Disequilibrium has created the conditions for a profound ideological 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 geopolitical 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.
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 two to three 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 in order 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 principal “contradiction” – as we are fond of saying – in the world 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 be hard to dismiss both the centrality of the military as a state institution in the post-9/11 period or the deep 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 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 be in some instances serve in a particularly powerful role in strengthening the anti-imperial pole of that movement.
But as a socialist, 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 ideas, and then directly for political power, beginning with a campaign to bring down the Democratic Party from the left.
The delegitimation of this administration, while absolutely essential, cannot become an end in itself. We have to be prepared to take advantage of that sense of dislocation to foreground new connections. 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 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; the point is a purely demagogic one. “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.
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 will quickly become worthless. What do we tell the people then?
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 it has 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 decayed 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 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 socialist public education effort might be (in alphabetical order):
- Domestic violence
- 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 warfare.
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 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 by domestic partners. Any public education event about this issue will be well attended.
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 socialists 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.
Rather than generalizing about marriage as a bourgeois institution, we need to come to terms with the actual complexity of this evolving institution. 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 not 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.
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 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 Panopticon measures being deployed against Southwest Asian immigrants, particularly Arabs and Muslims. 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 over 85% of US wage-labor 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 unorganized workers in both its analysis and its activism. This, again, includes women, who have been ignored by the left, subsumed and dismissed within the “working family.” Moreover, the inherent 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 proletariat.
African Americans, indigenous First Nations, and Chicanos can now, more than ever, see the peculiar forms of national oppression directed at them inside the United States directly reflected in the relation of the US dominant class toward nations around the world, 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 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.
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 Iraq in a war it cannot seem to escape yet cannot win, and with the region having become a focus 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 wholehearted participation in anti-war mass mobilizations by African Americans, Hispano-Latinas, and First Nations, the Bush administration has presented us with a far more immediate and effective connection between Baghdad and the internal colonies of the US – prisons. There is hardly a Black or Brown family in America that hasn’t been directly affected by the incarceration apparatus of the US White State. Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo draw a far more effective link between external and internal colonization than does 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, 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 of 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.
On women’s structural oppression, I strongly recommend four books: Joy James & T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, eds., The Black Feminist Reader; Maria Mies, Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale; Nancy C.M. Hartsock, Money, Sex, and Power: Toward a Feminist Historical Materialism; and Rosemary Hennessy, Profit and Pleasure: Sexual Identities in Late Capitalism
On the links between environmental justice, the capitalist world system, and energy depletion, see Alf Hornborg The Power of the Machine: Global Inequalities of Economy, Technology, and Environment.
See Nancy Cott’s superlative history of marriage, Public Vows.