Utopia: reform or revolution, pt. 2: “What’s Left?” July 2020 (MRR #446)

It is our utopias that make the world tolerable to us.
—Lewis Mumford, 1922

Be realistic, demand the impossible.
—graffito, Paris 1968

For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.
—Audre Lorde, 1984

Audre Lorde’s famous quote about the master’s tools is this column’s starting point. First, are we talking about tools in general or the master’s tools?

Humans are sometimes defined as tool-making animals. There are a number of creatures that use tools but only a select few (bees, crows, apes) that actually fabricate tools from component parts. When we go from picking up a rock to bash someone over the head (tool using) to chipping that same rock into a cutting edge to knife someone (tool making) we move from the natural to the artificial. Natural objects are neutral while artificial, human-made objects are not neutral. The use and development of basic tools is the simplest form of technology which, by definition, is also not neutral. Not only are tools and technology enmeshed with the basic values of the social system in which they are embedded, they reflect the basic needs and desires of the human organism that fashioned them. But they are not inherently good or bad, and the knife the murderer uses to kill is the same tool a surgeon uses to save lives. Primitivists, in arguing that tools and technologies are inherently bad, are actually arguing they are separable from human society and biology, an ahistorical argument in the extreme.

I won’t go down primitivism’s infinite regress rabbit-hole of what was humanity’s technological “original sin”—whether industrialization, the invention of agriculture or the development of language and rational thought. Suffice it to say that if tools and technologies are not inherently good or evil, then it’s possible to create liberating, non-exploitive technologies as well as corresponding emancipatory societies. This becomes a discussion of means versus ends—of the use of liberating, non-exploitive means in order to achieve liberating, non-exploitive ends. Pacifists immediately latched onto this turn of logic to contend that in order to create a nonviolent society that values human life we need to use nonviolent means that respect human life. In the process, they equate the violence of uprising, insurrection and revolution by the oppressed with the violence of corporate exploitation, police states and death squads by the oppressor. But I’m not a pacifist. Violence may not be a neutral tool, but it isn’t inherently evil. It is not automatically part of the master’s tools.

So finally, we arrive at the distinction between the master’s tools and the tools owned by the master. We cannot use the whip, slavery and social hierarchy (clearly the master’s tools) to create a free, cooperative, egalitarian world. But certainly we can expropriate the tools owned and used by the master—the hammers and plows of social cooperation and solidarity—to create our emancipatory world. The question about the tools and technologies we employ becomes: do they actually demolish the house, or do they just change who lives there?

So we return to the subject of reform versus revolution of last month’s column, with my introduction of André Gorz’s concept of “non-reformist reformism” as a way to bridge the two strategies. Right off, I was leery of that bridge strategy because I see capitalism as almost infinitely malleable, capable of coopting nearly anything thrown up against it. Only occasionally does capitalism have to resort to outright repression and terror to maintain itself. It was once argued that a universal basic minimum income (UBI) was such a radical proposal that capitalism would no longer remain capitalism if it were adopted. That UBI was intended to be a structural reform so thoroughgoing that capitalism would be utterly transformed by it. But now even some conservatives argue for UBI because the idea would allow the welfare state to eliminate virtually all social welfare programs, pare down the functions of government to a bare minimum and force the poor to go it alone. Rutger Bregman, in “Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” (Jacobin, 5/5/16) regarding the criticism of the British Speenhamland plan in Karl Polanyi’s 1944 book The Great Transformation, describes Polanyi’s take on basic income schemes as “‘the pauperization of the masses,’ who ‘almost lost their human shape.’ Basic income did not introduce a floor, he contended, but a ceiling.”

“There is no such thing as a non-reformist reform,” writes Robin Hahnel in Economic Justice and Democracy. “[A]ny reform can be fought for in ways that diminish the chances of further gains and limit progressive change in other areas, or fought for in ways that make further progress more likely and facilitate other progressive changes as well. But if reforms are successful they will make capitalism less harmful to some extent. There is no way around this, and even if there were such a thing as a non-reformist reform, it would not change this fact. However, the fact that every reform success makes capitalism less harmful does not mean successful reforms necessarily prolong the life of capitalism — although it might, and this is something anti-capitalists must simply learn to accept. But if winning a reform further empowers the reformers, and whets their appetite for more democracy, more economic justice, and more environmental protection than capitalism can provide, it can hasten the fall of capitalism.”

Whether the tools of reform, non-reformist reform, or revolution can constitute an effective technology for radical social change to transform capitalism into socialism, the solution might not be in relying on tools and technologies so much as on changing what we expect from them. Consider the early work of Polish neo-Marxist philosopher Leszek Kołakowski. Before Kołakowski “outgrew” his Marxism to become a historian of ideas increasingly preoccupied with religion, he wrote the provocative essay “The Concept of the Left” which contended that “[s]ocial revolutions are a compromise between utopia and historical reality.” Using an extended analogy to the notion that every human product is necessarily “a compromise between the material and the tool,” he contended:
Utopia always remains a phenomenon of the world of thought; even when backed by the power of a social movement and, more importantly, even when it enters its consciousness, it is inadequate, going far beyond the movement’s potentials. It is, in a way, “pathological” (in a loose sense of the word, for Utopian consciousness is in fact a natural social phenomenon). It is a warped attempt to impose upon a historically realistic movement goals that are beyond history.
However […] the Left cannot do without a utopia. The Left gives forth utopias just as the pancreas discharges insulin – by virtue of an innate law. Utopia is the striving for changes which “realistically” cannot be brought about by immediate action, which lie beyond the foreseeable future and defy planning. Still, utopia is a tool of action upon reality and of planning social activity. 

Reform and non-reformist reform, no less than revolution, are a compromise between utopia and historical reality. This doesn’t mean foolishly believing that a socialist utopia is just around the corner when even incremental reforms are attempted and achieved. Rather, it means the Left needs to maintain the vision of socialism even when pursuing minor social reforms. Perspective is crucial throughout.

Reform, non-reformist reform, and revolution are all tools in technologies of radical social change. And, leaving aside the issue of effectiveness, tools and technologies are always a compromise between our dismal historical reality and a socialist utopia, much as are their results on the ground. When we talk about the EZLN in Chiapas or the YPG/J in Rojava, we’re talking about Third World social movements employing technologies of radical social change that are each comprised of crafted, interacting clusters of tools—indigenismo, “mandar obedeciendo,” and women’s liberation in the case of the former and democratic confederalism, “direct democracy without a state,” and women’s liberation in the case of the latter. What keeps these bundles of tools unified and on track—and their ongoing regional social experiments liberating, non-exploitive and humane—is in part their commitment to a socialist utopia.

Any concept in this discussion can be a tool working on historical reality at one moment, and then the compromise between a different tool and historical reality at another moment. Sorry if this is confusing, but we’re talking dialectics here. To solely debate the tools and technologies of social change is to be in danger of instrumentalism. To just focus on the promise of some future socialism is to be in danger of utopianism. Only by combining the two can we create an effective, viable Left capable of advancing a radical social movement. But can that be done in the North American First World? That’s the sixty-four-dollar question.This concludes my examination of reform versus revolution.

SOURCES:
The Story of Utopias by Lewis Mumford
Sister Outsider, Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde
Strategy for Labor: A Radical Proposal by André Gorz
“Nixon’s Basic Income Plan” by Rutger Bregman
The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time by Karl Polanyi
Economic Justice and Democracy: From Competition to Cooperation by Robin Hahnel
“The Concept of the Left” by Leszek Kołakowski

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Protest vs Violence vs Terrorism: “What’s Left?” February 2018, MRR #417

“Today on the Galloping Gourmet we will be preparing smoke bomb flambeau.”

Scott stood over the grimy stove in the shotgun shack off Ventura Avenue holding a beer in one hand and a saucepan in the other. He had that rakish, Graham Kerr attitude down, although his hippy hair and attire belied his bon vivant pose. Tom and I stood over a tiny formica table piled with a large sack of granulated sugar, an equally large smoked glass bottle of sodium nitrate, several boxes of “strike anywhere” matches, more pots, pans, and bowls, and a copy of Abbey Hoffman’s Steal This Book open to the section on “People’s Chemistry.” Scott directed our work with a wave of the pan and a swig of beer.

“First, thoroughly mix together six parts saltpeter, otherwise known as potassium nitrate, with four parts sugar. Sodium nitrate may be used in a pinch. Then pour the mixture into a medium pan and place it over a very low flame. Heat it slowly and carefully until it starts to melt and blend into a plastic like substance.”

Scott was gay, although that word wasn’t in common use in January, 1971. He’d walked around one of Jake and Connie’s raging parties wearing a colorful paisley cravat. When people commented “nice ascot” to him, he’d smile, wink, swivel his hips, and reply “why, thank you.” Scott had been the one to suggest lining the pan with aluminum foil so the concoction could be removed intact. And as the materials for our smoke bomb liquified and turned brown under my attention, Scott said over my shoulder: “Subtle, a little bittersweet, not blowsy and extrovert. Perfect.”

Tom had been breaking the tops off wooden matches which we intended to embed into the substance once it gelled but was still pliable. That way our smoke bomb wouldn’t require a fuse but could be set off simply by striking it against some hard surface. We intended to detonate the device inside a public meeting of the Ventura City Council as they feinted discussing whether to ratify the People’s Peace Treaty. Negotiated between the North Vietnamese and representatives of the American peace movement, the People’s Peace Treaty didn’t have a snowball’s chance in hell of being ratified, let alone acted upon by either the city of Ventura or the United States government. It was a propaganda instrument and a device for mobilizing anti-war support. Our smoke bomb was intended to protest the farce of disingenuously discussing peace while bombing the hell out of the Vietnamese people. However, as Tom and I wedged match heads into the hardening mass, our efforts were a little too close set. One match scraped another, a spark flew, and the whole thing ignited. Scott grabbed the exploding pan, ran into the backyard, and held the fireworks at arms length as a mushroom smoke cloud roared skyward.

We were greatly impressed by the volume of smoke from our inadvertent test run, and we had enough ingredients left to whip up another batch. But we never got a chance to use our second bomb because the city council meeting was guarded by police who frisked everyone as they entered. Our plans had been leaked, perhaps because we’d done our planning out in the open, in the office of the local Unitarian Church with the minister typing out the church newsletter in the same room. When a member of the congregation entered, heard what we were talking about, and asked the minister what the hell we were planning, the minister said, without looking up from his typing: “I hear nothing, I see nothing, I know nothing!”

I’ve told this story a couple of times before in this column. But unlike a former columnist who was fired in part because he kept repeating his columns almost verbatim, I’ve taken pains to make this retelling original, lively, and interesting. I’m trying to make two points with it, the first being the difference between truth and fact. This story is entirely true but only partially factual, and to illustrate that issue, consider the story of Charles Drew. A black American physician and surgeon before the second World War who isolated plasma from blood, he was involved in a fatal automobile accident in North Carolina in 1950. The myth is that Drew died as a result of having been refused a blood transfusion due to the color of his skin when, in fact, the accident was so severe he didn’t survive. The myth about Drew’s death was not factual, but it was true with respect to race relations in the South during that time.

My story above was not factual in that Scott was not in my original telling. I substituted him because I recently learned that the person upon whom the character Scott is based died. The story however is true, and so the problematic relationship between truth and fact remains. Despite the common meaning of a fact as logic itself, we never have a fact, only evidence for a fact, and that evidence implies a truth. And truth is never self-evident, but can lead via suggestion and inspiration to the facts. Yet facts, like data or statistics, can lie much as the truth, as myth or story, can lie. So, it’s complicated, much more so in this post-truth era.

Second, my story is meant to illustrate the relationship between protest, violence, and terrorism. One of my favorite quotes is from pacifist Marianne Williamson who said: “Birth is violent, whether it be the birth of a child or the birth of an idea.” I’m tempted to say that all life involves violence, beginning with one form of life devouring another form of life in order to survive. Non-violent crime is a misnomer because it usually involves some form of “property crime” resulting in damage to another person’s property, often in addition to emotional harm to the family and loved ones of the non-violent criminal. And the practice of non-violence, from Gandhi to Martin Luther King, has invariably resulted in extreme violence visited by the part of the powers-that-be and sometimes the general public against those same non-violent protesters.

We certainly believed in the ’60s that while harming living beings was violence, property destruction was not. Yet back when we were planning to smoke bomb our city council as a form of protest we realized that we were engaged in a certain low level of violence, and that violent protest wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. The first smoke bomb went off with a huge chemical discharge of heat and flame, so our tiny group was rightly concerned that anyone sitting near the device when we set it off might be injured, even as we thought nothing of the panic our bomb might cause in the meeting attendees. Many in the Ventura police and city council would have considered what we wanted to do not just violence, but terrorism. The tendency to treat all protest, not just violent protest, as a form of terrorism has only grown since. From the Right’s misplaced efforts to have antifa—which is an organizing strategy against fascism—declared a domestic terrorist organization, to the government’s heavy handed efforts to prosecute the J20 anti-inauguration protesters with multiple felonies involving decades in prison if convicted speaks to the rightwing effort to see all forms of protest and violence, especially on the Left, as political terrorism.

Political terrorism, whether domestic or international, is the use of violence to achieve certain political results, whether frightening a population or cowing a leadership into doing the terrorists’ bidding, softening up the terrorized for a takeover. Terrorism is never terror for terror’s sake. Despite not considering our protest overtly violent, let alone terrorist, we were trying to make a political point, no matter how misguided. And politics has everything to do with how protest, violence, and terrorism are defined as well as acted upon. I wrote last column that the “right” to free speech is a fight for power, pure and simple. So is what is considered protest, violence, and terrorism, and how we deal with them. Right now the government and the Right are trying to criminalize most protest and call it domestic terrorism. We need to make our protests against the government and the Right as widespread and creative as possible.

And we’re itching for that fight.

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