Is There a Progressive Politics After Progress?

From the Series: Bateson Book Forum: The Mushroom at the End of the World

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I graduated from high school into antiracist and feminist movements, with the inspiration of social-justice advocates standing ahead of me. Despite the difficulties of our struggles, it was thrilling to look forward. I imagined our movements as the crest of a wave; we would sweep aside archaic formations of prejudice and inequality. This was progressive politics, a politics of progress. It depended on a temporal orientation: in the future, things would get better. Of course, this was not an orientation just for progressives; it was the centerpiece of the American dream. Last fall, the model citizens of the American dream—the U.S. white working class—admitted that the progress story no longer moved them and offered their loyalties instead to a flagrantly racist, misogynist, Islamophobic nationalism. As related forms of xenophobia spread across the global North, the question of politics after progress is moving into the mainstream. As Bernie Sanders put it, “Despair is not an option.” But what kind of progressive politics can we have without expectations of progress?

The puzzle is nicely captured inside Camille Frazier’s question: What activities should count as work? The question only makes sense in relation to the progressive politics of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, in which the labor movement built its strength on the solidarity of workers. In the late twentieth century, progressive advocates expanded the category of work—and thus the grounds for solidarity—arguing that housework, sex work, piece work, and more were also work. We pushed forward politics by expanding work. But now the ground has dropped out from under us. Frazier usefully reminds us that postprogress gig economies are not the end of capitalist accumulation; the freedom to organize one’s own livelihood is also a source of exploitation. A few corporate leaders get rich while the self-organized, without wages or benefits, are increasingly precarious. So where shall we look for solidarity? The salaried hobby farmers who Frazier studies don’t find common ground with the agriculturalists and landless laborers they displace in the Bengaluru countryside. Such lack of solidarity translates easily into entitlement, and one does not have to look far to see historical examples of entitlement that lead to marginalization and even death. This is the dilemma for a postprogress politics of justice: how shall we mobilize across difference?

As Katherine Sacco correctly points out, the best answer I have been able to come up with so far is to make use of the latent commons, that is, the pool of potential human and nonhuman allies among whom we make our lives. To continue on the topic of work for a moment, one might consider the direction suggested by J. K. Gibson-Graham and Ethan Miller (2015), who argue that we should include the livelihood activities of nonhuman beings, as well as those of humans, in our assessments of the economy. Thinking thus with latent commons might spark mobilizations around water, for example, as in the MniWiconi movement at Standing Rock, which, before it was violently blocked, moved lots of Native and non-Native Americans. Perhaps there is something about water that might be relevant in Bengaluru. Across the continent, I think of Iftekhar Iqbal’s (2010) brilliant argument that the unequal entitlements of the Bengal Famine of 1943 (which also happened to involve urban salaried workers gaining access to land) were set into motion by railroads choking the Ganges. But Sacco writes about cities and about geographies, challenging me to think about the latent commons through those lenses. This is just the right prompt. Latent commons open up human and nonhuman geographies, showing us their flexibility and motion. They urge us not only to jump across scales but also to avoid rejecting both territorialization and deterritorialization as we protect patches of livability and find allies with whom to stand. An urban commons worth mobilizing might be small and bounded, such as a community garden. It might be spread around, as a public water system. Stability can be a problem—as commons are continually converted to property. Stability can be a virtue—as against those fracking-made earthquakes that rearrange the ground, contaminating our groundwater. Latent commons alert us to geography-in-action. They remind us to guard fragile, life-sustaining coordinations from the past—a project imagined as backward within progress expectations.

Still, I’ll be honest. Latent commons is hardly a robust political program. It’s just a way of temporizing, a refusal to give up despite the ruin all around. Such skills are important and I don’t want to denigrate them; they are key to collaborative survival. I’m hoping that more focused political programs rise up from the potential of the latent commons, but the commons itself don’t do that work. This is the problem with recognizing indeterminacy; it shows possibilities, but it refuses to trace a true path.

This brings me into the question of hope, which Ned Dostaler adriotly tackles. The problem with hope is that it has been tethered to progress, becoming an agent of what Dostaler nicely calls an “abstract” futurity. I would not want to give up on the word (I hate anthropologies that dispose of words the minute they are found to be contaminated); still, as Dostaler suggests, it will need some refitting. In The Mushroom at the End of the World, the hope readers identify is the comparatively good life of mushrooms and mushroom pickers, despite their precarity. This is a feature of the ethnographic material as much as my approach. I’m not trying to make either capitalism or environmental destruction look good. If I had to sum up the book in a single word, I would pick not hope but ruins. In another forum on the book (Tsing et al., forthcoming), I try the experiment of using salvage accumulation and more-than-human histories to describe the spread of the tree-killing water mold Phytophthora, which developed its virulence and global reach through the industrial nursery trade. These same approaches show us a much bleaker world, and it’s where I’m going in my new research on feral biologies. Yet I stand by my willingness to notice a range of possibilities in negotiating ruins; where survival is at stake, criticism alone is not enough.

Dostaler parenthetically touches on another issue: the masculinist lens that criticizes a focus on living in ruins as a feminine vanity. This is worth examining, because it suggests a set of readers who see hope in The Mushroom at the End of the World because they are missing the clash of swords that they know how to identify as “theory.” Women pull survivors out of the burning village, while male armies rage on. OK, fine, I’ll do that, but there are feminist war cries here as well—that is, theory. As David Ayala-Alfonso points out, The Mushroom at the End of the World aims to exemplify a way of doing scholarship. Drawing from what I see as the best of anthropology, the ethnographic material leads the argument, showing the importance of particular approaches. Collaborative foraging is a model for knowledge-making, as well as an object of ethnographic inquiry. As Ayala-Alfonso points out, the style is also an argument, and much of the theory work emerges from the details. This strategy risks losing readers who can only recognize “behead-the-giants-on-whose-shoulders-you-stand” genres of theory. But it is gratifying that each of the commentators in this forum found theoretical issues that matter in the book. There is an emergent politics in this style of reading and writing, too. To mobilize for justice and more-than-human livability from the latent commons will take collaborative thinkers with ethnographic ears: not just among professionals, but also among the students and readers we train to listen.

Darren Byler’s richly ethnographic comments on freedom bring all of these issues to a head, although, alas, not as a resolution but as a reason to head back into the storm. Freedom exemplifies the problems in creating a progressive politics after progress—as it also shows why ethnography matters. Byler notes that the search for freedom draws together many of those with precarious livelihoods, from trash pickers in Rio to the Uyghur youths he studied who find jade in northwest China. Yet freedom is only partially recognizable across its many guises; to imagine it within a universal politics of resistance won’t do. I am struck by the difference between the freedom claimed by Byler’s Uyghur youths and that of the Oregon mushroom pickers with whom I worked. The former are targets of a strain of state surveillance that imagines all Muslims as potential terrorists. In contrast, the latter, despite their bravado, are playing it rather safe to appeal to freedom. Last fall, Oregon prosecutors had trouble holding a heavily armed militia accountable for threatening government employees, destroying property, and other proudly admitted crimes. Because the defendants were white, no one accused them of terrorism; a jury found their appeal to freedom patriotic. Byler’s Uyghur jade hunters have no such privilege. The state and racial or religious regimes matter in giving freedom its valence. This is the awkward situation in which we must build a politics of justice: there are no simple solidarities and, worse yet, the question of just who might be our best allies is always up for grabs. We must make do not just across differences, but also across differential forms of privilege and contamination. If this is some kind of hope—then, yes, let’s throw ourselves into it. What other choice do we have?


Gibson-Graham, J. K., and Ethan Miller. 2015. “Economy as Ecological Livelihood.” In Manifesto for Living in the Anthropocene, edited by Katherine Gibson, Deborah Bird Rose, and Ruth Fincher, 7–16. Brooklyn, N.Y.: Punctum Books.

Iqbal, Iftekar. 2010. The Bengal Delta: Ecology, State, and Social Change, 1840–1943. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Tsing, Anna, et al. Forthcoming. “Getting By in Terrifying Times.” Book forum on The Mushroom at the End of the World. Dialogues in Human Geography.