[NOTE: This is really long, and I'm not sure it's quite complete, but I'm posting it anyway. --Shawn]
Since the RNC protests here in New York last summer, I’ve been taking a break from activist work–mainly for personal reasons. Standing back from activist circles for awhile has given me an interesting perspective that I haven’t experienced in over ten years: living in and experiencing the world around me like an average person. This may sound odd to someone who hasn’t been intensely involved in left activist projects and general lefty culture but, when you are involved in this world, you are not living in the same world as your neighbor.
To put it in highly general terms, an activist’s life is typically a cycle of meetings, events, protests, and actions. The meetings and events (i.e. teach-ins, film screenings, tablings, conferences etc.) tend to culminate into protests and actions and then, after some downtime, the cycle starts all over–this tends to be true regardless of the focus of one’s activist work. It is a world with its own jargon and social conventions, its own etiquette and hierarchies, its in-crowds and out-crowds, in other words, it’s a sub-culture. It can be said that activists view the world differently because they pay attention to what is happening in the world more intently–although this doesn’t necessarily mean that they have a more accurate view of what’s going on. Though all activists may not have it right, even a crackpot leftist who will shout without any explanation that the US government is a mass murderer is closer to the truth than the majority of the American public. Compared to even a misfit ranter, most other Americans seem to be asleep. Yet, ironically, for all the efforts to be well-informed and broadminded, the world seems smaller and simpler when one eats, sleeps, and breathes activism and activist culture. Unsurprisingly, when one steps outside of that smaller world things suddenly become more nuanced and complicated.
Many activist’s view of the world is also often distorted by egotism: we are doing something important, after all, we are trying to change the world, we are “activists”–the very word necessarily implies that everyone else is a “passivist”. Most of us, like myself, do what we do on our own unpaid time and some of us even fund our work out of our own pockets, some of us get beat up by cops or arrested for what we believe, all of which can add a dash or more of martyrdom to spice up one’s life. For those of us engaged in more radical or confrontational activity, there’s the coolness factor of facing down the cops in some protest melee or doing some kick-ass direct action–providing the unique opportunity to get an adrenalin junkie fix, a selfless martyr fix, an ego boost, and a sense of purpose in life all rolled into one activity. In this light, the banality of one’s striving and straining which comes zooming into focus when one, in a manner of speaking, becomes a civilian for awhile is actually humbling and refreshing–a mental emetic for people who take themselves far too seriously. In some ways, I hope to concoct my own emetic in this essay but, more importantly, I want to try and understand how to do things better than I did them before.
I should say, before I continue, that it is not my intention here to mock or unfairly criticize activists, but to be honest and to accurately relate my observations from my temporary, self-imposed exile. There’s so much for me to go over that I could write ten essays and rants but, to spare the reader, I will make my best effort to keep it down to just the one. I am writing this as someone who wants to win and who has grown unsentimental toward aspects of the activist world that, I think, prevent us from winning. I have been wanting to write something like this for a long time, since my vacation from activism has only confirmed for me many doubts I had about what I was doing while I was doing it. After a decade as an activist in many different movements I really feel the need to point out some things about the Left in general that should be obvious but are apparently not–even at the risk of sounding ridiculously arrogant, which I may very well be.
In February of 2003, we had the largest global anti-war demonstration in history including direct actions that preceded it and it did not even delay the war on Iraq a single day, much less stop it. We had the largest protest against a political convention in American history while, simultaneously, a blockbuster documentary, playing in theaters across the country, detailed the crimes and misdeeds of the Bush administration, yet the Republicans swept Congress, the Senate, and the White House. In between those two events we’ve had smaller demonstrations and actions (Miami, Sea Island, March 27th 2003 in NYC, among others) which were either disasters or completely ineffectual. And now, last weekend, we had yet another protest that has also been ignored. Has it occurred to anyone that we (meaning the full broad spectrum of the Left) might be doing something wrong? I’m sure it has occurred to some, but from what I’ve seen, they’re keeping mum about it.
I’ve only dipped my toe into this subject and I can already anticipate some objections that are probably forming in some readers minds:
Yes, of course, we don’t have the resources that the corporate media has at our disposal to get our message out, and it is in the interest of the corporate media and the state to suppress our collective messages.
Yes, it’s true that those of us on the left who are active are in the minority, and most of us are doing the best we know how to help make this world a better place, whatever our definition of a “better place” may be.
Yes, we generally have the cards stacked against us in terms of resources and person-power when compared to the resources of corporate funded think tanks, political action committees, PR firms, and the apparatus of the state itself.
Now, having said that, it also must be said, in spite of all these forces arrayed against us and our own limitations, we collectively have a tendency to shoot ourselves in the foot before we ever enter the battle. What’s worse, nearly every faction of the Left, with a few welcome exceptions here and there, are practically allergic to self-analysis and self-criticism of any depth. Still, there comes a point where, after witnessing failure after failure, any rational person would be forced to look inward and around themselves to determine whether what they were doing, or not doing, might play a part in why everything that we all have been doing just hasn’t worked. I also think that people on the Left should ask themselves how we’ve arrived at this state of affairs after decades of gains through the first two thirds of the twentieth century.
I do acknowledge that it is unpleasant to be criticized for doing the best you can. Being criticized is never fun, but losing isn’t fun either. I’m not calling for some kind of viper pit of recrimination, but for a serious pull-no-punches review of what we’re doing, what we think, how we think, how we communicate with people outside of our activist milieu, and if any of this is really effective. I want to help build a better world for everyone. Hence, I want to seriously determine how to actually do that and I do not ever want to do things that do not substantially contribute to these goals.
Let’s start with protesting and direct action, the bread and butter of grassroots activism, and the default response to pretty much any issue that the Left wants to address. Frankly, I have come to question the value of protest as an effective means of social change. More to the point, I think protest and even what is often mistakenly called “direct action“, as it is practiced on the Left, is often worse than useless, except when it is focused on a discrete, single-issue campaign. Generally I think protest as the sole expression of dissent is not nearly enough.
Mass protests are only effective as a show of strength—a manifestation of the level of support your cause has. The 1963 civil rights march on Washington, for example, was an effective show of strength because those in power knew that the march was the product of thousands of people organizing against racism and segregation in cities and towns across the nation. What made the march effective was not that all those people showed up, but what all those people had been doing and what they would continue to do when they went home. However, if all you do is protest, if protesting constitutes the bulk of your activist work, what your protest shows is that your support is only skin deep. The fact that a group can get thousands out into the street really means very little at the end of the day if the people that show up are not involved in day to day struggle. Those in power know this and they aren’t at all afraid to ignore us–they know we are powerless, they know that our support is, at best, shallow; what’s frightening is that too many people on the Left don’t seem to know this.
If protesting doesn’t seem to work, why do we keep doing it? Partly because we don’t know what else to do and something must be done, so we do what we know. Partly because when we look at protest movements of the past we mistake form for substance: we mistakenly think that people marching and holding signs was what won all those victories in the past, when in fact what won those victories was on the ground organizing and street level activism. And partly because we make the mistaken assumption that the methods of targeted, single issue protests and direct actions that have actually been effective can be just as effective on a larger scale. Those who make this last assumption fail to understand that it is not necessarily the tactics, but the circumstances that make these single issue campaigns effective.
Think about it. You have an evil corporation that is doing bad things. A grassroots group or an NGO that specializes in protesting evil corporations organizes a campaign against the evil corporation to get them to stop doing, not all the many bad things it does (breaking unions, massive layoffs, bribing elected officials, dodging taxes, etc.), but just the particular bad things that the protest group finds most egregious (destroying rainforests, say). The group lobbies the relevant politicians and/or organizes protests at company sites and at shareholder meetings; maybe they drop some banners, maybe they do some lock-downs, they generate all kinds of bad press for the company and bring attention to their cause. Finally, the company cuts a deal with the protesters, usually something that allows both sides to come out looking good. Victory!
It is not necessarily the tactics that brought about the victory, although militant action tends to be more effective overall, but rather that the target was a single company, the issues were narrowed down to simple demands, and a single target allows one to utilize a “diversity of tactics” (lobbying, civil disobedience, picketing, etc.) to maximize pressure on the target. Most crucially, a campaign like this does not require mass support at all, it only requires that a campaign group interfere with the company’s ability to conduct business and generate as much bad press for the company as possible. It’s professionals vs professionals: professional activists against the company’s PR and security professionals. If an NGO did the work, then they could add another notch on their belt and parlay the victory into more grant money. If a grassroots group did the work, they’ll most likely consider their work done when their local issues are resolved. Meanwhile, the evil corporation turns their concession into a PR coup showing the world, in the form of full-page ads and TV commercials, what a wonderful and compassionate evil corporation it is. Everybody wins, everybody’s happy.
In fairness, some of these single issue campaigns do win significant victories, but generally their victories amount to little more than a drop in the bucket. While these campaigns win in one small area, evil makes massive strides across the globe. Save a tree here, lose a forest there, establish a union in a couple sweatshops and companies just pull up stakes and move to another place that is more amenable to exploitation. But if you’re in the game, one often loses that perspective—being a winner just feels so good that you just don’t think about the big picture and you go from campaign to campaign actually believing you are really doing something that will matter in the end. Even when single issue campaigns are taken to another level–like the SHAC campaign, for instance, where the goal is to completely put a company out of business–one can admire the guts and tenaciousness of those conducting the campaign but, in the end, another company will just take the place of Huntingdon Life Sciences when it is finally put out of business (in fact there are already other companies that pick up HLS’s lost business). In spite of the limited and localized impact that these campaign-style protests have, they still can claim a kind of success. The well organized and measurable campaign victories of groups like RAN, Greenpeace, and the more militant Earth First! look like unprecedented success when compared to much of the rest of the Left which has been almost entirely ineffectual–spending the last 35 years doing little more than helplessly watching the rollback of every gain made in the previous 60 years.
It was the tactics and strategies used by single-issue campaign groups like RAN and Greenpeace that provided part of the inspiration for the contemporary mobilization-oriented protest movement, from Seattle 1999 to the present. Another source of inspiration was the newly resurgent Anarchist movement, bringing with it new ideas about organization, a focus on militant action, and tactics of its own. It really seemed like we had a shot at turning the tide for awhile there, mobilization after mobilization, winning well-organized, clearly defined, victories (shutting down the WTO, successfully disrupting the World Bank and the FTAA summits). Those victories didn’t seem small at the time, they seemed enormous. It seemed as if we were unstoppable.
Then 9/11 happened and exposed our coalition as the house of cards that it was. The big groups lost their nerve and called off the World Bank/IMF protests that were going to happen just weeks after the attacks, the professional activists representing NGOs like RAN and Greenpeace pulled out too, withdrawing their highly skilled people who might have otherwise been training activists. The Anarchists and some stragglers and dissenters from the other larger groups were the only ones who went ahead with the protests and the protests were a disaster, needless to say. Regardless of who you may think did the right thing, what is important about this event is that it demonstrated how feeble our alliance was. We have not had anything resembling those creative, diverse, energetic, organic and militant mobilizations in the US since 9/11. But 9/11 isn’t to blame for what went wrong, if anything, 9/11 helped accelerate a process of disintegration that was bound to happen sooner or later and it showed how far everyone was willing to go, neither of which are necessarily bad things.
In a sense, the anti-globalization movement, the Anarchist movement, and a lot of other Left movements, share much in common with dead heads or renaissance fair geeks—they are self-organized mobile communities based on common interests. There can be a lot of solidarity within a community like that, but such communities are also extremely insular and out of touch with the lives of ordinary people, often willfully so. I am not about to urge people to get involved in their local communities as if community based organizations were any more effective at making significant change, but I do think that the reason why the anti-globalization movement couldn’t have lasted is because it was never a representation of what was going on day to day in the real world. What we did then was pretty powerful, but it took all of our energies to pull those mobilizations off–we would have petered out sooner or later. Unlike the civil rights movement, our mobilizations were not a flexing of our powerful muscles, but rather an exertion of all the strength we had in us. Some people had an inkling of this, they urged others to take what they experienced in Seattle, in DC, and in Quebec City and bring it back to their communities—almost no one listened.
What did it really mean to bring the spirit of Seattle, or DC, or Quebec back to your community? Who knows? I don’t even think the people advocating such things even knew. I was one of those advocates, and I didn’t really know–I had some ideas, but they were pretty vague and romantic and I don’t think anyone else had a better grasp on it either. What I know now is that it shouldn’t be about people getting caught up in some dead end preexisting community group that spends all its time working on myopic or milquetoast projects but, instead, starting your own projects if necessary. What’s important about local activism is not that you’re somehow down with the common folk, but that you view yourself as one of them. It’s not about “helping” people like some missionary, but acting like a stakeholder who’s going to be around for awhile and helping each other. Does any of this sound like something that the glory-hounds and rockstars, the adrenalin junkies and handcuff fetishists, the scenesters and gadflys in our movements could ever hope to be serious about?
When we talk about an activist who is not a labor organizer or a community organizer, we are talking about someone who not only has little experience dealing with ordinary people, but probably actively avoids dealing with ordinary people. In fact, such a person has probably spent a good deal of their lives actively running away from their ordinary families and their ordinary hometowns. People don’t move to college towns and big city’s to live amongst the common folk, they move there to live amongst other people like themselves–so that they can make each other feel guilty about not living amongst the common folk. But seriously, the fact that there are places where people can be a part of a community that holds different values than the dominant culture is mostly a good thing, but these places also can (and do) serve as enclaves where people can escape the world and immerse themselves in their little scene. The fact that these lefty enclaves exist can be credited to the ‘cultural revolution’ of the 1960′s and, to a much lesser extent, the DIY punk movement of the 70′s and 80′s. The Left has managed to carve out these enclaves for themselves but, instead of using these places as footholds for the spread of different values, they have served instead as protective cocoons, as ghettos.
The trouble is that the Left wants to change America but they don’t want to deal with all those icky, backward, reactionary people that make up the majority of the US population. Who among you wants to live in Harrisburg, PA when you can live in Ithaca, NY? Or Bakersfield, CA vs. Berkeley? Or Binghamton, NY vs. Brooklyn? I don’t blame anyone who chooses to live in a place where they feel comfortable, I would choose the same way, but there is such a gulf between what was once called the counter-culture and the rest of the country that we may as well live on different planets. This isn’t necessarily a strike against people who live in leftist enclaves, though these enclaves do tend to show the true face of the contemporary Left—educated, generally affluent, and mostly white. These places have all kinds of problems and contradictions, but the biggest problem they have regarding the stagnation of the Left is a general sense of contentment and self-satisfaction. After living in an enclave like this for awhile, it becomes easier to just stay within its boundaries and deal only with each other—people who generally share our values and beliefs. We all end up living in our own little world, our own little sub-culture, and dealing with people who do not believe what we believe becomes more and more problematic, it becomes easier to avoid these skirmishes with reality and just hide in the safe cocoon of the leftist ghetto.
Nothing is more poignantly amusing than people on the Left putting forth wild guesses about what poor people or working people are like and what they want as if their notions were verifiable fact. They’re like people attempting to describe a painting while blindfolded. We carry around our outrage and our crazy ideas about how everything would be better if we all lived in a big happy commune or a socialist workers paradise and yet we have no clue how to communicate with the immigrant guy who bags our groceries at Whole Foods. To most leftists, the immigrant guy is not a person, he is a member of the oppressed, he is a recruitment opportunity, he is the object of their guilt, he is any number of things but he can never simply be a human being. Maybe he beats his wife? Maybe he hates black people? Maybe he’s a raving religious fanatic? It’s better to not get too close because it may spoil the illusion of a tidy black and white world that we have created.
Does anyone ever think about why it is that we have to go undercover as working class people to understand how working people live? Do we wonder why self-appointed representatives of the proletariat are able to pontificate to the Left about what we should be doing? Could there be a more obvious indication that we don’t know what the fuck we’re talking about when it comes to understanding what our fellow Americans think? The fact is, most of us are so comfortable in our sub-cultures and our scenes and our politically progressive, eco-friendly neighborhoods that we don’t even know how to interact with someone who has no experience with the way of life we’ve adopted. When you reject the system, you inevitably disconnect yourself from the people who are still stuck in that system and who may not have the luxury of rejecting it. This is a difficult fact to face. What’s good about the “counter-culture” is that it has the potential to point a way towards better ways of living, unfortunately, it has mostly become a self-serving, insular ghetto where we can willfully shut out the world. If our lefty hubs could be a place where ideas are born and grow instead of stagnate and atrophy, that could be the start of something useful.
As it is now our leftist ghettos enable us to cherish our pet theories, and have their validity reinforced by like-minded people, without ever having to go out and test them. One very common pet theory is the belief that if the people only knew what was really going on they would be outraged and radicalized and the revolution (or a Democrat in the White House) would be right around the corner. This is an idea that is dear to everyone from liberals to radicals. I think more people than we think know this country is fucked up, but when they are faced with the ‘awful truth’, as it were, they must make a choice: they can fight it, they can endorse it, or they can ignore it. I think most people choose to ignore what’s going on. They haven’t been coming to help us man the barricades because they aren’t interested. Sure, some people are interested–they’re glad we’re doing what we’re doing, always ready with a pat on the back for us or a thumbs up. They don’t want to do what were doing, of course, but they’re glad someone’s ‘fighting the good fight’. The very few who actually do want to become active will find that getting involved is not so simple. Most of these newcomers are young people and most of them will stop being politically active by the time they turn thirty or when they get married, whichever comes first. Only a fraction of these newcomers will remain lifelong activists. It really amounts to little more than replenishing the existing activist population.
A well reasoned argument or a documented history will get some people’s attention, but most people won’t care. We do want to reach the people who respond to the kind of messages we disseminate currently, but what about the majority of people who are indifferent? How do we make them care? I think it’s going to take a lot more than reasoned arguments and well researched academic studies, it’s also going to take a lot more than the flat out propaganda that most people on the left waste so much paper and bandwidth on. I think most people tend to care about things they actually need or use. Most people are absorbed with their own lives and if something doesn’t affect them directly, they don’t care. I think if we are going to expand the left and actually be effective again, we are going to have to work on projects that are useful to people and projects that people will want to be involved in.
“What do we do now?” it’s the question that we have been asking ourselves over and over again for the last 30 years. We have conferences and meetings and panels asking this same question again and again. Our answer to this question always seems to be: “More of the same.” More protests, more teach-ins, more direct actions, more pamphlets, newspapers, flyers and zines. Meanwhile, we lose more and more ground every year. To the public we have become laughable stereotypes, we parody ourselves better than the best satirists ever could. We need to start looking at different ways of doing things if we ever hope to be relevant again.
I think we first need to recognize some things about ourselves and the world around us before we can pull ourselves out of our rut:
* We have to want to win. It sounds obvious, but it’s really not. The left generally does not behave as if it wants to win. Whether it’s anarchists who think that organizing into small social cliques and doing whatever you feel like doing is going to change anything at all, or it’s radicals of any stripe who think street battles with cops make a difference, or it’s liberals who cling pathetically to the Democratic party, or it’s people who think standing in the street and holding signs will stop a war, all of us may think we want to win, but our actions tell a different story. We have all unconsciously resigned ourselves to having low expectations. We all have accepted the constraints of simple rebellion, of mere dissent, of harmless objection. The left as a whole is gripped by a culture of impotence. We talk, we complain, we rave, we rage, we snipe, but few of us build anything, we have grown so used to complaining that we don’t know how to do anything else.
* Even when the left had been successful in the past, it always had less to do with our own organizing than it had to do with the dumb luck of being in the right place at the right time when preexisting discontent had reached a critical mass. The difference between then and now is that the Left had something to offer, even if what they offered was only courage. I’m talking about the labor organizers who literally risked and lost their lives building the labor movement or the civil rights activists who risked death and torture working to end segregation–how many of us are willing to do that today? We inhale a little tear gas and act like we’ve been in a war. We spend the night in jail and act like we were in a concentration camp. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of courageous people on the Left, I’ve had the honor to know some of them, but people like that are thin on the ground. We want people to jump on our bandwagon, but why would anyone follow us when we don’t have the courage of our convictions? We backpedal and compromise or, conversely, we revel in our impotent and alienating rhetoric. We are terrified of the people we claim we want to reach, how can we seriously expect them to join us?
* The capitalist system is an incredibly resilient system. If you’re waiting for the capitalist system to collapse, you’ll be waiting a very long time. It’s not that things won’t get worse, they’ll most certainly get worse, but it won’t make capitalism go away. The whole world could resemble 1990′s Somalia politically and economically and capitalism, in one form or another, would probably still be the dominant system. It will only go away when people decide that they do not want to live under this system and act to change this system. Even if it were possible that capitalism might collapse all by itself, how on earth could we think that we will just be able to step into the chaos that would ensue and establish a better society? The fact that we are sitting around waiting for disaster to strike just shows how we unwittingly accept that we’re a bunch of hopeless losers—sick, cynical, and opportunistic losers.
* We have to focus on what we can do that actually helps right now. Claiming everything will be better and we’ll all be happy after the revolution does not help anyone right now. Starting a community radio station, founding a clinic, starting after school programs, founding community centers, establishing credit unions, starting a co-op, starting a community supported agriculture program, starting an employee-owned enterprise, unionizing your workplace, even joining your local volunteer fire department, could help a lot sooner than any revolution that may or may not be down the road. Imagine if, in every city, activists chose one long term project to develop—maybe one of the examples listed above, or maybe something else—and that project became their primary activity for however many years it took until the project reached completion. Imagine also that these activists helped and encouraged other people in the community to start similar projects that involved anyone who wanted to participate and resulted in institutions that served the community. Imagine how even working on one major project could have a more positive impact on real people’s lives than half a lifetime of holding signs and chanting. We have to stop waiting for things to get worse and start working to make things better. If we want to change this society, we have to start building the infrastructure that will take the place of the society we now live in.
* We have to use all the tools at our disposal in order to make change happen: Direct action, civil disobedience, protests, lawsuits, lobbying, sabotage, ad campaigns, boycotts, or our own labor—all of these tools should be at the disposal of activists of any political persuasion. The object is to win, not to feel smugly self-satisfied that you didn’t sacrifice your principles by calling your city councilman or by doing something illegal. We have to do what works, if a lock-down or a building takeover will work, let’s do it, if blast faxing the mayor’s office will get a particular job done, let’s do that too. We need to be unsentimental about particular tactics and focus on what will actually get the job done in a particular situation.
How do we do all this? Well, you’re the people who think that you can stop wars and bring down the capitalist system by waving signs in the street and fighting with cops. If you have enough hope in that strategy how could you consider this one any less feasible?
The bottom line is we don’t have time to be failures anymore. The earth is rapidly being made unlivable for most of humanity. Our country is run by bloodthirsty maniacs and there is no other force in the world to keep our empire building rulers in check. We owe it to ourselves and to the rest of humanity to bring down this imperial system. Dealing a death blow to this system is the best single thing we can do for all the victims of the American empire in this country and around the world. There has to be a better way to do it than the way we have been going about it. I don’t claim to have all the answers, but I’m trying my best to find the answers to these problems. I hope that what I’ve written here will inspire others to think about these problems also. We have precious little time, we need to start turning the tide, and soon.