Of Marches and Movements

Joshua Frank is spot-on as he argues against tying movements to the Democratic Party in his article, We Don’t Need Climate Marches, We Need a Political Awakening in the October 3-5 edition of Counterpunch.  I also quite agree (as I have written about here and here) that it’s high time working people break with the Democratic and Republican parties and build a party of our own.  However, Frank’s piece flounders when it comes to analyzing the essential nature of the September 21 climate march in New York City.  Moreover, I submit that Frank’s well-intentioned critique misses the point when it comes to evaluating marches, tactics and movements for social change in general.

Let’s take for granted that we live in a class society, with those at the top pulling all the strings.  The vast majority of us may lean a particular direction on some important issue or policy, but what counts is what the small stratum that owns Wall Street, the banking sector, our major industries and natural resources decides is best for business.  More often than not, the needs of the majority are at odds with the “free market” shibboleth of optimizing short-term profit.  Addressing climate change presents just such an example.  How, then, does the majority exercise its will? In the face of a deck so obviously stacked, how do we fight for political change?  The key lies in understanding whence comes our power, and how to effectively wield it.

As the majority, we certainly have the power of numbers.  But there has to be more to it than that.  As Frank points out, “Far larger protests, which took place around the world against the war in Iraq in early 2003, did little to halt Bush’s invasion…”  In that case as in others, what the majority wanted was clear, but it didn’t stop the elite decision makers who hold the reins of governmental power from plowing ahead regardless.  Popular will be damned.

Our power—our real power—comes from the fact that we do all the work.  We staff the warehouses, assembly lines and factories.  We drive the trucks, trains, buses and planes.  We load the ships.  We provide all of the services, large and small—from stocking grocery shelves to cleaning the streets.  Without our say-so, nothing moves and nothing gets done.  Without our labor, no profits flow up the pipeline to the top.  Without our acquiescence, no weapons or ammunition are produced.  Without the approval of working men and women in uniform, no troops move and no shots are fired.

Those at the top understand this.  They do whatever they can to keep us atomized and divided.  They take whatever steps they feel are necessary to ensure that the flood of profits continues to pour into their coffers.  Their only fear is that we might someday wise up, become conscious of our power and use it.  If that happens, they’re finished.

How does this relate to marches, teach-ins, picket lines, boycotts, occupations, acts of civil disobedience and the like?  The connection is simply this: The extent to which any act of protest puts real pressure on those at the top is directly proportional to the credibility of the threat that the movement could wake the sleeping giant; that events could spill over, moving a few steps too many in the direction of working people gaining confidence, self-awareness and bringing their economic power to bear.

Each protest action is both a building block and a promissory note.  Massive actions can have the effect of broadening the message, bringing people together, building confidence, showing each angry participant and observer that they are not alone.  This, in turn, can be used to deepen the discussion and grow the movement.

At the same time, each protest action represents a challenge and a warning to the powers that be.  The implied threat is this: We are building a movement to oppose you.  You can see by our numbers that the majority is coming over to our side.  You can see by the breadth of participation that working people of all stripes are willing to take action.  Today’s event had no impact on your profits.  Tomorrow’s will be different.  After today’s event, the machinery of your system continues to grind on as before.  But as our movement matures and grows, the cost to you will increase.  At some point if you persist, working people, awakened and brought into motion by this cause, will not be placated by a resolution of this issue alone but, having experienced solidarity and tasted victory, will want to push their new found power to the limits.  This is what will happen if you don’t agree to our demands.

To the ruling rich, the beginning of a movement challenging any aspect of their power is like being confronted by a gaggle of scrawny-looking assailants. The assailants make threats and promise consequences if Mr. Moneybags doesn’t acquiesce.  The initial threats are not taken seriously.  Why should they be?  Moneybags’ adversaries have not convinced him that they can follow through.  It will take a few more confrontations, with a bigger group of adversaries demonstrating a palpable ability to carry out their threats before Moneybags will be moved.

What this tells us is that the way to build a winning movement is to choose tactics aimed at educating and mobilizing the largest number of working people in action, in the streets, fighting independently of the parties and organizations of the ruling rich, for demands that benefit our class, that build our self-confidence, enhance awareness of our collective economic might, and further our willingness to fight.  Building this kind of movement is like constructing a staircase, where the steps are neither too close together nor too far apart; where each step moves us nearer to the point where our collective economic power can be brought to bear to win the issue at hand, and then some.

At this point in our discussion, we arrive at an apparent paradox.  As a movement grows, and the economic power of the working class comes into play, the cost to the rulers grows.  If they don’t give in to the demands of the movement, the cost could continue to escalate.  If they do give in, it only inspires working people to fight more and fight harder.  The corporate overlords are damned if they do and damned if they don’t.  In truth, there is no paradox.  This “heads we win, tails you lose” squeeze put on the powers that be is a direct consequence of workers’ economic power being thrown into the mix.

Looked at in this light, the September 21st climate march was a great success.  Despite the fact that Bill McKibben and some other march organizers continue to see the Democratic Party as an ally rather than part of the problem, the impact of the large, diverselabor inclusive, multi-day action ran entirely counter to the time-honored Democratic/Republican Party message:  Vote for us, then relax on the couch.  We’ll take care of the rest.  As has so often occurred in the past, some Democratic and Republican boosters and elected officials marched along with the throng.  This poses a contradiction between the pro-business, anti-environment agenda of the two major parties and the very opposite “System change, not climate change” message of the event itself.  But this shouldn’t trouble or confuse us.  When your opponents participate in an event, the thrust of which is the very opposite of what their organizations stand for, it’s a sign of our strength and their fear of losing control of the message.

We can’t always control who will attend a protest action, but we can set the agenda.  In future climate actions, one hopes the demands and themes will be even clearer than they were on September 21: No more fracking!  Make the polluters pay!  Fund renewables not fossil fuels!  Nationalize the energy companies!  If major party politicians want to march behind that banner, that’s their contradiction.  Any thinking people they bring in their wake will get a first-class education about the issues involved and the real sides in the struggle.

We know from the movement to end the war in Vietnam—the only time in US history that a mass movement played a key role in forcing the exit and defeat of the US military—that one large march is not enough to stay the hand of the war makers, polluters, and corporate crooks.  As the movement against the Vietnam War grew, students radicalized, soldiers began to rebel, laborbegan to take up the cause, working people began to stir.  Finally, the cost to the ruling rich became too great.

What’s needed today to turn back climate change, combat austerity, eliminate endless wars of aggression, address economic inequality, halt racist cop killings, protect civil liberties and fight injustice at all levels is to build a movement so big and so broad that the sleeping giant is nudged awake and the economic power of the working class is put brought out of hibernation.  Every potential march, occupation, action or event ought to be evaluated in terms of the degree to which it furthers this agenda.  In this way, we create a situation where the political and economic cost to those at the top is too great and our demands cannot be ignored.

But what of the argument that the looming disaster is so imminent that we don’t have time to build the kind of mass movement described above.  The simple answer is that there is no other way.  There are no substitutes or shortcuts.  No amount of courageous actions of a few can substitute for the necessary involvement of many.  If time is of the essence, we should not squander it; we ought to focus as quickly as possible on the difficult but winnable road that presents itself.  The economic power of the working class, consciously harnessed and prudently deployed, is the only real power we have.  Every suggestion, idea, tactic or action that purports to move us in this direction should be fair game for consideration.  Anything that gets in the way or muddles the picture ought to be quickly set aside.

Bruce Lesnick is a long-time political activist who lives and writes in Washington State.  He blogs at open.salon.com and is an occasional contributor to Counterpunch.  He can be reached atblesnick@bugbusters.net.

Bruce Lesnick is a long-time political activist who lives and writes in Washington State.  He blogs at blogspot.com. He can be reached at brucielesnick@gmail.com