Ruth Wilson Gilmore in conversation with Paul Gilroy (2020)

by cominsitu


This conversation was recorded on 7th June 2020 – Soundcloud here

(see also: Ruth Wilson Gilmore Makes the Case for Abolition and Prisons and Class Warfare and Is Prison Necessary?)

Paul Gilroy: Well hello, I’m Paul Gilroy, I’m the Director of the Sarah Parker Remond Centre for the study of Racism and Racialisation at University College, and today I’m going to be talking to Ruth Wilson Gilmore who is Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences and Director of the Center for Place, Culture and Politics at the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. Ruthie is a co-founder of the California Prison Moratorium Project and perhaps most importantly of all, of critical resistance, and she’s the author of the prize-winning book that will be very familiar to you, Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California. And Ruthie and I have been collaborating, editing, bringing together Stuart Hall’s writings on race which will be published – well I hope soon, given the situation we’re in. Maybe you should correct anything that I haven’t said about you Ruthie that you want to have said, and I want to make a point about Stuart – Stuart’s work.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore: No, that introduction’s lovely, let’s leave it exactly as it is.

Paul: Good, well, what I wanted to say was I’ve been really struck in the last few days, I try not to spend time on social media, but one of the things that’s very striking to me about the way these two crises – three crises – have come together amongst a large formation of activist communities all over the world, is that people really seem to want to read. And they’re circulating booklists and PDFs and links to different kinds of material and I felt very touched by that desire; firstly, I suppose as an indictment of the educations that they’ve had but also as a sense… I mean I fear that this mobilisation may not become a movement, I want it to be a movement maybe you think it a movement already I don’t really know. But I wonder where that desire for reading, that desire for information, that desire for knowledge, the desire for wisdom, even where this hunger for better information, for better concepts, better perspectives, you know, what that says about the moment we’re in right now.

Ruth: That’s a great question Paul, thank you for having me as part of your Centre and participating in this discussion. Very happy to do it. I have been thinking about the same questions that you just raised and thinking back along my own intellectual and political development from 35 years ago, and thinking how then a lot of us who had been raised in movement work who had been extremely experienced in organising had found ourselves at an impasse and tried to settle down and hunker down and do some reading while continuing our work so that our work could become better. And I feel like I’m recognising a similar kind of impulse now although much broader and it probably seems broader to me because the social media that exists now certainly didn’t exist then. What we tried to do in the late-eighties early-nineties was listen as closely as we could to what we could read in people’s work – especially but not exclusively the work of Stuart Hall, but also you and Hazel Carby and many other people – to try to hear in the arguments that people made and the kinds of cases that writers put forward how their understanding of the social and political and economic dimensions of struggle at that difficult time could inform what we thought we were doing and how we can talk across time and space in order to strengthen our efforts. So I wonder if that’s what’s going on now – part of it is an indictment of the educational system, I think that’s true, but also they’re coming across these things somehow which means that somebody’s learning about it some way. And also, maybe part has to do with the enforced stillness that a lot of people have experienced because of Covid. People have had to slow down somewhat – not everyone, but many people had to slow down – spend time thinking, spend time at home, spend time doing things sort of different from the daily madness of ordinary life and perhaps that too has added to an interest and hunger for an expectation of reading and learning that could list the activities people are involved in in order to build into a movement.

Paul: Well that’s very interesting; I’m going to push back a little bit. I want that to be true and I’m not saying it isn’t because I just don’t know. But I also wonder about, I mean I think that’s true absolutely of some folk, people who haven’t been, you know, whose experience of the last few months has not really been dominated by going out to work. But we also really know that one of the amazing elements of the disproportionate risk and vulnerability experienced by African American peoples and other peoples of colour elsewhere, certainly in this country this is really evident, is something that has to be addressed through not this alone but has to be addressed through the idea that these are people who don’t have the chance not to go out of the house; that they are still in a way on the tempo of work because they don’t really have any choice except to go on working and when we look at where they work and the work they do, you know the mystery of their vulnerability is less mysterious. I know that for hundreds of years racial scientists have been yearning for the body to divulge it’s secret racial differences and they’ve cut and experimented and investigated and surveyed the body and yet the body hasn’t really revealed that particular truth and I would be very very surprised now if it was about to do so. So the question of you know who’s vulnerable, how they’re vulnerable, where work and particular kinds of work fit into that vulnerability, is interesting too, although of course I don’t follow the American situation terribly closely but I do know that enormous numbers of people in your country have become unemployed, very very rapidly, and that that too is a factor in that sort of volatile situation that we find ourselves in right now.

Ruth: Oh, that’s absolutely true and I don’t think that what you have just said necessarily speaks against the rather modest point I thought I was making about people reading and learning. But it is absolutely the case – or and it is absolutely the case – that the distribution of vulnerability to premature death in the United States, the distribution of unemployment and under employment in the United States and the specificity of state violence in the United States in response to it have all come together. They’ve come together so strongly that I actually think, one, some people can’t not see any more what they could not see earlier. But also to go back to the question of why are people studying or reading or saying they’re going to read, I think that for some people trying to put all of these things together in a way not that makes better sense but that finally demystifies the situation in which we’ve been struggling under neo-liberalism for decades might be a motivating factor as well.

Paul: Absolutely right. I don’t disagree at all I’m just, things are moving so quickly that’s the other thing, I mean I know you know in as much as you’ve ever been trained in anything, I think of you as a geography person because you taught geography for many years, you invested in the idea of black geographies and other kind of theoretical and political debates that are, well actually, were once maybe on the edge of geography but are now absolutely central to the life of geography a discipline. So I’m curious about the political geography of this mobilisation and in the same way maybe that Covid itself has been a planetary phenomenon; there are real signs that this movement – this mobilisation rather –  is taking off and resonating and speaking to the experience of inequality and injustice and powerlessness in every corner of the planet. How do you feel about that, what do we have to do to keep up with that possibility?

Ruth: I’m actually surprised and mostly inspired by how widespread the response to Covid on the one hand, to the murder of George Floyd on the other and all of the things in between have been. And one thing that interests me in particular is how the expectations of a kind of even distribution of vulnerability under Covid have of course not been borne out and some of us could have said all along, well no, it’s not going to be that way. And yet at the same time in the early days in March and April a lot of people predicted who worldwide was vulnerable to Covid death based on what was happening in the United States especially to black people, and that hasn’t been true either. People would say things like ‘oh Africa is a ticking time bomb’, phrases that just make my blood boil, but people on the left would say things like that, ‘obviously if black people in the United States are vulnerable to premature death that means the black people on the planet are’. So what’s so interesting to me now is that there is a certain kind of flowering as it were of consciousness about black vulnerability and anti-black racism, but it’s not required that all black people have the same experience for that understanding to unfold which is a great thing.

Paul: Yeah it is, and I think here we’ve had it underlined for us in the way that the demographic differences, the age structure of African descended populations – I mean we’re already dealing in a category there which needs a lot more elaborating and unpacking – and Caribbean heritage populations have shown quite different levels of risk in relation to Covid death. And maybe although there are many interests and many forces alive in the world that want to maintain the integrity of the concept of black as a political category, it’s taking a little bit of a – I would say it’s been dented little bit by this, if we’re going to follow what the data tells us, and that’s an if actually at the moment when we don’t have enough data to really speak with the kind of authority and clarity that’s going to be required when we when we look back on this and it’s passed – when we do that the categories, the habits, that we have acquired for thinking about race politics will have to be amended to take what this Covid crisis is telling us about the nature of our connectedness and our shared being in the world. I don’t know if you’ve come across the things that Achille Mbembe has been writing from South Africa in the last few weeks, but he has been talking a lot about what he calls ‘the Universal Right to Breathe’, and I was very struck by that, I haven’t had a chance to discuss it with him yet at length but I think this whole question of a more universalistic orientation – can I even say that I don’t even know if that’s the right word – I suppose I would want to say not universalistic because that sense of big, a common – a common vulnerability, a common sense of humanity. I mean maybe some of the things that are going on in this mobilisation, some of the things we’re learning from Covid, and here’s my utopian hat going over my head, maybe they speak to the possibility of a different future for the human than the one that we feared is coming towards us. I mean, am I going too far?

Ruth: Oh I hope not, I hope you’re not going too far and in fact one thing I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is how there’s a bit of a divergence these last few weeks between what you just described – a different future for the human – as against a path that worries me very much which is one that is in the recapitulating a certain kind of apartheid thinking in the name of undoing the effects of apartheid in the world scale. And by that I mean the tendency that’s got me worried is the one in which people are insisting that only certain demographics of people are authorised to speak about  – speak from or speak against – certain kinds of horrors, and other people have already existing assignable jobs based on their demographic – let’s call it a caste system  – that they’re supposed to do, so white people are supposed to fix white supremacy and so on and so forth. That path, which is actually a pretty strong path, doesn’t excite me. I’m 70 years old, I’m done with it, I’ve been done with it a very long time. The path however which some of the young Black Lives Matter people named 5 years ago in that year of uprising in the United States, after the death of Mike Brown and Freddie Gray and so forth, the one in which they said quite simply ‘when black lives matter everybody lives better’ –  that’s the path that is of interest to me. So, I for one would like very much, I endorse completely, reinvigorating the notion of universal; I don’t know what to call it, if the word universal is the problem that people stumble over.

Paul: Wow. I mean that’s so interesting that you’d put it like that because when you were speaking, I was thinking about Du Bois and about Du Bois’s sense of double consciousness and the resolution, the dialectical antagonism between being a negro and being an American. And I was thinking I haven’t seen his ghost yet today, but when I was watching just before I began this call with you, I was watching the video coming from phones in Bristol as the mob –  the motley crew – the tide of young people of all kinds tore down the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, rolled it through the streets of the city, and dumped it into the waters of the harbour from where his slave ships had set sail a little while ago speaking geologically. So I was very moved by that and I know that one thing you and I share is that we’ve given a lot of our lifetimes to struggling to bring about a more democratic distribution of premature deaths in our countries amongst other things that we could list: a different sense of justice, a different sense of citizenship, a different opportunity to belong, to signify belonging, a different demand for recognition as part of the life of a particular polity, all of these things. So when you spoke a moment ago I began to think well maybe it’s not just universality or a universalistic way of thinking, it’s also a different – and this is an awful word, I choke on it so often when it comes out of my mouth – a different conception of democracy, actually, that’s also at stake here and one that hasn’t yet found its institutional form, has not yet found it’s kind of political vectors. I mean there again you know maybe it’s just watching those scenes from Bristol that affected me, though I mean these things are going to become harder to avoid and if we think of this Covid crisis and the way it’s combined with the murder of George Floyd and the political responses to this as a kind of rehearsal for the forms of political action and mobilisation that will inevitably emerge with climate change as it intensifies its hold on our societies, on our economies –  maybe those things that we thought was so far out of reach will move not only move closer but move closer at great speed actually, so fast maybe that we will have to jump out of the way.

Ruth: You’ve made me think of a couple of things, let me see if I can piece them together. One is thinking from, with, through Du Bois and double consciousness. I’ve thought a lot over the years about the astonishing gift double consciousness is; the ability to be alien to oneself is a good thing not a bad thing, to be cherished rather than mourned. And I actually think, I imagine, I project, that Du Bois felt the same way whatever it was he wrote a hundred and some odd years ago. And in that sense – that sense of being alien to oneself – one already understands that the fundamental unit of society is already two at least, not one, so two as in double consciousness, but that means it has to go out beyond that individual, whether the individual’s a person or a group. And therefore there is the possibility and the intensity of being able to as you said rehearse the future, rehearse the social order coming into being, as against recite the complaints or the demands for that other path, the one that I don’t want to take anymore, is I think fundamental to where we’re at now. I think that what people are doing in the streets now is rehearsing all kinds of things, some of which are going to be really quite miserable in where they end, but they’re rehearsing things like the possibility of retaking the streets as public space and then thinking about what does that mean – what does public mean if not some ability to continually do and do again what we are demanding in the short run we need to be able to do for ourselves. So that’s one thing. Another has to do with what you raised also and that is the question of how the entire livingness of this planet is so imperilled. And if we’re talking about redistributing the distribution of premature death that means it has to be really deeply articulated with the planet’s entire life in all of its forms, and the essential thing water that makes it possible for us to be water beings on the water planet.

Paul: Yeah absolutely, I wonder a lot about that planetarity and about what that means and about where the divisions between the over developed parts of the planet and the developmentally arrested parts of the planet are also becoming more porous, breaking down, achieving new spatial and social expressions and where the crisis around Covid, the crisis around state violence and the articulation where it feeds that. And again I don’t know, I don’t have enough in front of me to be able to see it clearly but I remember in the last sort of ten years or so conversations with people who are based in in Africa mostly, based in the global south also, and people who were saying ‘well your societies are evolving towards ours in some way’ and that the linear assumptions of social theory and political theory over the last century or so have got to be abandoned to accommodate that possibility. Now I know in the States that’s a complicated thing for me to say, I’m not trying to offend anybody in saying this, but you know I lived in the United States of America long enough to know there was no public health, and to visit parts of the country where you know life was like to life in a what we used to call a third world situation. So I’m wondering about that sense of progress, I’m wondering about that sort of linear pathway and what detours and loops and new roads are going to be forced upon this mobilisation becoming a movement by the pressures of the next crisis which will come, which has to come quicker and mesh with the effects of the things we’re dealing with today.

Ruth: Well, you raise so many things that, well I’ll just talk. One has to do with what Stuart Hall called them ‘global maldistribution of symbolic and material resources’ – I think that was in a talk he gave in the mid-nineties somewhere. And that global maldistribution of symbolic and material resources is of course as true if not truer today than when Stuart wrote those words some decades ago. And that maldistribution is as you suggest not congealed within the borders of nation states; so, the United States has enormous and vast poverty, and enormous and vast vulnerability because as you mentioned there is no public health service in the United States. In the rural part of the United States, the non-urban part of the United States, the district hospitals – most of which were established during the last great deep economic crisis which was the Great Depression of the 1930s – those rural all hospitals have crumbled. They’ve either been abandoned completely, or they’ve been transformed into prisons – that’s what happened to the rural hospitals. Indeed for a while in many parts of rural America, local elites, city or village planners and county executives look to prisons to try to bring back some of the resources that might spread around to vulnerable communities – not only in the form of jobs at the prisons but also an emergency room that would be available for non-prison related residents to have access to. These things give a pretty extensive view in the rural context what is also true in the United States and the urban context, which is to say the deepening inequality – that’s the hot word of the last decade – the deepening inequality in rural areas is completely concentrated, neighbourhood by neighbourhood, grouping by grouping, job category by job category. So to go back to what we were talking about earlier, most of the people in the United States, designated essential workers who have not been able to stay home during Covid, are also people with no health coverage who live in neighbourhoods that are far from where they were, which means they have a long and expensive commute and therefore are vulnerable to Covid and every other kind of malady going to and from work, who if they become unemployed either don’t receive any kind of insurance – which is to say temporary wage supplements or wage replacement – or get nothing at all. So all of this unevenness we’ve been talking about completely characterises the entire landscape of the United States – a country that is about to produce the world’s first trillionaire in Jeff Bezos, whose company that produces the trillions, employs the very kinds of vulnerable workers that I was talking about who live in the communities that I was talking about, whose warehouses are in the rural communities that I was talking about, who link the world. But I want to say one other thing about this so that my comments are not too crudely associated with problems and opportunities based in the United States and that is to say that all of the connectivity that makes the inequality in the United States work well enough depends on extractive forces and damaging practices throughout the rest of the planet. So that for example, for us to have this conversation and to record on our phones and for Amazon to work requires extractive economies in the Democratic Republic of the Congo to move forward or the kinds of things that Achille was talking about in the universal right to breathe means that right down the road from where he’s talking certain kinds of extractive practices have to happen. All of this connects us and therefore underlying that connection is again the possibility for these global uprisings to articulate into movements or at least chunks of movement I think; but only if this awareness, so consciousness, about what makes it possible for us to talk electronically or ship long distance becomes central to our discussion.

Paul: Well I mean it’s very interesting to hear you make that forceful argument. One of things I wanted to raise with you because of your activism and your leadership role alongside the other things you do really, you began to kind of get to that area just a moment ago and that’s really about what abolitionism in its current manifestation can teach us about the way these crises are connected to one another and how to act against them. I suppose I’m thinking that, I know it’s corny to say things have been joining up but they’re also falling apart, that things are becoming more connected but also somehow more separated and I’m thinking about locality and the local nature – the unevenness of those sort of local struggles. If you were to look at the data map of Covid vulnerability in our city here in London, it pretty much follows the same patterns that you would derive from looking at maps of socio-economic indications of inequality, so that sense of a deepening inequality is absolutely fundamental to the way this crisis is being lived out. And our government have shown themselves to be complete – not just callous and cruel – but completely kind of indifferent to or maybe let’s be generous to them – completely bereft really of any understanding of how ordinary people who work for a living actually live their lives and the scale on which their lives are lived, the intensity on which their lives are lived, their habits, the rhythm, the tempo of work and travel and exploitation. So, I’m wondering about locality, I’m thinking about the local and what an abolitionist perspective has to say about precisely those local things because you talked a lot about a moment ago in an interesting way about what’s happened to those local communities. And my sense of my own very limited exposure to the Deep South of the United States is really that political structures of segregation are essentially intact but that now if you’re in a white county your fate is likely to be one thing and if you’re in a black county your fate is something else. So there’s a layer of people who administer the political life of the black county who perhaps wouldn’t have been there in an earlier time but who are certainly there now and making decisions and choices about all kinds of things really and one wonders also – maybe this is not, this isn’t, I’m not speaking about those areas when I raise this question, it’s adjacent, it’s not the same point – one wonders too about, it’s not only black celebrities that wear ‘Make America Great Again’ hats, do you know what I mean? There are layers – look our government, our cabinet, the centre of our government is quote unquote ‘more diverse’ than any other cabinet government in history. So, in a sense some of the expectations we have about what race will do for us are not being borne out by this geometry of power. Someone was circulating something they’d seen on social media of some very high up – I think African American General in the Air Force or something – who was presenting himself as a victim of American apartheid and sharing his injuries in a public way on social media. I mean that doesn’t surprise me that he’s had those injuries and it doesn’t surprise me that given the opportunity to share that sense of victimhood he’ll take that opportunity – the victim is a mainstream figure in our culture and people are victimised, people really really are victimised. So I don’t have a problem with that but I do wonder about the limits of that as a politics really and about the vulnerability of this sort of declarative political culture, this affective political culture, to a kind of – what would it be – a sort of managerialism, which is the latest tool to remove what St. Clair Drake used to cool the ‘racial blemish’ on the countenance of America – so we get rid of the racial blemish you know the racial blemish is George Floyd this week or whatever and then business as usual resume because the blemish is – maybe we have some surgery to get rid of that blemish – but then the blemish will be gone and we can go back to the things that we are used to, the habits we’ve acquired. Well I see those crowds, when I look at those crowds in some quite unexpected places I must say, I don’t see a sense that their hopes for the future can be reduced to removing the racial blemish from the countenance of the United States or, I must say, from the countenance in my country. Their demands are deeper than that, they’re more disturbing than that – the language of structural racism is very visible here so we have to see what that really does mean in this context as the mobilisation starts to congeal – that was the word that you used, wasn’t it?

Ruth: Congealed. That’s fantastic. I think that the widespread calls throughout the United States now to defund the police is an example of what you’re talking about it. There is nothing in that call that says ‘oh if we just tweak a little bit the representation of black people or white women in the police then the blemish will be resolved’ or ‘if we just have a lot of police attended George Floyd’s funeral on Tuesday the blemish will have been masked’. The demands to defund the police and to abolish the police, however thought through or not thought through they are by people holding the signs and making the call and repeating it over and over again, are I think demands on the part of people in the street and the people who are supporting them from home for whatever reasons that they’re not in the street, are demands to say this society absolutely does not work. And we’re sick of it’s not working resulting in murder after murder after murder, resulting in the abandonment of people to a mysterious and deadly disease that can’t be treated or vaccinated against, to the ongoing anxiety associated with the highest level of unemployment and under employment that has happened in the United States in anybody’s memory – I mean I’m 70 and the Depression was a long time before I was born. So, all of these things I think mean that people without necessarily having worked through everything, all of the possible consequences of the demands they are making, are making demands that refuse a fix. As a result of which, people like this military general and many others of his ilk who have been absorbed into the professional managerial classes of the United States, from my generation forward, are stepping up to say ‘wait wait wait, there are these terrible things, they’ve happened to me, we acknowledge it, now we will have some kind of ceremony and some kind of again Armageddon tweaking that will enable us to get back to some kind of normal and go ahead’. There is no back, you know. There is no back. But it is really hard now. I keep looking at the cabinet in the Johnson government and thinking ‘my god the United States could not imagine having such a colourful government of people arrayed against us’.

Paul: Yeah and maybe those crowds in the streets are being exposed to a sort of accelerated learning that the kind of colour matching and corporate tinkering that involves the rearranging of the deck chairs on the sinking ship, that these things are of limited utility to the kind of existential perils that police murder and their particular demands and stresses of the Covid, of the Covid epidemic, these things lose their appeal in that context. I think people have been – I know it is mostly young people, but it isn’t only young people actually – I think the people have been emboldened by recovering their proximity to death. That the proximity – I mean our government has been much much more able to control the flow of images out from those emergency rooms and the pile of body bags and the health care workers who work in those environments are being bullied and intimidated into silence, gagged, and their phones – they don’t shoot that footage on the phone that we saw coming out of New York, that we saw coming out of Italy. So we don’t have the visual record and in a way that serves their purposes because it helps them to contain the narrative, but on the other hand the existential, the anxiety – anxiety is the master word in our situation – those anxieties are intensified in the absence of that visual record in a society that’s so dependent on visual stimuli, and I think those anxieties are really active in the daring, in the boldness of the young people who are out on the streets. And yes they know, they know they don’t want to take the virus back to the communities and endanger their elders – they are perfectly appraised of that – but they also know that the value of their own lives is already compromised and that’s what they learnt from looking at that video – the latest of these videos which is endlessly repeated and shared and circulated. So, I think their sense of vulnerability, their sense of anxiety compounded by the very limited and intense channel of visual images that they can access, and this makes them bolder. I won’t say it makes them reckless, I don’t think I’ve seen any recklessness yet, maybe – that has to be there in that demographic you know, we were all reckless troublemakers at one point – but there’s something about that existential anxiety which makes the people more bold, makes people more daring, makes them calculate the difference between their own desire to be safe and secure, and the security and safety of the larger communities to which they affiliate, which is very very striking and which I find very moving.

Ruth: I think you’re absolutely right. I’m going to say something I’ll probably take back later, but I’ll say it: I think that in many instances over the years, the constantly circulating images of particularly, although not exclusively, black people being murdered, dying, lying dead in the street, have elicited very strong responses. But I think if we were to analyse those responses, we’d find a lot of pity and a lot of contempt – to use my friend Daryl Scott’s words – pity and contempt. But not necessarily this strong sense of that that I’m watching is somehow an expression of how I feel – how I feel that I can’t necessarily say – and I can’t go down the rabbit hole of affect theory because I don’t understand it. And I don’t want to. But there is, well let’s go to our friend Raymond Williams: that people are living through a gargantuan shift in the narrative arc of structure of feeling. And it happened because of Covid and plus because of under employment and unemployment and plus because of how governments are differentially responding and how news of that circulates visually and then other ways. And that creaking infrastructure is making people I think turn and start in a direction they might not have ever gone in before, and they feel like their feet are on some ground that they’re just gonna have to try out even if they can’t see it through the smoke and the tear gas. I think I pulled off the metaphor. So, I think I think that. I’m not gonna take it back yet.

Paul: No don’t take it back. And thank you. Maybe we can have another conversation like this in a few weeks’ time and see where we are then. There’s so much more to learn and so much more to think about and it’s been a very extraordinary extraordinary period. So, I’m really really grateful to you Ruthie for making the time to have this conversation and I look forward to hearing what you have to say in the future. It was really very much appreciated thank you so much.

Ruth: Thank you, thank you Paul.