Jess is an eighth-year Ph.D. candidate in political theory. Their dissertation considers how 20th century political thinkers theorized work refusal—a "weapon of the weak"—as a source of revolutionary strength in the form of the general strike. Jess was a Collaborative Humanities Fellow at the Cogut Institute in 2019-2020 and served as an Interdisciplinary Opportunities Fellow at the Center for the Study of Slavery and Justice in 2020-2021. They hold a B.A. from Amherst College and were previously a Junior Fellow in the Energy and Climate program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Job Market Paper Title
Refusing Revolutionary Failure: Democracy and the General Strike Tradition
Job Market Paper Abstract
My dissertation, Refusing Revolutionary Failure: Democracy and the General Strike Tradition, draws on historical events and the resources of conceptual and critical political theory to develop an account of how the general strike has shaped the democratic imaginary. My project looks to thinkers of the strike—Du Bois, Walter Benjamin, Hannah Arendt, and Jacques Rancière—who invite us to see the general strike as part of a broader politics, a “politics from below” whose aim is to strike at violence with non-violence and to use moments of solidaristic refusal to create something new and lasting. In critiques of modern democracy, these thinkers proposed democratic alternatives in the wake of failed revolutions, from Reconstruction to the 1918 German Revolution and the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. Benjamin, Du Bois, and Arendt took up the problems that the strike was thought to overcome, explicitly or implicitly reinventing what I call the general strike tradition. Benjamin takes up and transforms Georges Sorel’s “myth” of the general strike, rejecting the latter’s advocacy for violence and conservative moralism, foregrounding instead the strike’s aim to invent new forms of nonviolent sociality. Du Bois recovers a general strike of enslaved workers that historiographers of the Civil War sought to erase. Drawing on Rancière and Du Bois’s Black feminist critics including Saidiya Hartman, I argue that Du Bois's representation of the strike foregrounds how democratic agency must constantly be reclaimed and reinvented. Arendt, though she famously argued for a separation of politics from the “social” concerns of labor and work, seeks inspiration from an institution that grew out of a general strike—the workers’ council. I argue that her theorization of political action, read in the general strike frame, can enrich the institutional imaginary of general strike theorists. A final chapter, on a historical case of work refusal in colonial South Africa, not normally treated as a general strike, explores the complexities of race and nation in a strike whose workers—some native and some immigrants from South Asia—are not seen as members of the nation.