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Reimagining the State
Check Out the WSQ Special Issue on State/Power
I’ve been away from this substack for months! I fractured my shoulder and injured my leg late last year, and I’ve been in physical therapy etc. since then. But I’m delighted to say I can type now! So I am posting the first little piece I was able to punch out—a short “Alerts and Provocations” section for the WSQ special issue on State/Power (vol. 51, nos. 1 & 2, spring/summer 2023) edited by Christina Hanhardt and Dayo Gore that just came out! It’s called “Reimagining the State,” and it’s primarily a shout out to the transformative work of Veronica Gago and Noura Erakat. I recommend the whole issue! Available online and through your university libraries.
Next up from CPQ: A review of The Last of Us! This HBO hit show has a very progressive veneer with extensive multiculti, feminist and queer representation, excellent writing, acting and visuals, all laid over a conservative, even reactionary genre structure. It’s based on a massively popular video game created by an Isreali writer who grew up in a settlement in the West Bank. The HBO adaptation is replete with ambivalent Zionist themes, among many other elements. It’s a very illuminating product of this historical moment, and I look forward to unpacking everything about the show that compelled, outraged and confused me. Thinking about it opens up some good questions about where we are now.
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And now, the WSQ piece…..
Reimagining the State
What is the state? How do we grasp it, engage it, transform it? These are
the broad questions to which this issue of WSQ is addressed. The articles
and reviews here take concrete historical approaches to the dilemmas that
social movements face in relation to state formations, as they are intertwined
with racial capitalism and with shifting arrangements of intimacy and care.
Right now, it can seem that the primary options are (1) grassroots organiz-
ing against the punitive, coercive, violent carceral and surveillance state, as
in prison abolition and campaigns to defund the police; (2) social demo-
cratic reforms to claim state resources, as in the fight for universal accessible
health- and childcare; or (3) organizing to protest the exploitation and
violence at the nexus of corporate and state profit machines, as in protests
of oil pipelines and environmental degradation. As this issue shows, the
landscape of possibility is more complicated—these options overlap and
are always shifting. And the deep intersections of formations of class, race,
Indigeneity, gender, sexuality, religion, and ability defy any easy division
between class and so-called identity politics. The materiality of everyday
life draws us into the ways class is lived as race, gender is deployed by reli-
gion, and Indigenous history upends common assumptions about states
In this essay, I want to provide two examples of political dilemmas and
interventions that illuminate some dead ends and some new thinking about
social movements and the state. The first is from Latin America and the
second from Palestine.
During spring 2021, I signed an open letter addressed to the editors of the
socialist journals Monthly Review and Jacobin complaining about their cover-
age of the 2021 election in Ecuador. The two hundred signers of the letter
are all aligned with left projects and formations. Our complaint was focused
on the journals’ representation of the candidate of some Ecuadoran Indig-
enous social movements, Yaku Pérez, and his political party, Pachakutik.
They portrayed him as a Trojan horse for the left’s most bitter neoliberal
enemies (Signatories 2021).
The election came on the heels of the unpopular government of Lenín
Moreno, the successor to the decade-long dominance of Rafael Correa of
the Alianza País. Moreno had moved substantially to the right of Correa’s
left-wing socialist, anti-imperialist, anti-neoliberal government. The election
of Correa had been an achievement of the “pink tide” in Latin America, but
over time that government’s reliance on extractivist practices for income
generation, and their severe crackdown on dissenting social protest move-
ments, generated opposition among anti-extractivist Indigenous groups.
The Indigenous movement and its political party, while far from politically
or ideologically monolithic, generated alternative visions for left govern-
ing, including feminist and queer components and offering an eco-socialist
conception of land and resource use along with visions of radically inclusive
democracy. The first round of elections in February 2021 at first looked like
it would result in a runoff between Correa’s candidate, Andrés Arauz, and
the Pachakutik candidate, Yaku Pérez. But the surprising result was a runoff
between Arauz and the neoliberal banker Guillermo Lasso.
The conflict surrounding the runoff on the left was fierce (Peralta 2021).
Pérez charged electoral fraud, and Pachakutik advised their supporters to
spoil their ballots rather than vote for either of the two remaining candidates.
Pérez had himself been assaulted, arrested, and imprisoned for protest activ-
ity. The general criminalization of protest and the extension of extractivist
policies by Correaists meant that an Arauz victory loomed as an existen-
tial threat to the existence of the Indigenous movement. There could be
no support for a neoliberal Lasso government either. This was a strategic
gambit, not an ideological choice. But understandably the Arauz forces
considered this position a profound betrayal of the overall left project. Not
only Correa supporters specifically, but sections of the international left saw
the failure of Pérez and his allies to support Arauz against a neoliberal banker
as evidence of hidden neoliberal sympathies. Thus the Trojan horse charge.
The point of the open letter was to push back against that charge of
betrayal of the left, to situate Pachakutik and Pérez in the contested space
between two intolerable alternatives: neoliberal rule and the dominance of
a form of left statism that deploys police-state tactics to suppress left oppo-
sition, in part in order to continue planet-destroying extractivist practices.
That space of opposition to both sides of the political polarity can feel stra-
tegically untenable, especially when the reaction of the repressive left is to
view all opposition as neoliberal sabotage.
The dilemma of Ecuador’s election was reflective of our impasses on
the global left. There is a history of left governments that turn to patriarchal
repressive policing to maintain power, and to destructive environmental
practices to generate income, often in the face of lethal global capitalist
opposition. The left’s need to centralize power and deploy military tactics
develops in a context of genuine existential threat. From the Bolsheviks
to Cuba, or Venezuela and Ecuador, the sense of threat and the need for a
powerful defense of the socialist project is real. Alongside these formations,
various left social movements work to build alternative models of power
that are cooperative, inclusive, democratic, and anti-patriarchal as well as
anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist. These formations can be disorganized,
incoherent, and transient. Often, they are easily crushed by police power
(e.g., the Paris Commune, Occupy). In the face of existential threat, they
can seem like a distraction from the overwhelming task at hand—winning
collective power against the forces of global capital.
But we cannot remain trapped in a humanly intolerable binary of Correa
vs. Lasso ad infinitum. The only way to develop alternatives is to develop
alternatives. When the left itself dismisses or even violently crushes those
alternatives, we are left to face a future of repressive policing and/or human
extinction on a dying planet. We can criticize Pérez and Pachakutik, and
indeed many open letter signers disagree with many positions and decisions
the movement and its leader made! But if left governments like Correa’s
work to crush rather than engage and incorporate the creative forces of
left social movements, if Pérez and company are left to face assault, jail, or
exile for their political thinking and organizing, what do we expect them/
us to do? Like initially pro-Bolshevik Emma Goldman in the wake of the
victory of the Russian revolution (which she celebrated), facing its subse-
quent evolution toward Stalinism, we are left in utter despair (Goldman
1923). You don’t have to be an anarchist to feel it.
One of the key features of the Marxist left attacks on Pérez et al. is its
patriarchal Eurocentrism. Indigenous thinking does not proceed from the
dilemmas of Euro-America in 1968, or indeed from the Paris Commune
through the Bolshevik revolution to the pink tide. The Eurocentrism of
left binary thinking is strangling the political imagination of the left in the
Global North. A deep engagement with the history of racial colonialism,
with decolonial theory and practice, and with Indigenous ways of think-
ing and living, accompanied by eco-socialist, feminist, and queer strains
within and alongside them, can help lead us out of the impasses of the
entrenched binaries, the unwavering attachment to individual European
male thinkers, the enmeshment in European histories, the dependence on
In the Latin American context, Verónica Gago’s Feminist International:
How to Change Everything offers a brilliant reimagining of the politics of
the state. Drawing on the women’s strikes in Argentina and around the
world, she shows us how concrete organizing around everyday life and
labor can produce both massive and effective mobilizations and connect
apparently disparate zones of life under conditions of precarity in new ways.
This is a transversal left feminist politics that fully incorporates demands
for reproductive justice and sexual and gender freedom within critiques of
neoliberalism and neo-extractivism. For this new feminist-led politics, we
do not need to choose class or identity, opposition or engagement, mass
organizing or intimate consciousness-raising. These shift and combine in
community assemblies and on the streets. Of course this is not the utopian
solution to the dead ends and conflicts we face, but a process for working
through that allows for ongoing conflict and change (Gago 2020).
The forces arrayed against Palestinian liberation are overwhelming, violent,
and intransigent. Up against the appalling alternatives of an increasingly
out-of-reach “two state solution” that offers only a shrunken and dependent
form of limited sovereignty, and a “one state solution” of second-class citi-
zenship in apartheid Israel, some Palestinians are searching for a “no state
solution”—a way out of the impasses of the violent present. Scholar Rana
Barakat and others have called for Palestinians to look to the decolonial
practice of Indigenous resurgence, alongside the critique of Israeli settler
colonialism, for practices and methods of liberation in the here and now as
well as the future (Barakat 2017). In “Designing the Future in Palestine,” a
dazzling article in Boston Review, human rights lawyer Noura Erakat outlines
the approaches being introduced by the Palestinian Feminist Collective
(PFC) and a collection of Palestinian architects and urban planners. Indig-
enous resurgence reframes decolonization, turning away from the state to
focus on Indigenous nationhood and relations with the land and commu-
nities. The PFC is embedding gender liberation within a national liberation
framework while the architects redesign demolished villages suitable for
the diaspora upon return. As Erakat explains, “Statist approaches concen-
trate power among a political and economic elite, disempowering a popular
base—historically Palestinians’ greatest asset” (2022).
Erakat is also careful to point out that this shift does not reject state-cen-
tric efforts or abandon the fight against settler colonialism and apartheid.
Rather, Indigenous resurgence in this context works alongside other
approaches. This shift is not an abandonment of anti-imperial uprising
but a way to make hopeful things happen in grim and dire circumstances.
Putting care for people and land into the center of political focus transforms
the horizon of immediate possibility, supporting life against death-deal-
ing violence through everyday practices like seed harvesting and village
What the work of Verónica Gago and Noura Erakat offer us is not simply
prefigurative politics, as opposed to the fights to oppose and transform the
state. These thinkers, both deeply embedded in activist projects, offer us
instead a way to get from here to there in company with diverse others, a
way to connect and create new socialities, new institutions, and new concep-
tions of power on our way to reimagining the state.
Lisa Duggan is a queer feminist and leftist journalist, activist, and professor of Social
and Cultural Analysis at New York University. She is the author of Mean Girl: Ayn Randand the Culture of Greed, Sapphic Slashers: Sex, Violence, and American Modernity,
Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics and the Attack on Democracy, and
other books. Duggan was president of the American Studies Association from 2014 to
Barakat, Rana. 2017. “Writing/Righting Palestine Studies: Settler Colonialism,
Indigenous Sovereignty and Resisting the Ghost(s) of History.” Settler
Colonial Studies 8, no. 3 (March): 349–63.
Erakat, Noura. 2022. “Designing the Future in Palestine.” Boston Review.
December 19, 2022. https://www.bostonreview.net/articles/
Gago, Verónica. 2020. Feminist International: How to Change Everything.
Translated by Liz Mason-Deese. London: Verso.
Goldman, Emma. 1923. My Disillusionment in Russia. New York: Doubleday,
Page & Company.
Peralta, Pablo Ospina. 2021. “The Divided Left in Ecuador.” Dissent.
April 9, 2021. https://www.dissentmagazine.org/online_articles/
Signatories. 2021. “Open Letter to Editors of Jacobin and Monthly
Review.” New Politics. March 2, 2021. https://newpol.org/
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