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Since at least the 1950s, the American left has accomplished almost nothing. The civil rights movement got somewhere, but it was independent of the left, and it had the support – at times the military support – of the US government. Leftists played the most minor of supporting roles.
During the Vietnam war, the American left self-destructed, circa 1968, into childish fantasies of self-redemption through smashing imperialism. It was the Vietnamese who got the US out of Vietnam: American political scientists even claim that the left may have prolonged the war by alienating its prospective constituencies.
Perhaps all this was the left’s fault, but perhaps not. What could have been done? Maybe the silliness of the left was a symptom rather than a cause of its impotence. The pre-1950s Old Left, well-entrenched in the trade unions, well-organized, often intelligent in its strategies and tactics, was crushed, precisely because it managed to pose a bit of a threat. Since then the unions, with trivial exceptions, have been closed to the left. Without them, the left has had no leverage in the processes that really made America function.
When it came to the Vietnam war, what were leftists supposed to do? They wanted to stop the war, but how? No one found an answer, or rather, the answers were non-starters. Anything that actually made it harder for the US to fight the war – derailing troop trains? burning down draft boards? – was seriously, dangerously illegal, not a real option for the middle class nerds who formed the backbone of the left. The Weather Underground was a predictably unsuccessful, ludicrous attempt to get these weenie cadres to change their spots.
Since the 1960s, most of the silliness and snobbishness of the left has vanished: nowadays leftists tend to avoid jargon and don’t carry on like a Che Guevara Mini-Me. Yet the projects and plans of the left have the smell of failure about them. Who really thinks they are going to ‘build constituencies’ across America? The dogged attempts at reasonable optimism which permeate such outfits as Zmag are simply embarrassing.
The massive demonstrations which preceded the invasion of Iraq, while promising a new day for leftism, turned out to deepen the feeling of hopelessness: how could so strong a surge of protest have melted away into the usual deadening electronic swirl of sterile ‘critique’? Even Fahrenheit 9-11, the phenomenon that was supposed to have people springing up to debate the war in little movie theatres across the country, became as big a political dud as it was a commercial success.
A fabulously expensive and pointless war that is going badly, to no one’s benefit, with weak popular support, virtually without even ostensible justification, does pretty well on the home front. Leftist ‘actions’ against that war attract less attention than the umpteenth Survivor clone. As for Bush’s approval ratings, these can plummet without having the slightest effect on the war effort.
Worst of all, the very concept of political action has been attenuated to the vanishing point. By now, many leftists have only the faintest idea of what it is to do something. They see two options, non-violent protest and violent protest, never suspecting that both of these are closer to speech than to action. ‘Support’ has come to mean equally little: like protest, it has to do with uttering words. On rare occasions, this gets kicked up a notch! – words are uttered, or displayed on signs, while marching down the street. For those right on the edge, there might be a fight with the cops. Why? Because that expresses the extreme anger of the protesters. Even fighting has become little more than a mode of expression, not a type of action. Because no one really expects the audience to be very impressed, there is a kind of brittle hopelessness to these exercises in futility. Yet some people, at least, find solace in their confusion: the essentially verbal exercises of protest, support, research, critique, education, these are all taken for action. That relieves a bit of the stress accompanying the underlying, half-acknowledged realization of powerlessness.
My concern with this history is that it may lead the left to overlook an unprecedented opportunity. After Vietnam, the US government opted for an all-volunteer army. The very impotence of the left may have been an unconscious factor in the decision, if only because it would never have occurred to the armed forces that leftists could actually mess with this system. But they can, if only their long stint of impotence doesn’t prevent them from seeing how much power they have in their hands.
Of course, leftists are quite aware of the recruitment crisis in today’s armed forces. But awareness isn’t enough – excitement would be more appropriate. This is not just a weakness in the system which sustains the war effort. It is a fatal weakness.
Recruitment is essential: no troops, no war. Recruitment happens, and has to happen, all over the country. All over the country, right where they live, people can do much to make recruitment less effective. Parents of high school kids (and veterans’ groups) are already working on this. Every high school, every university, every place where recruiters go, is an ideal battleground, because the anti-war forces, far more than the recruiters, are on home ground.
Recruiters are vulnerable to student protest, to one-on-one confrontations, to anti-war parents and to all those adults who can support them. Anti-recruiters, who make the case against joining up to potential recruits, can circulate on the ground; others can use online services to reach fighting age computer users. Posters can go up all over cities and towns across the country, perhaps with pictures of some of the wounded Bush likes to hide.
Unfortunately the left has, so far, shown little awareness of these opportunities. A contingent on the September 24th Washington march is going to offer the same old ‘support’ for anti-recruitment efforts. This means, I guess, they will march down the street holding signs and chanting chants.
Here is the same old confusion of talk and action. The left should not just ‘support’ the parents’ efforts. The left should be making those same efforts. Here is a chance, at last, to really make a difference – why isn’t the left taking it?
I see two obstacles. The first is that the left, at the moment, works out of very broad-based organizations. A.N.S.W.E.R., for instance, lists a ‘Steering Committee’ consistng of the following:
IFCO/Pastors for Peace
Free Palestine Alliance – U.S.
Haiti Support Network
Partnership for Civil Justice – LDEF
Alliance for Just and Lasting Peace in the Phillippines
Korea Truth Commission
Muslim Student Association – National
Kensington Welfare Rights Union
Mexico Solidarity Network
Party for Socialism and Liberation
Middle East Children’s Alliance
and, naturally, this leads to a scattergun program. The one ‘action’ A.N.S.W.E.R. is pushing at the moment is its September 24th march on Washington, a march not to perform achieve any result but to express some opinions. About what? Its list of demands goes like this:
Stop the War in Iraq
End Colonial Occupation from Iraq to Palestine to Haiti
Support the Palestinian People’s Right of Return
Stop the Threats Against Venezuela, Cuba, Iran & North Korea
U.S. out of the Philippines
Bring all the troops home now
Stop the Racist, anti-Immigrant and anti-Labor Offensive at Home,
Defend Civil Rights
These are all great ideas, but that’s all they are – ideas. No one believes the marchers will get any of these things, and we have again this meaningless ‘support’ for a goal that would need some very large armies to actually implement – the Palestinian right of return. This is defeatism masquerading as ambition, the embracing of what is hopeless because it has never occurred to the organizers that they could actually make a change, and soon, in the world. The way to do this is to focus, focus on recruitment: if the left puts all its energy into this and nothing else, it can score its first genuine victory in several decades.
There is a catch, though: anti-recruitment efforts can’t have much success unless the left changes its current message which, again oriented more towards protest than political action, is moralistic to the point of irrelevance. Recruiters are most successful, of course, in the ‘red’ states, and among patriotic (or ‘patriotic’) Americans – people who are for America as it is today, not for some left-wing ideal of what America ought to be. These people are not going to burst into tears when they hear that the war is terribly wrong – if they were open to such appeals, the US wouldn’t have gone into Iraq to start with.
Given its current message, the left has no plausible way to address these patriots: in fact the left’s message gives them reason to support the war effort. If the war is being fought for oil, for example, so much the better: America needs oil. If the war benefits some rich clique, well good: it probably benefits big business (and most leftists agree), so it means jobs and prosperity – any discussion of these motives will at best fritter away into an unresolvable dispute about trickle-down economics. And if the US went into Iraq to establish permanent, powerful military bases, well great – that will help secure oil supplies and enhance US security. (Here too, the left bolsters this argument by going on about how the Iraq invasion will help the US dominate the whole region.) That Bush may have told some lies or falsehoods to obtain these results doesn’t seem such an enormity if, as the right correctly says, you have America’s interests at heart. Just one point the left makes – that invading Iraq doesn’t help ‘fight terror’ – is politically useful, and that’s not enough.
Fortunately, there is a truthful message that does address American patriots, because much of what the left says is false. Whatever the activities of rich lobbyists and whatever its morality, the war is not in US interests. By this I don’t mean simply that the war is not in the interests of working people, or the poor, or middle class people, or the ‘boys’ who fight there. The war is also not in the interests of US imperialism, or big oil, or big business. That the left opposes these forces shouldn’t blind it to the necessity of pointing this out, because otherwise anti-recruitment efforts won’t be successful enough to have real impact on the war effort.
It doesn’t take much to see that the war is not ‘in US interests’ in this red-state sense. For one thing, big oil and big business have never been supporters of the war. Bush I, who was much closer to big oil than Bush II, never wanted to invade Iraq. For all the left’s addiction to ‘research’, the names of big oil companies (or, for that matter, big auto executives, or retailers, or manufacturers) and their executives have never surfaced in analyses of who pushed for war. It’s not that oil companies don’t seek to influence policy, or that Bush is not responsive to their concerns: witness Exxon’s involvement in the shaping of US reaction to Kyoto. It’s rather that invading Iraq offers no net economic benefits.
It is said that the US wants oil, and wants to control its sources. True. But, in the first place, the way to control oil is not to piss off virtually every oil producing country in the world, which is what the invasion of Iraq did.
Second, the US doesn’t normally need to occupy anywhere at all to secure oil supplies: it has many other, cheaper and more effective means at its disposal, including all forms of economic pressure, and limited military actions such as blockades, embargoes, or even air strikes.
Third, if you have to control oil by force, you take oil fields: it is simply idiotic to take on the extra burden of subduing the whole country. In fact, occupying the whole country, as the invasion of Iraq makes clear, is a terrible way to secure oil supplies, because it incites people to attack their own pipelines and other oil installations.
Fourth, if there is one thing that big oil companies (as opposed to small-time cowboy outfits like Unocal) want, it’s long-term political stability in oil-rich regions. This isn’t achieved by bringing war to the area. Typical of big-oil tactics is not warfare, but almost infinite patience, and tolerance of oil-rich régimes. That’s why big oil has consistently reacted to Saudi Arabia’s repeated demands for greater control of its oil, not with intimidation or military pressure, but with tolerance and compromise. This does not necessarily mean that oil companies aren’t evil; it just means they aren’t stupid.
As for the rest of really big business, it has great interest in arms buildups but no great interest in war. Boeing and Lockheed and Rockwell and the other really large defense companies can get big government contracts whether or not there is war. The US invasion of Iraq had done nothing for their stock price or their profits, because the really big contracts they get have to do with the development of advanced fighters, submarines, missiles, and other equipment that would be overkill in the Iraq adventure. As for long-term US defense interests, the whole direction of US defence strategy, with its emphasis on aircraft carriers, ship and submarine-launched cruise missiles, in-flight refueling, and rapid transport of heavy equipment, makes having bases in Iraq only a convenience, not a necessity or even a serious advantage. If bases were really needed in the region, it would have been far cheaper to bribe the Gulf States – lavishly – into keeping a discreet American presence.
Why then did the US go into Iraq? To my mind it was because the US had to show the world that it was powerful after the humiliation of 9-11, and especially after the equally great humiliation of failing to capture or kill Bin Laden and the Mullah Omar. But it really doesn’t matter why the US went in: if the government thought it was in US interests, the government was wrong. It wouldn’t have been the first time.
There has been more than enough on why the US invaded, who had what motives, who said what when, who lied, who’s sinister, who lobbies for what, who studied with Leo Strauss, and all the rest of it. This is all so much distraction from the only important thing – getting out.
If the left is to play a real role in this – and not, as during the Vietnam war, merely provide a sideshow while the Vietnamese did all the work – it has to hit recruitment. Just this, and nothing else. Otherwise, even if the US does get out of Iraq, the left will have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
MICHAEL NEUMANN is a professor of philosophy at Trent University in Ontario, Canada. Professor Neumann’s views are not to be taken as those of his university. His book What’s Left: Radical Politics and the Radical Psyche has just been republished by Broadview Press. He contributed the essay, "What is Anti-Semitism", to CounterPunch’s book, The Politics of Anti-Semitism. In September 2005, CounterPunch/AK Press will publish Neumann’s new book, The Case Against Israel.
He can be reached at: email@example.com.