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(part two)

Blog posts are, by definition, “hot takes”. But even as I finished part one I realized that I had not treated Libraries as Dual Power with anything like the depth it required. In this part, I want to dig a little deeper into some of the assumptions of part one.

Utopia and “Talking Socialism”

In “An American Utopia” Jameson adopts Stuart Hall’s concept of “discursive struggle” to open up the possibility of recovering ideas and values destroyed in capitalist society since the rise of Thatcher-Reagan neoliberalism.

discursive struggle posited the process whereby slogans, concepts, stereotypes, and accepted wisdoms did battle among each other for preponderance, which is to say (…) hegemony. Stuart saw that one of the fundamental strategies at work in that victory [of Thatcher] lay in the delegitimation of the language of its adversaries, in the tireless discrediting of all the slogans, such as nationalization, that were associated with a postwar labor hegemony.

We can see this in the fact that, again and again, those of us on the left- or social-justice wing of librarianship must argue against “neutrality”. The idea of the neutrality of libraries is so fundamental that we are constantly having to argue against it, with, it seems very little success. The neoliberal ideology won the “discursive struggle”, so it is that ideology which sets the terms of the discourse. It is difficult, if not impossible, to raise certain socialist ideas within librarianship and be taken seriously. Even something like the abolition of fines has to be framed as an efficiency in order to move forward.

For Jameson, the role of political parties in his utopia is to make thinkable and speakable ideas which have been obscured or destroyed in the discursive struggle against capitalism. He takes, for example, the idea of full employment, or of the nationalization of services.

It should be understood that under the current system of representative government, the political parties can never accomplish any of these things, but they can talk about them, they can make them thinkable and conceivable once agian, they can plant the seeds and rekindle the possibility of imagining future praxis - and they can reestablish these themes in their legitimate place in the public sphere.

Indeed, the very project of thinking up a utopia is to resurface ideas and values which are considered impractical, inefficient, or impossible in today’s society. It is vital that, in the face of post-political, post-ideological, neoliberal ideology, library workers continue to critique, continue to raise and take seriously ideas that are unpleasant, uncomfortable, or even unthinkable.

Mission and Vision

I have written before about the problems inherent in the construction of a mission or vision for libraries. The idea that we might “talk socialism” openly provides perhaps another way to think through the vision and mission statements of libraries. If dual power is to become a reality, some common identity among libraries must provide our users with a focus, a way to understand who we are and what services we provide. In Agon Hamza’s contribution to “An American Utopia” (“From the Other Scene to the Other State”), he argues that left-wing conceptions, for example of class struggle and class society itself, have been so completely coopted and disarmed by capitalist culture, that “we need to reactualize the notion of the proletariat”:

the proletariat is not only she or he from whom surplus-value is extracted, but who is alienated from the substance of our subjectivity. In this sense, the Communist Manifesto’s call “proletarians of the world, unite” is actual: we need a large-scale unification of workers, consumers, the excluded, immigrants, the unemployed, the unemployable and illegally employed, dispossessed farmers, youth with no prospects, and so on.

In formulating our mission and vision, we must set ourselves up as a beacon to attract the entire proletariat. Without that, not only does bourgeois ideology continue to be victorious in the discursive struggle, but the left even loses more ground to fascist ideologies such as those, for example, promoted by Donald Trump’s election campaign.

[In Brazil] it is either fascist groups or drug cartels that offer a place, arms, and organization for invisible youth from the favelas. The articulation of a brand and belonging is produced by mafia or fascists, which, in the absence of a leftist brand, allows people from the lower classes to recognize themselves as actors without depending on the institutional recognition of the state. […] The urgent task of communist thinking is to break the vicious circle of desperate (and failed) attempts to articulate clear positions and rethink the forms of mass political organization.

That is, libraries as dual power must provide a focal point and identity through which our users can recognize our services and come to rely on us. Much has been written about the trust members of society have in the library (in the face of library closures over the last few years). I would argue that this trustworthiness not only makes the library a solid candidate for dual power, but the exercise of dual power can only make the public’s trust in the library stronger.

This blog post - indeed this blog as a whole - is an attempt to recover discredited ideas about the public, the public sphere, and the possibility of a socialist or communist society. As such, it is an attempt to “talk socialism” when socialism is completely off the agenda, that is when socialism itself is considered a utopia. I want to recognize here all my colleagues who are also engaged in this work, in the face of insuperable obstacles on the part of state power and bourgeois ideology.


Sam Popowich

Discovery Systems Librarian, University of Alberta

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