Sunday, February 26, 2012

Conflict and nonviolence are not mutually exclusive

Kevin Zeese, the would-be Chairman Mao of the Freedom Plaza Occupy camp in Washington, DC, has never found it within himself to say a nice word about the sister Occupy camp at McPherson Square. In listserv emails and general assembly rants, he and the other Old Left types who founded the Freedom Plaza camp (and grew bitter when it was superseded by their more vibrant, inclusive rivals) have repeatedly characterized their McPherson brethren as a bunch of naive, violent drug abusers.

Indeed, after I wrote about the assisted-living facility, more-nonviolent-than-thou vibe I picked up on after attending a general assembly at Freedom Plaza, Zeese sent me a note that, charitably, displayed a lack of self-awareness, countering my characterization of his group as generally smug and greying with -- god damn it, really? -- a long list of complaints about McPherson Square. People are openly smoking non-state-approved drugs there, I was told, as if they weren't long before the Occupy movement came around. One occupier had even asked if the noble Zeese could help "bring order" to the camp.

In sum: The damn kids. Now if I were in charge . . .

There were of course problems at McPherson that I witnessed during the time I spent there, including the same annoying fuck-those-other-guys attitude I noticed at Freedom Plaza. There were mentally unstable stable people. There were sexual harassers. I even heard one homeless guy use a "mic check" to try and find crack cocaine. But these were problems that beset many Occupy camps, and many of them were pre-existing, having more to do with DC's massive problem of homelessness than the relative inexperience of the young McPherson occupiers. And yet as I saw time and again in messages that were forwarded me from the Freedom Plaza listserv and in comments made to the press, Zeese & Friends' were willing to disseminate the absolute worst rumors about the McPherson camp with seemingly little concern that they were feeding rather than fact-checking disinformation.

Zeese and has cadre of aging activists, too timid to engage in anything confrontational, preferring Jackson Brown concerts to activism, were likewise critical of each and every McPherson-embraced action during my time back in DC. The kids at McPherson -- or "McOccupy," if you're a smug asshole -- are after all doing something, and doing something always brings with it the possibility of alienation. Block rush hour traffic? Why, that K Street lobbyist you inconvenienced is now going to go out and club an African child out of spite. Occupy an abandoned homeless shelter? Dunno, looks like vigilantism to me. Anything that entails any sort of threat of confrontation, particularly with the law, is to be condemned; after all, the police officers pepper spraying and evicting Occupy camps across the U.S. are "part of the 99%." And with just the right mix of folk music and deference to illegitimate authority, guys, they could become class conscious.

Such is the advantage of inaction, of being a critic: when the only time you and your friends are in the news is because a provocateur had the cojones to do more than just sing kumbaya, it's easy to wallow in your own perceived greater commitment to non-violence. And when you conflate saying a naughty word to a cop with "violence," it's easy to see yourself as Gandhi's lovechild.

Why am I writing about this now? Because Zeese and his partner, Margaret Flowers, have an article up at Truthdig recounting results of their personal survey of Occupy camps nationwide in which they, true to form, denounce "violence" -- i.e., conflict with the authorities -- and imply "infiltrators" are to blame for all the Occupy actions that exceeded their comfort level, which is to say any with which you're familiar. As they write about their survey, which they had the time to conduct because, well, I'll let you think on that:
Finally, the issue of escalation of tactics to include property damage and conflict with police was brought up. The euphemism for this is “diversity of tactics.” In fact, there is great diversity within nonviolent tactics. This is really a debate between those who favor strategic nonviolence and those who favor property destruction and police conflict [ed. note: can the latter not be "strategic" as well?]. In 11 of 15 occupations, there were reports of verbal attacks on police and/or escalation of tactics from nonviolence to property destruction or violence. In one occupation, an individual took over the direct action working group and escalated the tactics used beyond what the group had agreed upon. In another Occupy, the General Assembly approved putting up a structure but agreed that if the police wanted it taken down the protesters would promptly do so to prove that it was temporary. After the structure was put up, a handful of people refused to take it down causing a 10 hour police conflict and undermining public support for the Occupy. In another occupation, because a minority of the demonstrators refused to adopt nonviolent strategies, a protest with the teachers union was canceled preventing a major opportunity to expand the movement. When it comes to the issue of violence versus property damage, it is particularly hard to tell whether the differences are political or instigated by infiltrators.
While the attempt to draw a clear distinction between "property damage and conflict with police" and "nonviolence" is humorously Hedgesian, the two bolded lines about the structure -- which occupiers at McPherson Square put up in order to host meetings during the winter -- are particularly curious and characteristically condescending. First, there is no evidence to suggest the standoff with police over the building in anyway "undermin[ed] public support for the Occupy [sic]." It made national news and, while some at the McPherson camp didn't support occupying the building, the overall feeling I got was that the police response, complete with helicopters and armored vehicles, illustrated to many who were ignorant how the state operates: with overwhelming, disproportionate force to any perceived challenges to its authority. Generally speaking, enjoying good relations with law enforcement is a sign one's movement is not seen as a threat to the status quo.

But Zeese and Flowers aren't fond of anything confrontational, and claiming concern for "public support" as a way of blocking any action that may garner anything more than public indifference is their modus operandi. Second, the "handful of people" they deride for defending the building were actually more than 30, who decided to do what they did after an impromptu general assembly in which no consensus was reached on how to respond to a police demand the building be torn down. But it's cute seeing the organizers of a smaller, rival camp attempt to speak with authority on the internal deliberations of occupiers who had rejected their Old Left, hierarchical approach to activism.

There's something to these recent rash of articles bashing the idea that a social movement ought to involve, gosh, "conflict" with the powers that be: They are almost all coming from old-school activists and commentators whose tactics have been employed for decades now and found wanting. The Occupy movement, by contrast, represents the rise of a new generation of activists who, while not without fault, are when at their best at lleast trying something new. That might anger some (though certainly not all) of the older, professional activists who feel their influence waning, but passivity in the face of injustice has been tried, folks. And it has failed.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Communism and anarchism

So I'm going through this phase where, as a means of procrastination, I'm reading a lot about the Soviet Union and the history of interaction between communists of the state and anarchist varieties, such as Emma Goldman's book, My Disillusionment in Russia, and Peter Kropotkin's vision of a possible anarcho-communist revolution, The Conquest of Bread.

You'll see that I used the word "possible." One of the key differences between anarchist and state communist thinkers is the dogma: the former, like Kropotkin, though willing to lay out a general outline of what they think must be done, aren't willing to dictate a One True Way to anarcho-topia, whereas your Lenins and Trotskys would argue that there must be a revolutionary party that must seize the existing institutions of state power and must institute a centrally administered dictatorship of the proletariat.

The more dogmatic, uniform nature of state communist thinkers is evident in their lexicography, anarcho-communists and other leftist dissenters are but "petit-bourgeois," to be purged the moment the Party has assumed power. Or maybe sooner. Trotsky, for example, calls anarchism "an utterly anti-revolutionary doctrine" due to its principled anti-statism, blaming it for the fascist victory in the Spanish Civil War:
To renounce the conquest of power is voluntarily to leave the power with those who wield it, the exploiters. The essence of every revolution consisted and consists in putting a new class in power, thus enabling it to realize its own program in life. It is impossible to wage war and to reject victory. It is impossible to lead the masses towards insurrection without preparing for the conquest of power.
Trotsky, of course, wrote those words while living in exile, having been purged from the Communist Party leadership by Stalin, who later had him assassinated. Live by the conquest of power, die by the conquest of power.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

Que será, será

No matter who registered voters in the U.S. select to be the ruling class' spokesman for a four-year term, the coming presidential election will make very little difference to the lives of most Americans -- and non-Americans. Banks will continue to get bailed out, both overtly and by way of the tax code and other more covert means. Bombs will continue to be dropped on poor foreigners, be it in the name of humanitarianism or the fight against terrorism. The state will still serve the interests of the rich, and so on and so on.

That's not to say resistance is futile; that no matter what we do, the cause of building a better world is for naught and efforts to affect positive social change would best be abandoned. That's the caricature of the non-electoral stance one hears from partisans of the two major parties: that the rejection of voting for one of the two corporate-sponsored candidates in a presidential election is a byproduct of nihilism glossed up as radicalism; a tacit concession that, gosh, change is hard so we might as well say screw it and play some Xbox.

In fact, those of us who reject the electoral charade do so, not because we just don't give a damn, but because we see elections as a damaging distraction, a pressure-valve that enables the average American to feel they're Throwing the Bastards Out without risking any serious damage to the institutional bastardry that goes on in Washington.

But if who occupies the White House matters little in terms of tangible policy, does it follow that it matters not at all to the cause of furthering the social revolution that is necessary to build a more just, equitable world? In terms of awakening the public to the systemic fucking they are receiving and spurring people to direct action -- lobby Congress to keep my house? No, thanks, I think me and my friends just won't leave it -- does it matter which faction of the ruling elite calls dibs on the Oval Office?

Doug Henwood, of the old state-socialist left, thinks it does. He argues that reelecting Barack Obama will be good for left-wing activists as, when his second term does not usher in a new progressive era, no longer will Democrats be able to claim Republicans have a monopoly on corporatist, war-mongering evil. That, in turn, will lead more and more people to realize the systemic nature of the American problem.

Henwood's argument has a logic to it, but one can also imagine a different outcome: Should Obama be re-elected, he will continue to pursue the same establishment-friendly, banker-approved polices as he has in his first term. Rather than admit they had been fooled not once but twice, however, Democratic pundits and partisans will continue adhering to the tried and true formula of pointing to this month's latest crazy Republican, arguing -- as they always have -- that while their guy isn't perfect, at least he's not the other guy. Rinse. Repeat. Hillary 2016.

Were a Republican in office, however, there would be no confusion about who is on who's side, no clichéd anecdotes about FDR and the need to push Obama -- gently, lovingly -- to be the best Obama he can be. War, again, would be a bad thing; hell, their might even be an antiwar movement. Government collusion with major corporate polluters would spur nasty editorials in Mother Jones, as opposed to excuse-making lectures about Political Realities.

At the same time, though, were a Republican to win in November, it would likely revive the myth of a Democratic savior. While center-left opposition to war would, maybe, be a Thing again, it would as we saw with opposition to the Iraq war be a thing used to elect more and better Democrats. Soon enough, another Obama-type figure would be found to re-brand the nominally left-leaning establishment political faction and, god damn it, we'd back to where we started all over again.

And that's why, friends, insofar as there is a debate over which party in power would be better for spawning a broad-based progressive social movement, it's kind of a silly one (yes, I've just wasted your time). A second term for Obama won't in and of itself awaken the public to the bipartisan, systemic nature of American plutocracy anymore than Bill Clinton's second term did. A Republican in office might awaken the partisan left's devotion to peace and freedom again, but only until the next Democrat is in power.

When it comes to affecting positive and systemic social change, it doesn't much matter who wields political power. Indeed, what matters is that we, the powerless, recognize that it's power -- not those who possess it at a given moment -- is the root of the problems we face. And that argument, I think, can be fairly easily made no matter whether the president is a Republican or a Democrat.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

When Spanish isn't enough to sell a war

Check out my latest column for Al Jazeera, on Spanish-language broadcaster Univision's sudden shift to producing English-language war propaganda.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Quoted for truth

"You might have 100 people in your gang - we have 32,000 people in our gang. It's called the Metropolitan Police."
-- Chief Inspector Ian Kibblewhite, Enfield Police, England (BBC)

Wednesday, February 08, 2012

'A Global Empire, Yet a "United States of Fear"'

In my latest piece for Inter Press Service, I review Tom Engelhardt's new collection of essays, United States of Fear, and opine on militarism in America.

Give it a read.

Friday, February 03, 2012

"Lawmakers, 'Experts' Spin Tales of Iranian Terror in Latin America"

Check out my latest piece for Inter Press Service on attempts by congressmen and career militarists posing as dispassionate experts to cast Iran's relations with Latin America as a "clear and present danger" to the United States.