Resistance to the Olympics coming to Chicago
Platypus Review 15 | September 2009
NO GAMES CHICAGO WAS FOUNDED in the summer of 2008 when the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced that Chicago was among the bid cities for the 2016 Summer Olympic Games. The group’s aim is to prevent Chicago from hosting the games—nothing more, nothing less. The reason for this opposition is No Games Chicago’s claim that, if Chicago wins the bid to host the Olympics, the city’s working class would bear the bulk of the costs. They substantiate their claim by pointing to the experience of previous host cities, the lack of transparency in the decision process within Mayor Richard Daley’s Chicago Bid Committee, and economic statistics that show Chicago is already too financially strained to host the games.
Certainly, No Games Chicago is right to highlight the experience of other host cities, as previous Olympic bids have been rife with administrative duplicity, including back-room deals, frivolous spending, and financial maneuvers that favor big businesses at the public’s expense. It is evident from recent Olympics history that the Games tend to bring more problems than benefits to host cities. Nor is there any particular reason to imagine, as No Games Chicago rightly insists, that the 2016 Olympics in Chicago will be any different from the past and current experience of other host cities. As the world is now experiencing a financial crisis, No Games Chicago argues that it is even more imperative for the city of Chicago to be careful with how money is spent. Additionally, they emphasize that Mayor Richard Daley’s fiscal irresponsibility, legacy of corruption, and lack of concern for public welfare would only be amplified if the Games were to be hosted through his office. The Olympics would most likely lose—not raise—revenue for the host city, though many of Mayor Daley’s crony contractors would make a killing before the spending bonanza ended.
It is true that Chicago’s ability to finance and support the Olympics without overburdening taxpayers is highly suspect, as is the political capacity of Chicago’s democracy to oppose hosting the games. Before recently reversing on the issue, City Alderman Manny Flores raised public skepticism regarding Chicago’s ability to host the 2016 Games in a manner commensurate with the city’s other needs. Flores’s call for greater transparency and a cap on total city spending for the games echo, and were almost certainly influenced by No Games Chicago, which has retained its stance of “unconditional resistance” to the Olympics Games being held in Chicago, despite Flores’s change of heart.
But if No Games Chicago is truly not against the Olympic Games per se, as they claim, is it not misguided to center the attack on the Olympics rather than the conditions that create the problems experienced by host cities? Do they not risk addressing the symptom while doing nothing to eliminate the disease? As it is, if the Olympics are stopped from coming to Chicago through the actions of No Games Chicago—and they will likely claim responsibility if Chicago does not receive the bid, whatever the reasons—this cannot be counted as a total victory. The absence of the Olympics in Chicago will only burden another city with the same problems that Chicago avoided, while doing little to make the broader changes necessary to ensure these problems do not arise in the future. Where is a vision of how Chicago—or any other city—could host the 2016 Games without adversely effecting the working class? It is worrisome that because of its self-limitations No Games Chicago will likely have little impact on the larger, long-term fight in Chicago for greater political and social freedom, because No Games Chicago never squarely addresses this greater fight.
The socioeconomic problems that coincide with hosting the Olympics are felt across the globe in every city. Yet, there seems to be no real solidarity between No Games Chicago and similar movements elsewhere, leaving Chicagoans to fight for themselves. Indeed, it remains unclear to what extent there exists any real desire to extend support to other cities. Rather, the consensus position seems to be simply negationist.
Granted, in part, No Games Chicago can only take on the tasks of organizing and protesting as fast as the other cities move and organize themselves. But there is no development of a coherent language in No Games Chicago beyond the local self-interest of keeping the Olympic Games out of Chicago. It is troublesome to hear Tom Tresser, one of the chief organizer’s of the group, say on Chicago Tonight, a local television news show, “We [No Games Chicago] say take the games somewhere else,” and to read Ben Joravsky ask the IOC, in an open letter published in Chicago Reader, to “please do us all a favor: Give the games to Rio. Or Madrid. Or Tokyo. Send them anywhere but here.” The concern over the social problems caused by the Olympic Games does not seem to extend beyond Chicago.
It is ironic that the prospect of the Olympics coming to Chicago—a series of games meant to bring about an international, shared experience of athleticism to the world’s citizens—has sparked such an insular protest politics. Throughout their public statements, protest actions, and outreach to other Chicago-based political and community groups, No Games Chicago’s chief concern has been to raise awareness of all the things that are wrong with Chicago. But, after demanding “better hospitals, housing, schools, and trains” instead of the Olympics, there has been little attempt to actually address the root causes of these problems, much less to begin considering how they might be overcome. Without any vision for the future of how Chicago could become a city that can and should host colossal international events, No Games Chicago will likely remain a venue for angry complaints with little ability to move beyond Chicago or to make positive change after this single issue is settled, one way or the other. In order to fulfill its goals, No Games Chicago would have to change its goals. It would have to substantially redirect its operations and rhetoric towards future goals beyond simply halting the 2016 Summer Olympics bid. Otherwise, it will continue to remain a fixture of protest culture with no positive program beyond riling up local citizens to achieve a hollow sense of empowerment. At best, it will successfully deflect misfortune away from Chicago to another city.
The lack of ambition to be found in No Games Chicago has become an altogether usual problem for movements that consider themselves “progressive.” Far too often, activists concentrate on the moment of “resistance,” as if this will automatically help change things for the better. Solely resisting political maneuvers in the system cannot substitute for an alternative programmatic view for the future, which is where the real struggle for change begins. Resistance—or protest—as an end in itself typifies the helplessness and powerlessness of so-called activists in our time. Although movements like No Games Chicago maintain a sense of urgency for the necessity of social and political change, the lack of vision in how to organize themselves towards these overarching goals means that their resistance can never make the leap into emancipation. In effect, No Games Chicago, like other single-issue protest groups, ends up mirroring the activities of the Olympics: The act of protesting turns into a sport that has little to no bearing outside the immediate outcome of the game. If there is a true will to overcome this demoralized state, protest groups must envision their actions as a means to organize toward goals that go beyond mere resistance. |P
. For all the evidence No Games Chicago has compiled, see <nogameschicago.com>. For a better organized and supposedly more objective approach to the issue, see London’s Games Monitor at <gamesmonitor.org.uk>.
. For an account of Flores’s original opposition, see <nogames.wordpress.com/2009/08/02/alderman/#more-1131>. About his recent change in position, see Ben Joravsky, “Who’ll Be the Bad Guy Now? Manny Flores Backs Away from the Cap he Proposed on Public Funding for the Olympics,” Chicago Reader, August 12, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/wholl-be-the-bad-guy-now/Content?oid=1176781>.
. Ben Joravsky, “An Open Letter to the IOC,” Chicago Reader, April 2, 2009, <chicagoreader.com/chicago/an-open-letter-to-the-ioc/Content?oid=1098601>.
Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
Much is to be gained by viewing the contemporary crisis as a surface eruption generated out of deep tectonic shifts in the spatio-temporal disposition of capitalist development. The tectonic plates are now accelerating their motion and the likelihood of more frequent and more violent crises of the sort that have been occurring since 1980 or so will almost certainly increase. The manner, form, spatiality and time of these surface disruptions are almost impossible to predict, but that they will occur with greater frequency and depth is almost certain. The events of 2008 have therefore to be situated in the context of a deeper pattern. Since these stresses are internal to the capitalist dynamic (which does not preclude some seemingly external disruptive event like a catastrophic pandemic also occurring), then what better argument could there be, as Marx once put it, "for capitalism to be gone and to make way for some alternative and more rational mode of production."
I begin with this conclusion since I still find it vital to emphasize if not dramatize, as I have sought to do over and over again in my writings over the years, that failure to understand the geographical dynamics of capitalism or to treat the geographical dimension as in some sense merely contingent or epiphenomenal, is to both lose the plot on how to understand capitalist uneven geographical development and to miss out on possibilities for constructing radical alternatives. But this poses an acute difficulty for analysis since we are constantly faced with trying to distill universal principles regarding the role of the production of spaces, places and environments in capitalism's dynamics, out of a sea of often volatile geographical particularities. So how, then, can we integrate geographical understandings into our theories of evolutionary change? Let us look more carefully at the tectonic shifts.
In November 2008, shortly after the election of a new President, the National Intelligence Council of the United States issued its Delphic estimates on what the world would be like in 2025. Perhaps for the first time, a quasi-official body in the United States predicted that by 2025 the United States, while still a powerful if not the most powerful single player in world affairs, would no longer be dominant. The world would be multi-polar and less centered and the power of non-state actors would increase. The report conceded that U.S. hegemony had been fading on and off for some time but that its economic, political and even military dominance was now systematically waning. Above all (and it is important to note that the report was prepared before the implosion of the U.S. and British financial systems), "the unprecedented shift in relative wealth and economic power roughly from West to East now under way will continue."
This "unprecedented shift" has reversed the long-standing drain of wealth from East, Southeast and South Asia to Europe and North America that had been occurring since the eighteenth century (a drain that even Adam Smith had noted with regret in The Wealth of Nations but which accelerated relentlessly throughout the nineteenth century). The rise of Japan in the 1960s followed by South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong in the 1970s and then the rapid growth of China after 1980 later accompanied by industrialization spurts in Indonesia, India, Vietnam, Thailand and Malaysia during the 1990s, has altered the center of gravity of capitalist development, although it has not done so smoothly (the East and South-East Asian financial crisis of 1997-8 saw wealth flow briefly but strongly back toward Wall Street and the European and Japanese banks). Economic hegemony seems to be moving toward some constellation of powers in East Asia and if crises, as we earlier argued, are moments of radical reconfigurations in capitalist development, then the fact that the United States is having to deficit finance its way out of its financial difficulties on such a huge scale and that the deficits are largely being covered by those countries with saved surpluses - Japan, China, South Korea, Taiwan and the Gulf states - suggests this may be the moment for such a shift to be consolidated.
Shifts of this sort have occurred before in the long history of capitalism. In Giovanni Arrighi's thorough account in The Long Twentieth Century, we see hegemony shifting from the city states of Genoa and Venice in the sixteenth century to Amsterdam and the Low Countries in the seventeenth before concentrating in Britain from the late eighteenth century until the United States eventually took control after 1945. There are a number of features to these transitions that Arrighi emphasizes and which are relevant to our analysis. Each shift, Arrighi notes, occurred in the wake of a strong phase of financialization (he cites with approval Braudel's maxim that financialization announces the autumn of some hegemonic configuration). But each shift also entailed a radical change of scale, from the small city states at the origin to the continent-wide economy of the United States in the latter half of the twentieth century. This change of scale makes sense given the capitalist rule of endless accumulation and compound growth of at least three per cent for ever. But hegemonic shifts, Arrighi argues, are not determined in advance. They depend upon the emergence of some power economically able and politically and militarily willing to take on the role of global hegemon (with its costs as well as its advantages). The reluctance of the United States to assume that role before World War II meant an interregnum of multi-polar tensions that could not halt the drift into war (Britain was no longer in a position to assert its prior hegemonic role). Much also depends on how the past hegemon behaves as it faces up to the diminution of its former role. It can pass peaceably or belligerently into history. From this perspective the fact that the United States still holds overwhelming military power (particularly from 30,000 feet up) in a context of its declining economic and financial power and increasingly shaky cultural and moral authority, creates worrying scenarios for any future transition. Furthermore, it is not obvious that the main candidate to displace the United States, China, has the capacity or the will to assert some hegemonic role, for while its population is certainly huge enough to meet the requirements of changing scale, neither its economy nor its political authority (or even its political will) point to any easy accession to the role of global hegemon. Given the nationalist divisions that exist, the idea that some association of East Asian Powers might do the job also appears unlikely as does the possibility for a fragmented and fractious European Union or the so-called BRIC powers (Brazil, Russia, India and China) to stay on a common path for long. For this reason, the prediction that we are headed into another interregnum of multi-polar and conflictual interests and potential global instability appears plausible.
But the tectonic shift away from United States dominance and hegemony that has been under way for some time is becoming much clearer. The thesis of both excessive financialization and "debt as a principal predictor of leading world powers' debilitation" has found popular voice in the writings of Kevin Phillips. Attempts now under way to re-build U.S. dominance through reforms in the architecture of both the national and the global state-finance nexus appear not to be working while the exclusions imposed on much of the rest of the world in seeking to re-shape that architecture are almost certain to provoke strong oppositions if not overt economic conflicts.
But tectonic shifts of this sort do not come about as if by magic. While the historical geography of a shifting hegemony as Arrighi describes it has a clear pattern and while it is also clear from the historical record that periods of financialization precede such shifts, Arrighi does not provide any deep analysis of the processes that produce such shifts in the first place. To be sure, he cites "endless accumulation" and therefore the growth syndrome (the three per cent compound growth rule) as critical to explaining the shifts. This implies that hegemony moves from smaller (i.e. Venice) to larger (e.g. the United States) political entities over time. And it also stands to reason that hegemony has to lie with that political entity within which much of the surplus is produced (or to which much of the surplus flows in the form of tribute or imperialist extractions). With total global output standing at $45-trillion as of 2005, the U.S. share of $15-trillion made it, as it were, the dominant and controlling share-holder in global capitalism able to dictate (as it typically does in its role as the chief shareholder in the international institutions such as the World Bank and the IMF) global policies. The NCIS report in part based its prediction on loss of dominance but maintenance of a strong position on the falling share of global output in the U.S. relative to the rest of the world in general and China in particular.
But as Arrighi points out, the politics of such a shift are by no means certain. The United States bid for global hegemony under Woodrow Wilson during and immediately after World War I was thwarted by a domestic political preference in the United State for isolationism (hence the collapse of the League of Nations) and it was only after World War II (which the U.S. population was against entering until Pearl Harbor occurred) that the U.S. embraced its role as global hegemon through a bi-partisan foreign policy anchored by the Bretton Woods Agreements on how the post-War international order would be organized (in the face of the Cold War and the spreading threat to capitalism of international communism). That the United States had long been developing into a state that in principle could play the role of global hegemon is evident from relatively early days. It possessed relevant doctrines, such as "Manifest Destiny" (continental wide geographical expansion which eventually spilled over into the Pacific and Caribbean before going global without territorial acquisitions) or the Monroe Doctrine which warned European Powers to leave the Americas alone (the doctrine was actually formulated by the British Foreign Secretary Canning in the 1820s but adopted by the U.S. as its own almost immediately). The United States possessed the necessary dynamism to account for a growing share of global output and was quintessentially committed to some version of what can best be called "cornered market" or "monopoly" capitalism backed by an ideology of rugged individualism. So there is a sense in which the U.S. was, throughout much of its history, preparing itself to take on the role of global hegemon. The only surprise was that it took so long to do so and that it was the Second rather than the First World War that led it finally to take up the role leaving the inter-war years as years of multipolarity and chaotic competing imperial ambitions of the sort that the NCIS report fears will be the situation in 2025.
The tectonic shifts now under way are deeply influenced, however, by the radical geographical unevenness in the economic and political possibilities of responding to the current crisis. Let me illustrate how this unevenness is now working by way of a tangible example. As the depression that began in 2007 deepened, the argument was made by many that a full-fledged Keynesian solution was required to extract global capitalism from the mess it was in. To this end various stimulus packages and bank stabilization measures were proposed and to some degree taken up in different countries in different ways in the hope that these would resolve the difficulties. The variety of solutions on offer varied immensely depending upon the economic circumstances and the prevailing forms of political opinion (pitting, for example, Germany against Britain and France in the European Union). Consider, however, the different economic political possibilities in the United States and China and the potential consequences for both shifting hegemony and for the manner in which the crisis might be resolved.
In the United States, any attempt to find an adequate Keynesian solution has been doomed at the start by a number of economic and political barriers that are almost impossible to overcome. A Keynesian solution would require massive and prolonged deficit financing if it were to succeed. It has been correctly argued that Roosevelt's attempt to return to a balanced budget in 1937-8 plunged the United States back into depression and that it was, therefore, World War II that saved the situation and not Roosevelt's too timid approach to deficit financing in the New Deal. So even if the institutional reforms as well as the push toward a more egalitarian policy did lay the foundations for the Post World War II recovery, the New Deal in itself actually failed to resolve the crisis in the United States.
The problem for the United States in 2008-9 is that it starts from a position of chronic indebtedness to the rest of the world (it has been borrowing at the rate of more than $2-billion a day over the last ten years or more) and this poses an economic limitation upon the size of the extra deficit that can now be incurred. (This was not a serious problem for Roosevelt who began with a roughly balanced budget). There is also a geo-political limitation since the funding of any extra deficit is contingent upon the willingness of other powers (principally from East Asia and the Gulf States) to lend. On both counts, the economic stimulus available to the United States will almost certainly be neither large enough nor sustained enough to be up to the task of reflating the economy. This problem is exacerbated by ideological reluctance on the part of both political parties to embrace the huge amounts of deficit spending that will be required, ironically in part because the previous Republican administration worked on Dick Cheney's principle that "Reagan taught us that deficits don't matter." As Paul Krugman, the leading public advocate for a Keynesian solution, for one has argued, the $800-billion reluctantly voted on by Congress in 2009, while better than nothing, is nowhere near enough. It may take something of the order to $2-trillion to do the job and that is indeed excessive debt relative to where the U.S. deficit now stands. The only possible economic option, would be to replace the weak Keynesianism of excessive military expenditures by the much stronger Keynesianism of social programs. Cutting the U.S. defense budget in half (bringing it more in line with that of Europe in relation to proportion of GDP) might technically help but it would be, of course, political suicide, given the posture of the Republican Party as well as many Democrats, for anyone who proposed it.
The second barrier is more purely political. In order to work, the stimulus has to be administered in such a way as to guarantee that it will be spent on goods and services and so get the economy humming again. This means that any relief must be directed to those who will spend it, which means the lower classes, since even the middle classes, if they spend it at all, are more likely to spend it on bidding up asset values (buying up foreclosed houses, for example), rather than increasing their purchases of goods and services. In any case, when times are bad many people will tend to use any extra income they receive to retire debt or to save (as largely happened with the $600 rebate designed by the Bush Administration in the early summer of 2008).
What appears prudent and rational from the standpoint of the household bodes ill for the economy at large (in much the same way that the banks have rationally taken public money and either hoarded it or used it to buy assets rather than to lend). The prevailing hostility in the United States to "spreading the wealth around" and to administering any sort of relief other than tax cuts to individuals, arises out of hard core neoliberal ideological doctrine (centered in but by no means confined to the Republican Party) that "households know best." These doctrines have broadly been accepted as gospel by the American public at large after more than thirty years of neoliberal political indoctrination. We are, as I have argued elsewhere, "all neoliberals now" for the most part without even knowing it. There is a tacit acceptance, for example, that "wage repression" - a key component to the present problem - is a "normal" state of affairs in the United States. One of the three legs of a Keynesian solution, greater empowerment of labour, rising wages and redistribution toward the lower classes is politically impossible in the United States at this point in time. The very charge that some such program amounts to "socialism" sends shivers of terror through the political establishment. Labour is not strong enough (after thirty years of being battered by political forces) and no broad social movement is in sight that will force redistributions toward the working classes.
One other way to achieve Keynesian goals, is to provide collective goods. This has traditionally entailed investments in both physical and social infrastructures (the WPA programs of the 1930s is a forerunner). Hence the attempt to insert into the stimulus package programs to rebuild and extend physical infrastructures for transport and communications, power and other public works along with increasing expenditures on health care, education, municipal services, and the like. These collective goods do have the potential to generate multipliers for employment as well as for the effective demand for further goods and services. But the presumption is that these collective goods are, at some point, going to belong to the category of "productive state expenditures" (i.e. stimulate further growth) rather than become a series of public "white elephants" which, as Keynes long ago remarked, amounted to nothing more than putting people to work digging ditches and filling them in again. In other words, an infrastructural investment strategy has to be targeted toward systematic revival of three percent growth through, for example, systematic redesign of our urban infrastructures and ways of life. This will not work without sophisticated state planning plus an existing productive base that can take advantage of the new infrastructural configurations. Here, too, the long prior history of deindustrialization in the United States and the intense ideological opposition to state planning (elements of which were incorporated into Roosevelt's New Deal and which continued into the 1960s only to be abandoned in the face of the neoliberal assault upon that particular exercise of state power in the 1980s) and the obvious preference for tax cuts rather than infrastructural transformations makes the pursuit of a full-fledged Keynesian solution all but impossible in the United States.
In China, on the other hand, both the economic and political conditions exist where a full-fledged Keynesian solution would indeed be possible and where there are abundant signs that this path will likely be followed. To begin with, China has a vast reservoir of foreign cash surplus and it is easier to debt finance on that basis than it is with a vast already existing debt overhang as is the case in the United States. It is also worth noting that ever since the mid 1990s the "toxic assets" (the non performing loans) of the Chinese Banks (some estimates put them as high as 40 per cent of all loans in 2000) have been wiped off the banks' books by occasional infusions of surplus cash from the foreign exchange reserves. The Chinese have had a long-running equivalent of the TARP program in the United States and evidently know how to do it (even if many of the transactions are tainted by corruption). The Chinese have the economic wherewithal to engage in a massive deficit-finance program and have a centralized state-financial architecture to administer that program effectively if they care to use it. The banks, which were long state owned, may have been nominally privatized to satisfy WTO requirements and to lure in foreign capital and expertise, but they can still easily be bent to central state will whereas in the United States even the vaguest hint of state direction let alone nationalization creates a political furor.
There is likewise absolutely no ideological barrier to redistributing economic largesse to the neediest sectors of society though there may be some vested interests of wealthier party members and an emergent capitalist class to be overcome. The charge that this would amount to "socialism" or even worse to "communism" would simply be greeted with amusement in China. But in China the emergence of mass unemployment (at last report there were thought to be some 20-million unemployed as a result of the slow-down) and signs of widespread and rapidly escalating social unrest will almost certainly push the Communist Party to massive redistributions whether they are ideologically concerned to do so or not. As of early 2009, this seemed to be directed in the first instance to revitalizing the lagging rural areas to which many unemployed migrant workers have returned in frustration at the loss of jobs in manufacturing areas. In these regions where both social and physical infrastructures are lagging, a strong infusion of central government support will raise incomes, expand effective demand and begin upon the long process of consolidation of China's internal market.
There is, secondly, a strong predilection to undertake the massive infrastructural investments that are still lagging in China (whereas tax reductions have almost no political appeal). While some of these may turn into "white elephants" the likelihood is far less since there is still an immense amount of work to be done to integrate the Chinese national space and so to confront the problem of uneven geographical development between the coastal regions of high development and the impoverished interior provinces. The existence of an extensive though troubled industrial and manufacturing base in need of spatial rationalization, makes it more likely that the Chinese effort will fall into the category of productive state expenditures. For the Chinese, much of the surplus can be mopped up in the further production of space, even allowing for the fact that speculation in urban property markets in cities like Shanghai, as in the United States, is part of the problem and cannot therefore be part of the solution. Infrastructural expenditures, provided they are on a sufficiently large scale, will go a long way to both mopping up surplus labour and so reducing the possibility of social unrest, and again boosting the internal market.
These completely different opportunities to pursue a full-fledged Keynesian solution as represented by the contrast between the United States and China have profound international implications. If China uses more of its financial reserves to boost its internal market, as it is almost certainly bound to do for political reasons, so it will have less left over to lend to the United States. Reduced purchases of U.S. Treasury Bills will eventually force higher interest rates and impact U.S. internal demand negatively and, unless managed carefully, could trigger the one thing that everyone fears but which has so far been staved off: a run on the dollar. A gradual move away from reliance on U.S. markets and the substitution of the internal market in China as a source of effective demand for Chinese industry will alter power balances significantly (and, by the way, be stressful for both the Chinese and the United States). The Chinese currency will necessarily rise against the dollar (a move that the U.S. authorities have long sought but secretly feared) thus forcing the Chinese to rely even more on their internal market for aggregate demand. The dynamism that will result within China (as opposed to the prolonged recession conditions that will prevail in the United States) will draw more and more global suppliers of raw materials into the Chinese trade orbit and lessen the relative significance of the United States in international trade. The overall effect will be to accelerate the drift of wealth from West to East in the global economy and rapidly alter the balance of hegemonic economic power. The tectonic movement in the balance of global capitalist power will intensify with all manner of unpredictable political and economic ramifications in a world where the United States will no longer be in a dominant position even as it possesses significant power. The supreme irony, of course, is that the political and ideological barriers in the United States to any full-fledged Keynesian program will almost certainly hasten loss of U.S. dominance in global affairs even as the elites of the world (including those in China) would wish to preserve that dominance for as long as possible.
Whether or not true Keynesianism in China (along with some other states in a similar position) will be sufficient to compensate for the inevitable failure of reluctant Keynesianism in the West is an open question, but the unevenness coupled with fading U.S. hegemony may well be the precursor to a break up of the global economy into regional hegemonic structures which could just as easily fiercely compete with each other as collaborate on the miserable question of who is to bear the brunt of long-lasting depression. That is not a heartening thought but then thinking of such a prospect might just awaken much of the West to the urgency of the task before it and get political leaders to stop preaching banalities about restoring trust and confidence and get down to doing what has to be done to rescue capitalism from the capitalists and their false neoliberal ideology. And if that means socialism, nationalizations, strong state direction, binding international collaborations, and a new and far more inclusive (dare I say "democratic") international financial architecture, then so be it. |P
David Harvey is Distinguished Professor in the CUNY Graduate Center in New York. He is author of A Brief History of Neoliberalism and maintains the Reading Marx's Capital blog.
Observations on the Ideological Recovery in France and the United States
Platypus Review 11 | March 2009
It has been noted that the current economic crisis is of a scale unprecedented in the history of advanced capitalism. Today, three decades since the first stages of a transition of world markets through the expansion of finance capital, we face the first disruption of the system on a global scale. As is by now well known, the effects of the crisis have reached across economic sectors and across the world, displaying the interconnectedness of disparate societies, whose structure and social trajectory are bound up in the development of capitalism. The extension of global markets, and their force as the major medium conditioning interaction and material exchange between societies has long been described by liberal economic and political thinkers as a historical development that was at once progressive and uncontestable: the invisible hand that insured the stability and equitability of markets was also seen as a politically neutral source of economic reason. Warning against the ideological and tendentious character of socialist politics, proponents of liberal economics lauded the disinterested scientific clarity of pure economic decision-making. In deferring disagreement over the diverse paths towards social goals, the science of economic growth became a decisive tool in circumscribing political debate.
During the most recent period of long-term economic stability in the United States, free market ideology was passed off as common sense. With predictions of 'unlimited growth' by market observers, inflated real-estate values propping up value across markets, and easy access to credit caused by an explosion of high risk lending, the need to articulate an alternative to free market politics was obscured.
Rupturing the collective naïveté that facilitated the triumph of neo-liberalism, the current economic unraveling was immediately recognized as one in a series that spans the history of advanced capitalism. As is requisite in times of crisis, critiques of the outgoing political and economic status quo have come from a range of social spheres, professions, and political camps. Certain general and undeniable facts form the base of discourses in the United States, the Western world, and in poorer and less stable regions around the globe: the crisis is causing vast suffering and deprivation, which is felt most acutely by the social sectors most removed from the spheres in which the crisis was produced; the crisis reveals the political err in yielding debate to the limits imposed by liberal-capitalist ideology. It is this second fact that asserts itself when considering the French and American responses to the present crisis.
An account of recent political history appears to have been consolidated in recent months among critics of liberalism. This story diagnoses some economic fundamentals which have become visible in the wake of the crisis: financial markets act based on wagers on potential profit; there is no intrinsic moderation in financial markets that holds profits in relative equivalence to the growth and contractions of other economic sectors; over-production of value through capital speculation will result in crises of capitalization and affect all areas of economic activity. In analyses offered by both the Barack Obama and Nicolas Sarkozy administrations this account of economic events-irrefutable, if incomplete-boils down to two supposed causes of the crisis that in turn predetermine the corresponding policy responses. These two causes are lack of regulation and the distinct, but related, issue of inflated wages and earnings in the financial sector. In televised speeches and statements, both presidents spoke with conviction asserting their intentions to arm the state with increased oversight and regulatory capabilities in order to amend these problems.
This response falls far short of holding the founding ideals of neoliberal governance up for public scrutiny. In his inaugural address, Obama expressed his hope for the future with the encouraging assertion that "American workers are still productive." The fact that this phrase appears unremarkable or even apt speaks to the continued purchase of a vision of society that triumphed in the age of capitalist democracy. Even if Obama was merely describing his vision of economic recovery, his statement affirms economic activity as the primary form of mediation between individuals in modern society, including on the level of politics. The optimism of this vision hinges on the recovered growth and profitability of American enterprises, which is sustained in part by the continued suppression of wages in the United States. Both through employment policy hostile to organized labor and collective bargaining, and through strict immigration policy that helps maintain the illegal status of many employees in the manufacturing, hospitality and service industries, employees in the United States are subjected to wages depressed often below the legal minimum.
In France, many union members, leftist party members and activists, as well as intellectuals, artists, professionals and public officials have mobilized to critique the path to economic recovery centered on the vitality of private enterprise. An estimated 1.08 million protestors throughout France turned out on January 29th in support of a one-day general strike. The strike was called through an agreement by all of France's major unions, and was followed by the traditionally well-organized public sector as well as private sector employees of banks, the media, the stock exchange, and the cultural sector. The central aim of the mobilization was to criticize President Sarkozy's focus on aid to private businesses and his insufficient attention to the rising rate of unemployment in France.
Notable for its large turnout, and for the participation by many individuals and groups who do not commonly engage in politics, the protest succeeded in bringing the widespread disapproval of the present government's political agenda to popular consciousness. The demands articulated by protesters centered on preservation of socialist state policies such as programs that aid the unemployed, support and funding for public education, as well as job security in the public sector.
Beyond the immediate economic demands expressed in the march, many in attendance came to condemn the politics of the current administration for their antagonism towards the principles of social solidarity. This claim, while more difficult to support empirically, approaches a more profound critique of the neoliberal model of economic development. The ability of the French left to mobilize a resistance to the economic liberalization taking place under the current administration attests to the maintenance of leftist politics in France, both through more diffuse inheritances in academia and culture, as well as through structures such as unions and political parties which sustain leftist ideologies in increasingly hostile political environments.
Despite the ambition and vision that has been maintained in France on a level unmatched by the left in the United States, and despite the force of the economic crisis¬¬-which laid bare the insufficiency of a politics that is subordinated to the growth dynamic of capitalism-the left is not adequately equipped to seize this moment of ideological opening. The urgency of the economic situation leaves those who envision a socialist politics obliged to rearticulate the same state-centric politics that historically formed the grounds for the welfare state and brought about the enfeebled opposition to liberal-capitalism that views the state as a social benefactor. It is this version of politics, circumscribed by economic necessity, which keeps the left from offering an adequate critique of liberal-capitalism, even at a moment of globalized economic crisis.
In the absence of an alternative political vision and strategy advanced by the left, neo-liberal economic prescriptions and political ideologies are driving the recovery from the crisis. At present, the continued strength of the crisis is resulting in severe economic slowdown in the global economic centers of the West, as well as in countries around the world that integrated into global markets only in recent decades. The British Prime Minister Brown recently opined, "rebuilding global financial stability is a global challenge that needs global solutions." It is with this understanding that Brown and Obama have endeavored to launch a "global new deal," which aims to ensure "that every country that wishes to participate in the international financial system agrees common principles for financial regulation, coordinated internationally, and changes to their own banking system that will bring us shared prosperity once again." Following an emergency summit of the European Union on March 1st, President Sarkozy echoed this oxymoron of political relations conditioned by the rules of international finance in stating, "If someone needs solidarity, they can count on their partners....Their partners also need to count on them to follow certain basic rules."
Both the 'global new deal,' and the emergency measures sketched out by the European Union outline a path to economic recovery in which 'international coordination' will continue to allow the wealthiest countries to lay out the terms for the global economy. With many poorer countries forced to borrow on international capital markets to refinance old debt or take out new loans, the prescription for economic recovery portends the future of neo-liberalism. For those wish to forge political solidarity across states, the response must be to build the structures and institutions in which political and economic thought of sophistication and influence can be developed, so that the next time an economic crisis creates an opening for politics, the Left will be equipped to offer an alternative. |P
. Brown, Gordon. Times Online. “The Special Relationship is Going Global.” March 1, 2009. . Dougherty, Donald. New York Times. “E.U. Leaders Turn to IMF Amid Financial Crisis.” February 22, 2009.
Platypus Review 9 | December 2008
To change the world, we need a movement. This movement must be made up of millions of people and thousands of organizations. These organizations must build and push the movement forward. How do we get to this point? We have to start with leadership.
From 12 to 155
As a union organizer, I train workers to lead their shop floor and industry wide struggles. In the case of my union, we call the leaders in the shops “committee members.” These folks organize for fights with bosses, deal with issues on the shop floor, and negotiate contracts.
Every June for the last five years there has been a major citywide rally on behalf of all of the members of my union. For my part, I was responsible for organizing workers at one of the major food service companies in Chicago. All the workers of this company are part of the union. For the big citywide action on Michigan Avenue in 2007, only 12 out of 650 workers showed up. Not even half of the committee came.
The union committee did the day-to-day work of running the union. There were no qualifications for membership in the committee. Everyone who wanted to be on the committee was welcome; no one was ever turned away. If you joined the committee, you were not given any clear expectations. The committee was comprised of twentyfive volunteers who were neither the most respected nor trusted workers in the shop. And they were the ones expected to move the union forward?! The organization of the union was catch as catch can. It was a weak union, and that’s definitely not what we needed.
Twenty-five individuals that did not have the ability to mobilize their co-workers, did not have any responsibility, and did not have the skills or the knowledge to win issues on the shop floor, produced a weak union.
One year later, the same march takes place, and workers from the same shop come out to Michigan Avenue. This time, 155 workers came.
This was made possible by a strong and fighting union. This union has a committee that pushes co-workers to fight; a committee that both carries out the daily functions of the union and believes in a long-term class-based political program; a committee with members trained to become better leaders, who can target and recruit new committee people. The union needed committee members who would constantly challenge each other to be stronger and better organizers. In other words, leadership was needed.
We can build a successful movement by developing leadership skills and leaders who can be held accountable.
The worker-led organizing committee shrunk to twenty, with some workers from the first committee, and some were new members. The philosophy and expectations of the committee members changed. Committee members agreed to a minimum set of requirements: they had to have the respect of the group, and the desire to lead their co-workers. Each committee member agreed to take responsibility for organizing a group, to attend meetings, to recruit more leaders, to get training, and to do the work of building a movement. Those that did not agree and those that did not live up to the responsibility got off the committee. The committee was changing from a hodgepodge group of volunteers to a body ready for leadership.
I recently sat on a panel at the “Platypus Readers and Writers Forum.” The discussion was supposed to focus on how the Platypus Review could become a better newspaper. But, the panelists and the audience were interest in having a different conversation. The forum moved in the direction of the age-old debate between “theory” and “practice,” or between “thought” and “action.” After three hours we all agreed that both were necessary in a radical movement for social change.
Everyone on the left has heard and said it before. We are all wrong. The problem today is not about theory, the “right line,” or militant action. The problem is one of leadership. The question should be: how do we get more people to accept our theories and to take part in our actions, so we can build enough momentum to be able to actually accomplish the goals of our movement?
It is impossible to build real organization, to direct our actions, thoughts, and goals into a single vision, in a Left when “leader” and “leadership” are treated as dirty words. Those in leadership roles (official or unofficial)— even in large organizations—are treated with disdain, disgust, even as enemies.
On the Left today, the concept of leadership is synonymous with authoritarianism, dictatorship, oppression, and control. This antipathy towards leadership has stalled our efforts: we waste time working to limit the power of our own organizations, instead of figuring out how to use the power of our organizations against the current system. As a result, constant infighting and petty personality disputes destroy our ability to achieve our actual goals.
This negative vision of leadership has produced broad acceptance of “diversity of tactics,” “anti-authoritarianism,” “consensus decision making.” These and a host of other leftist ideas were a rejection of the centralized leadership and bureaucratic structures of the left before the 1960s.
Students for a Democratic Society, founded with exactly these concepts in mind, once had 100,000 members nationwide. In 1969, it gave way to the Weatherman Faction, which in turn became the Weather Underground. The potential for a strong organization was lost; the radicals that could have led SDS ended as a few dozen people isolated from any broader movement. This story has become far too common throughout the history of the left.
Today, the movement has no structure and no power. Because of the ever-shrinking and splintered organizations, it’s impossible to think beyond our own small circle of friends or “affinity groups.” Some Chicagoans who participated in the 2008 Republican National Convention reported that during the planning for blocking traffic, certain affinity groups couldn’t even commit to the rest of the organization to hold certain intersections, in case they “felt like going somewhere else.” This has become the norm, the views of every small group is of equal importance, and every person within that group is allowed to opt in or out at anytime.
Activists no longer view their roles as leaders of a movement, nor consider themselves responsible to organizations. Individuals are not expected to, nor desire to, recruit others into organizations or activities. Recruitment and training are not priorities. Discipline and planning are limited to one-off actions, not long-term organizational plans. Individualism has run amok, and the outcome is libertinism, not political power for the masses of humanity.
This sentiment is not just anti-leadership, it is anti-organization, and ultimately it is anti-power. This is not due to a political theory, either; it is merely the product of our own internal fear. In the face of constant defeat, the vast majority of the left, regardless of label, has adopted this anti-power ideology. We have complacently accepted our own situation, resigned ourselves to symbolic protest and resistance, and accepted our minority status. We are being held back by our own fear of being right, of being wrong, of winning, of losing, of anything. We are afraid of looking over the edge, seeing the abyss before us, and having to leap. We are more afraid still of leading others off that cliff into creating a new world. We are terrified of the responsibilities and burdens of that leadership.
This must change. We must learn to be leaders.
This is not the leadership of unaccountable government leaders, top-down and based on patronage or the power of the law. Nor is it the self-appointed ideological leadership of communist parties. The position of leaders in a real emancipatory movement must come solely from one factor: the ability of the leaders to lead those involved in the organization into a struggle for liberation and power. Taking responsibility and leadership is the ultimate act of believing in your politics. It is the ultimate act of believing in yourself. You must create the new or it will never come. And we are more afraid of the new than what we know.
Timothy’s path to leadership
I will never forget meeting Timothy, one of the first members of the new committee in my union. He was on the prior committee and had worked there for seven years. Like so many of us, Timothy felt his life was out of his hands, and just wanted to talk about his problems. His wife was robbed, his daughter had asthma and frequently ended up in the hospital, and he’d been in and out of prison.
Timothy wanted to be safe. He wanted to have control over his life. But Timothy had only fought for himself; he had never been challenged to act like a leader and challenge his friends/co-workers to stand up.
It would have been easier for me to just accept the history of this shop, and just say this is what “the workers” wanted. Instead, I chose to challenge him and to push others to do the same. I made him reconsider the role he and his co-workers could play. Along with workers’ strength, we talked about his life and what kind of man and father he wanted to be.
Timothy wanted his union to fight, although he wasn’t sure what that meant. He did know, however, that only a handful of people in the shop floor would talk about the problems, that nothing ever got fixed, and everyone felt weak for way too long. Timothy agreed to get trained and to challenge his co-workers to organize toward their common goals.
At a certain point, Timothy decided he was going to lead and organize a new area of the site because the company was cutting people’s hours and giving more work to certain “favorite” workers. He got four more committee members to start a petition; they convinced the whole department to sign it and deliver it as a group. The night before the delivery, the committee leaders called their coworker followers to make sure that they would be there.
They trusted the leadership’s decisions, and, despite their fears, 76 of them gathered to present the petition as a group. Timothy and four other committee members confronted the General Manager with the petition. Within twenty minutes, the Manager agreed to pay them thousands of dollars for the time the company had cut.
Leadership and the future of the Left
Finding and developing new leaders at the shop was not easy, but it proved that a strong organization, and a strong movement, is only possible through the development of leadership. Developing leadership for the movement requires creating long term plans for the growth of an organization, recruiting new members, training a new generation of leadership, and planning and carrying out campaigns for short-term victories.
A leader’s priority is to widen the base of support, train people to carry out necessary tasks, and immediately give newly recruited people responsibilities. Without training, and short-term goals, the membership will slowly decline and leadership will inevitably fall off. By planning and accomplishing things together members both old and new will learn to trust each other and the power of the leadership. As members go through the ups and downs of campaigns, wins and losses, they will learn the effectiveness of their own organizations and learn to trust in the leadership of those that are taking the bold step of leading people into difficult struggles. Larger goals become attainable, and more people will have been through difficult struggles and will have learned how to fight and win.
Timothy did just that, he became a man that was respected and built an organization that was feared. As he moves forward he will be able to change dozens—and will ultimately lead hundreds—of working class people. This has also allowed Timothy to build a better relationship with his wife and daughter. It taught him restraint, planning, patience and respect. When working class people learn to feel respect in their own lives, and feel power in the places of work and the community, we have advanced the possibility of real transformation.
We must not fail to recruit people into our organizations. We cannot be afraid to directly ask a person to recognize that they have a stake in changing the world, and share our vision of struggle with them. Many people on the left are just waiting for the revolution to come. We cannot just assume that someday the workers of the world are going to flock to our ideas. The revolution will never come by itself. A revolution will only be possible by the organized actions of the Left.
I lead people. I’m proud of leading people. I think leading people is the most important thing I can do in my life. I do not lead everyone. I don’t lead people in every area of their lives. I don’t lead people to do things against their self-interest. I am not unique in my leadership ability. But I can and will lead people in a social movement.
Each one of you gets to make the same choice I made, the same choice Timothy made. Who do I want to be? What is the better me? As you answer those questions, believe that it is our duty as revolutionaries to make sure other people can answer them as well, and can realize their visions. Everyone wants a better world, but it is up to us to get the world there.
Two dominant ideas on the left today are used to treat leadership negatively and not as a necessity: “we are all leaders” or “we have no leaders.”
The left is wrong and will continue to lose until it recognizes that fact. It is imperative that we learn to take leadership seriously and work to develop it. There is only one thing that should be avoided on the left, and that is losing. It is time to do something different. It is time to lead. |P
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
In March 2003, millions took to the streets worldwide to protest the impending invasion of Iraq. Despite their numbers, the efforts proved in vain. The war went on; the protests dwindled. But however attenuated, there are still protests. In Minneapolis/St. Paul this August, some 10,000 marched against the Republican National Convention. But as organized rallies gave way to irrational violence, the inadequacy of five years of failed Anti-War activism and Left opposition came into sharp relief.
Most of the confrontations amounted to simple, momentary blockages of traffic. By all accounts, the police grossly overreacted: harassing journalists, brutalizing protestors, arresting the innocent. But more fringe elements in activist culture were also on display. Some hurled bricks through the window of a bus transporting delegates; others sprayed delegates with unknown irritants. These actions may seem excessive and irrational, beyond the objectives and attitudes of the wider movement. But their deeper motivations lies within the mainstream of activist culture today.
The helplessness of the anti-war movement has turned the Left’s disappointments and frustrations into pathology. Energy is directed, not towards revolutionary change, but against social integration. For college-aged youth this means the transition from parental authority to working life. The anxiety and fear built up around this process of socialization creates a political imagination directed at forming ruptures and breaking points in society — everything, from organizational meetings to attending protests, centers on creating a wall of resistance against one’s own inevitable absorption into society.
As seasoned anti-war activist Alexander Cockburn pointed out last year, “an anti-war rally has to be edgy, not comfortable. Emotions should be high, nerves at least a bit raw, anger tinged with fear.” (“Whatever Happened to the Anti-War Movement?” New Left Review, July-August 2007). Such emotionalism points to the way present forms of helplessness have been naturalized into one of the anti-war movement’s core assumptions, turning trepidation into a political program.
Naturalizing helplessness, today’s protesters celebrate simple altercations with the police as victories. Violence seems to cleanse the individual of their ‘bourgeois’ conformity. Attending a protest means breaking with the decadence of consumer society, creating a ‘prefigurative’ space, trying to ‘create the new world in the palm of the old.’ Each blow of the truncheon dramatizes the difference between protestor and police. The rougher the conflict, the more the protestor feels free from the burden of society.
Yet, young protesters only elicit a police beating in order to sensationalize their own submission to authority. And, ironically, this is coupled with a clear awareness that the tactics employed are utterly inadequate in addressing the issues these protests propose to be fighting. In the age of Predator drones, blocking a highway will not stop American military might.
The Left’s helplessness, on full display in Minneapolis, has eroded the very function of protest. Once, protest demonstrated the vitality and relevancy of the demand for social transformation. Thousands in the streets could not be ignored. But protest has devolved into an insular subculture of self-hatred, frustration, and anxiety derived from a pathological attitude towards social integration. Activists who equate social domination with their experience with tear gas, tazers and rubber bullets block the development of a more serious and effective Leftist politics. |P
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
The crowd assembled in a shady corner of Grant Park in the waning afternoon hours of August 28 might have been mistaken for extras in a poorly-funded period film. With clothes loosely evoking 60’s-era protest, they reclined in the grass, rolling cigarettes, eating peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwiches, listening to speeches and gazing at the sky. It might have seemed a stretch to bill the event as a historical reenactment of the notorious 1968 Democratic National Convention protests — that long and bloody week in Chicago which has been discussed and picked over at length in this 40th anniversary year. The emblems of Chicago ’68 — wild-eyed police officers with nightsticks — were nowhere to be seen. Grant Park on that afternoon was more concerned with the action around the campfire than the savagery on the battlefield.
It might seem purely semantic that we insisted on considering the event a historical reenactment rather than a commemoration or a bit of theater, but for us this was an important distinction. As a group of young, largely inexperienced activists it was the only organizing framework we could find which emphasized active participation. Other forms seemed linguistically and ideologically flaccid; of course we could observe the anniversary, as people had been doing all summer, but this implied an insufficient (and appalling) detachment from the subject. We didn’t want to view our history—our radical history—as if from a riverbank, we wanted to jump in and splash around in it.
The reenactment of the 1968 Chicago DNC protests would be a curious project, difficult to plan, the shape of it abnormal and constantly shifting. Our purpose seemed perfectly obvious at times, entirely digestible—a historical reenactment of the ’68 DNC protests, that’s all—but at other times it seemed to bulge surrealistically in a thousand directions. Would we aim for some degree of historical accuracy, or would anything fly? We debated, for instance, the ethics of nominating a live pig for the presidency: what should we feed it, and where would it stay? Which would we feed the masses of reenactors, potato or pasta salad? And in the event of trouble with the police, what, among a stunning array of possible tactics, might prove our wisest course of action? We plotted and planned over the summer to the point of exhaustion; the minutiae multiplied endlessly. And yet, when pressed as to why we were attempting such a thing, we had no ready answer. It was soundbite-resistant, experimental, it called for deep breaths and meandering explanations.
Clearly this history had not yet been codified. It continued to elicit a variety of interpretations. A recent addition to the collection of books on ’68, Frank Kusch’s Battleground Chicago, attempted a cop's-eye view of the week’s event; academics and historians continued to tackle the subject from disparate angles, trying to come to grips with this jarring moment in modern American history when power and resistance grappled so publicly and with so much violence and fanfare. Our subject matter still was squirming, making it impossible to predict what shape a reenactment might take. We estimated an attendance of anywhere from 100 to 10,000 people—who could say how many Chicagoans knew or cared enough about the ‘68 convention to devote a day in the park to its exploration?—and we applied rather blindly for a permit from the Park District, treading lightly through their downtown office as if in an enemy lair; we contemplated a range of possible police responses, from utter indifference to full-scale riot. We solicited the advice of everyone from ‘60s-era activist-professors like Abe Peck and Bernadine Dohrn to freakniks like Ed Sanders, though few of these aging lions had much to offer beyond bemused encouragement.
What few of us predicted, in the midst of our fretting, was the cool and contemplative afternoon which ultimately unfolded. A small detail of bike police, having preemptively barricaded the iconic Logan statue from a possible storming, relaxed on the far periphery as local authors, filmmakers, activists and historians chewed over the meaning of the ‘68 convention’s legacy, and performers exhumed the ghosts of the DNC’s radical celebrity class, from Phil Ochs and the MC5 to Bobby Seale and Allen Ginsberg. I found myself delivering a surprisingly mild-tempered speech which called for the metaphorical sharing of blankets. Occasional pot fumes wafted across the crowd, no mere prop, and by twilight, after several hours of speech-making and folksinging, the ritual of mass meditation seemed almost capable of releasing us from the weight of this history. This release was something of an illusion, of course. The following week, protesters at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul were being tear-gassed and arrested by the hundreds, their homes and gathering places raided by teams from the Department of Homeland Security. The historic echoes were inevitable and maddening, the old Pstalemate so clearly still at work. It was difficult to reconcile what we’d accomplished — little more or less than a beautiful and thought-provoking afternoon in the park — with the ugly echoes of ‘68 emanating from the Twin Cities. If our reenactment, unpermitted and inherently anti-authoritarian, was a modest exercise in discovering what we could get away with in the public sphere, news from St. Paul came as a stern reminder of what we couldn’t get away with. A shady corner of Grant Park on a late-summer evening, they’d give us that, but to agitate outside of an actual political convention, with all of those television cameras on hand, would prove as unfeasible in 2008 as it was 40 years ago. Protesters in St. Paul were being summarily tear-gassed and jailed en masse, held (unconstitutionally) for the duration of the convention week to preclude further disruption. It was sobering to speculate that law enforcement might have learned more about stifling dissent, over the last 40 years, than demonstrators had learned about cultivating it.
We were asked several times, in the course of planning the event, whether it might lead to similar historical reenactments in the future. It was an understandable question to be asked by journalists, but it misses the point. The last thing we wanted, though we had a curious way of showing it, was to lose ourselves in yesterday’s near-revolutionary moments, to fetishize or serialize them for their own sake. We were more interested in comprehending their shortcomings; the fact that the ‘68 convention was followed shortly by the election of Richard Nixon and a marked increase in political repression served as a prominent footnote to our idyll in the park. The clear view of history which we were striving for would not illuminate, of its own accord, any paths forward. It might, we hoped, foster meaningful dialogue. |P
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
An interview with SDS member Rachel Haut published in the September issue of this publication provoked widespread comment in radical circles. We welcome the discussion but worry that it remains ensconced within the sterile jargon and petty antinomies of the actually-existing- Left. More fundamental questions exist than, say, the position of sectarian groups within the SDS -- questions that unsettle the comfortable assumptions of radical politics. There’s a temptation to think such of questioning as an irrelevant, academic obstruction to real action. Indeed, most contemporary radical theory confuses more than clarifies. But confused political thinking leads to confused politics and confused politics mean failed politics. Here are five questions that point towards the roots of confusion. We don’t have firm answers to any of them. They trouble us, and occupy our thoughts and conversations.
1. What is Capitalism, and how can it be overcome? The SDS aims to “change a society which depends upon multiple and reciprocal systems of oppression and domination for its survival: racism and white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism and transphobia, authoritarianism and imperialism, among others.” These systems, with a single exception, are simple forms of domination. A ruling stratum (whites, men) oppresses a given subaltern. Capitalism seems much more complicated; impossible to reduce to the direct and violent oppression of one class by another. How ought the student movement understand the characteristic form of capitalist domination? And what forms of politics are adequate to overcome it?
2. SDS is against imperialism; what is it for?Many anti-imperialists insist that ending American global domination would open the opportunity for revolutionary forces across the world. But such an argument does not specify the possible agents of social transformation. Worse, the position ignores the possibility of reactionary domestic politics. If the United States withdrew from Iraq and Afghanistan, more reactionary forces -- Muslim theocracy, corrupt nationalism -- could easily take its place. In the absence of a real international progressive movement, the choice will always between bad and worse. How, then, can the (American) student movement help cultivate emancipatory politics around the globe?
3. How does racism matter? The Civil Rights movement eliminated de jure discrimination, and rendered public bigotry unacceptable. But racial inequalities still exist. African Americans have, for instance, a disproportionately high rate of incarceration. Radicals cite such discrepancies as evidence of the continued force of racism. But stressing race risks glossing over the structural, class-bound constitution of poverty. If contemporary American society is, in fact, racist, what is the specific form of this racism? How does this racism relate to the broader social structure of the United States? What political and social changes would render racism, and the very concepts of race that it depends upon, irrelevant?
4. What kind of questions can students ask? Members of SDS often disavow their distinctive identity as students, feeling it an unwarranted and embarrassing privilege. But student life presents unique opportunities -- to read, to discuss, to examine and critique different traditions of politics. But SDS does not, as a whole, take up the opportunity. Fear of sectarian controversy precludes sustained ideological discussion, so the orientation and form of the organization remains unquestioned and uncertain. Serious, honest reflection and conversation can clarify these uncertainties. So, what sort of fundamental questions ought the SDS ask itself and the broader Left? How can it ask them?
5. Why, and how, could the New SDS succeed where the old did not? The Port Huron statement sought to “replace power rooted in possession, privilege, or circumstance by power and uniqueness rooted in love, reflectiveness, reason, and creativity...” The first SDS failed to meet its own task. Possession, privilege and circumstance still determine social power. So why did the Old SDS fail? And how can the new one succeed? The problem is broader, though. With the passing of the 60s moment, whatever (slim) possibility of international revolutionary change there was has evaporated. No organized political force offers the practical possibility of a qualitatively better future for all humanity. How ought we understand the loss of political possibility? What would make international revolutionary politics possible again? What role might SDS, as a movement in the U.S., at the heart of global capitalism, play in such a process? |P
. See: Freedom Road Socialist Organization (www.frso.org), Kasama blog (mikeely.wordpress.com), The Daily Radical blog (www.dailyradical.org), Louis Proyect blog (louisproyect.wordpress.com), Revolutionary Left blog (www.revleft.com), Marxist-Leninist blog (marxistleninist.wordpress.com), and Left Spot blog (http://leftspot.com/blog).
Platypus Review 7 | October 2008
I decided not to participate in any illegal protests at the RNC.
There’s a simple, material reason: Had I been arrested I would have been accountable for bail money (or unhappily relying on legal defense funds that I truly feel have more value elsewhere) and possibly a day’s worth of income. I have been and continue to be a member of the working class. I grew up with a single mother who worked two low-paying jobs, and for the past five years, living on my own, I have survived well below the poverty line. I am also currently uninsured and without health care. Culturallyspeaking, the working class community might not see me so equitably; I am, after all, college educated and on my path towards the ivory tower. But still, getting arrested was not financially feasible for me. I have rent to pay.
The other reason is a little more complicated. I was afraid that I wouldn’t agree with the whole agenda. I was proved right. I support: blockading the GOP buses, blocking intersections, radical dance parties in public space. I don’t support: smashing windows/cars, violent hate rhetoric (“What do we want? Bush Dead!”), and, most importantly, making abstractions out of human beings.
It is not surprising or necessarily regrettable that not everyone has the same version of anarchism. And so I am not angry that there are those who choose to interpret and perform it differently, but I am angry when that performance goes so blatantly against some of the fundamental elements of this “new world in our hearts” that so many radical/anarchist/progressives claim to want. And I am angry when—even if people aren’t moral pacifists—that a “movement” that claims to want the revolution can’t even see the relevance in strategic pacifism. To use the most obvious and simple example: the protesters during the Civil Rights movement did not fight back, the media captured it all, and they gained the vast majority of support from our nation. I’m not trying to say that the fight against capitalism is the same as the fight against racist legislation, but I am certainly not above borrowing tactics that actually worked.
True, I was a Peace Studies minor and am chock full of stories of peaceful victories. But I am no longer a blind pacifist. Given tangible goals, sometimes destruction makes sense. The Autonomen, the original Black Bloc, protected their squats through aggressive confrontation. This is a real, concrete goal. Fighting to end ‘Republican’ ideology is not. Breaking a Department store window will not end American conservativism.
The violence at the RNC seems to me completely goal-less. Worse, it stands in opposition to the solidarity we claim to embody. Macy’s windows and those smashed up cop cars are going to be fixed by working class men and women, probably pissed that they have to spend extra time replacing what was in perfectly good condition a day ago. Similarly, when anarchist groups participate in illegal action at Immigrant’s Rights marches, they do so with complete disregard for their “comrades” who would be deported were they to be nearby someone who was instigating the police. How’s that for solidarity?
When polarization occurs within the “movement” itself, we become weaker, more divided and further and further away from the revolution. I don’t think the solution is utopia- group-think. Cultural identity can motivate individuals towards greater and greater participation. But there needs to be an idea big enough for everyone to agree on, an idea that takes precedence over the fun of diverse tactics.
Imagine for a moment that the RNC Welcoming Committee decided to declare a complete commitment to non-violence. More Americans will participate in nonviolent actions that have less potential for getting them arrested than violent action that will, imagine that instead of figuring out how to hide hammers in their pants, the RNC Welcoming Committee went out and organized every single group that attended the mainstream march. Imagine now that those 50,000 people sitting in the intersection, blocking the GOP buses. The cops wouldn’t know what to do with themselves. The world would watch, and the radical left would gain sympathy and support.
A comrade noted that she thought we were supposed to be protesting the violence and hate perpetrated by the Bush/McCain regime, not re-enacting it. How can we, as revolutionaries dedicated to a just and peaceful world, create that through violence and hate? I believe in the power of temporary autonomous zones present in the spirit of political action in the streets, the creation of our new world in the ephemeral but blissful moments of united rebellion... but my new world has no smashed glass. My new world has no fear of attack. My new world has dance parties and kisses and laughter and music and vegan food and chants that make you feel so warm n’ fuzzy that you become physically incapable of causing harm to another!
My new world is not “us” taking over “them.” When the oppressed seek to overcome opression by becoming themselves oppressors, absolutely no one wins. When one attacks another human being who seems inhuman[e], the attacker too becomes inhuman[e] in that act. It is impossible to be fully present and human[e] in violence. As Paulo Friere wrote: “How can the oppressed, as divided unauthentic beings, participate in the pedagogy of their liberation? As long as they live in the duality in which to be is to be like, and to be like is to be like the oppressor, this contribution is impossible…. Liberation is thus a childbirth, and a painful one.” A childbirth, he writes, because it will be new and unlike anything we’ve seen before. We’ve seen violence before, we’ve seen things smashed and people hurt. But we haven’t yet seen our liberation.... |P