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Disequilibrium has created the conditions for a powerful idea-shift if we can seize the moment.
The United States government pounced on the collapse of the twin towers to launch a campaign for the complete redesign of Planet Earth’s geo-political architecture. While the monetary and military basis for US power has remained intact–for the time being–the predictability of international relations, even and especially from the imperial point of view, has diminished profoundly.
In the US, we have a difficult and important responsibility to the rest of the world–to attack the basis of imperial political power from within.
Now we are faced with a period that needs the left more than ever, at a time when we are, in many respects, weaker than ever. I want to suggest that re-orientation to correct this deficiency will require new standpoints of observation, and the incorporation of these new standpoints into our organizational development and our political strategies. We can begin this by launching a massive public (and self) education effort and making that counter-propaganda the centerpiece of our organizing for the next one to two years.
Everything we seem to know about activism in the US is residue from the Civil Rights struggle and the subsequent anti-war and women’s liberation upsurges. And, in the words of Anthony Asadullah Samad writing for Black Commentator:
[T]he advocacy no longer seems to work. Whether it’s protest, negotiation, boycott or voter revolt (the latter two of which we rarely, if ever, use), watching black advocacy is like watching re-runs of Sanford and Son; you know what’s about to come next–and what the line is going to be when Redd Foxx grabs his chest “Okay, this is the part where they march in.” “Now, they’re about to holler and scream, and give long speeches, watch ’em.” “Here is the part where they put the community mothers up to cry, sigh, ain’t it sad?” “Now this is the part where they march out singing ‘We Shall Overcome,’ then they’ll go home and be quiet until the next time we get caught violating them or their interests. But the response will be the same.”
I would add to Samad’s observation that in the post-Cold War period, especially during the Clinton bubble, much of the energy of activists was captured by the non-profit sector, where “progressive” foundation money was the carrot and plain demoralization was the stick. With the single-issue project-orientation of 501(c)(3)s, and the gravitational pull of foundation grants, research and policy became the battlefields. Within a decade, most of the American left had developed selective amnesia and had forgotten that politics is about power.
This funded issue-organizing, while not universally destructive, consolidated a tendency to push individual pieces of legislation, usually at the state level, and thereby a near absolute dependence on building relationships with Democratic Party elected officials. In the face of the terrifying reaction of the Republican Party, those who were engaged in advocacy for labor, women, oppressed nationalities, queer folk, and environmentalists–having had that advocacy delimited to policy debates and piecemeal (mostly defensive) legislative struggles–were driven into the most humiliating states of dependency on Democrats. This dependency created the conditions for the bizarre 2004 election spectacle in which the majority of a mass movement against the war in Iraq, including many leftists, was stampeded into actively campaigning for a pro-war candidate, and tying itself in rhetorical knots to justify this “strategy.” In the greatest irony of all, the reactionary party still won the elections.
In the aftermath of that election, the Democratic Party is now talking about abandoning its reproductive rights position to get back the electoral margin it needs to survive politically.
This whole dilemma stems directly from the confusion of policy advocacy with politics as the struggle for power.
I am one of those who believe that the principle global “contradiction”–as we are fond of saying out here in leftland–is US imperialism. Moreover, I believe the US war in Southwest Asia has given the left yet another historic opportunity to build mass movements that can challenge the power of the US ruling class.
As a retired career member of the US armed forces, I may place an undue emphasis on this aspect of the current US crisis, but even if I did not have that built-in bias, it would still be hard to dismiss both the centrality of the military as a state institution in the post-9/11 period, or the stunning political implications of the military crisis in Iraq.
In our own organizing with veterans and military families against the war, we have encountered the same issues that everyone on the left encountered, including the problems of Democrat-dependency and recycled tactics. The difference for us–and I am included in this–is that the movement has put a very high premium on our voices–the voices of military-veteran communities–because of their de-legitimating force. I continue to think we serve a very important role in the anti-war movement, and that we can in some instances serve in a particularly powerful role in strengthening the anti-imperial pole of that movement. I will come back to exactly how we can start that process in the near term further down.
But as a leftist, and not merely an anti-war veteran, and as one who decries the political stasis of Democrat-dependency, I am also interested in how to break out of policy-focus inertia and get back to the struggle, first, for the hegemony of socialist (yes, that’s the word I used) ideas, and then the direct struggle for political power, beginning with a campaign to bring down the Democratic Party from the left.
The de-legitimation of this administration, while absolutely essential, can not become an end in itself. We have to be prepared to take advantage of that sense of dislocation to foreground new connections, new ways of understanding the world. These connections must aim to create a higher level of understanding of capitalism as a system that breeds war, and they must do so in ways that are intellectually and emotionally compelling to people.
I am thoroughly unconvinced by the economistic approach of talking about how much money is being spent on the war instead of social services, etc. Not only does this argument consistently get trumped by Orange Alerts and other forms of mass anxiety-production, it is a purely demagogic and dishonest point. “Money for people and not for war,” sounds great, but it ultimately reinforces commonly held notions that obscure the fundamental monetary realities of late imperialism–which the left is duty-bound to explain not exploit for polemical advantage.
Money is neither a static nor a material value, but one that is ultimately symbolic of power, and its claiming-capacity fluctuates based on the realities and perceptions of power, as well as in response to speculative insults.
US monetary supremacy in the world, upon which our imperial privileges rest, is directly dependent on our ability and willingness to wage war. Without that ability and willingness, the same dollars we are talking about will not likely be adequate for any of those alternative purposes under capitalist governance, because they would quickly become worthless. What do we tell the people then?
People do not understand this now, but that doesn’t imply that our response is to gloss over this rather critical point to sweeten and simplify our mass appeal. If this is a key step in understanding the system we are challenging, then our responsibility is to find ways to communicate this reality not evade it, or worse, reinforce it.
The felt issues that can connect this war to the system in the minds of others also happen to be the very issues that can serve to discredit the Democratic Party and thereby afford the left an opportunity to exercise real political power in the short term–the only power we potentially have for the time being–and that is to drag down and destroy one of the major bourgeois political edifices, the Democratic Party. This, I think, is a worthwhile and urgent goal.
The argument that we must build an alternative before we tear down the Democrat fortress is singularly unconvincing. A far more persuasive hypothesis, from where I stand, is to raze this decadent institution so it no longer has any defensive political value whatsoever, and oblige people to build more militant and agile organizations–organizations that are not utterly dependent on foundations, finance capital, and elections for their survival.
Subjects that are mostly anathema for the Democratic Party, and that can connect us to new masses of people in a concerted radical public education effort might be (in alphabetical order):
* Domestic violence.
* Environment and energy crisis.
* Gay marriage.
* Immigrant protection.
* Labor–all labor.
* National self-determination.
* Palestinian self-determination.
* Reproductive rights.
By anti-racism, I mean specifically the kind of public education aimed at exposing both white privilege and internalized oppression. When I began my own career as a political activist after the Army, I was very skeptical about the necessity and efficacy of anti-racist education. It struck me as too introspective and personalized. But my own experience since then, with activists who have and haven’t been exposed to structured education about white privilege and internalized oppression, has convinced me that it is a valuable, if not invaluable, step in the consciousness-building process for new activists. Consciousness of the subjective experience of unacknowledged racism is a powerful antidote to the kind of creeping chauvinism we have witnessed in the anti-war movement that argues against ending the occupation of Iraq until “we” have put the place right.
The seeming intractability of leftist economism with regard to gender issues, leads me to think we should place a high priority on the same kind of socialist pedagogy with regard to male privilege and women’s internalized oppression. In the context of the anti-war movement, we have never had a better opportunity to explore and explain the connections between social constructions of masculinity and militarism.
Domestically in the US, the left has consistently–as it should–decried the statistics related to lack of workplace safety, as well as racial violence. But the left has failed to give equal attention to violence directed against women-as-women. This issue has not become the purview of liberal women’s groups because it is a “petit bourgeois” concern. The left has ceded this issue by its utter failure to give it the priority it deserves as one of our society’s most immediate, systematic, and violent forms of oppression. Over 4 million American women a year are physically attacked (over half a million are raped) by men, very frequently their own domestic partners, and escape from this abusive situation is the single most significant cause of women with children being homeless. Approximately 1,400 women in the US are killed each year now by domestic partners. Any public education event about this issue will be well attended. When it is attended, if we know what we are doing, it is not a big stretch to explain that connection of masculinity-as-aggression and war.
As a primer on women’s structural oppression, I strongly recommend four books to the left: “The Black Feminist Reader,” edited by Joy James and T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, “Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale,” by Maria Mies, “Money, Sex, and Power–Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism,” by Nancy C. M. Hartsock, and “Profit and Pleasure–Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism,” by Rosemary Hennessy.
Environment and Energy Crisis
The Democrats have thrown in their lot with the snake-oil salesmen of entrepreneurial environmentalism. There is a growing acknowledgment on the left and among honest environmentalists that the capitalist world system is rapidly approaching a fossil energy cliff. A comrade once said that ecology is the bastard child of bourgeois science, and that it was the responsibility of the left to adopt this child. It is our responsibility to explain that ecocide is the inevitable result of capitalist accumulation. It is with the left’s political economy of the environment that we can play a crucial role in combining the voices of macro-ecology with the community-based struggles for environmental justice and against environmental racism. Alf Hornborg has written an invaluable book that connects environmental justice, the capitalist world system, and energy depletion, called “The Power of the Machine–Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment.”
Rather than falsely generalizing about marriage as a “bourgeois institution,” we need to come to terms with the actual complexity of this evolving institution. I strongly recommend Nancy Cott’s superlative US history of marriage, “Public Vows,” as a basic text. The homophobia of the orthodox left ran many queer folk out of the movement in the 60s and 70s, and marginalized many radical queers. Let’s don’t make the same mistake again. The resistance to gay marriage is not merely right-wing squeamishness about anything except the male-female missionary position. The attempt to re-impose a static and retrograde definition of marriage is an attempt to roll back basic gains that women have made, from the ability to exist legally independent of a spouse to the abolition of coverture, and the attack on gay marriage is based on the Right’s desire to strictly police the social definitions of male and female–using state power.
No position has contributed more to the nutty gun-culture of the right and the more general alienation of working class people in the United States than the bone-headed opposition to firearms by liberals. The left should not only drop this opposition, we should be encouraging the sensible and responsible armament of oppressed people in case they are ever required to defend themselves. What we have now is a fanatical white right-wing that is already arming itself–alone–and a politically polarizing gun lobby on the right wing that can be neutralized by the left supporting a right to firearms and armed self-defense–without turning guns into some kind of Freudian icon.
The global destabilization of this period has created massive immigration from the peripheries to the over-developed cores, especially the United States. The systematic attacks on Hispano-Latina immigrants through ballot initiatives, English-only legislation, and denial of drivers’ licenses, etc., is well known. We are also all aware of the racial profiling and Pantopticon measures being deployed against Southwest Asian immigrants, particularly Arab and Muslim immigrants. The Democratic Party has done virtually nothing to stop this immigrant-baiting, and in many cases has encouraged it. And the connection of this execrable xenophobia to the war is glaringly obvious.
Our definition of labor has often implicitly been “organized” labor. The development of US capitalism has rendered the NLRB model obsolete and irrelevant for the vast majority of workers, leaving 85% of wage labor in the United States unprotected by a union, and many union members captive of the union bureaucracies’ slavish devotion to the Democratic Party. It is past time for the left to include unwaged labor in both its analysis and activism around the issue of work. This, again, includes women who have been ignored by the left, subsumed and dismissed within the “working family.” Moreover, the inhering chauvinism of “preserving American jobs” pits worker against worker in the face of internationally mobile capital, completely ignoring the reality of the world system as a single labor pool–and conceals the international organic composition of labor that is now rendering literally billions of the world’s urbanized masses superfluous to the valorization process. The kind of internationalist approach being advocated by groups like Global Women’s Strike seems to have a great deal of potential for connecting left politics beyond (but not abandoning) that shrinking population in trade unions and to the actually existing world working class–and to show how imperial war is ultimately an attack on that class.
African Americans, indigenous First Nations, and Chicanos, now more than ever, can see and feel the peculiar forms of national oppression inside the United States, oppression directly reflected in the relation of the US dominant class toward nations around the world, especially now in Southwest Asia, the Philippines, Haiti, and elsewhere. A primary research and education goal of the left must be to draw parallels between underdevelopment here and abroad, the crucial service role of the embedded comprador for imperialism, the use of population control measures like police-military occupation and incarceration, heavy debt levels, and historical trajectories. Formations like the Black Radical Congress are essential, and the rest of us need to unite with them. If there is a military occupation in Iraq, there is also a militarized-police occupation of many communities of color right here in the United States.
The struggle for Palestinian self-determination is now in the center of the world stage because of the obscene strategic alliance between the Bush and Sharon governments. The Palestinian struggle resonates throughout the Arab and Muslim world, now under US attack. The body of evidence in support of the Palestinian struggle and against the Apartheid state of Israel is so stark and so overwhelming that there is quite simply no credible defense of the Israeli state. With the United States now trapped in a war it can not seem to escape yet can not win in Iraq, and the region having become a point of intense and ever more open international capitalist rivalry, public education of Americans–whose impressions of the so-called Israeli-Palestinian “conflict” reflect a transparent, racist, and indefensible body of official and media disinformation–should take a very high priority in the movement. This may be the sharpest tool in our armamentarium to go after the Democratic Party, whose Zionism is legendary.
While white progressives were trying to figure out how to connect the war abroad with the war at home and decrying the lack of whole-hearted participation in anti-war mass mobilizations by African Americans, Hispano-Latinas, and First Nations, the Bush administration presented us with a far more immediate and effective connection between Baghdad and the internal colonies of the US–prisons. There is hardly an oppressed nationality family in America that hasn’t been directly affected by the incarceration apparatus of the US White State. Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo draw a far more effective line between external and internal colonization than the reified math of how much is spent on war as opposed to social programs.
The reactionaries have an agenda and it includes more than re-securing the basis of accumulation through war. It is also to secure the basis of social reproduction through the reassertion of male power. The struggle of Democrats against the assault on women’s reproductive freedom has always been built on a weak foundation. Liberals, in their basic commitment to capitalism are constitutionally incapable of explaining women’s oppression as based on a sexual division of labor that is essential to capital accumulation. Now that the Democratic Party is abandoning the defense of women’s reproductive freedom (already narrowly defined by Democrats and white liberal feminists as the right of women who could afford it to legal abortion) there is an opportunity for the left to step into the breech and begin connecting the imperial agenda with the sexual agenda of the right.
These are merely suggestions for the subjects and sectors that the left might engage for their timeliness and strategic significance. No struggle in the United States right now is more important for the left than undermining the basic premises of ruling class ideology and replacing them with new interpretive tools for the masses to gain greater clarity about the struggle in front of them. The right figured this out many years ago. Call it superstructure if you like, but when we lost the ideological struggle, the political defeats were not far behind. This might be a way to regain some of the initiative.
Radical community education–which begins with the delegitimation of existing power structures–is a first step in a strategic process. The dichotomy between talking-and-doing is patently false. Even in the Army, where combat drills are about as performance-oriented as you get, the rule was shoot, move, and COMMUNICATE.
Phase I, II, and III then we’ll see
This suggested strategic outline is what I have been calling 3-D.
Phase I is to DELEGITIMATE the politicians who are making action-decisions now. Pedagogy is essential to this in order to inoculate the public against the kinds of fallacies and tactics that are generally used to mislead the masses.
As a full-fledged, nationwide public education drive begins to show results in shifting and polarizing public opinion, an overlapping Phase II should begin–based on the level of popular support available–of systematic and widespread civil DISOBEDIENCE that includes the old tactics of the Civil Rights era, but also non-violent hit-and-run tactics that reduce the probability of arrest and are not perceived as inimical to the public interest–like banner drops. Billboard “corrections,” and other creative actions.
Phase III–again based on the level of popular support and level of polarization–is DISRUPTION. These are the kinds of actions that close things down businesses, governments, transportation. The best recent example I can give of disruptions is the complete closure of La Paz, the capital of Bolivia, by an indigenous popular movement. This is a last resort, and must be considered carefully within the context that it is planned. If actions like this do not enjoy the firm support of at least 25% of the population, they should be very seriously reviewed before execution. But by using criteria, like level of likely support, we have built-in goals for each phase of such a struggle.
Each phase of such a strategy leaves wide tactical flexibility for different groups in different locations to accomplish the central tasks. If public education is the priority, for the purpose of undermining the ideological support for ruling class politics, there are hundreds of different techniques and tactics for reaching hundreds of different potential audiences. But we have to stay with the single strategic focus long enough to assess the value of various tactics and techniques, and to give the process time to produce a real result.
That’s why I would vote for a two-year period of intense delegitimation education–communiversity–that targets key groups who have not been mobilized in the anti-war, anti-empire work. There has to be time to plan and conduct pedagogical activity–from kitchen table teach-ins to counter-recruitment to mass rallies–and time to build new relationships, as well as time to demonstrate reciprocity by participating in the on-going struggles of oppressed nationalities, women, environmentalists, etc. We have to get out of our comfort zones.
The right-wing in this country prepared their current assault on political power all the way back when Barry Goldwater was getting his ass kicked by Lyndon Baines Johnson. And that preparation was ideological. So much for mechanical base-superstructure schemas!
Returning now to my earlier promise to talk about veterans and military family (and more and more, actual GI’s) position in the larger scheme of the anti-war, anti-empire work, I want to invite everyone in the United States to the military town of Fayetteville, North Carolina, March 19th, 2005. This is the anniversary of the illegal 2003 ground offensive to militarily occupy the sovereign nation of Iraq.
Last year, we had almost 2,000 people at beautiful Rowan Park, with families and music and great speakers. We would have had plenty more, but people were concerned about doing this in Fayetteville, concerned about how it would be received by the huge adjacent Fort Bragg military community.
It was a misplaced concern. Not only did many military people (in civilian clothes) attend, we even heard expressions of support from local cops–if you can believe that, themselves almost all veterans. There was a tiny counter-demonstration that was not the least bit menacing–though revving motorcycle engines once or twice to try and drown out speakers.
This year, we want a LOT more. Because nothing serves to delegitimate the administration more than resistance from the very people and their families who are being tasked to do the wet work for this criminal adventure. And putting the spotlight on the war at the nation’s largest military installation, the home of the 82nd Airborne Division and the US Special Forces Command, is a media magnet nonpareil. This year there will be participation from across the country by members of Military Families Speak Out, Veterans for Peace, and Iraq Veterans Against the War. Faith communities are already getting on board, as are peace-and-justice groups from around the country.
This is not just an event for “leftists.” The litmus test for showing up is opposition to the war in Iraq, and no one there cares if that is a political conviction, a religious conviction, or a personal conviction.
It is before and after such an event that we have to use our growing networks to do the kind of communiveristy education I spoke about above. Fayetteville is a kick-start for the anti-war, anti-empire movement in the wake of the election stand-down, and I emphasize the word–start! Cheney’s boys are already talking about the Iraq War going on for decades, plural. If they are prepared for that long a haul, we had damn sure better be, too.
STAN GOFF is the author of “Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti” (Soft Skull Press, 2000) and “Full Spectrum Disorder” (Soft Skull Press, 2003). He is a member of the BRING THEM HOME NOW! coordinating committee. His periodic essays on the military can be found at http://www.freedomroad.org/home.html. Email for BRING THEM HOME NOW! is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Goff can be reached at: email@example.com