Seeing Beyond The Now

Envisioning an impossible, unimaginable future

In 2016, my freshman year at Duke, I was one of nine undergraduate students who occupied the Allen Building demanding, among other things, higher wages and improved workplace conditions for Duke employees, and because of an incident with an employee, the termination of Executive Vice President Tallman Trask III. While the whirlwind sequence of events that comprised the week we spent entrenched in the administrative floor can sometimes bleed together in my head, I remember with sharp clarity the moments the Reverend William Barber M.Div. ’89 spent bellowing into our twerpy second-hand amp and mic setup just outside the parameters of Abele-Ville.

Specifically, I remember him calling the building takeover an “act of faith,” and I’ve thought about that quite a lot since. At the time, it felt like such a weighty, abstract burden to place on such young shoulders: that of having faith.

I’ve been working with SEIU, UFCW, AFSCME Local 77, and a number of other economic-justice-focused organizations for the past four years in North Carolina. Most of the time, it hasn’t felt like an act of faith. It’s felt like white-knuckle anger and residual generational fear—cellular lineages of hard labor and deaths of orchestrated, artificial scarcity you could trace in my telomeres. It felt like an obligation of survival, not a pious burden handed to me by God. My dedication to it infrequently felt like faith in anything, but rather often a sense that it was either this or a passive death in a future uncertain.

I’ve come to find that to be concerned with labor and economic justice at all is to be concerned with future-building and futurity—seeing the future as unprecedented and therefore full of potential for being free of our current conditions, not simply better off within them. While there isn’t space in this essay for recitations of Fanon, Marcuse, or Derrida, Mark Fisher does serve as an accessible entry point for thinking about this more.

Fisher developed the concept of Capitalist Realism as a definitional culmination of the ways in which capitalism obscures alternative futures. In Capitalist Realism: Is There No Alternative? he refers to the well-worn adage—attributed to both Slavoj Žižek and Duke’s own Fredric Jameson—that “it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism,” noting that it reflects the precise phenomenon he’s attempting to understand.

Broadly, it’s the inescapable sense that only capitalism can support life and that there exists no other worlds outside of it—that we’d sooner be able to comprehend and accept a barren Earth purged of all life than one free of imperialism and the internal contradictions inherent to capital accumulation, regardless of how catastrophic. This crushing debt, piling medical bills, precarious living arrangement, perma-wars, imperialist military occupations, and endless hours spent working a job that you will never be able to retire from: all of it appears as a permanent sentence. What this leaves us with is a constrained, stunted sense of temporality—a warped life where the future is either too painful to endure or frighteningly opaque.

Now, looking back, Barber’s comment makes more sense. In the face of a shamelessly gerrymandered state with misleadingly named “Right to Work” laws, where the current minimum wage can’t cover cost of rent anywhere in the United States, the belief in the collective power of workers to change their seemingly immutable conditions can often look like a faith in an impossible, unimaginable future. When we are mired by the inability to imagine a life worth living beyond our wage labor constraints, organizing for a better world must appear to be only the work of the devout called upon by something higher.

How else could one face the crushing reality of real hourly wage growth stagnation—despite productivity increases—since the 1970s, privatization of services essential to life, the breakdown of Fordist social relations with the coinciding birth of neoliberal social modes that increasingly situate capital at the center of our relationships to one another, and the largely unencumbered development of the debt economy, without something as unshakable as faith in a future most of us can’t even begin to envision?

So, perhaps futurity is reliant on some form of faith: an unwavering conviction that despite all the evidence presented to us to the contrary, the struggle for an anti- racist coalition of workers building collective power is a just one and that a different life can come to fruition. That faith is more than the will to just survive, to make it to the next day or paycheck. It’s an ability to conceive of something entirely new: an ability to not just rage against the now, but the capacity to dream of a tomorrow worth greeting. Maybe it’s a radical form of love. Maybe it’s Gramsci’s optimism of the will. Regardless, in my experience, no place in the United States strengthens that faith more than the South.

In North Carolina alone, just the past few years have been transformational in the resurgence in organized labor and working-class demonstrations. Whether it be thousands of public educators flooding the state capital, the formation of the Duke Faculty Union and Graduate Student Union, state-wide mobilization against HB2 (which prohibited transgender people from using bathrooms that aligned with their gender identity and limited local minimum-wage increases), or McDonald’s employees walking out on strike over sexual harassment, we’ve witnessed tremendous feats of worker power here. Of people daring to see beyond the often crushing misery of the now and daring to begin the work of envisioning something different—a faith in some new potential future even if we’ve never before seen it and may never witness it ourselves.

Socialism makes me believe in the future. Worker liberation challenging the interconnected sites of capital and white supremacy make me believe in the future. Watching laborers demanding a life worth living makes me believe in the future. Seeing a revitalization of organized labor crop up across universities, public schools, large fast-food chains, and grocery stores; watching increasing numbers of calls for anti-war solidarity and fights against settler colonialism from within the belly of Empire; and the roar of demands for the right to health care feel like a potential livable world slowly coming into focus. After all, we still have a world to win.

Roberts ’19 majored in global cultural studies with a Marxism and Society certificate, was the chair of The Chronicle’s editorial board, and was a Point Foundation Scholar. She works in union organizing in Washington, D.C.

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