The Left and Their Fetishes: “What’s Left?” April 2017, MRR #407

ONE

The weapon of criticism cannot, of course, replace criticism by weapons, material force must be overthrown by material force; but theory also becomes a material force as soon as it has gripped the masses. Theory is capable of gripping the masses as soon as it demonstrates ad hominem, and it demonstrates ad hominem as soon as it becomes radical. To be radical is to grasp the root of the matter. But for man the root is man himself.

Karl Marx, A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right, 1843

I claim to be a skeptic, an atheist, a supporter of science and rationality, yet I got my contradictions. One of these is that I collect “charms.” I pick up trinkets from places, events, actions, and people that start out as souvenirs but eventually become fetish objects. Invested memories transubstantiate into spirit power with time. I used to carry around a kind of personal medicine bundle of charms that grew larger and more uncomfortable until I realized my habit was absurd and a bit obsessive. I retired the bundle a while back, but I didn’t ever throw it away. And I usually have one or two tiny personal charms on me as I go about my day.

Segue into this month’s topic—the Left and their fetishes—as we transition from discussing the elections to leftist politics. I’m using the British possessive pronoun “their” instead of the American “its” to emphasize not only the multitude of fetishes but the plurality of American Lefts.

Broadly speaking, the Left in this country falls into democratic, Leninist, and libertarian categories. Each of these categories can then be further subdivided. The democratic Left falls into subcategories like the Democratic Party’s left wing, electoral third parties, independent liberals and progressives, non-Marxist socialists, democratic socialists, and social democrats. Similarly, the Leninist Left comes in Marxist-Leninist, Stalinist, Hoxhaist, Trotskyist, and Maoist subcategories. We can dig deeper into each of these subcategories until we drill down to the level of singular organizations.

As for the libertarian Left, what I often call the left of the Left, it too breaks down into various subcategories of left anarchism (mutualism, collectivism, syndicalism, communism) and the ultraleft (council communism and left communism). Setting aside this rudimentary deconstruction, I still think the libertarian Left possesses the potential to bring its components into dialogue with each other to theoretically transcend the overall Left’s historic limitations. Add Autonomism, neo- or post-Leninism, insurrectionism, and communization to expand the political discourse in this potent melange and I’m hoping that some grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left will emerge that cuts across all three categories of the Left—democratic, Leninist, and libertarian. By the way, these three happen to be the three overarching fetishes on the American Left.

Here, we’re not talking about fetish as an object with power, but as an idea with power, an idea embedded in social history that is also embodied in social relations and structures. It’s about a Left devoted to democracy, or a Left centered on scientific socialism, or a Left championing individual and social liberation. I passed through several political phases on my journey through the left of the Left and I entertained various narrower organizing ideas along the way—non-violence as an anarcho-pacifist, the power of the people or the power of revolt as a left anarchist, the working class as a left communist—before I distanced myself from the ultraleft due to my growing skepticism. Orthodox Leftists have their own parallel set of fetish ideas; the unions, the proletariat, the vanguard party, history, socialist struggles for national liberation, etc. The two idées fixes that dominated the Left historically have been the working class and identity nationalism, with various workers’ revolts, movements, and regimes vying with numerous ethnically/racially based national liberation struggles for preeminence.

What’s behind the fetishizing of these Leftist tropes is the notion of agency, that something will act as a unifying basis for initiating revolution, changing society, and making history. That a revolutionary proletariat or that socialist struggles for national liberation will be central to this process. In the US, this means either pursuing the illusion of working class unity or the fantasy of a rainbow coalition of identity movements to affect any such change. Never mind that class runs against ethnic/racial groupings, and that nationalism ignores class divisions, so that class struggles and national struggles invariably obstruct each other, making true cross-organizing difficult if not impossible. Both the working class and ethnic/racial identity nationalism are each fragmenting, the former under the pressure of capitalism and the latter under the influence of tribalism.

Me, I’ve always had a soft spot for the Marxist idea of the working class first becoming a “class in itself” and then a “class for itself” capable of self-activity, self-organization, and self-emancipation through world proletarian revolution. But while I think that organized labor will be an important element of any potential basis for social power, that’s a far cry from believing that a united working class will bring about social revolution. I’m not even sure that effective social power in the face of state and capital is feasible these days. I might also be naïve as hell to think that it’s possible to create a grand, revolutionary synthesis on the left of the Left. What I do know is that, even to create such a potential, we need to suspend all our cherished Leftist fetishes.
Easier said than done.

TWO

Frederick Engels wrote in the introduction to Marx’s 1895 essay “The Class Struggles in France” that, in the wake of the 1848 uprisings across Europe, “the street fight with barricades … was to a considerable extent obsolete.” In the struggle between popular insurrection and military counter-insurgency, the military almost invariably wins because “the superiority of better equipment and training, of unified leadership, of the planned employment of the military forces and of discipline makes itself felt.” “Even in the classic time of street fighting, therefore, the barricade produced more of a moral than a material effect,” according to Engels, who concluded: “Does that mean that in the future the street fight will play no further role? Certainly not. It only means that the conditions since 1848 have become far more unfavorable for civil fights, far more favorable for the military. A future street fight can therefore only be victorious when this unfavorable situation is compensated by other factors.”

One such relatively recent street fight that proved surprisingly successful were the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, the inspiring Battle of Seattle [N30]. The WTO Ministerial Conference of November 30-December 1, 1999, witnessed a fortuitous confluence of elements that temporarily prevented the conference from starting, shut down the city of Seattle, and initiated the beginning of the worldwide anti-globalization movement. The first was the sheer number of demonstrators, which was estimated at a minimum of 50,000. Second was the broad array of organizations: labor unions like the AFL-CIO, NGOs like Global Exchange, environmental groups like Greenpeace, religious groups like Jubilee 2000, and black bloc anarchists. Third was their alignment in various networks and coalitions, from the overarching green-blue teamsters-and-turtles alliance to the nonviolent Direct Action Network (DAN). The fourth significant element was the diversity of tactics employed, from old style mass marches and rallies through innocuous teach-ins, street celebrations, and more strident nonviolent direct action blockades and lockdowns of street intersections, to the minuscule black bloc rampage of 100 to 200 individuals memorialized by yours truly in my blog header picture. Finally, there was the element of surprise.

DAN activists took control of key intersections in the pre-dawn hours, before the Seattle Police Department (SPD) mobilized. By 9 am, when the marches, rallies, teach-ins, celebrations, and black bloc riot started in earnest, the nonviolent direct-action intersection lockdowns had effectively shut down the city streets. WTO delegates were unable to get from their hotels to the convention center, and the SPD were effectively cut in two, with a police cordon around the convention center isolated from the rest of the city and the SPD by the massed demonstrators. Unable even to respond to the black bloc riot, the SPD grew increasingly frustrated and eventually fired pepper spray, tear gas canisters, and stun grenades to unsuccessfully try to reopen various blocked intersections. The WTO’s opening ceremonies were cancelled, the mayor of Seattle declared a state of emergency, a curfew, and a 50-block “no-protest zone,” and the SPD took the rest of the day into the evening to clear the city streets. The next day, December 1, the governor of Washington mobilized two National Guard battalions as well as other police agencies to secure Seattle’s no-protest zone and permit the WTO to meet, despite ongoing protests and riots. In all, over 500 people were arrested on various charges.

Compare this to the protests on Inauguration Day, 2017. It can be argued that the number of protesters and the breadth of protesting organizations were even greater than in the Battle of Seattle. Organized into three distinct protesting coalitions by the Workers World Party, the ANSWER Coalition, and the anarchist/ultraleft Disrupt J20 network, the tactics employed by the protesters were perhaps not as diverse. Mass marches and rallies occurred around the capitol blocking traffic and shutting down streets. Nonviolent direct action attempted to blockade buildings and lockdown intersections, and numerous efforts were made to obstruct the checkpoints meant to screen Inauguration attendees with tickets. And the black bloc, now numbering over 500, did their usual roaming smashy-smashy. All of this was to no avail as the DC PD held the strategic high ground by controlling the city streets from the get go. The National Guard was never mobilized and the city was never shut down. Only about 200 people were arrested, with those arrested now facing harsh felony riot charges.

I did black bloc actions in San Francisco on Columbus Day, 1992, and during the 2003 Gulf War protests, where I escaped getting kettled and arrested by the SFPD. I also followed with great interest the running street battles between the black bloc and OPD during Occupy Oakland. But I’m 64 years old, and the black bloc street fighting tactic is a young person’s game. What’s more, and while frequently extremely disruptive, the cat-and-mouse of street fighting cannot be compared to any form of urban guerrilla warfare. At its best, black bloc successes are very restricted. They might give their participants a sense of elation and teach them maneuverability, teamwork, and flexibility on the fly—both physical and tactical—but they cannot overwhelm and defeat a better armed, better trained, more organized, and more disciplined police force without other favorable factors such as the element of surprise. Thus Engels was correct, and we’re not even talking about confronting the National Guard or the US Army. Nor are we considering police and military forces willing to open fire on peaceful protesters as is often the case in autocratic Third World countries. So while I have a soft spot for the black bloc, I think the tactic has limited usefulness.

Next month, I get down and dirty with my analysis of the Left’s numerous problems.

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.