‘Major unrest is going to have to happen’ : Kandist Mallett talks to Christine Lombardi

Kandist Mallett.
Kandist Mallett.

(The prescient words of the headline explains why this article is the first article we posted on DL Online this week.) The headline promised a lot: “The Coronavirus Pandemic Demonstrates the Failures of Capitalism.” What followed wasn’t in Jacobin, Dissent or In These Times, but TeenVogue.com. The article, by Kandist Mallett, lives up to the title: “Selling your labor in a capitalist marketplace just so you don’t end up on the street is horrible and unnatural, and we shouldn’t have to live this way,” she tells readers, before looking at how to respond to this moment of crisis. Democratic Left editorial team member Christine Lombardi interviewed Mallett by phone and email.

How does someone who has written for Teen Vogue and Blavity.com (“serving the multifaceted lives of black millennials”) turn out to be such an anticapitalist? Was it growing up in Southern California?

I went to California State University at Long Beach, where I majored in political science and studied community organizing. The prof who was my mentor was a low-key anarchist. I was kinda liberal, getting jaded with the two-party system. Then came the financial crash, during my senior year. I guess you could say I’ve been anticapitalist since then. I spent the next few years teaching English in Vietnam, living in Ho Chi Minh City. The year I got back to the States, Occupy happened.

Occupy! Where you saw police creating riots out of street art. 

Occupy L.A. was probably one of the longest-lasting occupations, and I got in very deep. The greatest thing about Occupy for me was the relationships I was able to build. From those relationships, we could work to either organize direct actions or to share space when spontaneous actions were happening in L.A. (for instance, in response to the killings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown).

There was a lot of internal struggle, because there were so many ideas of what people thought Occupy should mean. In the end, the destruction of Occupy wasn’t from the state but from the inability of a lot of the white participants to deal with race. I think that’s important to note, because a lot of DSA people came from Occupy.

As someone with a background in community organizing, do you see your writing as organizing?

No! [Long pause.] Yes! I do.

Many of us have been admiring Teen Vogue’s lefty turn over the past few years; your work there includes a smart take on Iran and sanctions, and they have a labor editor talking about a general strike! What does it look like from the other side?

Their politics editors are very open to leftist ideas, to be sure. But I have to laugh sometimes: [after that coronavirus piece] some guy Tweeted it, writing “Teen Vogue goes full Marxist.”

I don’t understand how someone can say they’re a capitalist these days, with the damage all around us.

Your piece was partly about seizing the possibilities of this moment, when everyone’s suddenly semi-socialist. In this transformational/dangerous moment, what organizing do you think needs to happen?

The failures of the government have been exposed. I would love to see some unified effort to respond. And I want to see social movement outside the Democratic Party. Because Ohio happened, because Wisconsin happened. Even the new wave of legislators we elected are in danger of seeing their work erased.

 I really think we need a global effort, one that builds our own sort of safety net. We need to push for debt forgiveness across the board, for a universal basic income (and not just the [Andrew] Yang $1,000 a month).

What inspires you and gives you hope?

When people hit the streets, I’m inspired. The culture’s shifting, and people are talking about general strike! Though we need to look closely: If everyone’s at home, what constitutes a strike? I’m inspired by all the networks that are protecting people’s homes against eviction. I love it that community gardens, mutual aid systems, are all political now. Direct action, unifying that strength and collective energy: That’s how we win.

When I asked in our first conversation what you hope DSA members learn from this piece, you responded diplomatically that at least in SoCal DSA meetings, “A lot of these spaces—not a lot of black people.” Many of us in DSA recognize its whiteness as a real problem. How do you think DSA and its locals can best support the struggle? 

Whiteness doesn’t just exist as an identity but as a power structure. I think often it’s easy to look at the Right and say they’re white supremacist, and their political ideals are guided through their whiteness. But the same exists on the Left or with liberals. There’s been this trend with a lot of leftist platforms to romanticize the white working class and to push this class-first analysis. But any class analysis that doesn’t also include a racial analysis is a white supremacist one. If we look at DSA on a local level, I’m curious to see what’s the racial makeup of its members or how many of those white members are participating in gentrification of black or brown communities. The issue of white  ness exists in all political organizing where white people are included. Inevitably, white people’s ideas, words, senses of humor, shared history and cultural references, and so on end up taking vast amounts of space, generating a sense of discomfort and ultimately self-censorship among people who implicitly know they’re on the outside.

It’s not just Chapo Trap House, it’s also the wider white attention economy—one that uplifts so many redundant white platformists. And here’s where it matters for materialists: That attention brings in real income. That income becomes wealth, which perpetuates white supremacy across decades and generations. We must understand that class redistribution also means racial redistribution of material wealth. And if there’s no chance of the state doing that, then at least among the Left, reparations along intersecting class and race lines must be a constant practice, e.g., “Here’s my Venmo.” Furthermore, I think it’s important for non-white, especially black DSA members to have their own organizing space and for the larger DSA network to financially support those efforts.

There’s been a wave of headlines about COVID-19’s disproportionate impact on African American communities. As Charles Blow just wrote in the New York Times, “the devastating effects of this virus may be as much about pre-existing social conditions as pre-existing medical ones.” What does that mean for you as a writer, as an activist?

It’ll be important to continue to report on how the pandemic has impacted black communities as well as how much the states’ recovery efforts have reached those communities. We also have to consider that black people disproportionately make up people at the absolute lowest rung of society: homeless people, incarcerated people, people with chronic illnesses and substance use issues, and so on. These are all markers of poverty, hence why Stuart Hall says, “Race is the modality through which class is experienced.” 

What do you see as your own role in helping imagine a better tomorrow? 

The elite were all expecting us to riot, and there’s no doubt that major unrest is going to have to happen. I’ll keep writing about ways we can live outside the current paradigm, and focus where our attention is most needed. My next piece is about prisons, whose populations are super-vulnerable. The way the state treats people at the bottom of the society should inform the counter demands of any revolution we hope to incite.