Saturday, June 11, 2011

Food for thought

Ian Welsh sez:
"Note also that Malcolm X makes Martin Luther King possible. Everyone doesn't have to have the strategy, what they must not do is what Arundhati Roy refused to do, they must not condemn others on the same side."
H/t Avedon

Make sure to read the whole thing. Ian's rather pragmatic taxonomy of approaches to resistance is far from exhaustive, but it does cover the basics.

Friday, June 10, 2011

To use or not use nonviolent forms of resistance:

That is a question that has come up time and time again in leftist circles, both when discussing our reaction to oppression at home and abroad. Recently the topic has come up again within the context of the "Arab Spring" that led to the relatively expedient overthrow of governments in Tunisia and Egypt, and prolonged unrest and civil war in several other nations (e.g., Libya, Yemen, Syria, Bahrain). Egypt, in particular, has been held up as an example of a so-called "nonviolent revolution", although such a label strikes me as misleading, at best. For that to have truly been the case, we would require good reason to believe that the individuals and groups protesting the eventually deposed government somehow managed to withstand the violent onslaughts of the Mubarek regime without so much as firing a shot. As Richard at American Leftist reminds us, such a notion is laughable. Even more ridiculous, as Richard duly notes, have been those commentators who seem to have convinced themselves that those "noble savages" in Egypt would have never utilized nonviolent resistance (to the extent that they chose to) without the intervention of Euro-American theorists and organizations. Still more ridiculous have been those Euro-American commentators who have condemned those among the Egyptian resistance who did use violence against the oppressive violence of the state. Suffice it to say, there are plenty of folks in Egypt who did not appreciate being told by a bunch of Americans how to run their revolution.

Now let me add a few other things: I am actually fairly familiar with Gene Sharp's work. His books on nonviolent action are often required reading in Peace Studies courses, and some of his work does continue to grace my own personal bookshelf space. His theoretical approach to power and legitimacy is well worth taking the time to understand, and many of the tactics he discusses in his various books are surely worth studying as well. Although my own views regarding the utility of nonviolence have evolved over the years, I think I have remained reasonably consistent in my views. To wit, I view nonviolent tactics as among those that should be part of any activist's or radical organization's arsenal. Under certain sets of conditions, nonviolent actions can be quite effective. In particular, for nonviolence to have even a faint chance at succeeding, there needs to be tangible international support and attention. To an extent, the Egyptian revolutionaries could count on that. Even then, there has to be good reason to believe that the opponent or opponents (e.g., the Mubarek regime) are willing to hear out the demands of the dissidents and negotiate in good faith and to respond nonviolently in kind - a condition that the Egyptian revolutionaries had good reason to believe did not exist.

Going a bit further, as others have no doubt observed, often successful nonviolent actions have been done in conjunction with others who are using violence. Although that does not necessarily minimize the importance of nonviolent resistance, it sure does put it in perspective. One might even argue that without the willingness of others to utilize violent means to attain political change, the space to use nonviolent means will not be open. Heck, I've been quite impressed with the largely nonviolent approach used by the Zapatistas, which has had some success for them in their struggle against the organizational and structural (some would say systemic) violence against the Indigenous and the poor in Mexico. However, it was their guerrilla war, and the fact that they're hardly disarmed, that has freed them up to wage a somewhat successful nonviolent struggle.

Basically, my bottom line is that it should be up to those who are oppressed to determine the means they shall use to resist their oppressors. Lecturing those who are being oppressed about being "insufficiently nonviolent" is something I find personally abhorrent and intellectually dishonest. In essence, such interventions serve the purposes of the oppressors rather than show solidarity with the oppressed. I also will note that even within the relatively "comfortable" socioeconomic circumstances in which we find ourselves in the so-called "West", that leftists have generally done themselves a disservice to the extent that they have ruled out any use of violence in order to achieve desperately needed political, economic, and social change. To what extent have we cut ourselves off at the knees for the last several decades? I wonder sometimes about the extent to which such a refusal to consider the potential necessity of violence has allowed for the illusion of being morally superior, of being innocent bystanders.

To be continued...

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Anniversary - 140 years this spring

This past spring marked the 140th anniversary of the Paris Commune, noteworthy as the first workers' government.

A primer on neoliberalism

For those wondering what I might mean by neoliberalism, Sherry Ortner's brief primer is must-reading (h/t BLCKDGRD). She does a decent job, I think, in laying out the historical context in which neoliberalism evolved. She also spends some time noting that if we were to look at writers prior to the start of this century, we'd most likely see a discussion of late capitalism instead (that was the term I typically saw in the postmodernist writings of the time). As an aside, a friend of mine who is an Ethnic Studies researcher (more specifically, Native American Studies) used to use the term predatory capitalism. Regardless of terminology, the phenomenon - a shift in the nature of capitalism starting sometime in the 1970s-1980s and continuing to the present day - is fairly easy to identify. Ortner offers her readers a few rays of hope toward the end, though I think she is expecting more from rags like the NYT than one could reasonably expect. Check her bibliography for further reading. This is one of those situations where what you don't know helps our CEO class to hurt you.

The problem as I see it

As I was reading Yves' and Avedon's recent missives (roughly around the time I was watching the recent mini-series on Ilich Ramirez Sanchez, or as he is better known, Carlos "The Jackal"), I had one of my deja vu moments. To wit: our "left wing" in US politics is largely nonexistent, but it doesn't have to remain nonexistent. What passes for a "left" has an infrastructure - I suppose if you can call it that - that is primarily tied to the Democratic Party, which is itself hostile to individuals and groups that hold left-wing views. To build a career (as an individual) or to maintain funding for an organization within such an infrastructure, to be one of the "serious people", it is imperative to acquiesce to our current neoliberal world order. Our "progressives" merely wish to anesthetize our pain as we continue to transition into a more stratified, privatized, and militarized state of affairs, and will gladly take the "necessary" dives and make the "necessary" compromises while persuading the rest of us who might be receptive to a left-leaning message that if we don't accept further cuts to our rights and our social infrastructure, our hard right nationalists will take further hostages.

That's hardly a message that would leave anyone feeling enthusiastic for long. At bare minimum, once the veneer of hope and change wears off, cynicism and disconnection are all that's left.

What we on the left need desperately, and what we've needed desperately for decades, is a coherent political infrastructure, relatively independent of both major US political parties. We need more than anything else to have our own party, communications, and security apparatuses. We need a coherent theory to drive our messaging and our actions. We need an international orientation, given that neoliberalism is an international problem facing all workers. We need to embrace, rather than vilify, those whose message is revolutionary. Think of how relatively left-wing reformers have historically succeeded: there was somewhere in the background a tangible threat that if the reformists weren't at least somewhat appeased, the revolutionaries would use the means available at their disposal. In our own country, the few labor and civil rights reforms that were won surely didn't happen because a few well-heeled reformist policy wonks wrote polite columns in NYT, but because there were people ready to put their lives and bodies on the line, and who were willing to fight the violence of the system with a bit of violence of their own - and they were well organized. Think of Popular Front approaches used to fight fascism in Europe and the US during the early decades of the 20th century. Think of the coalitions of radical and reformists organizations that have led to practically any worthwhile social change we might wish to mention. We live in a particular social and historical period in which the status quo is clearly not working for the vast majority of us, and in which the defenders of the status quo are bereft of ideas (Subcomandante Marcos has referred to neoliberalism as a state of perpetual crisis in search of a theoretical rationale). A leftist front uniting radical and reformist elements is something that is doable.

Okay, when time permits, I'll try to have a bit more to say on this topic. Suffice it to say, it is one that is near and dear to me.

Why you should not sell out

You can’t know what small action will have broader ripple effects. And in the end, even if you do not succeed in changing the terms of engagement, you have at least stood up for your dignity.

That is the end of a lengthy dispatch by Yves Smith. You really should read the whole thing. Yves is no leftist in any meaningful sense of the term, but she does have a keen understanding of what is very pathological about what passes for a "left" wing in US political discourse.

Bears repeating

I've long found solace while reading Avedon's fine blog, in large part because she truly grasps and has grasped from the get-go is that the Pope of Hope is no leftist or "progressive" (although what "progressive" really means is open to debate, I suppose), but rather represents "neoliberalism with a happy face". [1] All one needed to do was to take a cursory look at who Obama's economic advisors were when he was still merely campaigning to get the Democratic Party's nomination in 2008.

At the end of the day, neoliberalism is neoliberalism. Its adherents in DC and elsewhere are devoted to a form of predatory capitalism every bit as psychopathic as your typical Ayn Rand protagonist. Its adherents only differ in the degree of suffering to inflict on the rest of us, not on the desirability of us suffering as their benefactors profit.

[1] I have modified Alexander Dubcek's phrase "socialism with a happy face" for my own purposes.