Tuesday, June 17, 2008

I beg to differ

There is another choice, contrary to prevailing wisdom in what passes for a "left" in this country. Of course the Dem "leadership" will sell out on FISA, just like they will sell out on impeachment and ending these idiotic wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. For the life of me, I can't understand why anyone still believes any of them. They have proven themselves entirely useless again and again.

Since I feel the need to repeat myself on the matter, let's try this again. If you want a "left" that truly lives up to the name, it's going to take a radical rethink of how we play the political game. The system is broken. Continuing to pretend that one can work "within the system" with the oligarchs currently entrenched in power is a strategy doomed to failure.

I start with a simple question: "Is less bad good enough?" My answer from nearly three years ago, which I stand by today is:
When lives and quality of life are at stake, the answer is no. As of late I have given the words of the late Malcom X a fresh read, and I have a couple observations. One is that in many respects, when we're talking about civil rights and human rights in America things really haven't changed much since Malcom's day. The images from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina of the dire poverty that has consigned so many of our fellow Americans to a lifetime of marginal existence (what the Marxists would call the lumpenproletariat) and neglect by the very government that is supposed to serve them, will haunt me for as long as I can still draw a breath. Those images should haunt all of us. The specter of racism and classism continues to plague our political and social landscape, just as it has all of my life. The second observation: politicians from one party or another haved talked a good game when it comes to promoting progressive ideas and policies - but with few exceptions they don't walk the talk. That was a problem that Malcom confronted with the issues that were salient to him, and is a problem that we on the left continue to confront. The Dems have assumed for so long that they have the leftists, the women, the ethnic minorities in their back pockets because presumably we have "nowhere else to go." The result is, as it was in the 1950s and 1960s, a not-so-benign neglect of our issues and values from the powers that be. And as long as we keep registering Democrat and periodically show up to vote when expected, nothing changes, except maybe for the worse. We have a party where its members say the right things more often than not, but then by and large approve laws like The Patriot Act, the bankruptcy bill that will end up burying working families who've encountered exhorbitant medical expenses; they've been silent when the White House nominated an architect of the current pro-torture policy to the office of AG; when it comes to the illegal war being fought against the Iraqis, many of the Dems want to send more troops and kill of even more people; they've been largely silent on the issue of voting irregularities both in Ohio and Florida; and we know that privacy rights are also no longer sacred in Dem circles.

What to do? In Malcom's last year on this planet he offered up some simple advice that I think we can all use: be organized, and don't affiliate with either the Dems or the GOP. That's the general idea behind American Solidarity: organize physically, financially, intellectually. Many of us come from varying backgrounds and have varying pet causes, but let's face it - those of us who are living paycheck to paycheck, those of us who value liberty, who value equality, who value justice, who value privacy have a hell of a lot in common. Technological advances in the last decade or so make it easier for us to coordinate and to exchange ideas and information than ever before. It's way past time to start using those tools to our advantage. Blogs are one of our tools, playing the same role that zines played in the 1980s and pamphlets such as Paine's played during the Revolution some 230 years ago. Blogging is only part of that picture. Cernig fills in some of the details elsewhere. Clearly, unions, thinktanks, civil liberties organizations are going to be salient as well.

Being unaffiliated with the major political parties is also crucial for an American Solidarity movement. The GOP can be written off as a lost cause. The Dems, I'm also skeptical of, but will note this much: if they think we're registered as Dems, they can assume that we'll continue to accept the status quo. Malcom was onto something back in 1964 and 1965 when he advocated refusing to back any candidate until it was clear that they were willing to walk their talk. If they turn out to be kosher, then by all means support them, but only to the extent that they are representing us. If they stop representing us, we should be willing to walk away from them. If they know that their constituents mean business, they'll be more careful to represent us in whatever legislative body they hold office. There's strength in numbers, especially when those numbers are independent.
I consider myself antipartisan. That position is borne out of frustration with those who promised for too many years to make a meaningful difference on the issues that struck me as most consequential. As much as I'd love to see alternative or third parties have a voice, the current system is rigged almost hopelessly against them. Instead, we get nonsense about how we have "no choice" but to accept the alleged "lesser evil." When Josh Marshall earlier this year said:

What I am saying is that no one can run away from the choice every American with the franchise will face in November. The next president will either be John McCain or the Democratic nominee. That's an immovable fact. Not voting or voting for some protest candidate doesn't allow anyone to wash their hands of that choice.
I called bullshit. As I said in March of this year:

Further, I'd strongly suggest reading Arthur Silber's The Tale That Might Be Told. The false choice that Josh Marshall is presenting us is one of selecting which one is "less bad." Continuing to make such "choices" only encourages the rulers to believe they are legitimate. If you try out Silber's gedanken experiment, you can imagine just how tenuous the elites' hold on legitimacy really is: after all, they're only legit to the extent that the people tolerate them, and withholding one's support is not a particularly difficult thing to do really. Psychologically, a small turnout (and by small, let's say less than ten percent of the electorate) would change things considerably. It's hard enough for a president to claim a mandate when less than a quarter of the registered voters support them (although they usually do somehow with a straight face). Once you start talking less than five percent of the registered voters supporting the eventual "victor", any remaining pretense of a "mandate" is taken away. One might also take away from Silber's essay the idea that the elites need us much, much more than we "need" them.

Said it before, and I'll say it again: ideally we'd have not only a mass boycott of the polls in November, but also a general strike to drive the point home that a very large number of Americans are plain and simply fed up with the status quo. I don't hold out much hope for something that organized to happen here as of yet, but perhaps I might one day be pleasantly surprised.

There's no running away involved: Not only am I refusing to vote for either the of the evils (be it in Donkey or Elephant form), but I have stated so publicly on many an occasion and no doubt will continue to do so for as long as I can draw a breath and find anyone who will listen. In other words, I've simply stood up and said "no" to evils, no matter how much "lesser" their supporters claim them to be.
Richard at American Leftist has been outlining similar, overlapping concerns in a series of essays – The Poverty of the Presidential Campaign (Part 1) and The Poverty of the Presidential Campaign (Part 2). Not only are they both well worth revisiting, but there is at least one passage (from the second essay in the series) that needs to be repeated again, and again, and again:

Accordingly, the question becomes, why dedicate such resources to an effort that is unlikely to reach much of the public and, hence, unlikely to educate people as to different approaches to current US policy? Especially when the inevitable result, a low percentage of the vote, is then highlighted by the media as indicative of a public rejection of them?

Such questions become particularly salient when we realize that Nader, McKinney and La Riva could channel their efforts into other activities that might well be more effective. For example, all three oppose the war in Iraq. Perhaps, instead of running for President, the three of them could form an organization dedicated towards ending the occupation by economically pressuring the corporations that directly benefit from it. Imagine a national campaign against corporations that contract with the Pentagon to provide equipment and services.

Of course, most Americans would find such an effort deplorable, but remember, you don't need 50% plus one, to win this sort of confrontation with a corporation just 2%, 3% or 5% could have a significant impact. Even if it objectively failed to change corporate policy, which is probable, it would also highlight the interrelationship between the US government, transnational corporations and the occupation in Iraq, a relationship that significantly explains the persistence of the US presence there.

In other words, it would, unlike a presidential campaign, successfully convey a political theme with the synergistic potential for new organizing campaigns. Imagine if such an effort went global. And, this could be done with other critically important economic issues as well. On Saturday, I published a post about a possible bailout of the international finance system through central bank purchases of mortgage backed securities.

There are almost unlimited possibilities with this one. Nader, McKinney, La Riva and others could create a coalition that would either oppose the bailout, or insist that central banks like the Federal Reserve, the Bank of Japan and the European Bank only move forward if the financial institutions in possession of the securities agree to provide more capital for an array of socially compelling needs, such as affordable housing, health care and education. After all, the banks are governmental institutions capitalized with our money, so, if they are going to dispense with the ruthless application of neoliberal policies in regard to banks, savings and loans, brokerage houses and hedge funds, shouldn't they do the same for us?

Again, starting domestically and expanding the effort internationally appears to be essential. But doing so requires abandoning a [narcissistic] perspective about the centrality of the presidential election, and instead moving to align ourselves with emerging global trends on the left. A campaign for President by a third, fourth or fifth party candidate has a beginning, a middle and an end, but an effort of this kind possesses the potential of creating an internationalized American left capable of playing an important role in the defeat of military neoliberalism.
There is no immediate gratification or hanging on to false hope from snake oil salesmen posing as "progressives." Rather, let's think about the long haul. The worthwhile struggles have required a tremendous amount of physical and intellectual nurturance, whether it involved whatever gains have been made in labor laws (do you really think that just voting for "progressive" candidates election after election brought about the eight hour work day?), civil rights, fighting empires, and so on. That means stopping traffic, physically and intellectually by whatever means necessary. Imagine what would happen if only five percent of the electorate actually bothered to vote this November. You think it's difficult to claim a mandate when one barely ekes out a majority when only half the electorate votes? With one tenth of those numbers, the charade would be over. Stopping traffic is all about waking people up. I'm not a "protest for the sake of protest" kind of person, but I do see a need to throw some monkey wrenches into the system. Whatever one does, working "constructively" within the system is no longer a viable option. Instead, as I stated over a year ago:

Certainly we need to disabuse ourselves of the notion that if we elect one party or the other to office that suddenly everything will be peachy keen. It's safe to say that it hasn't worked out that way in my lifetime, nor do I foresee that happening any time too soon. There might be some superficial differences between Democrats and Republicans on some issues, but that's just the window dressing. As long as even the self-styled progressives are committed to the same imperialist agenda (as another blogger has noticed) as their more right-wing counterparts, we will continue to see a state of perpetual war and the continued justification for the 700 or so military bases around the world in the name of "national defense." We will also continue to see an escalation of the government's war against its own citizens in the form of draconian drug laws, PATRIOT Act-style legislation, "free trade" policies that impoverish an increasing number of Americans, and yes the condemnation of vast parcels of farm and ranch lands (along with the towns that exist in the vicinity) in order to build gargantuan military facilities. To expect any sort of substantial change in practice to correspond to a change in the fortunes of the two official political parties is folly.

The sane thing to do when faced with an insane system is to screw with it. That may well be the one tangible bit of power we ordinary folks possess given that the current political game is so badly rigged to the elites' advantage. Stop traffic. Wean yourself away from the prevailing consumer culture. Don't do anything that contributes to strengthening the system as it currently exists. Obviously I am not advocating giving up the fight for the causes one holds dear. I have no intention of doing so myself or to stop writing as time permits. I guess what it comes down to is taking a different perspective in light of the realities of our current situation, and to find a healthy detachment from the American political scene. That reality necessitates a certain amount of jadedness along the lines of Arthur Silber and Billmon's now defunct Whiskey Bar.
To go back to some words from just a few months ago:

I see the possibilities regarding "stopping traffic" to be practically endless - whether it's weaning away from consumerism to boycotting elections. It's quite liberating to not feel the need to pay attention to all the sniping between the Clintonistas and Obamistas, or at least to see it for what it is rather than to get caught up emotionally in something that is little more than a reality show for wannabe wonks.

Another world is indeed possible - heck, since the Seattle WTO protests as 1999 (that even continue to manifest themselves in my dreams from time to time), I think we're seeing the faint outlines of what that world might look like. It won't be paradise - just humanity making use of the remnants of what had been and moving on to something else. The potential for that "something else" to be mostly good is what keeps me going. It's still winter in America (as Gil Scott-Heron once wrote) - actually winter all over the globe - but spring will come. Those first tentative signs of new life are already there if one merely stops for a second and takes a good look. Until then...
Dare to dream. Dare to turn those dreams into reality. There is nothing to lose, and everything to gain.

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