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What is capitalism, how does it work, and why, oh why, is it so terrible? All of these questions, and more, are answered by author Stephanie McMillan in her recent book, Capitalism Must Die! A basic introduction to capitalism: what it is, why it sucks, and how to crush it. McMillan uses her 30 years of experience in organizing against capitalism and her clever cartoons to debunk and deconstruct this destructive practice and create a useful tool readers can put into practice.
Aaron Leonard recently corresponded with McMillan about her book, capitalism, cartoons and other matters. This interview has been edited.
Some of your images are so playful, yet your message is so serious — how did you arrive at a place of undertaking radical politics through comics?
I loved drawing, and reading comics, ever since I was a kid.
By age 10 I had learned to draw Snoopy by tracing Peanuts, and decided I wanted to be a cartoonist someday. I was in high school during the Reagan years, as the U.S./USSR inter-imperialist struggle was heating up [in the form of the Cold War] to what seemed a very dangerous pitch. I wrote my first article for the school paper, with an accompanying illustration, about the dangers of and need to oppose nuclear weapons.
Then I went to college in New York, studying animation while organizing with the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade (RCP) [the youth group of the U.S. Revolutionary Communist Party]. I quickly realized that it was more important to focus on revolutionary change rather than pursue a career for myself, but my father, dying of cancer, asked me to finish school and graduate. After fulfilling my parents’ wishes, I spent the next period of my life organizing, while supporting myself with a succession of temp/clerical, factory and retail jobs.
In the late 1990s, for various reasons, I left the RCP. I still wanted to contribute to the cause of revolution, but now had no organizational framework in which to do that. I thought about how an individual could reach people with ideas and make a social impact. I decided that comics could be an effective vehicle because they are appealing, fast and easy to produce, and can carry a message to a wide audience.
My cartoons evolved through several stages, including traditionally formatted editorial cartoons, gag cartoons, and a sequential narrative comic strip. Recently I was challenged by a comrade to develop a “proletarian conception of cartoons,” and that’s led to a new series of comics that go beyond a critique of capitalism to also assert a working-class alternative. They’re often paired with theoretical and political texts.
Much of your work has focused on the environment — why is this such a focus of your work?
Global warming, which is already causing mass extinction and rapidly increasing world-wide suffering, and might culminate in an end of life on Earth, is the most urgent problem that humanity faces. After coming to grips with the extent of the environmental emergency, I focused on sounding the alarm by drawing a weekly cartoon called “Code Green,” from 2009-2012. Horrified and outraged in the wake of the BP oil spill in 2010, I also started organizing again. This was a turning point for me because I saw, for the first time with my own eyes, the way NGOs take over and pacify broad organizing efforts.
Because environmental destruction is an inevitable effect of capitalism, and can’t be resolved within the capitalist framework, I worked to help build an anti-capitalist pole within the progressive scene, including Occupy. Through the twists and turns of those experiences, along with my developing relationship with a revolutionary organization, I came to understand that revolution isn’t going to happen unless the popular mass movement we’re trying to construct it under the leadership of the working class.
I began to see the limitations of my previous political work; that no matter how much we may have talked about revolution, without working class leadership, reforms are the only possible result.
Who are these characters and why are they in a book explaining “commodity fetishism”? And oh… what happened to the bunny’s eye?
The possibility of revolution is becoming more widely discussed, and even embraced, as capitalism’s crisis deepens. When I started drawing these comics, it was difficult to persuade most people to even entertain the idea or give it a hearing. I decided that if a cute bunny and guinea pig talked about challenging topics like the problems with capitalism and the need for revolution, it might feel less threatening and off-putting to potential readers.
Also, colourful graphics help draw readers in to give longer texts a chance, which they otherwise might avoid as potentially boring. Plus, why should capitalist propaganda get all the attractive imagery?
As for the bunny’s eye, during the narrative comic strip phase, Bunnista lost it to shampoo testing in a lab. He later escaped and returned to free his fellow bunnies and all the other lab animals.
Parts of Capitalism Must Die! reminds me of Fredrick Jameson description of capitalism, “[a] peculiar machine whose evolution is at one with its breakdown, its expansion at one with its malfunction, its growth with its collapse.” What do you want folks to take away from this volume?
That’s a great description of it. Increasing numbers of people are seeking a path out of this global capitalist nightmare. But we’re not taught revolutionary theory in school, and reading three thick volumes of Capital or a mountain of academic prose is more of a commitment than most people want to initially undertake.
With Capitalism Must Die! I wanted to provide a brief, simple and nonsectarian signpost to a viable revolutionary path, an introduction that could help readers gain enough confidence to join the struggle.
We urgently need to defeat capitalism, and we need to be armed with some basic concepts and orientation if we’re not to waste our efforts on flawed strategies. I wanted to provide something useful, a tool that anyone could use to begin organizing others.
For better or worse comics have played a sharp satirical role, from Lil’ Abner to Bloom County to Boondocks. What do you think is the responsibility of the progressive and radical cartoonist to the wider world?
Progressive or radical artists, musicians, performers, writers, academics, journalists and others working in the cultural (ideological) realm, should put our work at the service of the masses, against capitalist and imperialist domination. The problem for creators needing to make a living from our work is that capitalism won’t pay us to undermine it (even while many like to fool themselves into believing it will).
In the mainstream and reformist media, there is unrelenting pressure to water down one’s message, to divert an audience into political dead ends (even when these may seem progressive or have superficially radical trappings). Political artists may be able to rely on audience support, or may need to do non-political work, or take unrelated jobs to make a living — I cobble together a combination of these — but should focus the bulk of our energy on our real work to advance the struggle. We need to have our priorities straight.
If we are for progressive change or revolutionary social transformation “a big task, requiring a lot from us” then we need to do whatever it takes to serve that goal. We can’t get stuck in a mindset of art-for-arts-sake, or allow our egos to take over. We can’t just make political art and then think we’re done, that it’s sufficient to cheer the struggle on from the sidelines. We need to not only put our art in the service of the cause, but also be involved in constructing organizations at different political levels, which are the vehicles through which this social change can be accomplished.
If we’re not involved in the struggle, then we can’t really understand it, and our artwork and writing can’t fully connect with it and become part of it. Too many artists and writers relate to the struggle like tourists, able to share only superficial impressions and observations.
Have you considered having your characters cross the “communist horizon,” i.e., have you explored what kind of world these characters would inhabit if that world were communism?
They haven’t crossed that horizon, and I don’t think they can until we do. In my opinion, grand plans, detailed programs, and utopian schemes aren’t very useful because we can’t predict what will happen. These fantasies, completely disconnected from reality, inevitably fall by the wayside.
We do need to have a basic goal, and a corresponding strategy. The strategy I think might work is to build a mass movement led by the working class to collectively seize the means of production, through the conquest of political power by revolution and the smashing of the capitalist state.
The organizations we construct today, as they historically constitute themselves through our constant practice, are what we’ll move into the future with. These are the embryos of future society. This should impress upon us the importance of constructing organizations that embody principles corresponding to our strategy and goals: collectivity rather than bureaucracy; workers in the lead rather than the petite bourgeoisie; practice based on political unity rather than faith; members who are assertive militants rather than compliant foot soldiers.
Instead of dreaming about the details of what communism might be like, we need to get involved, work hard, and apply our strength and intelligence toward the collective revolutionary project, so we have the chance to actually find out.
Stephanie McMillan is an award-winning cartoonist and radical political activist. Her work has appeared worldwide, from Iceland to Bangladesh to Canada to Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. she has published in the Los Angeles Times, Daily Beast, South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Yes! Magazine, Comic Relief, Amarillo Globe-News, Funny Times, yahoo.com and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. Her daily comic strip Minimum Security is syndicated online at Universal Uclick’s gocomics.com. She also draws and self-syndicates the weekly editorial cartoon, Code Green.
To purchase a copy of Captialism Must Die please visit Stephanie McMillan’s site here.
Aaron Leonard is a writer and historian. His book Heavy Radicals: The FBI’s Secret War on America’s Maoists, with Conor Gallagher, was published by Zero Books (UK) in February 2015. He writes regularly for Truthout.org, rabble.ca, and History News Network and lives in Brooklyn, New York.