Deva Woodly on Power, Organizing, and the Future of the Polity

Deva Woodly, Associate Professor of Politics at The New School for Social Research and Eugene Lang College and 2019-2020 Fellow in Residence at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, Harvard University, has organized a new home at The New School for interdisciplinary research on politics in action. The Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States will hold talks, host a conference, and produce a publication on its 2020-2021 theme: The Politics of Care.

Research Matters talked with Woodly over Zoom to discuss the Initiative’s purpose, its theoretical foundations, and the role of organizing in our communities and universities. The transcript below has been edited for length and clarity.

Organizing and Political Power

Research Matters: Congratulations on launching the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the U.S.! Can you talk a little bit about what the inspiration for that was, and what the vision for it is?

Deva Woodly: The reason for the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics and Organizing in the U.S. is that The New School actually has relatively little in terms of research on American politics, and American politics is one of my specialties. I wanted to bring something to us that would be interdisciplinary in nature, and yet focus on the U.S. as a case.

I also wanted to highlight the intersection between power, politics and what I think is  a lesser-studied, and yet very politically important phenomenon, which is political organizing… In political science, we often talk about mobilization. In sociology, they talk about activism in social movements. But mobilization and activism are both distinct from organizing.

Mobilization is when you assemble people who already have the requisite knowledge and skill to do a thing—you get people who are already registered to turn up to vote, for example—and you remind them to get out and do what they know how to do.  

Activism is when people turn up outside the regular institutionalized boundaries of the state to make their voices heard. This is the thing that we normally associate with protest and direct action …But activism doesn’t necessarily involve sustained social  analysis or the idea that you’re trying to achieve particular goals, or that you’re necessarily working with other people over time.

Organizing, on the other hand, is the long-term process of relationship-building and the changes in our subjectivity that make us understand that we are agents who can act to make change, and that we are, furthermore, agents-in-context, agents in a collectivity—that it is the power of the people acting together, over time that makes change. Organizing teaches us not only that we can act in a particular instance, but that we’re the kind of person who can act to make political change. So, it creates a fund of knowledge and a disposition toward civic action that’s good for the long-term….Organizing changes who we think we are in the polity. It creates us as an active citizenry.

There’s a ton of organizing that takes place all over the United States, and indeed it’s accelerated in this moment, but we as scholars know very little about it, and the fact is that organizers very rarely write down what they know, so we have very limited texts to teach us about organizing …I think it’s a fertile ground for scholarship to explore the nature, impacts, and efficacies of organizing.

RM: I think the word “organizing” and “get organized” are things we see and hear a lot right now, and it’s possible to feel a sense of embarrassment at not knowing what that means. You can have a toe in it without knowing what it means.

DW: Yeah, but the nice thing about organizing — both the thing that makes it so powerful but also the thing that has caused people to overlook it — is that it’s an extremely long-term process. It’s something that takes place over years. So, what political campaigns have typically done and called “organizing” is not organizing; it’s mobilizing.

But we see now that particularly Black women, Black feminists, are revolutionizing organizing in political campaigns, and we see the results of that led out by folks in Georgia, like Stacey Abrams, LaTosha Brown, and Nse Ufot. We see that happening in other communities, as well, particularly among indigenous folks in Arizona and New Mexico. These are long projects, they’re about engaging with people about the political problems that they identify for themselves in their communities, and trying to work with people and enable them to fight for themselves—resource them and give them the type of knowledge that they need to make changes locally. And as people get a taste of making changes locally, their political imaginations begin to expand and their political efficacy begins to increase. 

RM: I love to hear you bring up Arizona—that’s where I moved from before coming to The New School, and that’s where I learned about organizing. The different groups that are at work in Arizona are doing such good work. I’ve loved to hear them get a small portion of the recognition they deserve in the last week [following the 2020 election].

DW: Oh, absolutely. I so agree. So, another goal for this initiative is to have a space to bring together political practitioners and scholars where they can inform each other and think through the common problems and contours of this political time; a place to jointly imagine the political possibilities for the 21st century.

The way that I do work is inductive. That means that the way that I work is kind of opposite the Western tradition, which is deductive. If you take a deductive approach you start with a big concept and then you go down to the particular, or try to fit instances of the particular under the big concepts. I work from a deductive approach. I start with the particular, people’s lived experiences, and try to relate those to overarching concepts that we have or create new ones. Whatever I do, I always start with people, and one of the things that has led me to understand is that we, as scholars, need to be always in contact with practitioners in the world. We have a lot of knowledge to offer each other!  

I also think that universities need to have institutional pathways that allow them to have regular contact with people doing political work on the ground, particularly with organizers. So what I always try to do in any kind of educational initiative. Whether it’s creating a class I’ve taught called “Becoming a Generation Citizen,” which put [Lang] students in high school classrooms so they were interacting the world. Or with bringing in an Activist-in-Residence, which brought someone doing the work of political change to our community and providing them a space in the university to think, reflect, write, and teach which they usually don’t have time to do. And it also to informs the academic community about how our theories actually play out in the world and the questions that people who are actually doing the work would love to have answers to. This is the way to create an ongoing and fruitful interchange between theory and practice. My opinion is that the only way to achieve praxis is to actually have scholars and political practitioners in contact and helping each other think through the problems that we are witnessing and experiencing in common.

RM: I’m also curious about where “the politics of care” come into this. What makes that a research interest for you, and what made you decide to make it the organizing principle of the Initiative?

DW: Well, the politics of care is something that I became interested in as I was working on my forthcoming book, Reckoning: Black Lives Matter and the Democratic Necessity of Social Movements (Oxford University Press, 2021). As I was researching that book, doing interviews with people in the Movement for Black Lives, there was a series of principles and values that people kept espousing. I ended up   codifying those ideas under the term “Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism.”

One of the key aspects of Radical Black Feminist Pragmatism is the politics of care…[which] says that we need to think about politics in a completely different way. The primary subject of politics is not “rights,” the subject of politics is not “institutions,” but is instead the fact that people matter and deserve care. So, if that is the basis of our political thought, if that is the way that we think about how to design systems and to collect and aggregate resources, then it changes the whole way that we talk and think about what is necessary for the governance of the world that we share.

Organizing and Activism on Campus

RM: What do you see as the role of campus organizing and activism, something we’ve had a lot of at The New School over the last few years?

DW: Campus organizing is critical. It’s part of political organizing writ large. A campus is a community. A campus is a locality. People who are members of that community, who are members at the campus as a polity, should absolutely be in connection with each other and organizing. They should be creating relationships of political friendship and reciprocity and it is an aspect of organizing in the polity.

RM: I think one of the challenges of campus organizing could be that, as you mentioned before, the thing about organizing is that it takes a long time.

DW: Right, and the university is full of a transient population: students. That is the nature of organizing at the university, but that’s also why students have to build institutions that can handle succession…Because of the nature of the population, the wins that you have are less likely to be driven only or solely by students. They often have to be in collaboration with people who have long-term stake at the university, like unionized staff and faculty. That’s also a lesson to learn, in terms of organizing: it’s coalitions that have the biggest bang, because everybody is structurally positioned in a different way…That’s why it’s not just organizing; it’s also power and politics. You have to understand power in the place that you’re trying to make change, and that’s really where the full expression and magnitude of influence will be realized.

Journalism and Democracy

RM: I have personal stake in this question, because I’m in the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program—what do you see as the role of media and journalism in the way the average person understands their political environment and role?

DW: I think that media, in terms of political journalism, needs to focus a lot more than they often do on accuracy over trying to be unbiased. The “both sides” norm is actually really detrimental to the rendering of reality, so I think that the idea of objectivity insofar as it means “both sides” needs to be put to bed. Instead, we should be interested in facts, authenticity, accuracy, and nuance. These are things that are much more descriptive of reality than objectivity, which is a thing that just doesn’t exist.

I think that media, particularly journalism and political journalism, helps us when it gives us context, and hurts us when it deprives us of contexts and reproduces stereotypical narratives that are easy to digest but don’t expand our understanding.

In the actually existing world, there’s more than two sides to almost every story, and the power that those sides wield is very rarely balanced. Their intentions, their imaginations, and their impact will not necessarily be equal, so we shouldn’t pretend that that’s the case. We have to accurately render the world as it is, or journalism ceases to be useful and that’s bad for journalism and bad for democracy.

Movements, Crises, and the Political Future

RM: How do you see the pandemic impacting political participation moving forward?

DW: The pandemic, combined with the movements and the contentious cycle that we’ve been in, the #MeToo movement, the Movement for Black Lives, the Sunrise Movement, the March for Our Lives—this is just in the US, not to mention global movements—I honestly think that this confluence of circumstances has re-politicized public life in a really beneficial way.

Not that it’s smooth; it’s not all a happy story. Like, right now we’re in a moment in which autocracy is a real possibility, in which the current administration is trying to overturn the results of an election in which more than 150 million people voted. It’s a time of danger, but also one of opportunity. Democracy is always dangerous…You’re leaving everything up to people, and people can disappoint you and make catastrophic choices. However, people can also impress you and make revelatory choices. It’s a moment in which the contingency of everything is clear to us but it’s also a moment filled with possibility.

Organizations and practices among people are huge: the way that people have remembered that they can take to the streets to make demands; the way that people have started to actually educate themselves about civics, about the way that the American government works. This past week [of the election] was insanely stressful, but do you know how many Americans learned geography? Do you know how many Americans learned what the Electoral College is, and how many electors each state has, and what kinds of officials are in charge of making what kinds of decisions? All of that is amazing and really good for democracy, to have a politically educated and engaged populace that is capable of acting on its own, capable not only of pressuring the state, but also acting autonomously.  This is one of the reasons the rapid increase in the scope and coordination of mutual aid that has happened since the pandemic began is so interesting. These are the kinds of things that democracy needs.

What I’m saying to you now is basically the legacy of American pragmatism — this is straight John Dewey — which is to say that democracy requires democratic citizens, and for a long time, we haven’t had a democratic citizenry; we’ve had consumers. I think that, if we survive this time as a democracy, if the democracy stays intact, we will be really strong going forward and have the possibility to make really good changes in the future, just because so many more people will understand what can be done. So many people will have had their subjectivity reformed, having been organized in this moment. So many more people will understand that they are capable of being authors of the world that they want.

RM: That’s incredibly encouraging to hear.

DW: Well, we have to survive it. I don’t make any guarantees on that score!

The first event from the Initiative for the Study of Power, Politics, and Organizing in the United States is a panel on The Politics of Care on Friday, November 13, at 4PM ET. You can register here.

New Ways to Approach Global Mental Health Challenges

Mental health disorders are currently the leading cause of disability worldwide. Still, access to culturally relevant treatment is complicated by a wide range of social and economic barriers. And with more than 40 percent of the world population under the age of 25, many child and adolescent mental health problems are largely neglected.

Faculty and students at The New School for Social Research are spearheading a major effort to expand both research on global mental health and interventions to help people on the ground.

An Interdisciplinary Cohort

In Fall 2019, NSSR launched the Global Mental Health subject area as a way for Psychology students to explore this specialized area of study while deepening their research, developing closer relationships with faculty, connecting with outside job opportunities, and more. 

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the subject area, notes that courses on the topic have filled up quickly, and that the cohort of students interested in Global Mental Health — like Psychology PhD student Evan Neuwirth — is growing substantially. And it’s not just Psychology students who are involved; increasing numbers of Parsons School of Design students interested in how design can support mental health are enrolling in courses, too.

Adam Brown, Associate Professor of Psychology and head of the Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab at NSSR

Opportunities in the field are also growing. Students in Brown’s Spring 2020 Global Mental Health course were excited to partner with the Mayor’s Office of ThriveNYC to help address critical gaps in New York City’s mental healthcare system — a project that was unfortunately disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. However, Brown says, “it speaks to amazing potential community partnerships that exist locally with international implications about ways to work with different organizations and agencies, while building on the creativity and knowledge basis of New School students.

New External Support

One of the classes offered in the Global Mental Health subject area is Child and Adolescent Global Mental Health, taught by Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research

 “This is a very innovative program because there are very few global health programs within psychology doing this kind of work,” Steele says. Steele’s work has largely looked at childhood development, bridging psychoanalytic thinking and clinical practice with contemporary research practices.

Her current course explores current trends in child and adolescent mental health services and examines responses to social and cultural traumas, with specific focus on refugee populations and displaced children. NSSR MA and PhD students from across disciplines, as well as Parsons design students, engage in team-based project work, partnering with government agencies and NGOs working to deliver interventions to children in Africa and South Asia. Together, they work to find innovative solutions and prototypes for the global mental health challenges their stakeholders propose. 

The course’s Teaching Assistant, Zishan Jiwani, is a Psychology MA student and a Zolberg-IRC Fellow in Mental Health in Humanitarian Settings who has also studied transdisciplinary design at Parsons. “Zishan and I will really co-teach the class,” Steele says. “Together, we will deliver a blend of psychology, intervention science and design education to guide students in conducting user experience research, prototyping, and testing solutions remotely.”

Miriam Steele, Professor of Psychology and Co-Director of the Center for Attachment Research (left), and Zishan Jiwani, Psychology MA student (right)

“An important objective of this class is to support the cultivation of a deep understanding of how mental health and psychosocial support is delivered for children and families in low-income settings in the Global South,” Steele says. “The interdisciplinary design challenge helps students engage meaningfully with the promise and pitfall of mental health interventions.”

The course will benefit from a distinguished list of guest speakers who are at the helm of child and adolescent global health include Aisha Yousafzai from Harvard School of Public Health, Lisa Cogrove from the University of Massachusetts – Boston, Marinus van IJzendoorn from Erasmus University Rotterdam & the Department of Public Health and Primary Care, School of Clinical Medicine, University of Cambridge, UK.

Mentors from partnering organizations will help guide the student teams through the nuances of their specific challenges. Current projects include partnering with Strengthening Families for the Well-being of Children in Nairobi, Kenya to support teen mothers reintegrate into society after giving birth, and working with the Effia Nkwanta Regional Hospital in Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana to help parents of special needs children cope with their children’s diagnosis. 

For the Fall 2020 semester, Steele and Jiwani were successful in securing funding from the Association for Psychological Science Teaching Fund, which was then matched by the Two Lilies Fund, a global early childhood mental health initiative. Microgrants will be awarded to all group projects that show courage, creativity, depth and provide a clear rationale for how they plan to use the funding. Teams will also have an opportunity to request a small amount of funding to develop prototypes midway through the semester. 

Steele hopes that publicizing this work will inspire students from across a range of disciplines to engage with these crucial issues at The New School, which is unique in its ability to blend design and psychology in this particular way. The class, which will be offered online in Fall 2020, will also set up a protocol for other universities to develop their own global mental health studies, as well as offer an outline for an engaging and experiential online classroom experience. 

“COVID-19 has presented an unprecedented challenge for teaching complex subjects like child and adolescent global mental health through an online format,” Steele said. “However, we plan to use the online format to greatly benefit the classroom experience by expanding our reach outside of New York and bringing in more collaborators virtually.”

From the Lab to the People

In Brown’s Trauma and Global Mental Health Lab, faculty and students are investigating disparities in mental health issues as well as developing innovative solutions and interventions that can reduce barriers to care in low and medium-resourced contexts, especially in the wake of COVID-19.

Recently, Brown connected with the World Health Organization about a short-term mental health treatment plan called Problem Management Plus (PM+). The pilot program to train his Lab students in PM+ would have been conducted in partnership with the Danish Red Cross, which has used PM+ primarily in areas facing humanitarian crises. Now, his ab students are learning PM+ remotely so they can help deliver it online to those in need. Read more in this New School News story

Brown is also working with three students — Psychology MA students Camila Figueroa Restrepo and Jamie Gardella, and Milano MA student Maria Francisca Paz y Mino Maya — on a study about intergenerational memories among immigrant communities in New York City.

Together with a local nonprofit, they’re working with families of Ecuadorian heritage to understand how their narratives of migration get passed down through generations, and the extent to which knowledge of that narrative is connected with better mental health outcomes.

And, funded by a grant from the U.S.-Israel Binational Science Foundation, Brown and his lab students are working with Danny Horesh of Bar Ilan University on an international study examining the psychological implications of the pandemic. Together, they are assessing multiple factors including stress, anxiety, and quality of life, and looking at predictors of distress and well-being. 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz

Social Research on Plagues

The journal’s update of 1988’s “In Time of Plague” examines the human history of pandemics and what it means for the current moment

“After decades of dividing our time between apocalyptic fears of nuclear holocaust and private fears of personal ruin, we now face a threat that is profoundly social, requiring a public, community response. Most of us until recently have assumed, perhaps without thinking, that the number of life-threatening infectious diseases was finite, soon to be cured and prevented by medical science…. Now it appears that this idea—that we stand outside our own history, that we, unlike our forebears, are immune to widespread medical disasters—is very doubtful.” 

This description feels very poignant in the midst of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Yet these are the words Arien Mack used to introduce the Fall 1988 issue of Social Research, which addressed the HIV/AIDS crisis. Called “In Time of Plague,” the special issue followed the journal’s first-ever public conference, “In Time of Plague: The History and Social Consequences of Lethal Epidemic Disease.” Now, more than 30 years later, Social Research is publishing a new issue with the same title this summer — on COVID-19.

NSSR’s Flagship Journal

Social Research has been a part of The New School for Social Research since its beginning,” Mack says. Founded as an international quarterly in 1934, one year after The New School’s first president created the University in Exile as a refuge for scholars forced to flee Hitler’s Europe, Social Research aimed to create a public voice for the growing university. The flagship NSSR journal now operates in partnership with the school’s Center for Public Scholarship (CPS), founded and directed by Mack, which is dedicated to promoting “free inquiry and public discussion, bringing the best scholarship in and outside of the academy to bear on the critical and contested issues of our times.”

Arien Mack, Alfred and Monette Marrow Professor of Psychology, became editor of Social Research in 1970. Under her leadership, Social Research pivoted to thematic issues, and from 1988 onward paired some of them with large public conferences that explore current, pressing social issues in their historical contexts. Past issues have looked at such complex concepts as loyalty, fairness, and unknowability, as well as more focused subjects like the future of Cuba and transitions to and then from democracy. As Mack said in a 2020 Public Seminar interview with Jim Miller, Professor of Politics and Liberal Studies and Director of the Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism program, Had I been in any other university, I would have been [only an experimental] psychologist. I would have published, probably more academic research. But I would not have had the kind of extraordinary run of intellectual fun that [editing] Social Research has offered me.”

“We held our first funded conference at a moment where there was an enormous amount of hysteria around the HIV-AIDS crisis,” Mack says of the program, whose proceedings were published in the 1988 “In Time of the Plague” issue. Her intention in organizing the conference was to examine the epidemic in light of the long human history of plagues, with the goal of fostering open dialogue among scholars and scientists, combating misinformation around AIDS, and offering a more effective and nuanced public response. 

The Right Time to Republish

“Pandemics and plagues have been with us since the beginning of time,” Mack continues. “There are things we have learned and things we have ignored. It occurred to us that this was a great moment to republish this issue and invite authors, some who contributed to the first issue and some new contributors, to comment on the new pandemic.” 

Cara Schlesinger, Managing Editor of Social Research, underscores this point. “One of the important takeaways from this issue,” she says, “is that there were lessons that were learned during the AIDS crisis and lessons that were forgotten… and when we forget history, we risk repeating it. Almost every event we [at Social Research] have done has addressed that idea in some way and tried to bring the past to bear on the present. Unfortunately, this time the past we are reminded of is very recent. Despite all of the powers and pressures working against that memory, maybe this time we will do a little better at remembering.”

The COVID-19 edition of In Time of Plague is divided into two sections. The new essays that comprise the first section navigate the moral dilemmas, inequalities, and misinformation that shadow the COVID-19 pandemic, drawing comparisons to the AIDS crisis. The second section republishes the complete collection of original papers. Contributors of both the original and new material were drawn from across disciplines.

Charles Rosenberg, Emeritus Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University, wrote a paper in 1988 on the definition of disease as well as a new piece on shaping a pandemic narrative. Willam Foege, former executive director of the Carter Center and famed epidemiologist, originally published “Plagues: Perceptions of Risk and Social Responses” and has now contributed an essay entitled “Plague Revisited.” New contributors include Teresa Ghilarducci, NSSR’s Schwartz Professor of Economics and Policy Analysis and director of the Schwartz Center for Economic Policy Analysis, with “When Economists Take a Back Seat to Virologists”; William Hirst, NSSR’s Malcolm B. Smith Professor of Psychology, on how the pandemic will be remembered; Mariano Aguirre, advisor to the Human Rights Institute, on the connections between inequality and the impacts of COVID-19; and Mary T. Bassett, former commissioner of health for New York City, who explores how “epidemics track along the fissures of our society, exacting the highest toll among the marginalized, discriminated, and excluded.”

Join a Webinar

The Center for Public Scholarship will also be holding a two-part public webinar series to launch the new edition of In Time of Plague. See more information and register here.

The first panel, “Inequalities and Plague,” will be held Wednesday, August 5, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT. Panelists include Ghilarducci, Aguirre, and Bassett, as well as Ahmed Bawa, Chief Executive Officer of Universities South Africa. 

The second panel, “Comparing Plagues: AIDS and COVID-19,” will be held Wednesday,  August 12, 12:30-2:00 p.m. EDT and will be moderated by Ron Bayer, elected member of the Institute of Medicine of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences. Panelists include Foege; Ruth Macklin, Distinguished University Professor Emerita of the Albert Einstein College of Medicine; Gerald Oppenheimer, Professor of Clinical Sociomedical Sciences at Columbia University; and David A. J. Richards, Edwin D. Webb Professor of Law at New York University. 

Since its first issue, Social Research has aimed to preserve the founding ideals of The New School for Social Research and to make intellectual inquiry around social and political issues more accessible for the New York community and beyond. In the introduction of this new issue, Mack writes, “It is my hope that by reissuing our 1988 issue, with new comments by experts on how the current COVID-19 pandemic resembles and differs from the AIDS epidemic, we will once again help our readers better understand what is happening now and what we might expect.” 


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz

New Social Philosophy Prize Awards Challenges to Canon

A collaboration between NSSR and Vanderbilt reflects the evolving field of social philosophy

Within the broader field of philosophy, an increased focus on social thought has led to an upsurge of interest in critical theories of race, gender, and class. In response, a group of faculty and students at The New School for Social Research (NSSR) and Vanderbilt University — including Alice Crary, University Distinguished Professor at NSSR, and Matthew Congdon, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and NSSR Philosophy PhD 2014 alumnus — have created the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy, which seeks to recognize “groundbreaking, courageous, critical work” in the field. 

The inaugural recipient of the biennial prize is Robert Gooding-Williams, M. Moran West/Black Alumni Council Professor of African-American Studies, Professor of Philosophy and of African American and African Diaspora Studies at Columbia University.  

Research Matters sat down digitally with Crary, Congdon, and Gooding-Williams to talk about social philosophy and its history at The New School, as well as what this award represents.

Collaborating for Visibility in the Field

Crary and Congdon’s collaboration began when Crary served as Congdon’s PhD advisor in NSSR’s Philosophy department. Crary, who has written extensively on ethics, was a natural fit as a mentor for Congdon, whose research focuses on moral psychology and the intersections of ethics and epistemology. 

The two continue to talk often, and in 2019 ran a successful workshop at Vanderbilt on social visibility; topics included the visibility of racism in the United States, the critical significance of art and aesthetic experiences, and the epistemology of ideology critique. They met for coffee the day after the workshop to debrief and both were pleased with how the presentations had gone. That was what led to the idea of further collaboration.

“Partly we were interested in the significance of the fact that, in Anglo-American circles, the idea of social philosophy is a relative newcomer,” says Crary. “We wanted to look afresh at what it means to explore specifically social thought and criticism. What we were doing in pulling together the original workshop was  identifying a set of exciting philosophers and political theorists who are working across intellectual traditions not only in theorizing about these things but also in bringing theory to bear on practice.”

They felt momentum growing in the field and wanted to turn their one-time effort into something more sustained. Crary and Congdon developed the Prize for Distinguished Achievement in Social Philosophy and formed a prize committee, which includes Karen Ng, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Vanderbilt and an NSSR Philosophy PhD 2013 alum; Dora Suarez, a current NSSR Philosophy PhD student; Daniel Rodriguez-Navas, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at NSSR; and Eric MacPhail, a current Vanderbilt Philosophy PhD student and an NSSR Philosophy MA 2016 alum.

It makes sense that NSSR is so strongly represented on the committee. The field of social philosophy has strong connections to intellectual traditions represented at The New School since the 1930s, in particular Critical Theory. So while analytic philosophers have increasingly turned to social philosophy in the past 20 years, “these conversations were happening at The New School many decades earlier,” Congdon says. Here, “philosophy is looked at as a distinctively social phenomenon. How inhabiting shared forms of life shapes one’s vision and perception of that world, and shapes what objects are actually in that world. Or how our shared history shapes one’s perception of that world…. That was something that was just in the air at The New School from the beginning; to study just about any philosophical problem was already to want to situate it in a kind of a social context.” Congdon also found the intellectual climate of The New School to include a shared sense of political activism, with students often involved in community organizing and political events on and outside of campus.

Vanderbilt also has a pluralistic Philosophy department, which Crary says is not something to be taken for granted. “Here pluralism means something like — we’re not going to be factional and say the only legitimate kind of philosophy is the kind that’s being practiced in the Anglo-American world, or is in the European philosophical scene, or elsewhere. We both think that this kind of open-mindedness is decisive for philosophizing that is productively engaged with the world and guided by a commitment to social justice. It’s rarer than you would think.”

Changing Who Gets to Be a Philosopher

The first prize recipient, Robert Gooding-Williams, has been instrumental in legitimizing social philosophy.  

Challenging the philosophy canon since the 1980s, Gooding-Williams has helped make discussions about race a decisive area for philosophical study — one now recognized by the American Philosophical Association. As a historian of African-American philosophy and a scholar of W.E.B. Dubois, Gooding-Williams has questioned the exclusion of Dubois, Booker T. Washington, and Frederick Douglass from consideration as prominent political philosophers. 

“My contributions to social philosophy have largely concerned the diagnosis of social problems, specifically racism and white supremacy,” Gooding-Williams says, as well as “the analyses and political-philosophical responses to racism and white supremacy in the history of African American political thought.”

His essay collection, Look, A Negro! Philosophical Essays on Race, Culture and Politics (Routledge, 2005), explores the concept of Black identity, the nature of Black political solidarity, the significance of Afro-centrism for American democracy, and the impact of racial ideology on aesthetic judgment, while In the Shadow of Du Bois (Harvard University Press, 2011) analyzes Afro-Modern political thought in the U.S. In a forthcoming paper, Gooding-Williams builds on other philosophers’ recent efforts to understand racial domination in terms of practices and the concepts that constitute them; an excerpt of that paper revisits the Ferguson Report and how anti-Black concepts influence police practices.

“He is doing great historical work and also telling a story about what good political philosophy is.  He leads us to see clearly that the exclusion of Du Bois and others is a function of racism,” Crary says. “His work is incredibly important and powerful.”

Congdon describes the courageousness in Gooding-Williams’ methodology: “His contribution [is] basically creating and legitimizing whole areas of philosophy that had been delegitimized or not recognized as important.”

Crary and Congdon had planned to make an occasion of the first prize, honoring Gooding-Williams as well as organizing a public lecture featuring prominent philosophers and social theorists, and recognizing graduate students with the NSSR-Vanderbilt Graduate Student Prize in Social Philosophy. Amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, they are monitoring the situation and will make a decision about the event in the coming months, making the health and well-being of the event’s participants a top priority. More information, as well as the organizers’ full congratulatory message to Gooding-Williams, can be found on the NSSR website.  

Photo Credits: Left: Matthew Congdon and Alice Crary at a philosophy conference in Paris, 2019; Right: Robert Gooding-Williams via American Academy of Arts and Sciences, 2018.


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz

Federico Finchelstein on his new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies

In an interview with NSSR students, Finchelstein discusses the changing nature of truth

Federico Finchelstein, Professor of History, returns to studying the history of fascism to understand the current political moment. His new book, A Brief History of Fascist Lies (University of California Press, 2020) is a companion to his 2019 book, From Fascism to Populism in History (University of California Press). This latest work explores the new terrain of “post-truth” and “fake news,” while investigating the long lineage of fascist leaders weaponizing lies.

Emmanuel Guerisoli, Sociology and History PhD candidate, and Ihor Andriichuk, Politics PhD student, sat down over Zoom with Finchelstein to discuss the inspiration behind his research and how lies define politics today.

Left to right: Guerisoli and Andriichuk

Listen to the full conversation here:


An excerpt of the edited transcript of the discussion is below

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On why this book, now 

Guerisoli: I wanted to start with a basic question. You mention at the beginning of the book a series of events like the El Paso shooting and a Christchurch shooting in New Zealand that in a way triggered the idea to write this book. Do you want to talk more about that, why you’re writing this book now?

Finchelstein: Those events happened almost by the end of the writing…This [book] is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists, what makes that fascism successful? One of the issues that makes it successful is that these outrageous ideas become a matter of belief. They spread throughout, motivating a lot of people to not only believe, but also to kill in its name, to exert a lot of violence in its name. So the two examples that you mention, Emmanuel, are rather examples from the end of the story. 

This book is a kind of continuation of a longstanding worry about how and why people believe in fascists

Finchelstein

….After finishing my work, From Fascism to Populism in History, I wanted to return to some questions that I have been addressing before. This started in a way with a conference that I gave in Italy in the mid-2000s. This was like a longer question of why people believe in fascism and why that belief moves beyond empirical demonstration to be a world of fantasy which, ironically, is believed and presented as true.

Andriichuk: You mention at the very end of the book that you actually started working on this book in 2013, after this conference in Italy. In the introduction, you say that fascists and populists are playing in a league of their own. And if to speak from today about 2013 and the period between those dates, is this league increasing or declining?

Finchelstein:  What I mean by that is that all politicians lie. And lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies. I think that is an important distinction. The other part of that distinction is that not only do these people believe in their lies, but also they believe that their lies are the truth. Even reality does not correlate to that belief, hat they do is try to change reality and in the book I present many examples of this.

Lying is not an issue which depends on a particular ideology. All ideologies eventually engage with lies and often propaganda. What I mean when I say that they play in a league of their own is that most other political traditions generally do not believe their lies.

Finchelstein

One of them is one of the most dramatic assumptions of these beliefs…is the belief in an anti-Semitic lie…that states that Jews are dirty and they spread disease. They are sometimes presented a virus themselves. This is a lie, and hat the Nazis did with this is to create an artificial war in which this lie could turn into a reality. Jews were, of course, not spreading disease per se, but once they were put in horrible conditions, in ghettos and concentration camps, they didn’t have food, they didn’t have sanitary conditions and so on and so forth. They eventually became ill and certainly spread disease, but they only did so not because that was true, but rather because the Nazis turned their lies into situations which became the truth. But that truth itself is a lie because it’s the effect or the outcome of turning lies into reality.

On believing lies

Guerisoli: Something that I found really quite striking from your book is…that you make a difference that lying is something that also liberalism does. But as you just said, liberalism doesn’t believe…

Finchelstein: Or communism.

Guerisoli: Exactly, they don’t believe their own lies. One could…say, well, liberalism or 

communism might be hypocritical, but fascism is a dangerous, sincere type of ideology. The issue is that what you are saying is that also the lying is racist, it is based on this idea that certain communities of people, certain races, certain ethnicities, are superior or have a sacred space in the world. Their leaders appear able to reveal a “sacred old truth” that certain spaces or certain people are sacred and therefore they need to act upon it. And this is, going back to the El Paso and Christchurch shootings, the idea of the replacement theory, that these people believe that migrants or foreigners of people who are not white or Christians are invading and spreading disease, or contaminating, polluting the romanticized idea of their society.

Finchelstein: ….This is exactly what I want to say. It involves racism because fascism historically has been racist. So basically, the idea of truth in fascism, which is, of course, a lie for the rest of us, is a racist lie. It involves demonization, discrimination, and racism. And there uou see the connection between the past and the present. 

And here I would like to stress a distinction between the current populism and far-right populism, the current one…I mean Trump, I mean Bolsonaro, I mean Orban, I mean Narendra Modi and others, is that as opposed to most populists in history — starting with Juan Peron to Silvio Berlusconi or Hugo Chavezmeaning populism left and right — they did not exactly engage with lies in the same way. They were much more pragmatic, closer to the liberalism way of lying. Whereas what Trump and Bolsonaro share, not with the populists in history but with the fascists themselves is the idea, this belief in their own lies. A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump. But Trump himself exposes himself to the disease because he doesn’t wear a mask. There you have a perfect demonstration of how he believes in his own lies. 

I think here you see the connection between populism and fascism in a very particular way. The current populism, the current post-fascism, is very different to the post-fascist populism of the past. It’s different in the sense that it is racist, it glorifies violence and also lies as fascists lie.

That connects them not only with the fascists of the past…but also with the fascists of the present, as these terrorists that you were talking about. So this terrorism involves the same lies and even kill, as the fascists did, for these lies. But these lies are also the lies that are being involved by Trump. I mean, this idea of replacement, this idea of invasion. Sometimes it’s even verbatim, that these terrorists use the same words that Trump is using. So Trump is not responsible for their violence, but is enabling it. I mean, he’s not legally responsible for the violence, but he has a responsibility…He’s spreading the same lies as they do.

A good example of this is that we have a lie that divides us, the lie being that you don’t need a mask to protect yourself from the virus. Even in this country now, people are divided across two ideological lines. I mean, you wear a mask if you believe in science. You don’t wear a mask if you believe in Trump.

Finchelstein

On the psychoanalytic history of lying

Andriichuk: ….In the book…you’re stressing that this kind of fascist lie and populist lie is not conscious or intentional. So the person who is lying does not necessarily imply there is a lie. So there is not necessarily a knowledge of this lie.

Finchelstein: Sometimes. 

Andriichuk: So it’s kind of subconscious or a gray area. You approach this matter from a psychoanalytical point, and this matter is revealing. My question would be what those populist or fascist lies might reveal in themselves. 

Finchelstein: So there are a couple of things….From Hitler, Mussolini, Goebbels, at some level…they recognize that these lies were lies. But even then, the idea was that these lies were servicing the truth, or were enabling the truth, or were at the service of the truth. Sometimes in a minimal way, they were acknowledging to some extent that they were lying for the truth, rendering these in a way smaller than the truth, which was an ideological one, such as racism. Even if this particular person is not spreading disease at the current moment, they insisted on the fact that this person was spreading disease because at the end of the day, what mattered was the big truth, as they understood it. Even Hitler himself will say about the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which is one of the craziest lies of anti-Semitism and racism…When they asked Hitler about this, Hitler would say, “Even if there are aspects of the Protocols that are not correct or true, they speak to a greater truth.” …. Now, regarding the question of psychoanalysis, as you know from the book, there are different levels of this. The book is about how the fascists understood their lying, but also how anti-fascists at the time were trying to think about the lies of fascism. Among these anti-fascists, many of them were very interested in psychoanalysis, starting, of course, with Freud…but also people like Adorno, people like Mariátegui…Many of them thought that the concepts of psychoanalysis and its approach to the unconscious could help us understand this irrational belief in a form of truth that basically rejects empirical demonstration but have faith as truth in emerging in the inner being. 

Traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist.

Finchelstein

At the beginning of the book, I quote Trump, Hitler, and Mussolini. I compare their understanding of the truth, which of course is quite similar. The truth is not being based on empirical demonstration. Perhaps the most explicit among the three of them…is Trump, who says, “Don’t believe in what you are seeing.” How can you not believe in what you are seeing?..This is extremely irrational, and the unconscious has an important role to play… The other level is that…the fascists themselves were quite obsessed with psychoanalysis. There is a chapter on this issue…and why they thought that psychoanalysis was so problematic for fascism.

Guerisoli: …I wanted to point out that this issue connects to the idea of race, because in the end,… the concern is that Freud is attacking the idea of myth, but particularly what is sacred to fascists, which in this sense would be the nation, particularly for fascists. It’s not that Freud is directly attacking fascists, although in the end he will, but that

by attacking the idea of anything that is sacred as something that is not truth, then what fascists are saying is that “Freud is saying this because he’s a Jew and not loyal to the nation and therefore he’s a virus in our own societies. And you see going around not just in Europe, but also in Latin America, with the clerical fascism types, from Mexico to Argentina. 

With the case of Trump, or at least today…you mentioned also that what’s most dangerous is this relationship between conspiracy theories that are believed by a lot of people, but then public officials like Bolsanaro or Trump talk about them as if not facts, but as possibilities that should be addressed and discussed as they have enough evidence of any other type of historical facts. You add to that liberal societies with new media, you have the perfect environment for these to become mainstream, like birther conspiracy and everything else.

Finchelstein: The point here and the problem here is that it’s very hard to discuss lies. Generally, in a rational discussion…arguments need to be supported by facts. Now, if you have on one hand an anti-fascist critique that is supported by facts, and on the other hand pure racist fantasies and xenophobic fantasies, on the other hand there is no middle ground. So that’s why, sometimes,  traditional media still are looking for a middle ground that doesn’t exist. Because quite simply, as many of the anti-fascists from the 1970s and 40s pointed out ,on one side, there is the truth and on the other one is fascist lies….you will see sometimes  the New York Times…when Trump says something outrageous, or I will say, Trump says something outrageous about the coronavirus. So Trump says there is a miracle cure; experts disagree, somehow implying there are two sides. There are not two sides. Trump is lying; science tells you otherwise.


Alexa Mauzy-Lewis is a Creative Publishing and Critical Journalism MA student. She is a writer, editor, and the student advisor for CPCJ with her cat, Goat. Read more of her work at www.alexamauzylewis.xyz