LARP-ing Activism in The Trump Era

Live Action Role Playing (LARP-ing) is what happens when geeks get credit cards. Across America there are whole groups of people who act out their somewhat comical, bizarre Dungeons and Dragons-styled fantasias in open fields, bashing each other about with rubber swords and mallets the way Civil War re-enactors of a prior generation were felled by blanks across verdant open expanses.

The LARP-ing mentality is a generational one. It was a discernible and real part of the existence of children who came of age in a post-Soviet world. Anyone born after the presidency of Jimmy Carter had the opportunity to engage in some form of LARP culture at some point in their lives. Readers might be skeptical of such a claim, but then again, there are in fact two LARP holidays, Halloween and Christmas. This overgrown play-acting in public spaces carries as much detail and seriousness as the employees at Disney World who behave like they were actual saccharine cartoons.

This is a point to be cognizant of because it seems activism of late has taken on a LARP-ing mentality. The notion of activism is not defined by organization, preparation, and delivery of demands as much as showing up at a space, acting like you have done those things, and then going home without having actually made any concrete gains or demands. In the wake of the Trump election, what exactly did the protestors gain other than photo ops with the very Democratic Party politicians who enabled the rise of our first game show president? Who cares, I got a selfie with Debbie Wasserman-Schultz!

There are now two generations in America, and perhaps more, who do not remember the Vietnam War protests or Black Power movements. In that time the anti-authoritarian grammar that defined the postcolonial struggles from the Chinese revolution until the election of Mandela has been totally coopted by the neoliberal elites. Neoliberalism has redefined the very landscape of class struggle in the past quarter century. Carter and Reagan both started that train rolling, yes, but it took Slick Willie style and substance politics to consolidate it. This can be attributed to in part his status as a Baby Boomer and someone who avoided the draft by way of his college career.

Whereas Carter, Reagan, and Bush were anti-Communist hawks, Clinton was able to present a veneer of solidarity with Ho Chi Minh. He further cemented this notion by opening up diplomatic and economic relations with Vietnam in July 1995. We heard echoes of this alleged affinity for national liberation and support of self determination last year when Elijah Cummings said he “never saw” Bernie Sanders in the civil rights struggle but that “I met Hillary Clinton. I met President Clinton.” That sort of public demonstration is the antecedent of LARP-ing because, while it is true that Cummings actually did a great deal of important and noble deeds, the way he phrased this point carried implications of a singular space-time continuum and location. Putting it in simpler terms, when Cummings says he “never saw” Bernie Sanders you would think he were talking about an event at a fair ground over one weekend rather than a series of events spanning multiple decades and across the entire North American continent.

The most tenable recent instance of domestic protests prior to the Seattle ’99 demonstrations were the ACT-UP campaigns that were asking for some pretty moderate outcomes on the whole, stop letting people die painful and lonely deaths from AIDS. ACT-UP certainly had courage and did get some important results. But even Larry Kramer today is adamant that LGBTQQI+ people have gotten very little from the state. I believe that LARP culture has impacted activism in a way that has made things easier for the state to do harm to the most vulnerable and the discussion must begin so to address this.

LARP-ing has become confused with the sort of work that defines radicalization of activists. Why? Simply put, the Left has not fully adapted their political economy to neoliberalism and, as a result, you find individuals who utilize a near-Manichean vision of Marxism or derivatives of anarchism to animate a performance of class war that glorifies individuals who otherwise would be lost without this sort of guiding narrative. One pastor friend who had his moment in the Revolutionary Communist Party during the New Left’s crescendo has equated this sort of thing with gnosticism, that old Christian heresy defined by the following features:

-The notion of a remote, supreme monadic divinity. (pure communism)
-The introduction by emanation of further divine beings known as Aeons. (the vanguard)
-The introduction of a distinct creator god or demiurge, which is an illusion and a later emanation from the single monad or source. (Marx/Lenin/Stalin/Trotsky/Mao/Hoxha or Bakunin)
-The estimation of the world, owing to the above, as an “error” or flawed simulacrum of a higher-level reality, but possibly as good as its constituent material might allow. (capitalism)
-A complex mythological-cosmological drama in which a divine element “falls” into the material realm and lodges itself within certain human beings (dialectics and class)
-A doctrine of salvation in which the divine element may be returned to the divine realm through a process of awakening. (join the organization and buy the newspaper)

The old norms of labor organization and working class mobilization were rendered antiquated by the advent of neoliberalism. All the job growth in America since 2008 was in the so-called ‘gig’ economy, meaning the majority of tax forms filed under Obama’s presidency were 1099’s. How are you supposed to create a union for that? You would need to do it utilizing cooperatively-owned employment agencies on the model upheld by Richard Wolff, worker self-directed enterprises.

Here is an example of LARP-ing activism that I have observed of late. Quickly I hope readers will recognize what I mean.

On September 9, 2016, the Industrial Workers of the World’s Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee (IWOC) called for a nationwide prison labor strike, saying in this statement:

Prisoners from across the United States have just released this call to action for a nationally coordinated prisoner workstoppage against prison slavery to take place on September 9th, 2016. This is a Call to Action Against Slavery in America. In one voice, rising from the cells of long term solitary confinement, echoed in the dormitories and cell blocks from Virginia to Oregon, we prisoners across the United States vow to finally end slavery in 2016.

The next day I covered a solidarity demonstration by the Providence Wobblies as they walked around the various buildings on the Adult Correctional Institute campus, reading over a megaphone the IWW statement and blasting on a boombox various anti-police state songs. Now obviously as a consciousness-raising exercise that was trying to radicalize inmates, the event was a success. But at the same time it would seem evident that this was not an event that was showing solidarity with activists already inside the prison working to radicalize other prisoners, or, to use the labor union organizer lingo, salts.

If the Providence IWW had salts already inside the prison, I think they would have behaved in a much different fashion. This is not intended to diminish or insult the efforts, particularly because this is the location where Wobblies certainly need to be putting time and energy. But to hold an action in support of a labor strike when the strike in question is not taking place inside the place you demonstrate at borders on play-acting. Again, this is not intended to belittle or demean anyone, it is just an objective fact that labor union activism is defined by salts that are agitating for a strike before you hold a strike solidarity demonstration. Those who believe otherwise might unconsciously be engaged in LARP activism.

How do we overcome this LARP-ing mentality? Vijay Prashad calls this a “neoliberalism of the left” that puts too much emphasis on spontaneity. He told me in an interview last year “Leadership is another word for preparation. In other words, in times when the tempo for struggle is not very high, you prepare populations by conducting acts of courage-building, confidence-building, respect for each other. That’s what the preparation is about and it requires leadership. So this aspect of political struggle, leadership or preparation, has been largely denigrated. I consider this a kind of neoliberalism of the Left, this rise and promotion of spontaneity above preparation. And of course I understand politically that uprisings take place as a combination of spontaneity and preparation, not that preparation is more important than spontaneity. But in this period of the neoliberalism of the Left, spontaneity has, in a sense, overshadowed preparation.” I have engaged in a bit of research and have located the two major sources of this issue.

The first is to be found in the anarchist tradition and perhaps more specifically what the late Murray Bookchin called “lifestyle anarchism”. This is a nihilistic vision of activism being defined by individualism, personal behaviors, and the idea that the revolution begins at home in a strange conduct that seems reminiscent of a punk rock performance artist. Bookchin described it as “a personalistic commitment to individual autonomy” as opposed to “a collectivist commitment to social freedom”.

The second is to be found in the writings of CLR James, who evolved over his long life from a doctrinaire Trotskyism towards a libertarian socialist praxis that Robin Blackburn described as ‘anarcho-Bolshevism’ in his obituary for the great man. This praxis is borne out most vividly in Every Cook Can Govern, a 1956 account of how the Athenian democratic system operated, and Facing Reality, a 1958 pamphlet about the Hungarian revolt against the Soviet Union, though other pamphlets produced by the Johnson-Forest Tendency, such as The American Worker by Phil Singer and Grace Lee Boggs, also informed what has become known as autonomist Marxism. However, a key nuance differentiates the spontaneity of the American worker that Boggs, Singer, and James described from the neoliberal spontaneity Prashad examines.

This nuance is the actual preparation given to the workers by their oppression and exploitation. From the Haitian revolution to the Detroit shop floor and the Hungarian Workers Councils, the autonomist tendency defines the vanguard as the workers themselves. Their preparation and tools for emancipation are those provided by the exploiting class. It modifies the Marxist-Leninist notion of the Communist cadre that uses agit-prop to educate the workers so that instead the exploitation and exploiters act as this cadre in a negative sense. This notion is connected to the Johnson-Forest analysis of Communist governments as state capitalists. For Johnson-Forest, the nationalization of the means of production did not mean by default a government was socialist. James wrote in his 1947 pamphlet The Invading Socialist Society “The leadership and policies of the Communist Parties…can be summed up as the political form corresponding to the final form of capitalism, state capitalism, which involves, not the expansion of finance-capital in the old way, but the incorporation of individual economies within powerful centralized economies operating on a continental scale. These parties are as organically related to capitalism in this stage of its development as was the Second International to the classic finance-capitalism of Lenin.”

“The Stalinist leaderships are a further stage of development of Menshevism in 1917. The Mensheviks trembled before the “anarchy” of the revolutionary fervor of the masses and fear of the inevitable intervention. The Stalinist leaders in France and Italy tremble before the same phenomena infinitely multiplied. Historically, in appearance, subjectively, they support the Kremlin and therefore they oppose the proletarian revolution. But Marx never tired of pointing out how often the appearance of thing’s contradicted their essence. The logical analysis of the Stalinists is the exact opposite of the appearance, i.e., their historical origin and subjective motivation. It is because they despaired of, fear and oppose the tremendous leap in the dark of the proletarian revolution that they attach themselves like leeches to the tangible power of the Kremlin.”

In the Johnson-Forest Tendency, their writings maintained that the Communist governments and unions, the dictatorship of the proletariat, had the same function as the labor aristocracy that controlled the American AFL-CIO. They argued that the proletariat in both countries were both revolutionary classes held under control by exploitative leadership. However, this control was barely maintained, resulting in occasional outbreaks of revolutionary activity that would show how tenuous this social system actually was, the definition of spontaneity.

This is markedly different from just showing up and getting something for nothing. In almost every instance that Johnson-Forest examined, the workers had been exploited for sometimes decades on end before revolting and using that which caused their immiseration to break the shackles. The recent protests and marches seen across America’s cities reacting to Trump have been defined by nothing more than angst over what might happen. These protests lack the maturity to point out that the current working class immiseration was caused by a Democratic Party that is desperately trying to co-opt these protests. Rather than experience building a vanguard on the basis of class politics, we instead are seeing nothing more or less than neoliberal identity politics and haunting daydreams fostered by a collaborating media system mobilizing the masses to run amok at the whims of a certain sector of finance capital that does not like Donald Trump’s overt rebuke of neoliberal multiculturalism. Here the LARP-ing effect is intentionally and consciously manipulated by the bourgeoisie as a mechanism to release anxieties within the population while maintaining hegemony within this mobilized population.

The solution for LARP-ing activism is the five-letter dirty word, class. Donald Trump’s narcissistic white nationalist rhetoric betrays an anxiety about the collapse of the hegemonic order that defined the postwar social contract. As neoliberalism has exerted further pressure upon the 99%, the collective consciousness of the masses has awakened. Starting with Occupy Wall Street in 2011, the country has been host to a mass mobilization that has taken on a variety of forms and iterations, from Zuccotti Park to Black Lives Matter and, in some sense, the anti-austerity movement that inadvertently formed around Bernie Sanders and his Quixotic presidential campaign. Ralph Nader has documented this in detail with his book Unstoppable: The Emerging Left-Right Alliance To Dismantle The Corporate State. What he calls ‘convergence’ is in fact class solidarity. He lists 25 different policy areas where class solidarity exists already to promote real gains that would put the 1% in the crosshairs:

-Require that the Department of Defense (DOD) budget be audited annually, and disclose all government budgets. Secrecy destroys accountability.
-Establish rigorous procedures to evaluate the claims of businesses looking for a government handout which would end most corporate welfare and bailouts.
-Promote efficiency in government contracting and government spending.
-Adjust the minimum wage to inflation.
-Introduce specific forms of taxation reform as well as push to regain uncollected taxes.
-Break up the “Too Big to Fail” banks.
-Expand contributions to charity, using them to increase jobs and drawing on available “dead money.”
-Allow taxpayers the standing to sue, especially immunized governments and corporations.
-Further direct democracy—initiative, referendum, and recall, for starters.
-Push community self-reliance.
-Clear away the obstacles to a competitive electoral process.
-Defend and extend civil liberties.
-Enhance civic skills and experience for students.
-End unconstitutional wars and enforce Article 1, section 8, of the Declaration of War Act.
-Revise trade agreements to protect US sovereignty, and resume full congressional deliberations, ending fast track.
-Protect children from commercialism and its physical and mental exploitation and harm.
-Control more of the commons that we already own.
-End corporate personhood.
-Get tough on corporate crime, providing penalties and enforcement budgets.
-Ramp up investor power by strengthening investor-protection laws and by creating a penny brigade to pay for an investor watchdog agency.
-Oppose the patenting of life forms, including human genes.
-End the ineffective war on drugs.
-Push for environmentalism.
-Reform health care.
-Create convergent institutions

Mobilization and actualization of such demands now are the tasks at hand in this political landscape. Nader’s points might strike some as reformist democratic socialism. But the practical applications of these steps would dismantle piece-by-piece in a systematic fashion the imperial edifice. In so doing the movement would in fact avoid the failure of reformism, refusal to challenge imperialism.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.