Thoughts on Memorial Day*

By Don M.

I’ve seen a ton of Facebook posts about “thanking veterans for their service.” As a veteran let me just be very straightforward and honest with you. We didn’t “serve our country;” we don’t actually serve our brothers & sisters or our neighbors. We serve the interests of capital. We never risked our lives or spent months on deployment away from our family and friends so they can have this abstract concept called “freedom.” We served big oil, big coal, and all the other big capital interests who don’t know a thing about sacrifice. These people will never have to deal with the loss of a loved one or the physical and/or psychological scars that those who “serve,” and their families, have to deal with for the rest of their lives. The most patriotic thing someone can do is to tell truth to power and dedicate oneself to building power to overthrow these sociopathic a-holes.

I served with some of the most real and genuine people I’ve ever met. You’ll never see solidarity like the kind of solidarity you experience when your life depends on the person next to you. But most of us didn’t join for that; we joined because we were poor and didn’t have many other options.

*This letter appeared in the July/August edition of the Industrial Worker, #1747.

The Barren Marriage Between Labor and the Democracy: On the Recall Elections in Wisconsin

They ain’t called the ‘graveyard of social movements’ for nothing. A year and a half after the largest, most spontaneous, and most energetic mobilization of U.S. organized labor in decades, the Democrats and their hapless allies in the union leadership managed to fully divert all that energy and all that dynamism into a resounding and demoralizing defeat. Contrary to ridiculously inaccurate early estimates, the electoral contest between current governor and knight of reaction, Scott Walker, and his insipid Democratic challenger, Tom Barrett, was not even close, with most putting Walker at %53 of the final vote, and Barrett at %46. The flip side of this coin, of course, is that it will inevitably be spun as a major symbolic victory for the Right, who will indeed probably see Walker’s victory as an open invitation to freely pursue their union-busting agenda: having won in Wisconsin, where can’t they win?

For anyone who had the fortune to experience the solidarity and the palpable radicalism in the air in Madison last winter, the election, as a coda to that amazing moment, can only be taken as a bitter disappointment. For many, I suspect, the results of the recall will have only confirmed what had long seemed probable: namely that the inhabitants of the rural Wisconsin hinterlands, unemployed, indebted, yet conservative, will vote for the same guy they voted for in 2010, which will tip the scales in Walker’s favor despite the extraordinary amounts of human time and energy poured into the recall campaign over the past year. What reason have such people to vote against the person they originally voted for, especially given the fact that his opponent, Barrett, did not even attempt to progressively re-frame the austerity/budget debate in a way that might substantially influence public opinion? If the Democrats are just as willing as Republicans to denounce the trade unions as just another “special interest,” in order to then lose important elections by a huge margin, then what the hell is organized labor doing funnelling their already-scarce monetary and human resources into their campaign coffers? Is electing this mope, who can’t even bring himself to mount a principled defense of labor, what hundreds of thousands of progressive supporters rallied for last winter and spring?

It’s an old story on the American left: the Democratic party kills collective power and systematically betrays the unions, or what’s left of them, anyway. Scores of talented and dedicated organizers who worked tirelessly over the last 1.5 years will doubtless be struck with a feeling of futility, and then, of a certain exhaustion. This is understandable after something like this, but is all the more distressing given the inevitable response from the forces of reaction, which assuredly will come swiftly. They may wait until after November, but you can be certain that the neoliberals are taking this as a blank check for savage union-busting, having successfully seized the beachhead in Wisconsin. Once again, “democratic institutions” collude with organized power in the quashing of economic justice, deluded centrist liberals will continue to delude themselves, and the lesson for the U.S. left remains the same: independent organization, divorced from the Democrats, is the only credible path for any meaningful social change today.

The Mass Spectacle and the Specter of the Left: NATO in Chicago

So if you were walking around in the center of Chicago a week or so ago, you might have been stopped by police, or had your progress impeded by them. This is because there happened to be, in Chicago at that time, the leadership of a certain international, unaccountable arm of the military-industrial complex with global reach and vast war-making resources meeting to discuss what vulnerable group of poor people will  be serviced next with the Predator drone prix-fixe, to wit: you happen to live in a territory with some of those pesky Muslim malcontents, so you are, in principle, entitled to a Hellfire missile in the face. While these shining benefactors of humanity were meeting, Mayor Emanuel and the City of Chicago spent millions of dollars of public money to outfit and train an army of riot police for the noble task of shielding NATO and the state from that dreaded public enemy, the democratic protest march.

In the event, the demonstration was impressive and energetic, the mayor and the police had their chance to “look good” for the global ruling class, and some elements of the protest clashed with the riot cops in a prolonged and violent standoff at the march’s end. This ensured the predictable series of images in media channels: the confrontation between demonstrator and police; the beaten and bloodied demonstrator; and the orderly columns of rationalized state violence, fully anonymous and fully ready to brain those who might stray away from the state-permitted protest zone. The corporate media never fails to drive the argument home for the benefit of the broader public: to confront the state is to get one’s face smashed, so don’t join these yahoos because it’s bad for your health!

Regardless of the sycophantic tripe peddled by most of the corporately owned media – most notably the wretched Sun Times and the Tribune, the latter owned by the insane Sam Zell – the sheer size and dynamism of the demonstration would have impressed itself upon anyone who saw it first-hand. Strolling about Grant Park before the march, I was again struck by the amazing diversity in style and culture that is constitutive of mass-left politics today. Bucking the city’s prolonged campaign to arouse fear surrounding crazed anarchists planning to blow things up, along with a relentless hyping of the city’s militarization of the police force, dozens of different community groups, political and activist organizations, cultural affinity groups, and trade unions came together in a common opposition to the NATO war-machine. At a given moment, one could do any of the following:

  • Join in a political debate with Second International Marxists;
  • Talk with “libertarians” about the need to reform the tax code, and how achieving socialist transformation is pointless because the U.S. is already “socialist;”
  • Dance a lot;
  • Give Maoism another chance;
  • Talk with native Palestinians about life in the Occupied Territories;
  • Join an artists’ collective in making signs, puppets, and other visual paraphernalia;
  • Chill with members of Occupy Wall Street
  • Discuss the need for a General Strike with radicals from the Nurses’ Union, the I.B.E.W., or the C.T.U.;
  • Don a hood and bandanna with Black Bloc anarchists, in preparation for an inevitable confrontation with the state;
  • Have a conversation with Hindu peace activists;
  • Talk LGBT justice with the radical queer coalition;
  • Hang out with some sweet clowns;
  • Participate in a Human Micropoem;
  • Eat some really good, vegan-friendly, free hot-dogs.

…and so on and so forth.

They don’t want to give you a free hot-dog.

This patchwork of diverse viewpoints, languages, and ideologies comes together to create quite a spectacle. A first-time protester might understandably come off a bit bewildered. Why are these guys here arguing that we should defend North Korea as a “deformed workers’ state”? Who is Bradley Manning? And what do clowns have to do with radical politics?

Speaking broadly, what more or less serves to bring such a wide array of social elements together is a common opposition to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, which is an example of what Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe call an “empty signifier.” It is a symbol that can mean many different things to different forces of opposition – e.g, NATO is an expression of the warmongering military-industrial complex, the military arm of an unaccountable global oligarchy, the handmaiden of the system of global capitalism, the vanguard of neo-colonialism, the anti-democracy, and a symbol of patriarchal, racist-chauvinist hierarchy, to name only a few examples. The common opposition to NATO as a multivalent symbol constructs ‘negative solidarity,’ or solidarity among groups based upon common opposition to what they are against, to what they are not. Thus to oppose NATO it is sufficient that one be anti-racist, or anti-fascist, or anti-state, or anti-patriarchy, or anti-Federal Reserve, or anti-capitalist, or anti-injustice, or anti-war, or anti-heteronormative, anti-imperialist, or any combination of these. U.S. mass-left political action today collects a vast array of different attitudes, viewpoints, and ideologies on the basis of a shared opposition, of a deep hostility toward some institution, figure, policy, etc. Importantly, though, the reasons among the various elements for that opposition, and the social and political vision that animates them, can be and often are in conflict with one another. What does the libertarian have to say to the syndicalist? What the Trotskyist to the Stalinist? This particular form of mass politics does not require agreement on the deeper level of vision and definitions of contested concepts, like justice, freedom,  the meaning of socialism, and so on; it merely requires a sense, however vague, that something is wrong with the present system and that the occasion for protest is somehow related to it. The buy-in isn’t too steep, ultimately.

That this is the way mass-left mobilization works today is no coincidence, of course. With the gradual dissolution of the social infrastructure of what used to be called the Old Left over the last 30 years, the classical reference point of organized radical consciousness – the ‘point of production, ‘as they used to say – has increasingly become sidelined, integrated into a larger web of struggles that cast a wider net around what counts as social justice. This is unquestionably a major achievement. But such an expansive view has come at a cost. The terra firma of the older forms of praxis, which was located at the economic point of production because that was widely understood to be the source of general immiseration, has been to a certain degree lost – or more accurately, obscured. The old vision has become but one among many. As a result, the old link between radical theory and practice has become attenuated, which is a precondition for the contemporary splintering of the idea of “resistance” into countless fragments: resistance can be articulated as street performances, throwing bricks at cops, mass-marching, canvassing for electoral candidates, consuming ethically, holding a concert, dancing in the streets, culture-jamming, and of course shop-organizing – the list goes on. Opposition to a sedately imperialist, predatory liberalism, it would seem, has taken on the very pluralistic qualities that the latter ideology holds so dear.

What would the conditions have to be for something like general agreement around tactics and strategy to materialize? I would tentatively suggest that what’s happening in Quebec right now, and what happened in Oakland 6 months ago, both have something to do with the answer, as increasing numbers of organizers, activists, and community leaders are realizing that the future of radical struggle lies in combining the social pluralism of contemporary protest with direct intervention in the productive forces – that is, in combining negative solidarity with the mass-strike.

#Konymania and the Bourgeois Political Imagination

By the standard temporal cycles of the Twitterverse, this post on the Kony/Invisible Children controversy arrives a bit late, perhaps, but even if this is already old news the whole affair, it must be said, is pretty remarkable, and it seems to me to raise issues that haven’t yet been addressed in the various diatribes floating about the internets.

On the surface it might look like an unusual occasion for controversy. Who is Joseph Kony? What is Invisible Children, and why has that organization come in for such withering criticism (see here, here, and/or here)? Is their ostensive purpose not to expose atrocities in order to generate a concerned public around them, which could then presumably serve as a basis for some kind of further activism? Isn’t Joseph Kony all around a pretty major piece of shit? And aren’t the guys behind Invisible Children some pretty serious dudes (see below)? What gives?

Sure, he is a piece of shit. Despicable, even. And the dudely credentials of the guys behind the documentary are not in question. But as the myriad critics of #Kony2012 have made abundantly clear, the video’s story and its main rhetorical message – that in backward parts of the world really evil individuals do really evil things, like kidnap and employ child soldiers, and its up to the morally-righteous and aware American public to do something about it – participate in a very well-established tradition of racist and imperialist narratives that have been shaping the Western colonial imagination for centuries. It doesn’t help that they seem to be blissfully unaware of this (though, to their credit, they have posted a “response” to the most substantive objections). Probably the most original perspective brought to bear thus far on the matter is Richard Seymour’s, who draws attention to the potentially massive propaganda power of this kind of sentimentally and morally motivated viral media, of which the current fad is doubtless doing much to demonstrate to the stewards of U.S. imperial interests. If cultural phenomena like Bieber-Fever can be enlisted in the viral generation of pro-intervention sentiment among the public, then we have on our hands what is only the latest, but perhaps the most promising, vehicle for the targeted co-optation of social media apparatuses in campaigns of manufactured consent. This would be another example of how Adorno and Horkheimer’s classic analysis of the Culture Industry, usually dismissed among contemporary theorists as being “cynical” or “too pessimistic,” remains as relevant as ever.

Throughout all this, the Invisible Children crew haven’t found many defenders (pictures like this don’t help.) To date I’ve only been able to locate one piece, an op-ed penned by the NYT’s generally sedate Roger Cohen, that makes a considered judgment in favor of the embattled, would-be humanitarians. Yes, they crassly reduce a complex geopolitical history into an infantile, good vs. evil scenario; yes, the presentational style of their documentary insults the intelligence of the viewer in a variety of ways; and yes, there are apparently wildly egregious factual errors in the report of the documentary itself. Despite all of it, for Cohen, it is better that the documentary emerged – warts and all – than if it had not, as tens of millions of people are at least now conscious, who were not before, that such a crisis exists. Notwithstanding its own unremarkable simplicity, Cohen’s argument unwittingly strikes at the core of the issue, in the context of which he marshals a solid, traditional middle-class ideal – the value of practical action over inert criticism – in the service of defending what is a quintessentially middle-class form of activism:

“On balance I back Russell [the leader of Invisible Children] over his armchair critics. He’s put his boots on the ground and he’s doing something. Gross simplification of Africa is nothing new. It’s the poor, disease-ravaged, war-torn continent where every complicated war is about control of diamonds, right? The reduction of Uganda’s many problems to Kony abusing children is not much different from the reduction of conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo to a fight for mineral riches. So, Russell works in a well-established genre, even if he pushes it.”

Cohen supports Russell and the Invisible Children crew on a twofold basis: one, at least they’re doing something, misconceived though it may be in some ways, and two, they are doing it in a way that is legible for an influential and expansive mass-public – namely, the bourgeois hosts of the predominantly (though not entirely) Protestant, white American middle class. These social strata are taught in great numbers to ‘look outward’ from American society at those who are less fortunate than ourselves, at those who are hapless victims of circumstances beyond their control and are in need of ‘our help;’ this occurs through the lenses of both religious and secular education, whether we are told about the American providence to spread the ‘good news’ of God’s word, or the ‘good news’ of liberal democratic freedoms to other less fortunate parts of the world. In either case, critical attention tends to be diverted from understanding extant forms of social domination closer to home, such as authoritarian, stultifying work conditions, urban and often racially-motivated police brutality, and the chronic social disaster that is the American working poor, a class which has been steadily growing for some time but, judging from extant news coverage, would not even seem to exist. Cohen is right to point out that, all things considered, at least the Invisible Children documentarians are attempting to actually do something about an egregious injustice, and in a way that ‘makes sense’ for a very large constituency; unfortunately, the practical consequences, for the great majority of sympathetic citizens in the United States, amount to buying a rather silly “action kit” consisting of a couple of bracelets for $30. Needless to say, the meager, consumeristic nature of the activism itself does much to temper the argument that the Invisible Children crew deserve credit for merely “doing something.”

One strategic possibility for left politics in coming years would be to concentrate on devising strategies for better harnessing middle-class moral fervor in the service of traditional left goals, for channeling that energy in the direction of more immediately accessible practical contexts for action. In principle, at least, it should be possible to pitch radicalising propositions like workplace democracy, participatory/community forms of economic organization, and extra-electoral struggle at a level and in a form that would be legible to the moral imagination of large sections of the progressive middle-class; this has already been happening to a notable extent in the context of #Occupy, whose populist rhetoric taps into a tried-and-true tradition of reform in the U.S. However, to win large constituencies over to the more radical propositions of the left program, it might be necessary to rethink the way we pitch our ideas at the popular level, perhaps striking an ideal balance between what Max Horkheimer called the “critical attitude,” and the more readily legible, culturally-specific forms of political and social argument that find expression in something like #StopKony2012, but in a less proto-imperialist, simplistic, and sentimental format.

This idea will be unpacked in a less schematic way in future posts.

Marcuse on the One-Dimensional Society

A comfortable, smooth, reasonable, democratic unfreedom prevails in advanced industrial civilization, a token of technical progress. Indeed, what could be more rational than the suppression of individuality in the mechanization of socially necessary but painful performances; the concentration of individual enterprises in more effective, more productive corporations; the regulation of free competition among unequally equipped economic subjects; the curtailment of prerogatives and national sovereignties which impede the international organization of resources. That this technological order also involves a political and intellectual coordination may be a regrettable and yet promising development…

Today political power asserts itself through its power over the machine process and over the technical organization of the apparatus. The government of advanced and advancing industrial societies can maintain and secure itself only when it succeeds in mobilizing, organizing, and exploiting the technical, scientific, and mechanical productivity available to industrial civilization. And this productivity mobilizes society as a whole, above and beyond any particular individual or group interests…

The brute fact that the machine’s physical (only physical?) power surpasses that of the individual, and of any particular group of individuals, makes the machine the most effective political instrument in any society whose basic organization is that of the machine process. But the political trend may be reversed; essentially the power of the machine is only the stored-up and projected power of man. To the extent to which the work world is conceived of as a machine and mechanized accordingly, it becomes the potential basis of a new freedom for man. Contemporary industrial civilization demonstrates that it has reached the stage at which “the free society” can no longer be adequately defined in the traditional terms of economic, political, and intellectual liberties, not because these liberties have become insignificant, but because they are too significant to be confined within the traditional forms. New modes of realization are needed, corresponding to the new capabilities of society. Such new modes can be indicated only in negative terms because they would amount to the negation of the prevailing modes. Thus economic freedom would mean freedom from the economy—from being controlled by economic forces and relationships; freedom from the daily struggle for existence, from earning a living. Political freedom would mean liberation of the individuals from politics over which they have no effective control. Similarly, intellectual freedom would mean the restoration of individual thought now absorbed by mass communication and indoctrination, abolition of “public opinion” together with its makers. The unrealistic sound of these propositions is indicative, not of their utopian character, but of the strength of the forces which prevent their realization. The most effective and enduring form of warfare against liberation is the implanting of material and intellectual needs that perpetuate obsolete forms of the struggle for existence.

Herbert Marcuse, One Dimensional Man