Geoff Johnson has been teaching American history since we were both graduate students at CUNY in the George W. Bush years. In this conversation, we talk about our respective political and cultural experiences coming of age in the 1990s, and reflect on the different paths that brought us both to the radical left. From beat poetry, Jim Morrison, and hip hop to anti-capitalism and anarchy, we try to connect our personal, very American lives with the larger historical forces surrounding us.
Yasmin Nair is a Chicago-based writer, activist, and founder of Against Equality, an anti-capitalist collective of radical queer and trans writers, thinkers, and artists. Her provocative, often polemical, and always entertaining writing takes on the political culture of neoliberalism, the pitfalls of left media, and the politics of gender and sexuality, among many other topics. In this conversation we talk about the material politics of Brooklyn™ socialism, the differences between social, cultural, and economic capital, and what the left can learn from radical queer culture.
Justin Rogers-Cooper helps us takes a deep dive into the aesthetic and political legacy of Kurt Cobain, who died of suicide 25 years ago this month. Cobain is an iconic pop cultural figure for a number of reasons, but this conversation focuses on his personal politics, and how his band Nirvana expressed an organic, biologically-obsessed form of anti-capitalism. Emerging from the working class hell of the 1980s deindustrialized Pacific Northwest, Cobain’s art explored how an empty, impoverished society literally tears human bodies to pieces. From drugs to guns to misogyny, racism, violence, and capitalism itself, if you want to understand the inner contours of the American nightmare, Kurt Cobain’s life story and artistic output remain as critical as ever.
Justin Rogers-Cooper is here to explain how the robber barons of the 19th century stack up against the current crop of capitalist megalomaniacs in Silicon Valley and beyond. In the process, we talk about Marx’s labor theory of value, the shift from control of resources to control of debt, the colonization of the human soul as the final frontier of profitability, and the specific function of monopoly within the larger liberal project.
Justin Rogers-Cooper stops by to talk about Amazon’s impending invasion of Long Island City, Queens, where he works as a professor of English at LaGuardia Community College. Our conversation explores the psychotic evil of Jeff Bezos, the corrupt city leaders who are laying out a $3 billion red carpet for him, the larger structures of capitalism and consumerism driving Amazon’s power, and what all of this means for the future of New York City and the planet.
Daegan Miller is a writer whose recent book, This Radical Land: A Natural History of American Dissent, presents an intellectual history of how different Americans have resisted capitalism’s ravaging of the natural environment. From black antislavery radicals in the Adirondack wilderness of upstate New York to utopian anarchists in California’s sequoias, Miller’s narrative reveals a throughline of alternate visions running underneath the nation’s history. In this conversation, Miller tells how his personal connection to the land influenced his work as an environmental historian, explains how the disappointments of the academic labor market are connected to the wider alienation of 21st century American life, and offers his own eco-socialist vision of a kinder, gentler future.
Books mentioned in the episode:
The Long Emergency by James Howard Kunstler
City of Quartz by Mike Davis
Justin Rogers-Cooper returns to the Nostalgia Trap to break down the political and social significance of NBC’s The Office, positioning the show within the larger context of 21st century neoliberal capitalism. How does the evolving sitcom form reflect changing attitudes about labor, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression? And what does it mean for the future of work?
Malcolm Harris is a freelance writer and the author of Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials, a book that explores how the structure of American society is rigged against young people. Despite the stereotype of apathetic, entitled youth wasting away in their parents’ basements, Harris shows us a generation locked in by the horrific social, economic, and cultural realities of the 21st century—and offers a blueprint for how young folks can join the fight for a better world.
Daniel Bessner is a historian with a particular focus on American foreign policy. His book Democracy in Exile: Hans Speier and the Rise of the Defense Intellectual mixes biography with a striking analysis of Cold War policy-making. In this conversation, Bessner expands on the ideas he presented in a recent New York Times op-ed, in which he argues that the left needs a more focused and practical pathway to dismantling the American imperial project and drawing down the endless wars that have decimated globe for decades.
Eileen Jones is a film critic and professor whose biting, polemical movie reviews are featured in Jacobin and a number of other publications. Her recent book Filmsuck, USA investigates the persistently horrific state of American cinema, while outlining Jones’ vision of a liberatory movie culture that honors the medium’s working class roots. In this conversation, she explains how her early experiences watching Hollywood genre films influenced her ideas about movies, why the Coen brothers are her preferred auteurs, and why she thinks the language of cinema can play such a vital role in challenging the organizing principles of capitalism.
Keri Leigh Merritt is a historian of American class, race, and inequality, with a particular focus on the South during and after the Civil War. Her book Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South deftly navigates discourses on race, power, and capitalism, telling us what happens to “excess labor” under a slave economy. In this conversation, she talks about the South’s influence on her direction as a scholar, and explains how vital elements of the Southern political economy (from “right to work” to convict leasing) have spread to the rest of the country.
George Ciccariello-Maher is a political scientist and activist whose work focuses on the historical and current landscape of insurgent politics and anti-capitalism. As an outspoken left academic, Ciccariello-Maher is a favorite target of white supremacists and other right-wing extremists, whose threats and harassment led to his resignation from Drexel University in 2017. In this conversation, he tells how his early life informed his political development, why Venezuela’s recent history is such a vital piece of understanding global politics, and how riots and other forms of militant resistance can be effective means of achieving social and economic justice.