Class war, not race war: “What’s Left?” September 2013, MRR #364

I wanna war, between the rich and the poor
I wanna fight and know what I’m fighting for
In a class war, class war, class war, class war
This war, that war, class war, last war

The Dils, “Class War”

I’m a twenty-first-century New Yorker and therefore have little time to contemplate race. It’s not that racism doesn’t exist. Lots of people in New York, and elsewhere, hate because of color and gender, religion and national origin. It’s just that I rarely worry about those things because there’s a real world underneath all that nonsense; a world that demands my attention almost every moment of every day.
Racism is a luxury in a world where resources are scarce, where economic competition is an armed sport, in a world where even the atmosphere is plotting against you. In an arena like that racism is more a halftime entertainment, a favorite sitcom when the day is done.

Leonid McGill, lead character
Walter Mosley, All I Did was Shoot My Man

Who knew, in 1979, when I was pogo-ing to “Class War” by the Dils, that the Kinman brothers would go on to front a drowsy little cowpunk band called Rank and File. An oft-quoted criticism of that latter effort was that it was “music to fall asleep in the saddle by.” It was even rumored that one of the Kinmans (Tony or Chip) had, horror of horrors, become a Republican.

As an aside, can anyone remember the pogo?

I’m unable to authenticate the turn to the conservative side by either of the Kinmans. Not that conservative punks are non-existent, but they are rather a rare breed. Johnny Ramone and Lee Ving come immediately to mind, followed by Bobby Steele, Dave Smalley, and Joe Escalante. There’s a prominent right-wing libertarian streak to some punk rock, as can be seen in the band Antiseen. And, for fuck’s sake, Iggy Pop once voted for Ronald Reagan.

Left-wing punks are more numerous by far. Just look through the pages of this magazine over the years for the umpteen bands proclaiming anarchism, and the somewhat fewer ones who claim socialist or communist politics. To list all the leftist punk bands would be daunting indeed, but this is not to say that punk as such is left-wing by nature. Punk is overwhelmingly apolitical, invested in nothing more than sex, drugs and rock’n’roll. A time-worn mantra by now, repeated for some sixty years by generation after generation, youth counterculture after counterculture, iteration after iteration of rock musicians and their fans. Generalize this understanding of rock music to society at large, however, and the analogy quickly breaks down.

America has a halfway decent history of class struggle, given the relative youth of this country. Objective circumstances have driven the American people, large parts of it, onto the proletarian side of genuine, protracted class struggles until recently. Such was the case, off and on, during the Great Depression and thereafter, from 1929 up through 1950. Much more rarely, subjective consciousness within the American people reached the stage of what could be called “class consciousness,” when folks believed that “a better world is possible.” There were a few general strikes—St. Louis 1877; New Orleans 1892; Seattle and Winnipeg 1919; San Francisco and Minneapolis 1934; Lancaster, Stamford, Rochester, Oakland 1946—during which the working class, very briefly, moved beyond class struggle into open class warfare, and ultimately, into potential proletarian revolution. But class struggle of any sort has become almost non-existent since the 1970s.

To my mind, the American public has become a passive lot since then. Political pundits like to claim that the American public is innately predisposed to their particular political point of view. Glenn Beck has argued that the American people are basically conservative, unless they’re bamboozled by the liberal mainstream media and that socialistic Democratic Party. Michael Moore has contended that the American people are essentially progressive, except when they’re being tricked by the fascistic GOP and their Wall Street overlords. I’m of the opinion that Americans, most Americans these days, are just trying to get by. When they’re not busy surviving, folks in this country are interested in being entertained, by what the ancient Romans called “bread and circuses,” which is the very old school equivalent of “sex, drugs and rock’n’roll.” Both objective and subjective experiences of class struggle are the exception, rather than the rule today. For the most part, as Americans, we just want to be entertained.

That leaves politics in this country in a very sorry state indeed. The official mythology is well known. There are two official political parties; the Democratic and the Republican Parties. The Democratic Party stands for American workers, women, and racial and ethnic minorities; promotes big government when it comes to regulating business and certain types of social engineering; defends civil liberties and individual morality; seeks to tax the rich and expand the welfare state for those less fortunate; and crusades for a strong military. The Republican Party represents those of middle income as well as big business; advocates limited government through economic and social deregulation; supports traditional civic and moral values; pushes to reduce taxes on the wealthy and to dismantle the welfare state; and demands a strong national defense. But, as former Alabama governor George Wallace was fond of saying, “[t]here’s not a dime’s worth of difference between the Republicans and the Democrats.” Whether we consider the Democrats and Republicans as two parties each representing the interests of capital, or in fact just a single party of the capitalist ruling class, the Democrats representing its left face and the Republicans representing its right; the reality is that this country is really, really fucked up.

This final point is particularly salient with the virtual demise of American labor struggles after 1980, and the rise of neoliberalism across the political spectrum after that date. Class struggle, let alone class war, has all but dropped out of the American political lexicon, if not its social reality. Democrats are circumspect about using the terms class, let alone class war, when talking about taxing the rich or aiding the poor, preferring euphemisms such as fairness and compassion. Republicans accuse Democrats of class warfare if they so much as hint at increasing taxes on the wealthy or opposing cuts to so-called entitlements, all the while engaging in actual class war against America’s poor, workers and its middle classes at the behest of society’s wealthy. Yet increasingly, both Democrats and Republicans share a common politics of downsizing government, dismantling the welfare state, demolishing what unions that are left, deregulating the corporate economy, privatizing anything that is public or social, and globalizing the influence of capitalism and America’s military. Truth be told, the class war in this country is all but over. The American ruling class has won. We, the rest of us, have lost.

Little wonder then that we, in this country, are obsessed with race, not with class. Even when America’s class war was going full force historically, race was a particularly pernicious problem. These days, in the wake of the Zimmerman trial for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the American people, and the Democratic and Republican Parties, are both fascinated with, and in denial of the importance of race in this country. This preoccupation with race wreaks havoc on the fringes of society and politics. On the far right, white supremacists look forward to racial holy war, all the while talking vaguely of America’s working people. And an “angry white male” who is a regularly featured columnist for TakiMag extolls the working class nature of such terms as “redneck,” all the while claiming that every black person he knows is as dumb as a bag of rocks.

The befuddlement on the American left over class and race is even more profound. The fossil Communist Party which believes that all issues—race, sex, gender—must be subsumed to that of class, and those anarchos who proclaim “no war but the class war,” have all been relegated to the dustbin of history. But what analysis to replace class with? Those Trotskyist and Maoist remnants of Marxism-Leninism that try to jostle race with class into some sort of new configuration are playing second fiddle to those anarchos who seek to give equal weight to class, race, sex, and gender, who consider being working class as just another form of identity politics, or who tend to elevate the problem of white skin privilege over everything else. That is, of course, when those anarchos aren’t fucking shit up for the sake of it, in nihilistic insurrection über alles.

Myself, I tend to favor a class struggle analysis, whether its hardcore as in the Dils lyrics, or more nuanced, as in the Walter Mosley passage quoted above. Unfortunately, my uncertainty only grows as I grow older. That’s the case not just regarding class struggle, or the relationship between class and race, but with virtually everything else.

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Occupy Oakland/Oakland Commune RIP: “What’s Left?” January 2013, MRR #356

The image is ineffaceable: the cannibal god on bended knees, engulfed in darkness; the mad haunted eyes and black-blooded mouth; the rending fingers, threaded with blood, and the ravaged figure in their grasp–a work of such indelible power, it seems to have existed before it was created, like some deep-rooted, banished memory, inescapable as nightmare.

Jay Scott Morgan, “The Mystery of Goya’s Saturn,” New England Review

Francisco Goya’s horrific painting, Saturn Devouring His Son, was part of the artist’s Black Paintings. He painted it toward the end of his life as part of a series of canvas and mural artwork found in his house outside Madrid. The series in general, and this work in particular, expressed Goya’s despair with humanity, his distress at Spain’s ongoing social turmoil, and his despondency over his personal isolation and his own physical and mental problems.

Goya’s dark spirit was due, in part, to having lived through Napoleon’s disastrous Peninsular War from 1808 to 1814. Napoleon called it the “Spanish ulcer,” while the Spanish referred to it as their “War for Independence.” A major element of the Spanish fight was a brutal “Guerra de guerrillas” (War of little wars), which elicited vicious reprisals from Napoleon’s occupying forces. This was not the origin of guerrilla warfare, as Sun Tsu detailed the basics of insurgency tactics and strategy in his Art of War. Yet the Spanish popular resistance to Napoleon achieved unparalleled levels of savagery. Karl Marx considered the Spanish war for independence one of the first national wars, and Ronald Fraser labeled it “Napoleon’s Vietnam” in his magisterial history Napoleon’s Cursed War: Popular Resistance in the Spanish Peninsular War, 1808-1814. Whether one of the first wars of national liberation or one of the first counterinsurgency quagmires, it was also a violent civil war, a terrible internecine war, and a bloody fratricidal war. No wonder that Goya’s Black Paintings were so dark and filled with terror.

Goya’s depiction of Saturn has taken on added significance. Representing the Greek/Roman myth of the god of time and agriculture devouring his children, lest one of them should rise up and overthrow him, the original work was even more disturbing in that Saturn was shown with an erect penis. Museum restoration of the painting censored this feature. The painting has been used to symbolize the notion of a movement (struggle for liberation, movement for independence, a social revolution) devouring its own children. Supposedly uttered by Danton during his trial after the 1789 French Revolution, the phrase “the revolution, like Saturn, devours its own children,” was applied to the Russian Revolution after the Bolsheviks took power, and specifically once Stalin rose to power. Goya’s gruesome painting of Saturn personified this idea.

This concept has gained relevance in the Bay Area with the disintegration of Occupy Oakland. OO was the most radical of all the Occupy Wall Street actions across the country. A seemingly intractable occupation of the plaza in front of Oakland’s city hall, a plethora of demonstrations and marches (solidarity, pro-labor, anti-capitalist, anti-gentrification, fuck the police, decolonization, etc., etc.), periodic occupations of public land and abandoned buildings, running street battles between demonstrators and police as well as regular smashy-smashy excursions by black bloc anarchos, a symbolic general strike that actually shut down the Port of Oakland for a day; OO had the appearance of a revolution in the making. This appearance was deceptive, however.

Sharp divisions emerged in OO almost from its inception. While Occupy Oakland followed the all inclusive/make no demands template of Occupy Wall Street in general, a faction quickly emerged that declared for an Oakland Commune along the lines of “occupy everything, demand nothing” and the permanent insurrection of the Invisible Committee’s pamphlet “The Coming Insurrection.” The insurrectionary anarchist/black bloc extremism of the OC and the more moderate stance of OO played out in the debate over tactics, over “diversity of tactics” versus nonviolence. The OO moderates accused the OC of elevating tactical violence into an end in itself, while the OC radicals accused the OO of acting as “peace police.” An uneasy truce emerged between the two sides, which in turn elicited an even more conservative tendency calling itself the 99%ers, which sought to disassociate itself from any property destruction and police confrontations. Finally, the clear absurdity of taking property and claiming it as “occupied,” when the folks who had been robbed of it in the first place, often at gunpoint, were still fighting genocide and the stealing of native lands, initiated a Decolonization tendency. The Decolonization supporters immediately hurled charges of racism and white privilege at the various other OO tendencies, singling out OO’s anarchos for particular scorn as white, middle-class kids from the suburbs playing at revolution.

Matters only got worse when the Oakland PD permanently evicted OO from its main occupation site at the city hall plaza. Without a base of operations, the Oakland Commune continued its ‘Fuck The Police’ rampages through downtown Oakland, racking up random property destruction, violent police confrontations, and additional arrests. The black bloc, initially formulated by anarchists as a street tactic, increasingly appeared as the be-all-and-end-all of the OC’s practice. Boots Riley, known as the frontman for hip hop group The Coup, has been a pragmatic spokesman for Occupy Oakland, beholding to no faction, with radical credentials of his own. A strategist concerned with winning and not just losing in style, Boots made his criticisms of the black bloc anarchos clear on his blog: “The use of the black bloc tactic in all situations is not useful. As a matter of fact, in situations such as the one we have in Oakland, its repeated use has become counter-revolutionary. […] When almost every conversation I have with folks from Oakland about Occupy Oakland, has the smashing of windows brought up as a reason people don’t like that grouping, scientifically it means the tactic is not working.”

The critics continued to pile on. The Oakland Commune was denounced as a “vanguard clique” by an OO breakaway group calling itself the Occupy Oakland Media. OOMedia accused the OC of “disruptive beliefs and actions” that amounted to “embracing destruction for its own sake … actively co-opting the encampment by renaming it according to their values … shutting down all critical conversation of violence, vandalism and ‘diversity of tactics’ … alienating and swaying opinion against peaceful protesters … [and] planning to infiltrate and instigate unrest in Oakland with or without the participation or consent of the people.” This was echoed by an individual poster named OccupyTheMob who labeled OC “agents of mass vandalism” and a “racist, criminal organization” composed primarily of “a group of ideological extremists relocated to Oakland in order to foment chaos and destruction.” Add to this list charges that groupings within OO mismanaged funds donated for bailing out arrested Occupiers and manipulated General Assemblies into predetermined decisions and the main gripes against the more radical tendencies within OO are apparent.

Allegations of financial malfeasance and assembly rigging, in turn, were called “baseless accusations” and outright lies. A grouping within OO calling itself the Anti-Repression Committee came forward to denounce the numerous threats being made against Occupiers who have refused to renounce vandalism and property destruction, contending that the “anarchists amongst us have been especially targeted with threats and vigilante violence.” The A-RC then noted that “[w]e are deeply concerned by the increasing demonization of ‘anarchists,’ the ‘black bloc,’ and ‘outsiders’ now being conflated under the term the ‘Oakland Commune.’”

Lilprole went so far as to attempt to rehabilitate the tactic of the black bloc against Boots Riley’s critique in his post “Knocking the Boots?” by first pointing out that the black block has a well established place in the history and practice of Bay Area protest politics. “[W]e saw the rise of T.A.C., or the Tactical Action Committee, who also helped popularize the black bloc tactic through weekly ‘Fuck the Police’ marches, as well as the growth of a radical squatting scene in West Oakland, the degree in which I have not seen in any major metropolitan city in the US … [B]lack bloc type actions helped to express solidarity and expand sites of resistance … Lastly, ‘black bloc’ type actions have also been an ongoing facet of militant feminist, queer, and trans revolt in the bay as well.” This extension of the black bloc outside the anarchist ghetto has meant that the tactic is here to stay, and that its use will only grow as riot and insurrection in this country increase.

Note that I have not gone into the vitriol between the 99%ers or Decolonize and Occupy Oakland or the Oakland Commune. Note that I have not delved into the puerile criticisms of “insignificant groupuscules” like the miniscule Anarchist Anti-Defamation Caucus of the Anti-Bureaucratic Bloc. Note that I haven’t enumerated the myriad personal fights that mask themselves as principled political disagreements within Occupy Oakland. This welter of division and infighting illustrates one fact all too well. Whereas Occupy Oakland was once able to mobilize 10 to 20,000 people to shut down the Port of Oakland during the November 3, 2011 General Strike, nowadays Occupy Oakland’s “General Assembly no longer has large enough attendance to reach quorum–requiring at least 75 people” according to an Occupy Oakland Tribune article.

Which is a shame. OO generated a great deal of collective energy that went into 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. If nothing else “[d]uring the week of the raid on the [OO] encampment, crime in Oakland dropped 19 percent overall” according to Eric K. Arnold in his article on infighting among OO factions marking OO’s first anniversary on October 25. Despite the squabbling and bickering that was decisive in Occupy Oakland’s demise, Oakland remains a cutting edge laboratory for radical politics and practice.

But to use the term “Oakland Commune” implies some positive comparison to the 1871 Paris Commune or the 1927 Shanghai Commune, which is embarrassing. That’s because Occupy Oakland was far from a revolution, even a failed one. The metaphor of “Saturn devouring its own children” thus does not apply to the infighting and factionalism that has torn apart OO. A more apt metaphor might be a shark feeding frenzy, in which the creatures wound each other fighting over food and then proceed to rip each other to shreds. Except that OO’s trivial factions hardly merit a comparison to sharks. Perhaps a feeding frenzy among venomous, vindictive piranha is more to the point.
Hooligan Temp

Blaming government or capitalism: “What’s Left?” March 2011, MRR #334

The international economic meltdown of 2007 that resulted in the Great Recession we’re still living through has been characterized by state funded bailouts for banks and other financial institutions, and considerable hardship for most of the rest of us. When the French government recently decided to raise the retirement age from 60 to 62, workers struck and youth rioted for weeks on end as French public opinion remained firmly against the government’s actions. By contrast, while the American government does next to nothing to prevent escalating home foreclosures and ongoing high unemployment, workers and youth, inner cities and campuses are utterly pacified, while the American public remains thoroughly passive.

That is, unless one counts the growing Tea Party movement. Explicitly anti-big government, the Tea Party folks would give corporate capitalism free reign with tax cuts, deregulation, and privatization. So, what’s up with this country that, just as capitalism is proving itself bankrupt, the only apparent form of popular resistance turns out to be pro-capitalist? That the Tea Party movement had such a major impact on the recent midterm elections doesn’t speak well of the American electorate’s intelligence.

(I’m reminded of a couple of editorial cartoons, the first one by Joel Pett from the Lexington Herald-Leader in which the character is subject to ongoing capitalist abuse. A corporation lays him off, a corporation takes his home, corporate cash corrupts democracy, a corporation denies his medical claims, and corporations track his every move via surveillance, wiretaps, internet monitoring, and urine drug testing. In the last panel, he exclaims: “I hate the #@!% government!” Another political cartoon, by David Horsey from the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, contrasts European and American reactions to government austerity measures. In the first panel, rioting French students battle the gendarmerie. For protesting government austerity in America, the illustration is of a Goldman-Sachs executive grabbing another man by his tie and yelling: “Save my tax cut, Senator! I don’t want to give up any of my million dollar bonus!”)

Why there’s such a dearth of class consciousness and class conflict in the United States at present, despite the ample material conditions that should generate the contrary, we’ll get to in a moment. That a spontaneous uprising of the working class, or the masses, or the people, or the multitude, or whatever, isn’t in the cards any time soon should be obvious in any case. The pious faiths of anarchism and left communism are less than useless when dealing with this unerring propensity of ordinary Americans today to act against their economic interests and class loyalties. The “American way of life” remains the greatest threat to the future of humanity and the survival of the planet with, perhaps, with the exception of a billion and half Chinese trying to emulate America. But at least the class war is alive and well in China, as sites like http://chinastrikes.crowdmap.com/ amply demonstrate.

Lately, I’ve wondered what it would take to bring a little class war back to the American scene. Perhaps a charismatic, Huey Long type demagogue could stir up a populist, quasi-socialist, share-the-wealth movement among the American people. Then at the right moment this demagogue would be assassinated—an event that, instead of suppressing the movement led by him, would instigate a mass uprising that begins a resurgence of American socialism.

This scenario is a far cry from what is required to transform the working class from a class in itself to a class for itself, let alone a successful revolution that brings about the self-emancipation of the working class. Am I going so far as to deny the self-activity and self-organization of working people? No, but lately, I’ve come to understand how such sentiments for class autonomy come about. You see, for the longest time, I assumed that such impulses were innate to workers by virtue of them being a social class. That, up until the 1950s, the US labor movement was often the most violent and energetic in the world according to folks as diverse as Eric Foner, Howard Zinn, Staughton Lynd, and Jeremy Brecher, I attributed to the advanced nature of the American working class. Thus, I ignored that socialism never really took root in this country in any substantive way, that a labor party never emerged to challenge the two-party electoral system, and that factors like the western frontier, race and affluence easily deflected class struggle despite its supposed intensity.

When I did pay attention to such constraints on the class war in the United States, I thought that a little more historical development would be required to overcome any such limitations and obstacles. After all, weren’t immigrants invariably at the forefront of America’s class struggles, immigrants from places around the world with greater historical depth? Then I realized that the planet is not likely to survive the five hundred or so years of war, invasion, conquest, economic and social upheaval, etc., etc. that will be required to give this country the historical perspective for a halfway decent class war. Which then leaves me with John Brunner’s “The Sheep Look Up.” Published in 1972 when the United States represented approximately 6% of the world’s population consuming over 50% of the world’s resources, Brunner’s science fiction novel describes a planet on the brink of ecological collapse in which the only solution offered to humanity is the total destruction of America. The book concludes with this country descending into civil war.

Quite a grim little mood I’m in.

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