but let’s say we’re just going to go with this basically lack of policy that we have right now, where we just allow Omicron to just spread unfettered through the population. So what is the plan in the aftermath of that? And that’s what we’re not getting either. And that’s how you know that it is more of a PR strategy than any real health or governmental response.

Because if we were in a situation where there is really nothing we can do, right? We have tried everything and we are just dealing with the virus where there is nothing we can do [and] it is going to infect everyone, then I would expect to get a plan for people dealing with long-term disabilities or chronic illness. There would be a plan for expanding health care. Are you going to pay to boost up the health care system? There’s no indication that there is any plan to deal with the aftermath of letting Omicron go through the population. And I think that the scariest thing about this time to me is how there’s so much uniformity among the political spectrum in embracing that idea. That’s what’s really scary to me and I’m sure it’s scary for a lot of people.

That you have liberals and conservatives and the commentators on corporate media and everybody’s just parroting this line that we’re all going to get it. And the best you can do is just vaccinate and we can’t take any other measures. That’s what’s scary in trying to cut through the noise in this time. And I think it’s unfortunately another situation where we’re going to encounter disaster before many people realize it. I think people see what’s happening with the store shelves running out of supplies. I just talked to somebody today who was talking about the bus schedule here. So you’ve got a situation where the school buses are having difficulty operating because the bus drivers are ill. And it’s the same thing with the city bus situation. So we’re going to run into a situation where the systems themselves are breaking down. And I just wish that we would take steps to prevent things instead of having to wait until we are in the thick of the disaster for people to really realize what we should have been doing. But unfortunately, I think that’s where we’re headed.

KH: Many of us are also alarmed right now about what’s happening around voting rights. In addition to state level voter suppression laws, Republicans are targeting offices that oversee electoral outcomes. According to a recent report from the Brennan Center, “fundraising in secretary of state races is two and a half times higher than it was by the same point in either of the last two election cycles.” Campaigns in all six battleground states with elections for secretary of state in 2022 are making election denial a key campaign issue. That’s Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, and Wisconsin.

Biden’s recent efforts to circumvent the filibuster rule in order to pass the Freedom to Vote Act were thwarted by Manchin and Sinema, who have become routine villains in the story of D.C.’s slow spiral into right-wing authoritarianism. Bree had some thoughts about Biden’s approach and timing on this issue.

BNB: I think this is going to be the time that people realize what should have happened in 2021… And I think you and I are alike in that we belong to that course of people that gets on folks’ nerves, because they don’t want to hear it. All through 2021 when we’re talking about what should be happening, trying to get people to understand how politics works. And that there’s a timeline that when you are trying to move something politically, there’s a strategy that has to go behind it. There’s a timeline that has to go behind it. There are factors and emotions and just where the public opinion and attention is. You have to seize upon those things. January 6th, that brought everything to a standstill. If you were someone who from 2015 through January 2021 was still of this belief that we were being hyperbolic in what we were saying about Trump, “Trump is going to refuse to leave the White House. What is the plan? What is the plan?” We were saying that for years.

January 6th was a time that captured all of those people. It even captured some Republicans. You had this moment where everybody was like, ‘Oh my goodness, this is where we are.’ That was the moment to seize all of that energy and that momentum and say we have to pass voting legislation right now. We have to pass protections right now for this for everything that we have seen, everything that we can tell is coming down the pipeline, we have to pass that right now. Now we have to carve out a rule in the filibuster for this. What we got in the immediate aftermath was Joe Biden talking about unity and let’s move forward. And I remember because that was another thing that a lot of us were like lighting our hair on fire and screaming about. What do you mean “unity” and “moving forward”? These people don’t even acknowledge that you were just elected president.

So when he goes to Georgia and he gives this speech [last week], this is something that should have happened a year ago. And so now you’re trying to cram into a few days a campaign that should have been taking place a year ago. That you would’ve had much more political power to try to push forward a year ago and maybe could have swayed some people. You had some people who voted for conviction for Trump. It might have been possible. Maybe it wasn’t ever going to happen, but it certainly was more possible a year ago than it is now. So I don’t know where it goes from this point forward, but I’m hoping, I keep hoping that with each one of these moments, that there are more people among especially the democratic loyalists, like the people who are constantly apologizing for the party no matter what.

I’m hoping that there is a moment where they realize how the Democrats fail them. Right? And how that failure to push for voting rights for instance, is a reflection of where the priorities are being placed. And then they can ask themselves why are priorities being arranged in this way? Right? I feel like a lot of times when I am tweeting or speaking, those are some of the people that I’m trying to reach and persuade and help them to sharpen their analysis and just recognize why we keep ending up at these dead ends.

I don’t think most people are well informed on the history of voting rights. I don’t think most people are well informed on the concept of democracy even. And that is all intentional. We have, in my view, experienced a generation of deliberate miseducation and historical revisionism around the civil rights movement specifically, around the history of voting rights, around what voting is – has kind of been distorted in a lot of ways. This idea that voting is the full extent of our power is actually disempowering in my view, because what it tells people is that their only time, their only avenue for participating in politics is when they vote. And then otherwise they’re supposed to wait until the next election cycle when they get to voice an opinion again. And you see how that shows up in the conversation, the national conversation, whenever people are protesting or criticizing the response is you need to vote. Or why didn’t you vote before? Or just make sure you show up and vote next time.

And the thing is that, I mean, one, as far as the rewriting of the civil rights movement, voting was never the only cause of the civil rights movement. So there has been this thing where they have tried to reduce the entire civil rights struggle and Black freedom struggle to the right to vote. Right. Which shows up in a lot of other ways, I’m sure we’ll get to later. But then also it has created this sense that once we had the right to vote, so since we have the right to vote, that’s all we need. All we have to do is show up and vote and elect people who promise or at least claim that they are going to work in our best interest. And then we just have to cross our fingers and hope that they do. And that’s a problem too, because you’re seeing now, at least I hope people are seeing, how you have to push the people that you elect to actually follow through on things. I mean, I don’t think Biden would be up at Capitol Hill right now if people hadn’t made such a stink about it.

I think there’s a lot of things that would be allowed to just completely fall by the wayside if people didn’t push on it. So I feel like the population to a large extent has been demobilized, and I don’t think that is unintentional. I think that [happens] through the miseducation around social justice movements, the reduction in civics education, just basic things that teach people about how the government works. I don’t know if that is [also happening] nationally, but I know for instance, here in North Carolina, Republicans launched a specific attack on civics education because they don’t want an educated and engaged and informed population, because those are the kinds of people that hold people accountable. Right?

And so I think a lot of what we have to do when we’re trying to organize and mobilize people is also just helping folks to understand this concept of what politics should be. Or certainly if we have a system of self-governance, right – what does that look like? What does it look like to actually have representation versus having people who collect your money when they’re running for office, right. Take donations from you and claim that they’re representing you, but they’re not actually representing you because they’re representing big money interests or other things that are actually oppositional to what you need.

KH: Having squandered a window of possibility on the fantasy of bipartisanship, the Democrats are floundering. Right now, we are being told that passage of a voting rights bill is not possible because of the intransigence of two senators. But as Bree has emphasized, it’s really important that we don’t zoom in on that particular aspect of the crisis and sort of lose the larger picture, because that invests way too much faith in the structures and systems at work. The truth is, the institutions that people like to think of as stable are wholly breakable, and people also have the wrong idea about capitalism’s relationship with democracy, particularly at this stage of collapse.

Thinking back to January 6, for example, we saw some corporations come out in defense of democracy. We saw things like Twitter suspending Trump’s account, and to some people, that signaled that even Twitter had some kind of commitment to democracy. But corporations were not against the coup because they support democracy – they were against the coup because they did not want to experience the destabilization of a violent coup, led by an incompetant game show host who was also wrecking the economy. The orderly erosion of democracy, in a manner that maintains the status quo and allows for a greater consolidation of wealth – that’s their jam.

The neoliberal project has been a process of insulating and protecting capitalism from the people, by weakening public education, breaking unions, and by outsourcing the harshest working and environmental conditions that U.S. corporations produce to other countries, while ramping up the corporate control of elections.

Philosopher and political theorist Achille Mbembe discusses the aforementioned outsourcing of suffering and death in his book Necropolitics. So-called liberal democracies maintain their identity around a sense of belonging or membership that ultimately determines who is deserving of life. The commonality that exempts people, for now, from being abandoned on the other side of a wall or border might be citizenship or a lack of contact with the criminal system. People may revel in the distinctions that exempt them from abandonment, or feel bad about them, but most people accept these demarcations. Meanwhile, the state deploys weapons or policies “in the interest of maximally destroying persons and creating death-worlds.” (Mbembe characterizes “death-worlds” as “unique forms of social existence in which vast populations are subjected to living conditions that confer upon them the status of the living dead.”)

Corporations also have the power to create and maintain death worlds, and that power has been encased and upheld by global trade agreements, which privilege the rights of corporations over the rights of sovereign nations and over democracy itself. The violence this system inflicts in heavily exploited countries, and in sacrifice zones here in the United States, has been invisibilized and draped in exceptionalism.

So we’ve seen the hyper-consolidation of wealth during the pandemic and we have also seen hyperradicalization on the right. Conservatives are swiftly moving forward with Jim Crow 2.0 and replacing any semblance of history in the public school system with colonial worship. The cultish right-wing politics of the pandemic era tell white people that they belong, and celebrate the exclusion and disposal of marginalized people. The practitioners of these cultish politics do not expect democracy. They’ve already declared it dead with the myth of a stolen election.

So as we face the potential collapse of what passes for democracy in the U.S., we have to understand that collapse is not necessarily unwelcome by many of the monied forces that want to preside over the larger era of collapse that we’re experiencing. As climate collapse advances, and it becomes clearer to more and more people just how much our interests diverge from those of the ruling class, they are going to want us thoroughly under control. So we have to consider the politics that are being applied here and now, and decide now whether we will continue to experience collapse on these terms.

When Bree and I talked about the climate crisis, long COVID and what all of this portends, she did not mince words about what needs to happen.

BNB: Capitalism has to collapse. It has to collapse. I think I would define capitalism as the catastrophe. Capitalism is the unfolding catastrophe. It’s this thing that has grabbed us all in its arms and it is just plummeting down. And it’s a question of are we able to get off before it takes us all down with it? So I think capitalism is the catastrophe. And I’ve seen you write on that before, that concept of collapse and how it’s hard for people to grasp. And I think that’s so true. And I don’t think I even recognized that before the pandemic, because one of the things that has been so difficult for me personally to wrap my mind around, is the insistence on carrying on as normal.

That’s what drives me up a wall because I personally have difficulty carrying on as normal. I’m the opposite kind of personality. I’m operating with a concept of what the alternative is, so that’s what I’m reaching for. But I can imagine that if you especially can’t imagine an alternative to the status quo, then it just feels like that’s the only thing you can cling to. What do I cling to except getting up and doing everything the way that I’ve always done it.

KH: So what is to be done? Bree and I both had some thoughts about that.

BNB: I think the question is what is your move, right? What is your move based on where you are? Who are the people that you are connecting with? And then it’s a matter of how are we putting all of these things into conversation with each other? I’m not on the front lines of the voting rights fight right now. I got arrested at a voting rights sit-in back in 2013 but [for] the past, gosh, almost six years or more now, I’ve really been focusing on a hyperlocal level on this housing issue and just trying to keep people from getting displaced. Because from my perspective, there’s no way I see that we are able to organize a community that is being constantly displaced from their homes. So maybe through that lens of land loss and gentrification and displacement and tenants rights, we can build a foundation to do other things.

Now when I’m making that estimation in terms of where I’m focusing on myself, I’m not saying that none of the other things matter, and I’m completely in support of the people who are on the front line of the voting rights movement. I’m completely in support of the people who are challenging the whole electoral concept and who are holding space for those kinds of conversations or who are doing other kinds of radical organizing. And I don’t think that there is any way that you get to the level of organization that is necessary to overturn a capitalist system or replace the oppressive powers that we are going up against unless you have people in all those different sectors. Where are all the sides that we are facing attack from?

I know some people don’t like war analogies, but I think we are at war. I don’t even think it has to do with what your stance is on war itself. But the fact is that war has been declared on us. So what are all the fronts? They’re at the school boards. I was just on a call yesterday with folks who are working with me on housing, but they’re also trying to organize a response at the school boards because that’s one of the fronts. [Right-wing forces] are attacking media. They are purging books from the bookshelves. They have an electoral strategy. They are trying to elect people who are going to be in place to basically overturn the election. I would say any place that you can identify as a front line, which is pretty much everywhere, is a place to make a move.

It’s just a matter of who are going to be the soldiers on that front line. And there’s so much space for everybody that I think it’s just a matter of helping people see the many different places they can show up. And this is the last thing I’ll say on it. As an organizer, like I said, I identify the things that I do, but I’m not trying to organize people around myself. I’m not even necessarily trying to organize everybody to do exactly what I am doing. I’m trying to organize people to identify what they can do, because if you think about how organized society is in all its various sectors, that’s how organized the counter response has to be. We have to have a plan for the classroom. We have to have a plan for the university. We have to have a plan for the healthcare system. All of those different areas require people who can focus on those areas.

Mass popular political education is so, so essential. That is in some ways what I try to do using a platform like Twitter. I’m working right now on putting together a booklet that is giving people a real analysis around the housing issues (how housing intersects with all of these other issues) and just giving a systemic analysis so that we can help people move from an understanding that the rent is too high to why we need to decommodify housing.

Because you can’t possibly move people who don’t have a collective understanding. We can’t mobilize masses of people in a direction without having a clear sense of what we are mobilizing around. I mean, again, I think we have two possible outcomes. One is that people just react to what they are experiencing, because they’re going to react. People are already reacting, they’re burning out, they’re leaving jobs, they’re falling into despair, they’re getting depressed. People are going to react. But if we have a really massive movement around educating people, educating people outside of elite institutions, educating people where they can be reached where they are at, then people can react in a way that is much more organized and much more directed. And I do think that’s some of what we are seeing. I do think that has been part of the power of social media in particular in recent years. But I think we can always do more.

KH: Bree and I both agree that people need to broaden their political vision in this moment, and their sense of what it means to be politically engaged.

BNB: I think that there are so many people who just have a very narrow image of what activism is or what it means to protest or what it means to resist or what it means to be political. This idea that we are supposed to avoid politics or certain places are not supposed to be political. There’s really no such thing as an apolitical space. The classroom is not apolitical. The hospital is not apolitical. The newspaper is not apolitical. And so I think it’s a matter of once you recognize that there’s a problem, then the only question is what do I do? What do I do now with my awareness?

And so I think it’s important to just demystify that. I think people have this image of activism as something that grabs headlines, or it’s written about in the history books. Most events in social justice movements don’t make the history books, but they’re there, they are the history, right? Because social justice movements are about masses of people. And so that’s why I just, I think it’s so important that we seize upon moments like this, where we have so many people who are getting politicized. You have students, young people, who are organizing themselves. I mean, we have to support them. We have to support all of these people, and everybody who takes that action and shows up is not going to show up with a full analysis necessarily. Maybe they haven’t been studying these issues as much as we have.

But we need to embrace all of those people, that should not be a barrier for entering a movement that is about keeping everyone safe. I think the slogan “no one is safe until everyone is safe” is the perfect statement for these times. That’s just what I try to drive home to people as much as possible.

I would really ask everyone, please ask yourself first, what is something that you really care about? What is something that is really resonating for you as an issue, as a concern in this moment. And then please look locally at who is addressing this issue? Where can you support? And ask yourself, “how can I support?”– whether it’s time, whether it is a donation, whether it is spreading awareness, whatever it is. There’s a small group of dedicated people who show up and do this work every day. And we know everybody doesn’t have the capacity to do it every day. But all we need is more people to support and find a way to support and that’s how we do the heavy lifting.

KH: A lot of people I know are stuck in a pretty traumatic place right now. I am no expert, but I know it’s pretty hard to heal from trauma while the experience is still occurring, and for teachers and students who are being sent to school in districts without testing or soap in the bathrooms, for medical workers who are being ground under, for people who have lost loved ones, or who can’t get the medical care they need because the system is buckling – for so many people, I think there’s a lot of justified hurt and anger that is boxing out some of the other things we need to feel right now.

In times like these, the animosity and angst we feel, which are often grounded in real harms and injustice, can begin to crowd out compassion. There is a terrible sense of belonging at work in the United States right now. It is the belonging of identity-based myths and fascistic politics. It is the kind of belonging that reinforces borders and demarcations of disposability. The belonging that we must cultivate, in opposition to our own organized disposal, cannot be cynical or confined to one issue or ideology. This sense of belonging will manifest itself in all of the ways we do the work of justice and care for one another. It will be both organized and spontaneous. If, for example, you see someone you care about starting to slip into cynicism, despair or contempt, you might reach out, not with critique, but with encouragement – perhaps in the form of a shared, cherished memory that you think embodies their values, or perhaps with a call to action. Small reminders of who we are, in relation to other people, can go a long way in hard times.

As Bree said, we all need to decide what our next move is, and the answer will not be the same for all of us. Much of our attention is fixed on some of the crises and limitations of the moment. This is a good time to engage with the struggle for voting rights, if you feel moved to do so, or to find ways to amplify or support that work. But we cannot remain wholly fixed on legislative feuds between Biden and Manchin and Sinema as though they were celestial events determining the fate of humankind. These outcomes will be hugely impactful, but they are not the full fabric of our existence. We cannot afford to freeze in terror. We must focus on what we can do.

As we careen from crisis to crisis, our attention may be pulled or fixed, but our bodies still inhabit spaces where loss, disposability and injustice are occuring in real time. Our jobs, identities, relationships, and physical locations all ground us in these webworks of injustice. We need mutual aid infrastructure, community organizing, unionized workplaces and popular education spaces as urgently as we ever have. The uncertainties of this moment only amplify those needs. We must ground ourselves in what we can do, and ask ourselves who we can act in concert with to do the most good. You cannot act against every injustice at once, nor can you heal every wound, but you can pick a path and do your best. Above all, we must stay grounded in our humanity, because these times have the potential to snatch it away, bit by bit.

As activists and organizers, we are builders in an era of collapse. Our work is set against all probability – and it is in that space of cherished improbability where our art will be made, our joy will be found, and where our ingenuity will fashion ways of living and caring for each other, even as the ground shifts beneath our feet. Life will be a scramble, but we will not scramble alone.

I want to thank Bree Newsome Bass for contributing so generously to this episode and for all that she does as an organizer and an educator. I was grateful for the conversation, and I hope people will answer Bree’s call to figure out what they can contribute in this moment, and get moving.

I also want to thank our listeners for joining us today, and remember, our best defense against cynicism is to do good and to remember that the good we do matters. Until next time, I’ll see you in the streets.

Show Notes

Further Reading: