Towards a method of activism, pt. 1
"The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings." -- Shakespeare
The overall state of dialogue on the left is incredibly banal. It is narrow. It is ahistorical.
Our current condition comes at the tail-end of a long deterioration. At its best, left politics at the beginning of the 60s was alive and dynamic and creative. At its worst, left politics by the end of the 60s had the character of the war of all against all. The life of organizations was nasty, brutish and short. While the tide of the movement had been rising, everyone had new blood to proselytize, recruit, mobilize, even as they excoriated each other as sellouts, petit-bourgeois deviationists and running dog lackeys. Advocates of more radical action were successful, an active movement validated them -- or bailed them out as the case might be.
The movement finally crashed into the guns of Kent State and the murder of the Panther leadership. Frankly, Nixon ending the draft and promising to end Johnson's war took a lot of steam out. With the tide then receding, such fratricide turned ever more bitter, more self-destructive. Pointless. Increasingly exhausted, faced with finding jobs, the thrill gone, movement activists recognized that they were all petit-bourgeois, so calling each other petit-bourgeois deviationists became the unforgivable faux pas. Everyone calmed down and allowed their, after all, considerable gains to be consolidated by the George McGovern campaign. Electoral politics won the day.
The movement culture took root. Gains in women's equality and gay rights would continue to seep from the movement into the broader society, perhaps our greatest victories. Illusions about American exceptionalism and free enterprise were shattered. But such shattering led more to cynicism than action.
Along with a subscription to Miss Manners and electoral sophistication came a state of organizational equilibrium. It was now impolite to declare that one's own strategy was any better than someone else's. It was the height of bad taste to call some person or organization a sellout. Especially since everyone had either fallen into the dustbin of history or cut their deal with the Democratic Party, i.e., sold out. The very notion of leadership became repugnant.
I held back tears when Ted Kennedy died, but he had drawn the last gasp of the left in 1980.
Floating amidst the wreckage were issue organizations or constituency organizations (NARAL, NOW, NAACP, etc.) arrayed around the Democratic Party, affably competing for some cut of the action, minor legislative tweaks, appointments, a spot in the Democratic hierarchy. Sometimes they would array themselves in loose coalition. Never deigning to act like a leadership force.
The spectrum of debate became ever more constrained. With Democrats in power, which reforms were "realistic"? With Democrats out of power, how to get the Democrats back in power? Would asking for too much mobilize the base, or would it ensure their defeat? Eternally unresolved as the frogs boiled.
For the wild-eyed radicals who also spring up eternal, the debate centered on the preferred mode of abstention. Third party? Not voting at all? Voting while holding one's nose? Didn't matter.
This did not happen in a vacuum. The economic deterioration since the 70s has left little economic basis for the wild hopes of the 60s. The left has not come to terms with the fact that we live in a dying empire, and that economic decision-making does not necessarily reside within U.S. borders. The collapse of the Soviet Union left the U.S. crowing about its lone superpower status. Peak Oil and Global Warming threaten eternal Middle Eastern war with a Fortress America going down like the Alamo, but are treated with the distant, abstract seriousness one would apply to a great comet someday striking the earth.
The system is extraordinarily sensitive. With the constraints on TV footage from Iraq, banning photographs of the coffins being flown home, the unemployment extensions being voted for by Republicans, the powers-that-be are psychotically nervous about any protest. They understand the fragility of the system. The left remains awe-struck by the imperial facade.
As a global economy and the internet create possibilities for both global community and global solutions, the discussion becomes narrower yet. There is no real sense of internationalism. Maybe it's that Osama Bin Laden isn't quite the poster boy that the dashing Che Guevara was. Maybe it's that these damn foreigners are stealing our jobs, an offense worse than communism. The right frames the terms of debate.
We both fear and mock the Republicans as we whistle past the graveyard. The crash and burn madness of bipartisanship is noted, and we know the teabaggers are obviously demented. Obviously? Or maybe demented like foxes. Suppose calamity struck the U.S. Oil supply damaged. A terrorist attack provokes insane reaction. The electrical grid has a prolonged breakdown. Maybe? How about the inexorable growth of the Russian, Indian and Chinese economies (which are based on manufacturing), while the U.S. economy floats on more and more paper? And the day the Chinese call in their paper.
Why do powerful leaders need the economically deranged wars in the Middle East? Maybe someone in high places is thinking that it might be good to have a lot of troops stationed within striking distance of the oil fields when the Chinese and Indians outbid the U.S. for oil supplies.
At some level we are well aware of these dangers. (See the ending of 3 Days of the Condor, 1975.) We've all read 1984 (how quaint it now seems). But we dare not speak of them above a whisper, lest we be hauled off drugged to the rubber rooms and our tinfoil hats surgically removed.
Perhaps the corporate care and feeding of the teabaggers isn't just some clownshow? Maybe an organized base of storm troopers might be useful when the shit hits the fan. Serious discussion of such matters is not allowed outside the fringe.
It is time to take a long, hard look at HOW we think. We are responding to events as kabuki players, but HOW are we responding? Demonstrations? A dead ritual of bus-ride logistics. Calling our congresspersons? Their accountants have calculated our outrage and declared it an acceptable cost of doing business. And business is indeed what they are doing.
I was provoked to write this because someone recently challenged one of my assumptions. I had been decrying, along with everyone else, our lack of organizations. In the 60s we had all these organizations, yadda, yadda. And then NightProwlKitty reminded me of the massive Latino demonstrations that filled the streets and emptied the schools and offices and shops to protest Bush's proposed immigration bill. That was organization. That was boots on the ground. Lots of them. And got there real quick. It was very effective.
In fact, there are organizations with zillions of members, Move-On, AFL-CIO, etc. The typical progressive exhortation goes something like "get out there, volunteer, work on local campaigns, knock on doors, do phone banks." Sounds sort of militant at a casual glance. But in a moribund political system, all such MINDLESS ACTIVISM (yeah, that's harsh!) gets plugged into keeping that moribund system on life support and nothing more. We need new directions. More of the same won't suffice. Organization, yes, but different organization. The demonstrations that preceded Bush's invasion of Iraq were massive and fast. Unprecedented. The lack of impact, the lack of follow-up, make them perhaps the most pathetic demonstrations ever held. Why? There was no shared vision of a future society, there was no shared sense of world development, there was no strategy they could be part of. There was nothing to carry them past the moment.
That such massive numbers in the street could be gone like the snows of yesteryear shows that how we think, how we understand, is not just an abstract matter. It demands that we take a long, hard look at how we once THOUGHT. So return with us now to those thrilling days of yesteryear ...
when the Left was a real force.
From the Port Huron Statement, formulated by SDS in 1962:
Perhaps matured by the past, we have no formulas, no closed theories--but that does not mean values are beyond discussion and tentative determination. A first task of any social movement is to convince people that the search for orienting theories and the creation of human values is complex but worthwhile. We are aware that to avoid platitudes we must analyze the concrete conditions of social order. But to direct such an analysis we must use the guideposts of basic principles. Our own social values involve conceptions of human beings, human relationships, and social systems.
Seen by few when it was written, it echoed and re-echoed throughout the decade, and if we listen hard enough, we might even hear its whisper now.
We weren't better people then. We simply had different opportunities, and different illusions.
I want to take a very schematic look at the 60s. I may do cruel things to timelines. I make no pretense of this being an "accurate historical account" by scholarly standards, and I don't want to quarrel on that level. Threads of activity began early but changed and deepened and intertwined as events progressed. There are many books written on this and many yet to be written. I have read some of them. But here I compress and simplify. This piece looks at the time and the events through our own not always sharp eyes as we politically developed, focusing on certain threads, ignoring others, to describe the forces that shaped us, Brecht's "dark times that brought us forth," giving priority to leadership over the mass that was both swept along and propelled us forward. Moments of shock, breakthroughs, their emotional impacts and their political consequences. Our illusions. How we were confused, how we were brave, how we were demoralized. How we were broken.
World War II was fresh in our consciousness. We had saved the world from Hitler, had liberated the concentration camps, had gotten the sneaky French and the stuffy British to shed their empires. JFK was dead, but Camelot lived, "what you can do for your country" was embodied in programs like the Peace Corps, young Americans dedicated years of their lives to help third world villagers dig wells and learn to read. The First Wave.
Despite ups and downs of the business cycle, the economy was strong. The U.S. had snatched up the empires of the sneaky French and the stuffy British, finding that buying dictators was more efficient than direct colonial rule. Lyndon Johnson was perfecting democracy, completing FDR's welfare state. The moon, quite literally, was the limit. It seemed like anything was possible, Well hell, anything WAS possible. Above all, we believed in America in a way that's hard to imagine today. We believed in a way that puts the football cheerleading of the teabagger minions to shame. Were there flaws? Certainly. But as Americans, we recognized them and worked to fix them.
But all was not rosy. There was the Soviet Union. Revise the previous paragraph. Anything was possible if we didn't all die in nuclear fire from the thousands of missiles pointed at each other, each missile able to extinguish all life in a city of millions. Thus a world of endless possibilities poised on the hair-trigger of total immolation.
Ideology mattered. We believed in democracy, or thought we did. We understood communism, or thought we did. Sociology was popular in the schools, society a worthy subject. The point here isn't how well we believed, but that we thought at all in terms of social systems. Lofty stuff.
Then poverty was discovered in America. Don't laugh that I say "discovered." Poverty was wrong, had to be fixed. Extend LBJ's Great Society to every corner. Segregation? Fundamentally un-American, it embarrassed us in the eyes of the world. Especially when competing with the Soviet Union.
Alienation mattered. Spirit, soul, meaning. These were political issues.
From the Port Huron Statement:
We are people of this generation, bred in at least modest comfort, housed now in universities, looking uncomfortably to the world we inherit ... Some would have us believe that Americans feel contentment amidst prosperity--but might it not better be called a glaze above deeply felt anxieties about their role in the new world? ...
Loneliness, estrangement, isolation describe the vast distance between man and man today. These dominant tendencies cannot be overcome by better personnel management, nor by improved gadgets ...
As a social system we seek the establishment of a democracy of individual participation, governed by two central aims: that the individual share in those social decisions determining the quality and direction of his life; that society be organized to encourage independence in men and provide the media for their common participation.
The civil rights movement evoked the best and worst of America, the horrors of Jim Crow, the Black resistance coming out of the Black churches. the emergence of Black Power a la Malcolm X in the north. And the young whites getting on buses to head south where they would fight and sometimes die alongside their Black brothers and sisters. The Second Wave.
Then students at the northern colleges and universities moved, not only against general imperfections of society, but against their own oppression, a very different consciousness than crusading for the rights of others. Basic rights of free speech repressed. The moral and intellectual deadness of academia. Sexual repression. In loco parentis (university as parent). Student power, we called it. The Cold War was an abomination, not just an aberration, maybe just maybe endemic to the system.
The civil rights movement acted as the driving engine. It showed the possibilities of protest, non-violent tactics. It inspired. It fed veteran activists back into the universities, mixing in with student anger, youthful arrogance, youthful ideals. The Third Wave.
The War in Vietnam went big-time in 1965, more troops were needed to kill the commies, the draft becomes a clear and present danger. It wasn't simply whether you wanted to go after the system -- the system was going after you. Anger turned to rage. Maybe the Vietnamese weren't the villains? The Fourth Wave.
1967. Summer of Love. Summer of Detroit. If you're going to San Francisco, be sure to wear some flowers in your hair. If you're going to Detroit, burn baby burn! Dropping out of the system became seen as an option. And an illusion. Consciousness via drugs and meditation could be raised. And city after city burned. One-by-one, bodycount-by-bodycount. America was really at war. An odd phenomenon confronted the peace movement. The better the NVA and the Viet Cong did on the battlefield, the stronger was the position of the peace movement. The waves all begin merging into each other. I stop counting.
1968. TET! Vietnamese kick American ass. Johnson announces he won't run for re-election. America could be beaten. Johnson was beaten. There. Here? Black Panthers. SDS. Martin Luther King shot. More cities burn. France in general strike! Democratic convention, the whole world is watching. American dead in Vietnam approach their total of 55,000, the troop count over a half million. Revolution was in the wind. Everything that had made sense in 1963 was in turmoil, "When the truth is found to be lies, and all the joy within you dies" (Airplane). It was clear that there was a wave of movement sweeping the world, this was not just a U.S. matter. To us, the French student strikes were a joyous surprise. Whatever we felt our own power to be in the U.S., things were tumbling out of control. Who knew what new sector might kick in?
1969 and beyond. SDS and the Panthers make their move, just as everything crested. The Panthers were murdered by the police. SDS was torn apart in factional warfare. The Weathermen were forced into underground invisibility, the orthodox commies got their degrees and went bowling with factory workers, and the Maoists were swallowed up by the assembly lines on their long march to become trade union officials just as other radical leaders became good Democrats running for local office.
All this was wrenching. Year-by-year, each new class coming into the university was scruffier, angrier, their first question often "where's the protest?" The empire was revealed. Limitless possibilities existed side-by-side with vicious destruction, not in the conceptual brilliance of Port Huron 1962, but in the long hair and bell-bottoms and drugs and free sex and broken heads and jails and the smoking ruins at the heart of American cities. Participatory democracy had been a great framework to conceptualize people mobilizing against their own institutions. But now the question was power.