On “Activismists”

Sometimes I think I’m the only one around here who can’t stand the cheerful media-oriented hippie protest theater that defines so many rallies and demonstrations and marches.  Luckily this isn’t true at all, as this excellent essay published a few days ago on nonsite demonstrates.  Titled “Ritual Protest and the Theater of Dissent”, it describes from an insiders’ perspective the superficial, incoherent, and elitist nature of the non-profit-industrial complex that is at the center of many modern protest movements.

The descriptions and analysis of certain tactics hit home to anybody who follows any kind of media-oriented social movement: the singing of the same old protest songs, the vague appeals to “send a message” to decision-makers on moral terms, planning events in the middle of the day when average people (not professional activists/organizers) are working, using token representatives of marginalized groups for photo-ops, the exaggerated theater of “arrests” that were planned and initiated ahead of time by organizers and police, and in general the utterly boring, controlled, and sterilized nature of it all.  The author looks to this old essay discussing a similar dynamic in the anti-war movement during the Bush administration, to label these sorts of organizers as “Activismists”.

The young troublemakers of today do have an ideology and it is as deeply felt and intellectually totalizing as any of the great belief systems of yore. The cadres who populate those endless meetings, who bang the drum, who lead the “trainings” and paint the puppets, do indeed have a creed. They are Activismists.

That’s right, Activismists. This brave new ideology combines the political illiteracy of hyper-mediated American culture with all the moral zeal of a nineteenth century temperance crusade. In this worldview, all roads lead to more activism and more activists. And the one who acts is righteous.

The author is unsure of what the solutions are, but for that we could look to this essay by Ray Valentine from Orchestrated Pulse which advances an explicitly socialist critique of these kinds of professionalized media-oriented tactics (on which I’ve commented on here), specifically by attacking the “theory of momentum” advanced by Mark and Paul Engler.  In opposition to the liberal and idealistic tactics of Activismism, Valentine argues that real mass movements emerge from people winning concrete material victories by and for themselves through collective action, such as through workplace organizing and rank-and-file unionism.  Action that restricts itself to the symbolic and performative level is insufficient, if not utterly ineffective, at generating socio-political change.

America’s internal colonialism

I just came across an excellent article on race in America in Vanity Fair, written by an MSNBC host to plug his upcoming book.  A surprising source for an analysis that revives, at least figuratively, the idea that black communities in the US are part of a process of internal colonization.  It’s an odd mixture of Marxian anti-imperialist and liberal discourse.  Here is the thesis:

Nixon was, of course, correct that black Americans “don’t want to be a colony in a nation.” And yet that is what he helped bring about. Over the half-century since Nixon delivered those words, we have created precisely that, and not just for black Americans but for brown Amer­icans and others: a colony in a nation. A territory that isn’t actually free. A place controlled from outside rather than from within. A place where the law is a tool of control, rather than a foundation for prosperity. We have created a political regime—and, in its day-to-day applications, a regime of criminal justice—like the one our Founders inherited and rejected, a political order they spilled their blood to defeat.

And here is an observation on how colonialism, both historic and present, relies on complicity by elite layers of the colonized people:

From India to Vietnam to the Caribbean, colonial systems have always integrated the colonized into government power, while still keeping the colonial subjects in their place.

Half the cops charged in the death of Freddie Gray were black; half were white. The Baltimore police chief is black, as is the mayor. And Freddie Gray, the figure upon whom this authority was wielded?

Well, to those in the neighborhood, there was never any question what race he would be.

This is what distinguishes our era of racial hierarchy, the era of Black Lives Matter and the First Black President. Black political power has never been more fully realized, but blackness feels for so many black people just as dangerous as ever. Black people can live and even prosper in the Nation, but they can never be truly citizens. The threat of the nightstick always lingers, even for, say, a famous and distinguished Harvard professor of African and African-American studies who suddenly found himself in handcuffs on his own stately porch in Cambridge, Massachusetts, just because someone thought he was a burglar.

And a passage comparing and contrasting the rule of law in Nation and Colony:

In the Colony, violence looms and failure to comply can be fatal. Sandra Bland, a 28-year-old black woman who died in a Texas prison cell, was pulled over because she didn’t signal a lane change. Walter Scott, the 50-year-old black man shot in the back as he fled a North Charleston police officer, was pulled over because one of the three brake lights on his car was out. Freddie Gray simply made eye contact with a police officer and started to move swiftly in the other direction.

If you live in the Nation, the criminal-justice system functions like your laptop’s operating system, quietly humming in the background, doing what it needs to do to allow you to be your most efficient, functional self. In the Colony, the system functions like a computer virus: it intrudes constantly, it interrupts your life at the most inconvenient times, and it does this as a matter of course. The disruption itself is normal.

And a rare observation that while the US security apparatus disproportionately targets black people, it is also part of a wider system of repression against the working class in general:

The Colony is overwhelmingly black and brown, but in the wake of financial catastrophe, de-industrialization, and sustained wage stagnation, the tendencies and systems of control developed in the Colony have been deployed over wider and wider swaths of working-class white America. If you released every African-American and Latino prisoner in America’s prisons, the United States would still be one of the most incarcerated societies on earth. And the makeup of those white prisoners is dramatically skewed toward the poor and uneducated. As of 2008, nearly 15 percent of white high-school dropouts aged 20 to 34 were in prison. For white college grads the rate was under 1 percent.

All of this echoes the points I tried to make in an essay I wrote 2 years ago on police violence, about how in numerous working-class communities across the US the police are more or less an exploitative and lawless occupying force.  And there has been much, much more hard evidence on this that has come out since then, ironically in no small part due to the various Department of Justice investigations into the police forces of many major cities like Chicago and Baltimore.  Thanks Obama!?

Blurred musical lines in South Asian religions

South Asia has seen more than its share of horrific religious violence, whether it was the mass displacement and mass killings of Partition in 1947, or the genocide during Bangladesh’s 19671 war of liberation, or the pogroms of the 1980s in India, or the communal riots of 2002 in Gujarat or of 2013 in Uttar Pradesh.

But present in this backdrop of religious divisions are cultural and musical traditions that blur the lines that have been imposed between Hinduism, Islam, Sikhism, etc.  Take, for example, the musical collective of Riyaaz Qawwali, based in Texas, whose work fuses the musical and philosophical tenets of the various South Asian religions via the medium of Qawwali, a traditional form of Sufi Muslim devotional music.  Here is a video of them singing a Hindu bhajan from 15th-century Gujarat in Qawwali style.

This kind of syncretism isn’t just present in the diaspora — it is present in the homeland too.  Indeed, this style of inter-communal tradition is precisely the target of far-right extremist groups like Islamic State who abhor the notion of religious harmony, diversity, and heterogeneity.  The recent attack in the Sindh province of Pakistan, which killed over 70 people and injured hundreds, was an attack on a shrine whose popularity and meaning transcended religion and culture:

Religious devotees at the shrine of this 12th century saint cannot be compartmentalized into categories through which ISIS sees the world. To his devotees, he is not a Muslim or a Shia saint. He is a peer, who cannot be constrained by confines of religious boundaries. To the Sindhi Hindus, forming the largest religious minority in [Pakistan], he is their peer as much as he peer for Muslims. Some might label him to be a Sindhi saint, but songs of his praises are sung at the Sufi shrines in Punjab as well. In the summers at the time of his urs celebration special trains are booked to bring his Punjabi devotees into the heartland of Sindh.

There is perhaps no other shrine in the country that captures the essence of religious syncretism like the shrine of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar. In his courtyard, it feels as if the riots of Partition never happened, as if Sindhi Hindus were never forced to abandon their land, as if Christian settlements in Punjab had never been burned after alleged cases of blasphemy. The courtyard of Lal Shahbaz Qalandar represents a different world, a world that once existed but has slowly disappeared outside its confines. That’s why this courtyard represents such a threat. It defies all narratives, of exclusive nationalism and religious identities. It maybe just a few thousand people but a powerful narrative. The attack is not on the shrine but on this worldview which does not divide humanity into simplistic separate categories.

Tech workers are becoming politicized; can they also be radicalized?

The Trump administration is sparking a surprising amount of political and social mobilization among tech workers.  Some are protesting along lines that are concurrent with their bosses, such as the “walk-outs” at Google, which the CEO and other executives also attended; others are protesting companies like Palantir for their complicity in Trump’s ultra-reactionary programs.  Overall, while many tech elites are either ambivalent or even supportive of this new wave of political mobilization, its clear that workers are leading the charge, and not simply tailing the capitalists who pay them.

Right now, much of the unrest (within Silicon Valley or otherwise) seems tailor-made to get appropriated into mainstream liberal-progressive politics and act as an energizer for the Democratic Party, much like how the anti-war movement got co-opted during the Bush administration.  Discourse at protests seems targeted uniquely at Trump, as opposed to the general failures of establishment politicians, let alone capitalism.

But the radical left is in a much better position today than it was in the 2000s — socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) are seeing a big spike in new members, as are radical unions like the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW).  And the election season saw tech workers breaking toward the left during the Democratic Party’s primary season, supporting Bernie Sanders over Hillary Clinton, and even engaging in protests against Silicon Valley venture capitalists and their participation in Clinton’s elite fundraisers, during which their own class grievances got brought up:

Much of the protesters’ language centered on white-collar work frustrations, as the man with the bullhorn asked: “How many people here have weekends off – hands up? They have us working around the clock so they can get richer. How many of you are expected to be online over the weekend? Or get a call from your boss at 9pm?”

Thus, there seems to be great potential for the radical left to carve out a revolutionary pole among the general mish-mash of anti-Trump unrest among tech workers.  Part of this strategy ought to be double-down on ongoing efforts to connect with radical and revolutionary tech workers, and put a spotlight on radical left perspectives on techno-scientific labor and the nature of technological development in capitalism.

In particular, the radical left and those of us who are tech workers ought to put an emphasis on rank-and-file workplace organizing, and help tech workers fight against both their immediate problems (i.e. long working hours) as well as the lack of control they have over their companies’ politics.  This will be key in getting people to think beyond liberal politics (electoral campaigns and protest theater) and view their workplace (and the means of production in general) as a key site of political engagement, build class consciousness, and bring tech workers into political compositions with other segments of the working class.

The gang-fight in Yemen: enter player seven!

There has been a lot of controversy over Trump’s recent special operations raid in Yemen against al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP).  Predictably, the liberal reaction is one soaked in moralism and superficial analysis, more rooted in anti-Trump partisanship than any serious interest in Yemen.  Not that the killing of dozens of civilians and an eight-year old girl (whose older brother and father were killed by Obama) isn’t horrifying — just that the reaction doesn’t do a good job of conveying just how complex and catastrophic (and fascinating) the situation on the ground in Yemen is.

The US has been conducting military operations in Yemen against AQAP for quite a while now, mostly via drone strikes, but has also been playing a very important role in the civil war by providing logistical and intelligence support to the military forces of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, who are backing up the regime of Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi against Houthi rebels and loyalists of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the old dictator.  The Hadi regime and the Saudi-lead coalition also maintains an opportunistic relationship with AQAP; sometimes it fights them, sometimes it fights alongside them.  And then there is the Southern Movement, a secessionist movement in the south-west of the country with roots in the old revolutionary leftism of the region, which has its own militias and is currently in a tense alliance with the Hadi regime.

What’s truly hilarious in all this is that Saleh is now fighting against the very people that supported him in his 33-year reign.  But this is expected; as Andrew Cockburn put it in a Radio War Nerd interview on Yemen, Saleh is “a man of no fixed principles whatsoever”, a true gangster.

Saleh the smug

The Hadi regime’s opportunistic stance toward AQAP is merely a reflection of Saleh’s own masterful double-game, during which he raked in hundreds of millions of dollars from the US to fight AQAP even as he kept militants on the payroll and used them against political opponents.  And Saleh’s current alliance with the Houthis belies the fact that he killed the movement’s founder and fought a brutal and ineffectual counter-insurgency campaign against them between 2004 and 2010.  But after the Arab Spring, Saleh was forced to step down in favor of his old defense minister and vice-president, and he and his many loyalists (or rather, clients and employees) found their power threatened — so why not ring up the Houthis, who had also been sidelined by the GCC-brokered transition deal, and shoot your way back in together?

It is into this utter mess of shifting alliances and power-politics that The Donald is now looking to wade in to.  Trump is looking to escalate the war against the Houthi-Saleh alliance as a way to push against Iran, but how might this sit with a simultaneous anti-AQAP strategy?  Swinging matters back to the violent melee between AQAP and US Navy Seals on the night of January 29th, as discussed toward the end of the Reuters article:

Though al Qaeda claimed one of the dead, Abdulraoof al-Dhahab, as one of their “martyrs”, some officials on the government side denied that and said he was an important partner with local tribes in battles against the Houthis. “Trump must have launched the raid without enough information – Abdulraoof was a good, honest man, not with al Qaeda. He fought the Houthis,” a local tribal leader and security official told Reuters.

Now, Mr. al-Dhahab could very well have been both an AQAP leader and a respected ally of the Hadi regime — which is an excellent illustration at how the new administration is likely to inflame tensions across the board with its flailing and incoherent strategy, supporting and angering every faction at the same time.  Sit back and much on the popcorn — unless you’re in Yemen, in which case good luck with dealing with a horrific humanitarian crisis which is likely to get much worse.

Bill Burr on dual power

Yes, that’s right, Bill Burr just came out as a Leninist — a real Leninist, not whatever twisted reactionary kind Bannon thinks he is.  Check out his interview on Monday with Conan O’Brien, specifically the part starting at 21:00, where he talks about what he didn’t like about the Women’s March.

But at the end of the day, they were still going to men!  That’s what I didn’t like about it.  You still had to go down to [Trump’s] house, and be like “hey knock it off”.  They should’ve been like, networking, handing out business cards, “you build websites, I wanna do this”.  I think the way to get people in power to pay attention is, you don’t go to them, you kinda have a meeting over here; then that freaks ’em out, like “oohh uh, what’s going on over there??!” and then they come over to ya.  You don’t walk up to their house!  That’s a weak move!

Okay, so he’s not really talking about dual power or Marxist political theory, but still, not bad for a blurb on a late-night show, eh?  It gets at why I personally don’t really have much of an appetite for going to protests and rallies, and prefer doing the quieter work of trying to develop institutions and networks that can slowly replace those of state and capital.  It’s probably because I’m a hardcore cynic — I just don’t believe that politicians and capitalists care all that much about protests, and don’t think it will change their behavior, and ultimately serves to legitimize their authority and power.  And also, the act of protesting — even when carried out by radical leftists — seems to rely on the idealist notion that power is won through the spread of ideas, rather than the more materialist/Marxist notion that power must be rooted in control over tangible, concrete resources (and the democratic and working-class governance of these resources).

Of course, the new proto-fascist era of Trump isn’t quite like the old, stagnant neoliberal era, and I buy the argument that fascists and their like ought to be met in the streets, and their organizing disrupted by direct action.  And more importantly, direct action (i.e. mobbing the airport and harassing/accosting DHS and ICE agents) intervenes immediately at the source of grievances, rather than pleading for politicians to do something.  More of that, please!

A critique of socialist “intervention” by a comrade in Texas

I always thoroughly enjoy reading in-depth reflections and critiques of radical left-wing strategy rooted in practical experience, and this critical essay on Socialist Alternative by a comrade in Austin, Texas is no different.  I’m not sure about the general context of the essay — seems mainly about some issue about how the core organizers in Seattle weren’t taking into account the local conditions of members in the South — but there were some notes on issues that I think are relevant to radical leftists in general.  In particular, a section about the idea of “intervening” against liberal politics in spaces of labor organizing was interesting:

When I talk to people in our Party around the country about their relationship to the Fight for 15, they invariably say they have an awful experience with organizers, or, as they are sometimes referred, bureaucrats. When I investigate the manner of the intervention, it is always at a single, discrete point in time. They attempt to talk to workers at a meeting or at a strike, but when I ask if anyone has gone to try to speak to fast food workers before these events ever happen, I get blank responses. The very idea of speaking to workers outside those single moments has never occurred to them.

But let’s consider it, no? Let’s look through the eyes of the organizer. This person has spent likely somewhere around 60 or more hours a week grinding through the field, talking to workers, driving them to their shifts, helping them get their groceries home, breaking bread with workers’ family members. They have suffered emotional disappointment when workers seem fired up and then vanished, when worker leaders suffer family hardships or when those worker leaders find better jobs and leave a vacuum in the local movement and on the shop floor.

The workers that go out on these strikes have seen these organizers many, many times. They have learned to trust these organizers and have faith that they have their best interests at heart. That relationship has been built over time.

What reaction would you expect when, at the moment of spectacle, some stranger comes up, having made no attempt to get to know the worker ahead of time, and says, “Hey, that organizer is actually just using to you to get Hillary elected and they don’t really care about you. Come join us because we actually know the way forward. We have the Winning Ideas. Just look at our newspaper.”

The organizer is going to treat you like an asshole and the worker is going to think you’re a weirdo. Period. Interventions are not moments. They take place over time and respect has to be earned by using building as intervention itself. The “intervention” must be spread over time, building the base necessary to launch a successful intervention. The War of Position and War of Maneuver must interrelate organically and develop dialectically. Going to a meeting and forcefully arguing a good point alone will not succeed in and of itself.

These arguments make a lot of sense to me.  Too many of us radicals are impatient about social change (not surprising, we’re radicals after all), and let our frustrations get in the way of doing the gritty work of long-term organizing, base-building, and network development.  And oddly enough, it often seems like too many of us also take a fundamentally idealistic approach to social change (emphasizing the role of spreading ideas through discussion and speeches and so on) instead of a more materialist approach (recognizing the way radicalization proceeds from personal experience and concrete engagement with struggle, like the sort described above in Fight For Fifteen).  All of this touches on what I observed in the International Socialist Organization (as a fellow traveler, not a member); specifically, the dynamic of socialists popping in and out of various local social movements, but not sticking around long enough to be a serious part of the movement and taken seriously as a committed militant.