The Dig is a podcast devoted to politics, history, and economics. From its humble inception in 2015, it has become one of the most popular podcasts on the left and boasts a wide following. This is in no small measure due to host Daniel Denvir’s ability to bring together leftist intellectual voices with those devoted to organizing in the mutual attempt to address pressing contemporary issues. I spoke with Denvir about what inspired him to start The Dig, today’s challenges to the left, and what he’s learned from his guests about how to overcome these challenges. This interview has been edited for clarity.
Daniel Steinmetz-Jenkins: What made you start The Dig?
Daniel Denvir: My most immediate motive was that I got laid off from Salon after a short stint struggling to keep up with their high-volume, clickbait production schedule. I had spent years as a reporter at the Philadelphia City Paper, my first full-time journalism job after I left community and political organizing work to try the freelance hustle for a few years. I left City Paper in 2015 to move to Rhode Island, and, sadly, the paper soon closed down—the fate of so many alt-weeklies around the country. I then spent two years writing for national publications—first The Atlantic’s CityLab and then Salon. The City Paper was everything I wanted out of being a reporter: I investigated local police, prison, and prosecutorial abuse; covered the huge conflict that erupted over the defunding and privatization of Philly public schools; and analyzed local and state politics. I had beats and sources, and I got paid—very little—to cover a city that I really loved. I did write some stories that I’m proud of at CityLab and Salon, but writing about everything, everywhere—and, at Salon, really being encouraged to have a take on everything and post about it all nonstop—didn’t suit me, and I was not great at it. And so, after getting laid off by Salon just before the 2016 general election, I dusted off an idea for a podcast that would build a bridge between two corners of the left—the intellectual/academic side and the organizing side—that I’d been discussing with Alex Lewis, The Dig’s producer. We had no idea what we were doing or if anyone would listen.
DSJ: The first episode of The Dig appeared right after Donald Trump’s election. How, if at all, did the Trump presidency alter how you envisioned The Dig in terms of its aims?
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DD: For a little while, Trump’s election shaped pretty much everything. Everyone seemed to be asking how such a thing could possibly have happened in the United States, and many of the answers were pretty dissatisfying. I was particularly concerned about a discourse that was pitting “economic” versus “racism” explanations, when it seemed clear to me that you couldn’t make sense of one without the other. As Stuart Hall famously put it, “Race is the modality in which class is lived” under capitalism. The election also presented an opportunity to examine how the Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn had detached it from an organized working class and, in fact, facilitated the disorganization of the working class.
It was a moment that demanded a thorough accounting of a Democratic Party politics that had sold out workers and, to smooth things over, joined Republicans in celebrating the spectacular punishment of immigrants, poor people, and Black people—and that, in doing so, had helped produce a cartoonish monster. The bipartisan origins of Trump, in other words, became one of the show’s recurrent objects of analysis—as did a critique of liberalism’s more general complicity in right-wing extremism. That was also the subject of the book I started writing at the same time, All-American Nativism.
DSJ: Can you take us through how the early shows approached issues of race and class in the attempt to come to grips with Trump’s rise to power? Debates over the relationship between class and identity continue to divide the left—but who impressed you the most in how they tackled this major topic on the show? I thought, for instance, that Barbara Fields made a series of powerful interventions in your interview with her.
DD: Barbara and Karen Fields certainly made a huge impression on me. Their insight that racism produces the illusion of racial difference in the service of capitalist interests is a basic one, yet it flies in the face of a dominant racial liberalism that substitutes representation and recognition for anti-racist class struggle—something I have also discussed with Asad Haider and Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor. Alongside the Fields sisters, I have frequently looked to an ongoing Black radical tradition to understand the function of racism, nationalism, and empire under capitalism—thinkers like Aziz Rana, Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, Robin D.G. Kelley, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and, more recently, Jared Clemons. My interviews with Mike Davis, particularly the one I did with him on his early classic Prisoners of the American Dream, clarified how a constellation of forces makes and remakes relationships of domination and the politics to legitimate them—something that goes beyond the sort of laundry lists of oppressions fashionable among liberals.
DSJ: There’s a long leftist tradition of connecting domestic injustices with the international injustices of war and imperialism. In this regard, Trump’s election coincided with the attempt to articulate a new leftist vision of foreign policy that, in particular, would end “forever war.” You had guests on your show, such as Stephen Wertheim, Andrew Bacevich, Aziz Rana, Aslı Bâli, and Adom Getachew, who, among other matters related to international affairs, are seeking to reimagine the United States’ role in the world. What is your main takeaway from the turn to a US foreign policy of the left?
DD: Attempting to rethink foreign policy from the left was in part motivated by Trump, and the fact that he tapped into a long-festering but deeply contradictory anti-war sentiment—often an exhaustion with what people broadly felt were the diminishing popular wages of empire—that had been marginalized by the Democratic Party and that, partially as a result, perversely found its dominant expression in right-wing nationalism and nativism. And so it was important to analyze the contours of the geopolitical order and then also, more broadly, the capitalist world system. At the same time, the prospect of a Bernie Sanders presidency had me thinking about the possibilities and also the severe constraints that would face a left government suddenly presiding over a military and national security state that Martin Luther King aptly called the “greatest purveyor of violence in the world.”
I’ve also focused on the geopolitics and political economy of the rising US conflict with China with scholars like Ho-fung Hung—something that, since Trump left office, has sadly become a thoroughly bipartisan project. And I’ve had a number of interviews exploring the history of the world system and analyses of it: discussing dependency and world-systems theory with Margarita Fajardo or, with Kojo Koram, how the British imperial order helped give rise to a neocolonial and neoliberal system that has now boomeranged to eviscerate the welfare state in the UK.
The American left is confronting a world where postcolonial consolidation has supplanted anticolonial revolution, and which is increasingly trending toward multi- or non-polarity—a complicated position. But it’s a position we must struggle with, given the international coordination required to confront the climate crisis and to ensure that it’s not resolved on capital’s terms.
DSJ: How does this bear on the war in Ukraine? Is it your sense that the left is struggling to provide an adequate response to it?
DD: Putin’s invasion is murderous and unjust—but the left is in an understandably difficult position on Ukraine. The US and its NATO allies clearly laid the groundwork for the conflict through decades of NATO expansion, and the reaction to Russia’s invasion has consolidated the same Atlanticist order that helped bring it about. It’s similar to the situation in which the American left found itself when left-wing Kurds of the YPG were on the front line battling ISIS, a noble struggle that was awkwardly made possible by US airpower—the same country responsible for bringing ISIS into existence by invading Iraq and plunging the entire region into chaos. The world system is rife with contradictions, and the American left, far from the levers of power, has little influence over US foreign policy.
DSJ: The environmental consequences of the war have already drawn considerable attention. In this regard, The Dig has focused a great deal on climate change, and from a much-needed global perspective. What sticks out in your conservations on the global dimensions of climate change?
DD: While a de facto form of climate denialism still guides the refusal of the US and other major industrialized countries to adequately confront this crisis at the scale required—and especially to politically confront and economically phase out the fossil fuel industry—in recent years the politics have shifted to the question of what the energy transition will look like rather than whether or not it will occur. Two key issues stick out to me. The first is the one suggested by the Green New Deal framework: What sort of politics will build the sort of coalition that can win the political power to build the renewable energy system in a way that simultaneously materially benefits poor and working-class people? In other words, the climate crisis is the fundamental challenge, but that doesn’t mean that “environmental politics,” narrowly construed, can solve it. The second issue is the global one, because the inequities of carbon capitalism have locked in the underdevelopment of the world’s poor majorities, whose countries have contributed very little carbon to the atmosphere. Meanwhile, the energy transition threatens to reproduce those preexisting inequalities, even as those same countries are subject to the most extreme climate catastrophes.
The new cold war with China, and its emphasis on securitizing clean-energy supply chains, threatens to make this all much worse. Confronting climate change and the related migration crisis will require a massive global redistribution of wealth. The present balance of forces in American politics is not up to that task.
DSJ: Another theme The Dig has regularly discussed is neoliberalism. So much has been written on the topic that many can find it a bit overwhelming. Who has helped you make the most sense of it?
DD: I absolutely love Melinda Cooper’s work and her book Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism. Cooper demonstrates that, concretely, neoliberalism was never narrowly about deregulation, union busting, and the destruction of the welfare state; it was always also about and collaborative with conservative social projects like reinforcing the traditional family through welfare reform, or disincentivizing what they viewed to be sexual promiscuity by letting the AIDS crisis run rampant through the gay community. The nuclear family is what the capitalist system relies on as its shock absorber and to reproduce workers and society—all the more so in the absence of a welfare state.
Quinn Slobodian and Adom Getachew’s work is also instructive here: Neoliberalism was not just a project to contain worker power in the First World—though it was certainly that too!—but also a counteroffensive launched against the decolonizing Third World. Neoliberalism was in significant part an effort to contain decolonizing ambitions so that dreams of a just global economic order that would guarantee true economic freedom would be impossible.
DSJ: Let’s transition a bit and talk about Mike Davis. You had him on The Dig a few times. What does his life and work mean to you?
DD: One of the many things that made Davis remarkable was his generosity and openness. He possessed a rare talent for learning from changing conditions and for relating to the American left as it existed or was emerging at any given moment. He listened to young people.
Davis was also an intellectual who attempted to articulate an analysis of the totality of this country and the world. The siloed nature of academia militates against that, unfortunately. His inevitably quixotic but utterly necessary attempt to connect all the dots is a model for what I’m trying to accomplish with The Dig—again, by listening to others and asking questions. He ruthlessly critiqued everything while insisting on hopefulness.
DSJ: In early 2022, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Davis expressed disappointment with the US left. He wrote the following: “Almost none of the energies generated by Occupy, BLM and the Sanders campaigns were channelled into rethinking global issues and framing a renewed politics of solidarity. Equally there has been no generational replenishment of the radical mindpower…that was once focused laser-like on US foreign policy.” What do you make of this? What must the left in general do to move beyond the state that Davis describes?
DD: I share Mike’s concern here and posed that same question in a recent interview with Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Robin Kelley, and Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò. First of all, I don’t see it as a moral failing on the part of the American left, but instead a real challenge imposed by conditions that have radically changed throughout history. The American left for a long time existed in a thoroughly internationalist context. Early-20th-century communism’s status as a fundamentally global politics—a project countering global fascism and also championing national self-determination, from the formally colonized world to the US Black Belt South—made cadres into cross-border comrades. The New Left and Black radicals of the 1960s and ’70s saw themselves as First World participants in a worldwide decolonizing revolution: Third Worldism, for concrete historical reasons, was for many what it meant to be on the left. The Central American solidarity movement of the 1980s, organized to oppose Ronald Reagan’s dirty wars and actively support revolutionary movements in the region, operated in tandem with a sanctuary movement that defended the refugees fleeing those wars from deportation. That movement, alongside the struggle against apartheid and the campaign for nuclear disarmament, fostered a pronounced sense of internationalism. Those were arguably the three principal left-wing struggles of the 1980s American left, and they were all basically internationalist.
There were then attempts in the 1990s to respond to the intensification of corporate globalization and free trade by building cross-border alliances, particularly across the Americas. The Zapatistas’ global celebrity exemplified this, as did the less-high-profile work to build ties between unions in different countries. This anti-globalization or alter-globalization internationalism reached its apotheosis in the “Battle of Seattle” World Trade Organization protests in 1999.
That 1990s alter-globalization politics was the politics that first radicalized me in high school. I then participated actively in the anti-war movement in college and studied the border city of Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, where I lived with a union organizer’s family. After college, I was the sole staff person of the Portland Central America Solidarity Committee, a survival of the 1980s solidarity movement that had pivoted to building cross-border union alliances against corporate globalization and organizing for immigrant rights.
But the aughts were also the decade when American internationalism went into a sharp decline. The War on Terror, the invasions of Afghanistan and then Iraq, were the height of US imperial violence and hubris. That was an easy and familiar thing to understand. But instead of Ho Chi Minh’s communist national liberation struggle or the Sandinistas and the FMLN fighting to end US-backed oligarchic rule, there was Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein. The US had spent decades destroying the Third World left; Islamism had arisen from its ashes, from the Middle East to Indonesia. Meanwhile, the conditions of the world system had helped make China into an authoritarian capitalist state and had destroyed the Soviet Union. The US was as rotten an actor as ever on the world stage, but its most powerful enemies were no longer remotely sympathetic. Internationalism got much harder, but—particularly given what we must do to confront the climate crisis—it’s more urgent than ever.