Buck the Circus!
Every four years we are treated to watching the presidential election circus pass through town. Of late, though, the circus has been getting embarrassingly less meaningful yet more raucous.
In the absence of an immediate and ready-made exit from the current barbarity, we seem willing to throw in our lot with the devil itself if it was suggested/hinted/said that the ‘war on terror’ would come to an immediate end, if the devil got into the White House. During the last round of presidential elections, some luminary members of the left were recommending voting for Kerry. This time around, Republican candidates are game too.
Back in 1988, in my capacity as an individual student at a lowly university, I was busy beating my head against the wall, wondering why the Rainbow Coalition was not leaving the demonic Democrats and forming an independent party?
Jesse Jackson got some seven million votes in 1988. It is not difficult to argue now with even more conviction that, had he split from the Democrats and formed a real party of the pissed off, Jackson could have truly dropped the equivalent of a nuclear bomb of hope; he would have energized millions more to take their political rights seriously by participating in the electoral setup to vote for the sort of real change that people could not only believe in but fight for. Forget ‘hope’! They could have changed American political reality if they wanted to. Jackson would have kick-started a new party of the left which would have got past the 5% threshold (meaning, federal funding), and by now would have been celebrating its twentieth anniversary by taking advantage of the political infighting currently ongoing inside both ruling parties.
Throughout the 1980s, a U.S.-based movement had developed in solidarity with the struggles in Central America as well as, notably, with the South African anti-Apartheid movement. This movement had given a critical vitality to the Left in the U.S. Unfortunately, having gotten sucked into the vortex of the Democratic Party, by the end of the decade this vibrant movement had been successfully transformed into mere ballots for the Democrat’s political machinery, and rendered dead. It would take another decade for another internationally oriented movement, the anti-globalization movement, to emerge.
We stand at a crucial historical moment. There is great discontent in the U.S. society, yet the Left has not been able to direct or organize most of this discontent. This situation is proof that to intervene politically, we must have political tools and institutions of our own.
The first rule of politics, much like most things in life, is this: to get thing done, you got to do it yourself! The enemy’s institutions, such as the Democratic or Republican parties, cannot be ‘infiltrated’ and ‘changed from within’. As if! True Leftists are not in demand in those institutions. The only reason they would take us in would be to destroy our platforms and ideas.
Institutions built by the ruling classes to ensure their continued rule cannot be ‘infiltrated’; but, they certainly do intend to monopolize the political field, so the minute you step into the field with some grievances, these good established folk either shut you up, or come running at you with a pitchman’s assumptive promises that your concerns are truly theirs!
So, the basic question remains what to do with this system: reform it or overthrow it? The politically relevant question for the Left, though, should be: how can the two be complimentarily related and used, with a strategic vision?
There is a tendency within the historical left that suspects most talk of legalities that condition our struggles. This tendency sets up a rigid (therefore, false) duality that separates reform (bad) and revolution (good) and opposes them to each other in an absolutist sense. Because this tendency works with false assumptions, it excludes from its analyses the fact that the system has cracks that can be deepened and exploited.
Now, it is false to assume that the system’s contradictions will automatically, and all on their own, bring it tumbling down. But, it is also incorrect to assume the system to be absolutely omnipotent and all consuming. By pursuing the cracks in the system you can intensify the internal contradictions of the system, so as to change the political balance of power to our advantage.
Real cracks exist in every social system created by our species since we are still in our, yes, pre-history, and all our systems are historical, with beginnings and uneven, disjointed growth filled with tons of contradictions, and they have endings. Further, cracks in the system can be studied and, with this in mind, reforms can be devised to widen the existing cracks in the system, thereby creating conditions conducive to making revolutionary leaps.
As Marx argued, laws are in effect the codification of the balance of powers between the classes, and as this balance changes through class struggle, laws change with the changing balance of powers.
Setting up arbitrary dualisms (like, ‘reform or revolution?’) misses the bigger picture: the Left’s strategic goals and visions. These goals go well beyond ending this particular ‘war on terror’, and must envision a society based on justice both internally and in its relation to other societies on earth. In this long struggle, if at any time any laws can be enacted that benefit our goals of social justice, that is a plus and to be welcomed. Revolution is a long process, not one big bang.
The reform v. revolution dichotomy is helpful to reveal deep-structure limits of the system, as well as to see when reform is beneficial to the working classes and when reforms act to the detriment of working classes; but it is also necessary to have the understanding that the weaker we are tactically the less capable we are of making revolutionary moves. If the police and the military have at their disposal more legal means of brutalizing us, then we are that much more in the hole. If they have more means of criminalizing our communities, we are that much more in the hole.
Existentially, the strategic goals of our struggle consist of wresting back increasingly larger shares of our social labor from those who steal our surplus labor; be they the privately owned corporations (so we fight for better wages/benefits now and, strategically, for expropriating all social means of production and gaining control over the production process); or be they the state apparatuses that do the dirty work of the corporations (so we fight for representation for our taxes and, strategically, for control over political institutions that determine our social conditions of life).
But to do so, to intervene politically, one must come to the fight with political tools and weapons, i.e., a political party. As they say, you shouldn’t go to a gunfight with a knife (or, worse, empty handed).
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The right wing (which in the U.S. includes the Democrats) understands the importance of legality much better than most leftists. In the absence of a real oppositional party to safeguard people’s right, the right wing has used fear, intimidation and outright thuggish bullying for the past seven years to push several deep reforms that have robbed the people of their most basic rights, thus changing the legal conditions to the detriment of oppositional moves and movements. The legal conditions have turned considerably against the activists and organizers, be they labor organizers, environmentalists, anti-globalization activists, women’s rights activists, immigrant rights’ activists and those fighting against the separation wall now being built on the U.S.-Mexico border, and many more.
The big move to the right has been in a reactionary/fascist direction; but it did not just happen over night, it has been in the making for some thirty years and has been a revolutionary move in the sense that it has radically changed the social conditions that people used to take for granted. Proof? Simple: An eight hundred year old right, habeas corpus, has been disappeared, just like that. Post-modern? Hardly; pre-Magna Carta!
The already colonized are being re-colonized, and ever-new communities are coming under attack daily; and now that the legal cover has been provided, all this can continue with increased intensity and will cover more communities globally.
In an advanced capitalist formation, the political intervention to challenge the system as a whole requires an over-ground, popular, and nationwide organization with a righteous legitimacy. A true political organization (not a ballot-production machine like the Democrats or the Republicans) does more than just run in elections. It is a repository of people’s historical experience and struggles, at the same time that it brings together (and when possible, leads) disparate sites of struggle and gives those struggles a strategic direction, force and cohesion, thereby improving its fighting ability as a social organism; at the same time that it creates autonomous institutions that can support people’s long-term struggle; in short, a dynamic political entity capable of harmonizing localized struggles and forming a grander narrative* out of them; one capable of challenging the system as a whole.
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TO GET BACK to Jesse Jackson, we can perhaps assume that the formation of a party of the left in 1988 would not have made a major difference in the trajectory of the rise of soft fascism at home/hard nation razing abroad. Still, things would likely not have been quite as bad right now.
At the very least, people in the U.S. would have had a political place to go to (starting from way before 2006 elections) to channel their political anger about the plundering of their resources (taxes), to be put in the pockets of mainly three corporations (Bechtel, Halliburton, and the Carlyle Group), while their schools rot, their access to healthcare is zero, and while inflation puts them in increasing difficulty to make ends meet, and their wages stagnate. The U.S. citizens would have had a political structure capable of bringing together (while representing) the demands of communities likely to be anti-war, pro-justice, pro-civil rights, pro-women’s rights, pro-immigrants’ rights, pro-workers’ rights, pro-all good things of life for everybody not just for the stinking rich owners of capital.
Back in 1988, Jesse Jackson’s platform included a plank for reparations for the victims of slavery. Very likely, A Rainbow Party would now be holding the ruling classes in the U.S. responsible for making reparations to the peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan for destroying their countries. In such political atmosphere, candidates promising change could not get away with vague language such as used by Obama, for instance, promising very little concretely.
We the Left failed to persuade the Rainbow Coalition to form an independent party of the left back then, some twenty years ago. This election year, however, and particularly with the crisis of legitimacy the rulers are experiencing, is a perfect time to engage the public about real alternatives to the status quo.
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WE MUST ONCE and for all get out of this ‘every-four-years-I-shall-act-blindly’ rut. They do not give a rat’s ass who we support. They only worry if we don’t support them, and get really irritated when we oppose them. So, let’s at least give them more things to worry about.
The two ruling parties are in the midst of a family dispute. The kind of Republicans that have been running their party for the past seven years, and are deeply unpopular, are reportedly not liking McCain (clearly popular with the Republican rank and file) representing their party in the presidential elections; some are even willing to support Hillary Clinton, who they claim to have better conservative credentials.
Likewise, the Democrats are split between two factions of their party; one representing the Establishment (the DLC/Openly Corporate wing), and the other representing the establishment in more nuanced, still-capable-of-imagination, that old dreamy, vague, happy to remain abstract (since the concrete ain’t pretty, and to face it you’d have to get specific) wing of the party associated mostly with the Kennedy nostalgia and his general aura. As of this writing, the dreamy wing is slightly ahead, proving that the rank and file of the Democrats are not too happy with the establishment wing; or else they just like dreaming.
This dreamy wing of the party, do not forget, gave you the big opening into Vietnam, and refused to immediately sign into law any civil rights acts, even though it ran the executive branch and possessed a comfortable majority in the legislative. JFK also gave you the Alliance for Progress, which was the beginning of the institutionalization of death squads in Latin America. Also, don’t forget that Obama finds nothing wrong with the war being waged against the people of Afghanistan, and in fact intends to intensify it (much like Clinton) and don’t forget what Obama said about ‘going into’ Pakistan if need be. That is an imperial mentality.
The two establishment parties are having quarrels because increasing numbers of people are fed up with both political parties and seriously worried about their future prospects. A real alternative is clearly in demand, so let’s give it an institutional form: a large, national, pluralistic party of the left, one that unambiguously intends to shake the balance of political and economic power to the benefit of the working people who produce all the wealth yet are systematically refused the benefits of all the wealth they create.
*BULLETIN: Prohibition on Grand Narratives has been lifted, due to the overdue death of Postmodernism. Hallelujah! So, start narrating grandly or stop narrating at all! The fact that many communities have specific grievances with the really existing capitalist world system is testimony to two fundamental features of today’s world: First, capitalism needs to plunder, rape and abuse many communities in order to survive, thus creating many enemies, each with their specific grievances. Second, The existence of many unique voices in the left is to our advantage and to the bourgeoisie’s disadvantage.
REZA FIYOUZAT can be reached at: email@example.com