Charlie Brown, Michael Moore, and Insurrection

Photograph Source: slgckgc – CC BY 2.0

Charlie Brown and Lucy, Again and Again

What is to be done about the capital-driven fascistic and ecocidal madness afoot in the world’s most dangerous nation – the subjects of my last three Counterpunch essays? Let’s reflect a bit on what is not to be done. The ongoing sado-capitalist slashing and potential liquidation of the Build Back Better Bill is a good time to reflect on a comic strip analogy. Again and again, I have seen progressives, including some very sophisticated thinkers, behave like Charlie Brown in the “Peanuts” cartoon. Even when they know better, they continue to place hopes in Democratic politicians who make progressive-sounding promises that will not be carried into policy. It is reminiscent of the scene where Lucy is holding the football for Charlie Brown to kick and then pulls the ball away at the last second before his foot can make contact. She keeps playing this trick and he keeps falling for it, again and again.

Think of Lucy as the nation’s unelected de facto dictatorship of concentrated wealth and empire. Think of progressive Dem politicos like George McGovern, Dennis Kucinich and Bernie Sanders and even of Citigroup Democrats who pose as progressives (Barack Obama being the classic example) as football coaches telling Charlie to run back into the ballot box and give it one more kick. “Go ahead, this time you can get good things like health care as a human right and green jobs programs!” The ball is always removed during or after savagely time-staggered, once-every-four-year elections, exposing the coaches as Judas Goats whose basic function is to herd people into a hopelessly compromised, corporate-owned and elite-crafted electoral slaughterhouse. The result is mass political disillusionment and disengagement in the working and lower classes especially, which opens the door for the Republicans, who are in fact the greater evil between the two parties – not because the Democrats are any damn good but because the GOP has now gone full-on white nationalist-authoritarian, eco-cidal, and pandemofascist.

After the Republicans win again, the Democrats say “well, Charlie, you just need to kick/vote harder next time. Don’t give up, Kick Back Better, Charlie!” …in two and/for our years! “Next election, Charlie, things will go your way!” What too few of us want to really hear are that the un-kicked field goals are written into the very sinews of the US-American governance order. They are the predetermined outcomes of the nation’s bourgeois democracy, which combines capitalist control of the nation’s underlying material base and political superstructure with an 18th Century charter crafted by slave-owning Founders for whom popular sovereignty was the ultimate nightmare.

Progressives respond to their recurrent political and policy defeats with a standard argument: “we need better mobilization by grassroots organizations.” Well, mobilization is good, but mobilization for what? For decent policies supposedly winnable under the existing de facto dictatorship of capital and empire – for more Lucy and Charlie Brown scenes, with Charlie fuming yet again after the ball is pulled away yet again? Or for taking the ball away from Lucy and building a whole new team and approach aiming for a socialist revolution over and against an eco-exterminist capitalist system and class rule regime that has us on schedule to cancel prospects for a decent human future in no short historical order? Most progressives and liberals are all about the first option, but the second one is the only way to go if we are remotely serious about protecting and liberating humanity and other living things. You do have to “give up,” not in democracy, social justice and the common good, not in humanity, but in the capitalist and imperialist order.

And this new commitment should not be confused with running out into the streets with no clear purpose, organization, and alternative societal vision. The progressive filmmaker Michael Moore has recently called for liberals and progressives to take to the streets and engage in an “insurrection” to stop the right-wing destruction of America and the world. In a stimulating and interesting essay, he argues that liberals and the Left should display the same “guts” demonstrated by the January 6th Capitol rioters “minus the insanity and violence.” Michael thinks we might and indeed should have “insurrection envy.” Much of what Moore says is welcome and thought-provoking (apologies in advance for the length of the following quote):

Aside from the violence, aside from their despicable racism and misogyny, aside from the fact that we vehemently oppose everything they stand for — the truth is, that deep down in your soul, as you watched what your eyes could not believe was happening, admit to me that in that appalling moment on January 6, 2021, you were — how do I say it —  jealous that it was the fascists who had risen up, and not us long before now. Again, not jealous of the unforgivable violence they unleashed. Rather, I’m suggesting that there’s a small piece of you and me that has wished for just once in our lives we had that kind of courage, that resolve, that rage of conscience and commitment to just not effing put up with this shit any longer. 

…If the State is going to use its power to physically hold you down to forcibly birth a baby against your will — I mean, please, people! What exactly will it take to make you and millions of others run down Pennsylvania Avenue screaming bloody murder and nonviolently prohibiting those Justices from entering that Court building?!

Tens of thousands of you have been wrongly turned away from the voting booth, stripping you of your constitutional right to elect YOUR representatives. You’ve been shown the door, tossed to the curb like the garbage they say you are. Why is it not your very next move – and we, your neighbors, OUR very next move – to put on our Viking headgear and run like wild men and women with the force of hundreds of thousands of us, nonviolently storming the chambers of our state Capitols and NOT LEAVING until they give us back our voting rights?

We all talk a good line about climate and the environment and the destruction of our planet — but really folks, if you TRULY and ABSOLUTELY believed that the end of the world is near, you’d be right now running and screaming down the middle of the West Side Highway like your hair was on fire, on your way to Wall Street with nonviolent clubs in your hands, or storming down Grand Boulevard to General Motors HQ in Detroit to shut them the fuck down, or flying like crazed banshees down Market Street in San Francisco to PG&E and nonviolently show them what it would look like for their executives to be without power, or a million of us in the Potomac on anything that floats and nonviolently surround Joe Manchin’s yacht and tow that bastard away, safely, so he doesn’t cause harm to anyone else. 

You would do that, wouldn’t you, because you believe the earth is at its end, because you believe women’s bodies are their own and no one else’s, because you believe the police do not have the right shoot a Black kid in the back and laugh about it later, and because you believe your sick baby has a HUMAN RIGHT to see a doctor! And for THAT you would join MILLIONS in the street, right now, to demand that this State violence, these corporate attacks on WE the people must end and we will not relent until this madness ends. 

But you and I will not do that. …How did we get to this place where an overwhelmingly conservative, caucasian and male group of citizens — many of them well-off, snobby and as entitled as the former President they were fighting on behalf of — how have they become America’s radical insurrectionists? Maybe it should not have come as a surprise; white, male rage at progressive changes is not new —and January 6th was the latest manifestation…The real question I want to raise is this: if we truly believe what we say we believe, and if our warnings about the peril we are in are all true then wouldn’t we have brought our Nation’s Capital to its knees by now? Shouldn’t we have grinded the wheels of the apparatus to a halt, and done so, many times over? How many more times can we declare a state of emergency, or claim that the next election is the most important of our lifetime, but yet not be willing to storm the gates of power, be they financial, political or military, and thus make them all shiver in fear? In short: where is our insurrection?

I like Mike and think that his movie Roger and Me was a shining Dickensian[1] masterpiece that belongs in the film documentary Hall of Fame. It’s hard to deny the disturbing irony and eloquence of Moore’s observation that the mantle of insurrection has been seized by right-wing defenders of American privilege and authoritarianism rather than by progressive and left champions of social justice and democracy. That totally needs to change. With the exception perhaps of mass celebrations after the fascist Trump was declared loser of the 2020 election, the hard right has owned the nation’s streets since the tail end of the George Floyd Rebellion and its Jacob Blake/Kenosha and Breonna Taylor aftermaths in the summer and early fall of 2020[2]. Liberal and progressive Democrats forces pathetically refused to counter and challenge the fascist “Stop the Steal” outpourings that took place in Washington DC after the election.

It is neat to see Moore reject the foolish Trumpenleft claim that January 6th was a proletarian protest. Also welcome is his readiness to (in a part of his essay not quoted here) call at least a “minority” of Republicans “fascists” and to notice the at-once racist and sexist content of the January 6th Capitol Riot.

Still, I have seven problems with Moore’s essay. First, I wish he would have added “aside from the fascism” to the opening sentence in the long passage quoted above. It matters to name the right-wing enemy for what it is. To soft-pedal the “Menace”[3] is to reinforce passivity, indifference, and demobilization among decent and democratic forces. It’s long past time to stop being afraid of being called “the boy who cried wolf” for raising the alarm about US-Amerikaner fascism – the main subject of my next book.

Second, it’s a mistake to identify the Capitol Rioters with the word “conscience.” Their vicious actions, instigated by a malignant narcissist who wants to be a dictator, were devoid of morality, integrity, and scruples.

Third, what is a “nonviolent club” and how exactly does someone non-violently “scream bloody murder” and nonviolently “storm the gates of power”? I say this neither as a pacifist nor as a violence fan, but as someone who finds it disingenuous to suggest that one could have an insurrection without violence. By the time a progressive/left “insurrection” can be mounted, its leaders and participants will certainly have to reckon in a serious way with the difficult matter of the role of force in history.

Fourth, I’m not quite sure Moore really means it. Perhaps he does, or maybe his essay is just bit of eloquent and therapeutic venting between elections. He has a long history of being a Charlie Brown, voicing militant-sounding sentiments the further out we are from biennial and quadrennial elections and then folding everything into a big get out the vote (GOTV) effort for dismal dollar Democrats the closer electoral contest dates loom.

(Don’t get me wrong, people should take ten minutes to vote out a fascist if they can, and I am willing to Mike really could cross from the Charlie Brown ghetto into something more like Red Petrograd space.)

Fifth, I’m not sure that the January 6th Capitol marauders really showed all that much courage. They were white dudes who posed as friends of law and order. They faced remarkably little serious resistance from the forces of order. They attacked Congress with the understanding that the President of the United States – the most powerful individual on Earth – was on their side. Nonwhites, liberals, and leftists who attack state and national capitals “screaming bloody murder” can expect to face live ammunition and really long jail terms, unlike the Capitol Rioters. That kind of insurrection would take far more courage than the Confederate flag-wagging one did.

Sixth, where was Michael Moore when Refuse Fascism (RF) began properly naming Trump and the Trump presidency as a fascist and calling for a mass popular movement to force the Trump-Pence regime out of power from the bottom up, in the streets, public squares, and workplaces of the nation? This was RF’s fully appropriate line after Trump was elected and before he was inaugurated. Following that path and not merely (but necessarily) voting him out would have been the best and proper way to remove and dispatch the beast. Failure to expel the pandemo-fascist monster through mass action (like what the people of Puerto Rico did to the corrupt monster Ricky Rossello in 2018) beneath and beyond the quadrennial electoral extravaganza is part of why we are in the current horrible, potentially terminal and certainly dystopian mess described in my recent Counterpunch essays. If Mike is now down with the dedicated mass action required to defeat the US neofascists, cool. But I at least want to give a shout out to those who identified the fascist menace correctly and called for the street action required early on. Moore hasn’t discovered something many on the all-too invisible actual Radical Left knew about very well from the start and before.

Seventh, a healthy dose of skepticism is essential when people call romantically for “insurrection” without saying anything about the need for revolutionary organization and discipline to align a popular uprising with serious and concrete goals of radical social and political reconstruction. “Insurrection” is not a word to throw around loosely, lacking clear revolutionary purpose and organization. Without these things, the call for “insurrection” becomes hopelessly spontaneitist and frankly juvenile – an infantile leftist invitation to easy and crushing popular defeat (recall the rapid collapse and easy state-capitalist dismantlement of anarchish Occupy) that only deepens the demoralization of the masses while enraging and emboldening the right. We need a popular revolutionary movement of the sort that could carry out an actual revolution, not a wild insurrection, and that means a lot of hard and painstaking organizing and discipline.

Endnotes

1. Contrary to the British Communist Party’s efforts to claim the prolific 19th Century novelist and satirist Charles Dickens as a revolutionary Left writer during the 1930s, Dickens’ often brilliant caricatures of meant-spirited capitalist money-grubbing conduct and narrow bourgeois moralism never denounced the underlying structure and system of capitalism and never advocated working class or other popular rebellion, much less revolution. The only solution to the plight of the system’s victims (like poor orphaned Oliver Twist or the lowly Cratchit family in A Christmas Tale) is the intervention of a decent bourgeois character (like Ebeneezer Scrooge after being visited by the Christmas ghosts or Oliver’s savior the kindly Mr. Brownlow). While brilliantly depicting pathetic e scenes of human devastation imposed by capital on his deindustrialized hometown of Flint, Michigan, Roger and Me focused on Moore’s quixotic quest to interview General Motors’ CEO Roger Smith and to hold him responsible for what capitalism did to Flint. Maybe Moore meant his film as a statement about and against capitalism the system but if so, he never really said so, and the fact remains that Smith was being fully responsible to his one and only authority: the shifting requirements of profitability in an anarchic and competitive world capitalist system. It’s not about “speaking truth to power” – a delusional liberal and progressive slogan that needs to be dropped once and for all. It’s not about paddling our little kayaks out to coal baron Joe Manchin’s $700,000 luxury yacht and begging him not to drown our communities. It’s not about following the wealthy Big Pharma puppet Kyrsten Sinema into the bathroom and bugging her to care about health care as a human right for all. It’s about building a revolutionary movement that would sink Manchin and his ruling class brethren’s party boats in a sea of socialist transformation on the path to a new society vaccinated against oppression, exploitation, and inequality. We need to tell Charlie Brown and Lucy “game over.” Our “insurrection” must shed all Dickensian illusions. We strive to be not the waif Oliver Twist saying “please sir, more” to our masters but rather Etienne Lantier in Emile Zola’s Germinal and Jurgus Rudkus in Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle: grown adults who have passed through the crucible of capitalism and chosen to struggle for the birth of a new society beyond the unelected dictatorship of capital.

2. Thousands took to the streets of Kenosha, Wisconsin after the racist police shooting of the young Black man Jacob Blake in Kenosha on August 23, 2020, leading the demented teen fascist Kyle Rittenhouse to murder two protesters in that city three nights later. An “Indian summer” of the George Floyd uprising took place in numerous US cities on September 23rd, 2020, after a Kentucky grand jury refused to indict the racist Louisville police who murdered the young Black woman Breonna Taylor in her home on March 13, 2020. In early July of 2021, it is true, angry Philadelphians successfully repelled a white nationalist march attempted by the fascist group Patriot Front.

3. For a nice example of establishment (neo)liberalism’s refusal to call Trumpism-fascism out for what it is, see Lisa Lerer and Astead Herndon, “Menace Enters the Republican Mainstream,” New York Times, 12 November 2021, A1. “From congressional offices to community meeting rooms,” Leher and Herndon report, “threats of violence are becoming commonplace among a significant segment of the Republican Party. Ten months after rioters attacked the United States Capitol on Jan. 6, and after four years of a president who often spoke in violent terms about his adversaries, right-wing Republicans are talking more openly and frequently about the use of force as justifiable in opposition to those who dislodged him from power.” This is not exactly a late-breaking bulletin. The white nationalist “menace” entered the Republican mainstream years ago. Imagine the right-wing shitstorm that would have ensued if the Times had accurately titled this report “Fascism Goes Mainstream in GOP.”

Paul Street’s new book is The Hollow Resistance: Obama, Trump, and Politics of Appeasement.