Saturday, September 29, 2012

We Are Bill Murray

What is to be Organized?
I have a modest proposal.  It’s not about eating babies or the rich.  It is about how the Left might organize itself.  Right now, lets look at the terrain.  We have literally hundreds of political, social and cultural groups organizing on different issues – or the same issues - all over the U.S.  You may be a member of several.  You may be active.  You may just give money or participate in an event occasionally.  Or you may just read stuff on the internet and wish you were. 

Being an activist in the present situation in the U.S. is a mostly thankless task that only people especially ‘driven’ take up over a lifetime.  It is like becoming a musician or a painter or a long distance runner.  A calling.  Internal forces and external events combine to create a certain kind of person, a distinct and tiny minority presently.  The ‘usual suspect,’ you know.  So popular that if radicals had a skin color and an accent, they’d never get hired.  But we can usually 'pass' right now.

Working over a lifetime in a small grouping is not something most people want to do.  Yet the point of all this activism is to spread the ideas and organization, and eventually attain enough power to change some aspect of society, or perhaps all of it.  Sometimes it works.  Sometimes there are small, medium and occasionally massive breakthroughs.  Sometimes it doesn’t matter – because it is the struggle that counts, even if the majority of people are busy worrying about their personal lives and not their social lives.  Existential, you see.

However, if you really care about social change, this is not sufficient.  It hasn’t worked as a social solution.  How can the Left in the U.S. – and by this I mean all the socialist and anarchist organizations, all the truly radical activist community and labor groups, all the ethnic or cultural radicals – actually build a force powerful enough to challenge the social strait-jacket?  The relegation to the edges? The capitalist class?

It is pretty obvious that if all of these groups found some common independent platform and independent action program to agree on, and formed one organization, or ‘front’ – then the working class – which is the class we really represent – would have the beginnings of political representation.  Something not presently available within the Democratic Party.  It would draw other groups within the class and other classes to it.  The organization could start as an activist front; a socialist front; an anti-capitalist front, a 'classist' front, a populist labor front, a Black / Latino front, or some other formation.  It could aim to build a mass oppositional force that represents the majority of the country – the 90% or the 80% - not the corporations, the rich or the upper middle class.   All the groups could still exist, but they would have a common organizational structure linking them all.

I think there is enough agreement to form an organization like this - though there are some groups that, by their history, would not agree.  There are enough people in Minneapolis right now that would ‘join’ right away, and could form a fairly large group.  Of course, there is the human factor.  Many of the present leaders of various groups are committed to power in their little or medium-sized group, but are barely seen as leaders by anyone else.  The small-group mentality extends across the board.  Many groups live in a fantastical ‘linear’ world where each group will spring into prominence as the situation becomes radical.  Yet we know that spontaneous events rise … and then fall.  We’ve all lived through them.  Each group has its moment in the sun. And then the sun usually sets. So if the ‘leaders’ can’t agree – nothing happens over the long run.   

Let me give an example of the failure of the American Left when they did not ‘seize that moment.’  I am sure you have your own examples.  The most radical section of the American labor movement formed, under the initiative of the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers, the “Labor Party” in 1996 in Cleveland, OH.  This group eventually came to represent over a 1 million workers.  Yet at their first convention, the Labor Party refused to run candidates.  They wanted to be ‘educational,’ create an organization, work on single-payer and form a pressure group on the Democratic Party.  At the Pittsburgh convention 2 years later, they finally allowed the possibility of actually running someone, but no one actually ran.  By 2000, the only person running was Ralph Nader (who had spoken at both Labor Party conventions) and many Labor Party activists supported Nader.  The Green Party took off, while the Labor Party withered.  Of course, now the Green Party is withering.

The Labor Party failed to seize the moment of massive weakness in the American political system – Clinton’s attack on labor through NAFTA.  Part of this was due to being threatened by the Social Democrat in DSA in the leadership of the AFL-CIO, President John Sweeney, who said they would be expelled from the AFL-CIO if they ran anyone.  The other part was that they did not want to go through a fight with the most powerful forces in the U.S.  And the Democrats are one of them.  At the time, labor activists in Minneapolis did not understand the moment had passed.  But it had.  

What was the real result?  The ever-rightward drift of American politics, now concretized in a Republican Party not much different from the John Birch Society and a Democratic Party that is a re-incarnation of moderate Republicanism.  These are the wages of failure.

The Labor movement will never truly become aggressive until it feels it is not alone.  Or at least a wing of it feels that way.  Without some large formation working to its left, or inside it, it will not move - unless some kind of catastrophe happens perhaps.  Who's waiting for catastrophes?  Many.  And we may get them, but not of our choosing.

Moments pass.  They are precious.  Without the right organization or intent, revolutions pass.  Opportunities go by.  History flows along.  Time passes.  Quietude returns. And then everyone has to learn almost everything all over again later when ‘shit happens’ again.  It is like a giant version of Groundhog Day, with Bill Murray barely able to advance each day.  We are Bill Murray.

This process is dialectic.  Eventually people figure it out, just as Bill Murray did, and push back.  Capitalism is in trouble right now, world-wide, but as we know, they can worm out of most situations like Houdini.  After all, they have the money, guns and propaganda.  Yet if we are unprepared for their next ‘heart-attack’ – similar to 2008 – and all we have is our hundreds of little organizations – they will escape again, and the working class majority will be left behind again. 

The U.S. has a history of mass left populist organizations – the Populist Party, a formation joining the Knights of Labor and the farmer-based Grange; the Socialist Party of Eugene Debs; the Farmer-Labor Party, combining unions, farmers and middle-class intellectuals; the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s based on various strata of the population.  Yet since the rise of financial capitalism and the planned destruction of unions and working class employment in the North in the 1980s, there is little experience with long-running mass movements.  This is almost no organizational residue from these periods of any size.  The labor struggles against givebacks and plant closures in the 1980s, the Jesse Jackson campaigns, the anti-intervention protests centered around Central America never grew to truly mass status or permanent status.  The biggest has been the anti-war movement against the second Iraq war, which combined with world-wide protests against that bloody idiocy.  Yet, capital produces war like beer produces urine.  Even Occupy never became a truly mass movement. It is only the labor unions and the labor movement that have endured, which is why they have been under relentless attack for 35 years.

So my proposal is less ‘waiting’ and more openness to cooperation, more openness to close collaboration, to raising our sights, every group actually working together in a permanent formation that seeks to make it easier for people to be ‘activists.”  No one wants to be an activist in a tiny group except the truly committed or the ‘passers through.’  It has to be made easier for ordinary people to join, and stay.  Continuing the present trajectory will only result in putting our faith in events alone.

After all, 'workers of the world unite' is not just for others consumption, but also our own.

Red Frog
September 29, 2012

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