Timothy Leary publicized “Turn on, tune in, and drop out”.
The “trick” for radicals, though, is to learn how to “unask, reframe, and direct act.”
Too often, we forget that time is needed to be in a position mentally to engage in that endeavor, and in neglecting that step we sabotage our own efforts. We need time to work on projects so that we become able to even ask the right questions (let alone answer them!) and to give internal relations the chance to evolve. Yet we preempt that much-needed “time” constantly in responding to the emergencies of the moment which are always pressing — especially today!
There must be time and space (liberated zones, communities of resistance and nurturance, temporary autonomous zones, occupations) through which participants can develop and experience the freedom that can erupt from communities established in response to the volcanic contradictions of capitalism, and which throw us all into motion of one sort or another. Those experiences allow us to develop the creativity, security and emotional flexibility to sidestep or overcome the fears conditioned into us. But that all takes time. Without it, the attempts to understand and to act constructively are debilitated by emergencies of every sort, and preclude the chance to actually taste that apple.
It takes time to apprehend and learn to experience the world in new ways.
It takes time to develop the honest and self-critical sensibility needed to overcome automatic, conditioned and self-sabotaging patterns of thought and behavior. How much easier to just issue a press release denouncing this or that policy!
Further, it takes time to overcome our own panic — concealed though it may be, under layer after layer of social conditioning useful to the reproduction of capitalism and patriarchy — and be able to, in Marx’s words, “ruthlessly critique everything existing,” including (especially) oneself. Marx spoke of the importance of working class struggles not only in achieving political victories in the larger society but on the formation of communist consciousness within the working class itself. This transformative capacity of even economic struggles (depending on how they were framed and fought) was, for Marx, paramount. For instance, as early as the The German Ideology (1845), Marx and Engels had written:
For the creation on a mass scale of communist consciousness, as well as for the success of the cause itself, it is necessary for individuals themselves to be changed on a large scale, and this change can only occur in a practical movement, in a revolution. Revolution is necessary not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because only in a revolution can the class which overthrows it rid itself of the accumulated rubbish of the past and become capable of reconstructing society.*
*Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The German Ideology. The full text, translated slightly differently, can be found in Easton and Guddat, Writings of the Young Marx on Philosophy and Society, Anchor Books, 1967, p.431, and in David McLellan, The Thought of Karl Marx, p.87. The quoted paragraph was noticeably edited out of Tucker’s Marx-Engels Reader, and also from International Publishers’ The German Ideology. Why was Marx’s crucial insight here edited out?
It takes time to learn how to participate effectively in radical movements in a non-arrogant way, and help to strengthen them. (That’s what I love about the Zapatistas, philosophically. They spent years, even decades, preparing decision-making processes that allowed them to move much more quickly later.)
It takes time to re-unite in ourselves the fragments of what capitalism has forcibly separated: the political and economic, “consumer” and “worker,” “subjective” and “objective,” what we fight for as revolutionaries in our communities and what is seen as legitimate to fight for on the job.
It takes time to develop the capacity to
the hidden assumptions of our lives and
them, as standard operating procedure.
It takes time to transform our lives so that we begin to bring about, as Che Guevara put it, a new socialist human being within all the harrowing competition and insanity of the old.
We must learn to guard that vital “Time,” protect it from intrusion by the emissaries of Truth who come to raid our collectives, recruit us or impose their undemocratic processes on us (in the name of “socialism,” no less), yet who find one reason after another to keep from committing themselves to open, collective and loving processes.
Capitalism has, in the course of its “development,” destroyed or co-opted nearly all pre-existing communities which could have served as bases for “liberated zones.” But “the Left” has been complicit in that destruction. It has considered communities of resistance and nurturance — and the time needed to pull them together — to be “luxuries”, thwarted by the next “must do now” crisis. Who will be our Tecumseh, that valiant and wise Native American organizer who, against all odds, pulled together revolutionary coalitions from widely diverse Native communities against the colonizers?
Most important, the Left in the U.S. has to keep itself from undermining the consolidation of forms they’re not in control of through which individuals can develop new ways of experiencing their lives, and consequently new relationships, which would lead to a much stronger and more vibrant revolutionary movement. To succeed, existing Left groups have to allow and even facilitate other groups developing, even when they can’t comprehend why others would want to be part of such groups and not theirs! That is why the counterculture of the 1960s, in spite of all its problems, was so important. Participants in the New Left were fighting not only for “others,” but against our own alienation and for our own liberation as well.
But throughout the ’60s and persisting to this day, Left groups continue to thwart attempts to address the psychological and social conditions through which participants could collectively empower ourselves. Instead, they exploit people’s residual guilt feelings: “You don’t deserve to fight to end your own alienation, there are others so much worse off than you. You must sacrifice yourself for them.”
This fundamentally Christian approach has marked the Left. We are run ragged around some capitalist-provided “emergency” or “demand,” one emergency after the next, quick to become a permanent condition, reinforced by guilt-trips, baiting and all sorts of pressures. Despite many worthy efforts of individual activists (I hate the word “activists.” When did we start accepting it? That demarcation separates us — the “Chosen People,” the self-selected vanguard — from the unwashed masses as though they aren’t actually “us”), many left groups employ quick-fix lines and ever-present crises to exploit and over-run our openness, democratic spirit, exploration of and engagement with complex issues. Instead of helping to build, they undermine and recruit. Their main goal is to recruit newcomers to their style of counterproductive bickering over the correct demand or line, trying to re-mold our activities in their image, around their agenda.
That’s why I, a dyed-in-the-wool radical Leftist and ecological activist, found the Feb. 19th antiwar rally in Washington D.C., called by the Libertarian Party and the barely existent People’s Party, to be such a refreshing difference. I was very glad that the national Green Party voted to endorse it, in a very close vote.
Just as imperialism squeezes every attempt at liberated space outside its home borders, so too do left parties short-circuit that space within them. This is a terrible tragedy. It prevents leftists once again from developing the ability to
questions (which is what allows us to transcend such false dualities as consumer vs. worker, economics vs. ecology, and the like),
the possibilities (so that we can experience our lives in a different way), and strengthen and link
(which would enable the Left to become a force to reckon with). All of that requires time and secure spaces in which to develop.
Participants in those spaces need that time to explore how to go about consolidating and linking
based on direct action. What threads do we weave them from? Can this even be done? What’s holding us back? Who are our friends, who are enemies? Who will be making up the generic “we” that decides any or all of this? And how will those decisions be reached?
Different choices and modes of acting are possibilized in different periods. How do we understand the transition from one period to another so that we know how to shift gears, strategize differently? Yesterday’s revolutionary demands inevitably become tomorrow’s apologia for capital. How can we tell ahead of time when we’re in a period of transition — eras that require new kinds of organization and strategy? What are the assumptions that left parties have been unable to challenge that keep them impotent — worse, embolden fascism?
And how do we keep ourselves from falling into that pit time and again?
Do our fears destroy our ability to love as well as to organize? How to we rebuild with that in mind and prioritizing the so-called “subjective” factors as well as the objective ones?
How can those seeking to change society succeed in overcoming or bypassing those fears?
Is our job really to organize ourselves around “getting out the Truth to the masses” — “consciousness raisers of the world, unite?” — or is that our need for validation talking?
We strive to subvert the corporatized ways people experience “the news,” politics, and their own lives and relationships. We clearly need to help build direct action movements and institutions through which we can collectively empower ourselves and act meaningfully, directly. But how?
Political organizations of-a-new-type are needed that begin not with the question, “How do we get the Truth out via the internet or national media,?” but, “How does revolutionary change occur and, without taking anything for granted, what (if any) is our role in helping to bring it about?”
The concept of “direct action as strategy” that I am developing here — ideologically, historically, philosophically, practically and organizationally — of course strives to win reforms in the short run; but it primarily attempts to synthesize the strategic and prefigurative politics of the earlier period. Can we develop prefigurative direct action politics as part of a conscious, organized strategy of participatory democracy and dual power more rapidly than the system can absorb it?
That is a key task before us. Only in that way can we transcend the prefigurative/strategic false duality and re-invent revolutionary socialism and feminism as freedom movements, not as yet another appeal to the authoritarian state to meet this or that demand on our behalf, which enables it to further consolidate its power over us.
This essay is excerpted from Cohen’s book, What is Direct Action: Lessons from and to Occupy Wall Street.