How Sweet It Isn’t: “What’s Left?” November 2017, MRR #414

It’s called “sweetening.”

It’s a certain type of background music and ambient sound for films and TV shows meant to enhance mood and emotion. It’s also called juicing, but it’s intended to be subtle, behind the scenes, muted. Sweetening is not supposed to be too obvious. For instance, when a live audience is recorded anywhere, a laugh track/canned heat track is frequently blended into the live audience track to amplify its effect, whether of laughter, clapping, booing, whatever.

The term has its origin in old-time radio, when sound effects like horses galloping, doors opening and closing, characters walking, gunshots, etc. were used to paint visual detail in a non-visual medium. Again, it’s not all dramatic sound effects. In films and TV shows, it’s not the sound of violent explosions or roaring monsters. The sweetening is in the sense of foreboding portended in the background music, or in the subsonic infrasound used to generate apprehension in the audience prior to some climactic scene. So while “sweetening” comes off good and positive, it might as well be called “shadowing” or “darkening,” depending on what effect the sound is intended to enhance.

As for political sweetening, two recent examples come to mind. The Tea Party ended up sweetening the Republican Party from the right, as did Bernie Sander’s “political revolution” the Democratic Party from the left. Both movements started as popular revolts against their respective party establishments and their mainstream politics, both helped rewrite their respective party platforms, and both moved the politics of those parties respectively to the right and left. Both threatened to break away to form independent third party efforts, both were blamed for the potential demise of their respective political parties, but both ultimately succumbed to political opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization. Or at least the Tea Party succumbed and wound up faking a hard-times protest movement, spawning affiliated get-rich-quick cottage industries, and successfully rebranding the GOP. Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement, so it remains vibrant and very much in the streets. Ideally, this popular resistance needs to avoid opportunism, cooptation, and marginalization, but that’s very difficult to do if the Tea Party is any indication.

What doesn’t count as political sweetening was Occupy Wall Street. OWS doesn’t count for much at all now, despite initially being praised by authors, artists, celebrities, politicians, and pundits as the greatest thing since sliced bread. I’ve never hidden my disdain for OWS. It may have personally changed lives like the bad brown acid circulating at a mediocre rock concert, but it was just a flash in the pan that changed little politically. So unless the inane consensus hand signals and annoying human microphone are included, no innovation of any consequence arose from OWS. That also covers the communizing “occupy everything, demand nothing” campus activism that emerged among protesting California students in 2011.

OWS ran with the franchise activism common nowadays, where an indistinct idea was widely disseminated and then taken up by local activists who made it their own through locally flavored community actions. The movement’s core idea, embodied in its name, was so nebulous in fact that it produced both the anarcho/ultraleft, black bloc, streetfighting Occupy Oakland, California, and the virulently antisemitic, conspiracy-theorist, ultraright Occupy Tallinn, Estonia, with every political combination in between. So while the majority of OWS-affiliated actions tended leftwing, liberal, and even anarchist, there was considerable involvement by rightwing, conservative, and even fascist elements. In this way, OWS displayed troubling Left/Right crossover politics similar to the anti-globalization movement which preceded it. This was not by chance but by design, given the decentralized, all-are-welcome nature of the movement’s organizing message. This was complemented by the ambiguous categories employed by OWS, most prominent being “the 99%” versus “the 1%.” This promoted an uncritical populism that studiously avoided any class-based analysis, but it denied any identity-based analysis as well, instead encouraging an amorphous, dumbed-down, Hardt/Negri-style notion of “the multitude.”

When finance capital comes to the fore, capitalism itself is in decline. Capitalism has abandoned industrial production for financial circulation, meaning that its profit-making comes not from surplus value transformed into capital but from mere exchange. For OWS then to focus its vague critique of capitalism on Wall Street and finance capital was to target a decaying economic system as if it were still robust, misinterpreting capitalism’s retreat as a faux advance. To see the enemy as attacking rather than as withdrawing was a delusion that badly skewed the tactics and strategy required to take on and defeat that enemy. If nothing else, this falsely portrayed finance capital as stronger and more powerful than it actually is, reinforcing the rightwing trope that “international bankers” rule the world. Excuse me, “banksters.” From this, it’s a half-step to the “international Jewish conspiracy for world domination” that is the ultra-right’s favorite meme.

Spencer Sunshine has written a detailed survey called “20 On The Right In Occupy” through the Political Research Associates think tank which provides thumbnail summaries of anti-Federal Reserve, antisemitic, white nationalist, fascist, and neo-Nazi individuals and groups involved in OWS. These strange right and left bedfellows in OWS are not so odd once we realize that antisemitism is also on the rise on the Left. Case in point, the post-Situ Adbusters Magazine from which the original OWS call came. From Kalle Lasn’s Adbuster article discussing fifty influential neoconservatives under the title “Why Won’t Anyone Say They Are Jewish?” to Adbuster tweets that took up the alt.right’s outing of twitter users as Jewish by surrounding their names with parentheses, Left/Right crossover politics abound. Not that Adbuster’s leftist politics aren’t sketchy in so many other ways, what with their support of Israeli antisemite Gilad Atzmon and Italian conspiracy theorist Beppe Grillo. They do act as a political transition to the hard Left’s anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist ideologies, which too easily and too often become outright Left antisemitism.

Back to my point earlier, there are people who are not at all happy that Bernie’s “political revolution” has blended nicely into the much broader anti-Trump protest movement. These folks are the mainstream Democratic Party establishment liberals who blame Sanders and his “BernieBros” for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Salon executive editor Andrew O’Hehir had a wonderfully sarcastic takedown of their status quo recalcitrance awhile back:

But another running theme in Democratic Party apologetics informs all that, which is the ingrained desire to blame the left-wing resistance for anything that goes wrong — and to insist that it isn’t actually the left at all but sort of, kind of, the right. Hence Wolcott’s argument that the DudeBros and ‘purity progressives’ of the ‘alt-left’ are in some undisclosed manner closely related to the rebranded white supremacists of the alt-right. Or maybe it’s just that he doesn’t like either of them.

To return to our central premise: The DudeBros ruined everything. Their workings are malicious, and marvelous. They are simultaneously clueless, puritanical and all-powerful. In between Ultimate Frisbee tournaments and Vampire Weekend marathons, they elected Donald Trump, wiped out the Democratic Party between the coasts, rioted against Milo Yiannopoulos in Berkeley and/or defected to the alt-right en masse. They develop apps whose functions remain mysterious, and that most of us don’t know how to use. Unforgivably, they made the Phish reunion possible, and now it will never stop.

Hence, conflating “terrorist” James Hodgkinson with “crazy” Jeremy Christian, or antifa “alt-left” with fascist alt-right.

The Democratic Party establishment wants the anti-Trump resistance to be a leftwing Tea Party, the energy, individuals, and organizations of which the party can exploit to win future elections, while ultimately domesticating, coopting, and marginalizing that resistance. They want the Left’s resistance to be the Democratic Party’s sweetening. This is exactly what we don’t want to happen if we want the anti-Trump resistance not to suffer the same fate as the Tea Party.

Of course, it’s much more complicated than “Bernie or Bust” versus the Democratic Party. Politics to the left of the Democratic Party also includes progressives, democratic socialists and social democrats, Leninists, and the black bloc anarcho/ultraleft. But it’s never been an equal playing field with the Democratic Party vis-à-vis the rest of the American Left. The Democrats are the 800-pound gorilla in the room. Even decimated, at their lowest point in fifty years, the Democrats continue to wield vast power and influence. Which is why we need to prevent the vilification of the black bloc or the BernieBros or Jill Stein’s Greens or anyone else as a convenient scapegoat for the Democratic Party’s mistakes and woes. I’m not so naïve as to think what we need is a united or popular front; some mystical kumbaya circle jerk of leftist unity. But we don’t need the Democratic Party and its liberals running the show either.

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Summing up: OWS in context: “What’s Left?” December 2013, MRR #367

Hooligan Header
Forgive me if I repeat myself.

I’ve had the above column header for a while now, a kind of homage to the anti-globalization movement. A response to the Thatcher/Reagan neoliberal agenda that included an aggressive economic and political globalism, the anti-globalization movement rapidly expanded through a series of international protests targeting the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and various annual global summits. These protests climaxed with the massive Battle of Seattle on November 30, 1999 that temporarily shut down that city and the World Trade Organization. A half dozen ever more violent mass confrontations followed, in Gothenburg, Sweden and Genoa, Italy in 2001 alone. But the worldwide clampdown that followed the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, under the United States and its allies, forced the movement to evolve between 2001 and 2003, from roving international protests into international social forums. The affinity groups and non-governmental organizations of the “First World” based anti-globalization movement can be counterposed to much more significant “Third World” insurgencies. In Chiapas, Mexico, the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN) instigated a guerrilla-lead communal uprising in January, 1994, that continues to this day. And the Argentinian economic debt crisis of December, 2001, resulted in political turmoil, financial collapse, street riots, and workers’ self-managed cooperatives taking over much of Argentina’s economy.

I am definitely inspired by the anti-globalization movement and, even more so, by the parallel Third World insurrections of the day. My first book, End Time, which was published in January of 1994, anticipated both. Now, let’s take stock of the last five years as far as international protest and insurgency goes. The landmark here is the 2008 worldwide economic meltdown initiated by the financial crack-up of Wall Street.

There was an uptick in labor unrest in this country, starting with the Republic Windows occupation in Chicago, Illinois, in late 2008 following the economic collapse and subsequent calls for economic austerity. When Wisconsin governor Scott Walker successfully divested public employee unions of their right to collectively bargain in early 2011, Madison became the center for demonstrations by unions and their supporters. These protests eventually culminated in the unsuccessful attempt to recall Walker and Wisconsin’s Republican Legislature. First World American labor unrest has grown diverse since then, from dock workers’ agitation on the west coast through attempts to unionize and pay fast food workers a minimum wage to a BART workers strike against management.

The worldwide 2008 economic meltdown buffeted the European Union with a severe recession and calls for austerity that hit the weakest economies of the Union hardest. Greece, Italy, Spain, Portugal, and Ireland became subject to more extreme neoliberal measures. Cutbacks in government spending and services, financial reorganization on the backs of working people and the poor, economic privatization, and the scaling back of an already anemic welfare sector followed. Comprised of generally prosperous First World western nations, the EU was politically committed to liberal democracy, economically hellbent on financializing to supersede their industrial sectors, and socially aging to where only 20% to 30% of the population is aged 24 or under. Yet when austerity was imposed on the feeblest members of the EU, political protest and social violence quickly broke out and rapidly spread. Initiated by the youth of Greece (2010-12), Italy (2011-12), Spain (2011-12), and Portugal (2011-12), these social insurgencies were true mass movements. They were largely leaderless due to their size, with mixed economic/political/social demands, a social composition crossing social classes, and activity not solely economically based. These mass movements allied with the working class of their respective countries, with trade unions calling limited, one-day general strikes in solidarity with popular anti-austerity actions.

The main aspects of this First World social opposition are magnified when we consider countries in the Third World, Brazil and Turkey being the most prominent. These nations are often only tentatively devoted to democracy, still heavily steeped in industrial economies, and defined by profoundly youthful societies with populations of 40% to 45% aged 24 or under. The world economic crisis hit most Third World nations hard, but Brazil and Turkey actually were less affected by the post-2008 financial collapse and effectively resisted the austerity efforts of the World Bank and IMF. Leaderless due to their magnitude, the youth-based, cross-class mass movements that exploded in these countries were intensified by conditions specific to the Third World. The mass movements were much larger, the political protests were more radical, and the social violence was more extreme. Finally, the allied working-class solidarity, the trade union general strikes were more potent. The Brazilians demanded an end to public transport fare increases, government corruption, the economic dislocations produced by the upcoming Olympics, and state repression of demonstrators. The Turks quickly moved from a sit-in against urban development plans for Istanbul’s Taksim Gezi Park to demands for freedom of press, expression, and assembly, further democratization of the Turkish state, and increased secularization of Turkish society. It was the EU protests, times ten.

The fraudulent 2009 presidential election of Ahmadinejad in Iran provoked a widespread uprising in the streets called the Green Movement, so massive that it threatened to topple the government. State repression quickly followed, forcing the movement underground. After protests over the self-immolation of a Tunisian street vendor at the end of 2010, a youthful insurgency rapidly spread to twenty-odd other countries across the Middle East, where 54% of population is under the age of 25. Accompanied by popular support and working class solidarity strikes, these actions—collectively called the Arab Spring—were leaderless because of the scope and breadth of the movement as a whole. The Arab Spring swept a region of the Third World where the countries were politically inimical to democracy, often economically dependent upon simple resource extraction, and geographically carved up by historical imperialism. Four governments were overthrown, as exemplified by the 2011 Egyptian Revolution focused on Cairo’s Tahrir Square. The processes of the Arab Spring that some hoped would be ongoing in countries of the region, instead are experiencing dissolution altogether in multiple national civil wars, or in region-wide disintegration involving intercommunal and sectarian violence and warfare. The reverberations are intense and immense, ranging from Sunni/Shi’ite conflagration across the Middle East to the potential wholesale destruction of Egypt, one of the oldest national societies in the area.

In contrast to these world-spanning protests and violence, China experienced a less substantial economic slowdown after 2008 which produced an increase in industrial strike activity. While not as dramatic as those actions detailed above, this strike wave nevertheless amounted to significant opposition to Communist Party rule. Depending on the study cited, 345 industrial incidents occurred from 1990 to 2008 (18 years), 355 incidents from 1997 to 2007 (10 years), and 553 incidents from 200 to 2010 (10 years). By comparison, from 2008 to 2012, just 3.3 years, 435 industrial incidents occurred. Protests based on environmental issues alone increased by an average of 29% every year since 1996, while in 2011 the number of major environmental actions rose 120%. The number of protests, termed “mass incidents” in general, doubled between 2006 and 2010, rising to 180,000; uprisings that were responses to myriad issues, primarily official corruption, government land grabs, Tibetan autonomy, and environmental problems. And these are merely the tip of the iceberg, as it is notoriously difficult to ferret out information, facts and statistics from China’s state-controlled society. A putative socialist “Second World” country during the Cold War, China is a top tier Third World nation, comparable to Turkey or Brazil described above.

Then, there was Occupy Wall Street.

I tried to remain critical yet positive, analytical yet constructive, in particular with respect to Occupy Oakland. I attempted to use this column to detail the ups and downs of the OO encampment, the victories and defeats of OO’s black bloc anarchos, and the “close but no cigar” General Strike that wasn’t. Returning to the source—OWS—the contrasts with much of the post-2008 protest history described above cannot be more obvious, nor more troubling. OWS was self-conscious in so many ways, starting with being self-consciously NOT a cross-class mass movement. Rather, it was a movement of activists, and mostly of young activists at that. It self-consciously avoided “hitching its wagon to” (read “making alliances with”) any social sector or interest group, like organized labor or the Democratic Party or anti-capitalist movements or people of color, just as it self-consciously remained leaderless or self-consciously refused to formulate specific demands. Through this, OWS wanted to prevent being coopted and, as a movement, prevent being recuperated by state and capital. Only thing is, OWS was so busy paying inordinate attention to itself as a movement, it failed to take seriously the issue of power.

OWS garnered an extraordinary amount of national and international media attention, often excruciatingly self-aware, yet it accomplished almost nothing in the close to the year of its existence. It was a resounding failure, a flash in the pan, a nine days’ wonder. Much like those anarchists who proclaimed that the black bloc was not a group but a tactic, and became so preoccupied with their tactic that they failed to devise any more formidable strategy, those in OWS who proclaimed that their movement was leaderless, without demands, and not in need of a mass base, and became self-absorbed by their movement, had already relegated themselves to a minuscule historical footnote. Those leaderless, youth-inspired, cross-class mass movements of protest and violence in the EU, Brazil and Turkey, and the countries of the Arab Spring that have issued demands and contested power accomplished many significant things, despite being short-lived. By contrast, OWS in First World America was a sad little joke. The United States shared the political/economic/social configuration of much of the EU, yet with a much more youthful demographic due to ongoing immigration. OWS only gained the potential to become a mass movement when it relinquished its affected, self-conscious character, when it started to work with labor, both organized and unorganized, community occupations, squatting and anti-foreclosure efforts, anti-corporate/bank campaigns, efforts to help threatened schools and libraries, debt forgiveness, campaigns to monitor police abuse, even work in communities of color. By then, Occupy Wall Street was dead.

When Naomi Klein compared the Anti-Globalization Movement with Occupy Wall Street (NYT, 10-10-11), she realized that the former’s protest tourism targeting world summits was unsustainable in the wake of 9/11. Yet her praise for the latter was patently idiotic. Klein’s delight “that this movement doesn’t have a list of soundbite-ready demands and media-ready spokespeople” was extremely simple minded. And OWS’s choice of a “fixed target,” with “no end date on their presence” was a dead end. Occupy Wall Street has been relegated to the dustbin of history. I have no plans to change my column header to an Occupy theme anytime soon.

Whither Occupy Oakland: “What’s Left?” February 2012, MRR #345

I’m not too proud to admit that I fucked up last column in my across the board criticism of Occupy Wall Street. My wife rightly took me and my column to task and pointed out that the Occupy movement has raised some important issues—wealth inequality, corporate greed, political corruption—into the realm of public debate, and therefore doesn’t deserve my inordinately pessimistic take on the movement as a whole. The fact that various folks my age and older who haven’t been to a demonstration in the past couple of decades are suddenly dropping by their local Occupy encampment to participate has given credence to her argument.

I ended my last column just as Occupy Oakland was taken down for the first time. The orgy of police violence, and in particular the injury of Iraqi war veteran Scott Olsen, triggered a massive burst of organizing energy that saw the reoccupation of the plaza in front of Oakland city hall, and the call for a general strike in the city of Oakland on November 2.

No, of course, it was not an actual general strike, for a number of reasons. For one, only a small fraction of Oakland’s workforce left their workplaces without permission. The bulk of Oakland’s businesses apart from the downtown area remained open and the city was not shut down. Union members, such as the California Nurses Association, used sick days to participate, while the Oakland City government gave their workers permission to join in. Even the supremely militant longshoreman’s union, the ILWU, required protestors to block port gates before official mediators would approve the cancellation of a port workers’ shift. An earlier shift of ILWU workers went to work during the day of the general strike. Finally, of the 50,000 plus demonstrators who did march to block the gates and shut down the Port of Oakland, many were not city residents or working class. To argue that the composition of the working class in 2011 is different from that of 1946, or that this was actually a social strike because the social relations in downtown Oakland were entirely altered on that day is simply to play semantic games.

Still, 50,000 plus demonstrators did turn out on that gloriously sunny day, a powerful turnout, and a stupendous culmination to Occupy Oakland’s call for a general strike. The boisterous, festive atmosphere of the crowds blocking the port gates, the interaction between the crowds and the troqueros, the independent truckers, detained by those crowds, and ultimately the decision by the health and safety arbitrator that dockworkers didn’t have to cross an unsafe picket line; the triumph of the port march foreshadowed one of the turns the Occupy movement has made of late, towards an engagement with organized labor. In no way could this mass protest replace or “substitute” for mass working class action, yet it was impressive in its own right. To make these points, and to put this protest in perspective, remember that between 150,000, and 200,000 demonstrators turned out on February 16, 2003 in San Francisco to protest America’s invasion of Iraq, disrupting the financial district’s “business as usual” and the city’s “social relations as usual” in a far more dramatic fashion.

The second important highlight of November 2 was the black bloc’s action. Not the midday smashy smashy of bank windows, the spray paint attack on Whole Foods, or the schoolyard skirmishing between black masked anarchos and the peace police. All that was silly bullshit. Even though the Oakland PD had purposefully kept its distance during the daytime’s various activities, including the black bloc rampage, the black bloc’s tactics were tired and entirely predictable. If every time you play a game of chess you make the same moves, eventually your opponent is going to realize this vulnerability and wipe you off the board. Ironically, the OPD did just that when the anarchos attempted their most daring, and provocative, stunt—the one deed worth admiration and praise—the takeover of the former Travelers Aid Society building.

An abandoned and foreclosed structure, the TAS building was occupied that evening by the black bloc and a healthy mix of Oakland youth, who ostensibly wanted to communalize it and turn it into a community center. To be part shelter for youth and the homeless, learning center, workspace, and library, these plans were dashed by a mammoth police assault completely unanticipated by the occupiers. The black bloc built a pair of barricades, a pathetic defense even under the best of circumstances, but made particularly ludicrous given that the OPD is better armed than many Third World countries. Wave after wave of riot police came in, swinging batons, firing tear gas canisters, tossing flashbang grenades, and shooting rubber bullets, to completely rout the building occupation and arrest many of its participants. But despite this defeat, the actual building occupation presaged another turn that the Occupy movement has recently made in its solidarity with various anti-foreclosure movements around the country. It also heralded a resurgence of squatting activism in Oakland and beyond. In this sense, the black bloc action was avant garde in the best sense of that word, and provided the most effective argument against charges of anti-democratic substitutionalism leveled against this powerful deed.

To conclude, my column header is an homage to “ancient” history, the now defunct anti-globalization movement of 1999-2001. Launched with the brilliant shutdown of the WTO in the 1999 battle for Seattle, the movement eventually devolved into chic protest tourism that gave us horrendous riots in Gothenburg, Sweden, and Genoa, Italy, before being strangled by the international security clampdown promulgated after September 11, 2001. The Occupy Wall Street movement, in its tent/park occupation phase, hasn’t lasted three months, nor could it last two years, in part because of the intense militarization of local police forces as a consequence of 9/11. Even the movement’s initiator, Adbusters, has suggested that it is time for Occupy Wall Street to move on and find other directions.

Occupy’s engagement with organized labor and anti-foreclosure activities is thus a positive development, denunciations of “union pie cards” or “middle class property owners” to the contrary. The diffuse “Occupy Our Homes” campaign from Brooklyn to Oakland was matched by the only partly successful west coast port shutdown actions of December 12. Oakland was completely closed, and partial disruptions were effected in Portland, Oregon and Longview, Washington. But Seattle and San Diego experienced severe police repression, and the region’s largest ports, Long Beach and Los Angeles, were almost entirely unaffected by the protest. Couple these spotty results with mixed support from the ILWU rank-and-file, and independent truckers, and it is clear that the Occupy movement has a long way to go in achieving a working solidarity with organized labor.

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