Tag Archives: liberalism

Sophia Burns on ambulance-chasing and revolutionary strategy

I generally think that the radical left in the US does very little in the way of strategic thinking, so its always nice to read pieces like “Chasing Ambulances” and “Strategize, Don’t Moralize”, both written by Sophia Burns, a radical out in the Pacific North-west.

“Chasing Ambulances” critiques the common leftist practice of bouncing around different hot-button issues that are sparking protests and rallies, in an effort to spread the good word of revolution or whatever and find new recruits.  This is often weird and alienating and annoying to the people who are actually organizing the events and who have been engaged in long-term organizing around a particular issue or community.  And even when leftists aren’t being weird and opportunistic, there is still a tendency to put out all manner of resolutions and endorsements and whatnot as a way to “support” a cause — and it usually ends at that, which makes it highly questionable what the actual point of them is.  Burns argues that instead of running around and chasing after causes, leftists ought to instead be actual organizers, and engage in base-building in specific communities, with a long-term strategic perspective.  Sounds obvious, but then again, look at all the different cliques and sects running around in urban centers of the US that can be found at the fringes of any protest action, but have no meaningful organizing activity of their own, aside from trying to recruit people and raise awareness of socialism or whatever.

However, I would nuance this line of argument by saying that there are leftists who can and are engaging with flare-ups in social movements, like the ongoing teachers’ strikes, in what seems to be an effective and fruitful manner.  This engagement isn’t based on trying to recruit or preach, but on mutual communication and on the basis of learning.  There are plenty of radicals in education and academia who can and are connecting with the West Virginia wildcat teachers on the basis that they, too, are facing similar styles of exploitation and subjugation.  And of course it certainly helps that radical organizations like the IWW have been actually helping out in West Virginia.

“Strategize, Don’t Moralize” is a more explicit discussion of the need for revolutionary strategy, and a critique of the common leftist practice of debating about tactics in the abstract, divorced from context or strategy.  For example, its ultimately meaningless to talk about whether punching Nazis is good or bad in the abstract; you have to discuss it in the context of specific goals, which themselves must be connected to a larger strategy.  For revolutionaries, this strategy of course needs to be oriented around the prospect of revolution, which requires the synthesis of many different tactics — direct action, mutual aid, etc. — that have appropriate times and places to implement.  Without a coherent strategy, then leftists are left debating and implementing tactics in a vacuum, and arguing ideas without implementing practices, and thus remaining marginal to both the masses and to political and social relevance.

Burns doesn’t explicitly connect this line of argumentation with the one about ambulance-chasing, but the connection should be clear: when leftists aren’t acting in accordance with an explicit long-term strategy, then the impulse to abstractly moralize means that their actions are dictated by the issue of the month, and the need to “be correct” or “take the right position” on all manner of topics that, in the end, they have no concrete ability to influence.  The war in Syria is an excellent example of this.  Everybody is so damn caught up in yelling at each other about the correct line on Syria that nobody has stopped to realize that none of them have any power whatsoever to influence the situation in the first place, so the debate is ultimately irrelevant.  Instead of this style of moralizing, we need to take a step back and think about how to get from point A (being irrelevant to the situation in Syria and global capitalism/imperialism as a whole) to point Z (being a serious revolutionary force capable of intervening against imperialism).

Strategize and build power, don’t run after ambulances!

Activism and working-class realities in Ferguson

Mainstream liberal-progressive activism suffers from a number of strategic deficits, such as the focus on one-off theatrics run by non-profits and NGOs, and the emphasis on media attention.  These deficits tend to be inherent to liberal politics, insofar as liberalism seeks to reform capitalism, rather than mobilize the working class to overthrow it. Thus liberal political cadres tend to be middle-class activists who have the time, energy, and money to plan and participate in mobilizations aimed primarily at lobbying, raising awareness, etc.  But these strategies typically don’t build power in the communities and populations that they claim to speak and act for.

The limitations of liberalism became especially clear in Ferguson, in the aftermath of the protests and riots in August 2014, as seen in an essay on the struggles of local working-class activists published in Politico a year later. These activists struggled to balance their commitment to fight racist exploitative policing with their day-to-day financial needs.

Ferguson began as a movement led by the people who had lost. Protesters took to the streets not only to rail against racism and police brutality, but also to decry decades of deeper divides: in housing, education, jobs and the court system. But as the months wore on, the media frenzy built up and the money rolled in, Ferguson turned into something else. A struggling suburb without a prominent industry suddenly had one: Ferguson Inc., a national protest movement.

Unsurprisingly for a cause that overnight became an international drama, donation money from both individuals and large non-profit foundations (such as the George Soros’ Open Society Foundations) began hunting for good investments in Ferguson and the surrounding area.  This in turn drove local activists to orient themselves and their strategies around these sources of funding.

As the interviewees for the article state, some of their most important activities as local activists involved taking care of basic day-to-day needs, with mutual aid playing a large role.  People helped each other buy food, pay off phone bills, and find housing.  The initial waves of protests had a traumatic impact on people’s lives, with many facing job losses and evictions.  Many faced downward mobility, grappling with hunger and homelessness even as they continued to valiantly strove to keep the larger movement simmering.

Some of the money sloshing around managed to find its way into the pockets of those who needed it the most.  But a lot of it didn’t.  Another unsurprising trend, given the class character of who tends to be able to best capitalize media attention and solicit funding from non-profits and NGOs.  Some donations funded tourist-esque trips for outsiders to take buses to Ferguson so that they could take selfies in front of burned-down gas stations; other donations funded national NGOs who called one-off protests so that they could write a press release and snap some photos of locals to put into their next round of grant requests; yet others funded panels for middle-class activists to tweet and blog about.

As the protest movement goes national, Ferguson has been reduced to “where it began.” But the economic hardship that both predated and predicated the protests has only been exacerbated. Most activists who entered the movement in poverty remain in poverty. Some who entered with means have lost them, while a tiny fraction has found money and opportunity. For St. Louis’ impoverished youth, it is the same old story, with an audience that diminishes each day.

All of this confirms my own suspicions that all sustainable working-class movements put money in people’s pockets.  In the context of Ferguson, protests sort of did that, but only indirectly, and in a way that forced locals to depend on a fickle and amorphous blob of media attention and Internet chatter — and only a minority of locals, at that.  Politics became co-opted by the interests of the nonprofit-industrial complex.  And what material help this funding did achieve might very well be undermined by the fact that it escalated competition between people who are precisely those who should be working together.

The most sustainable venture in Ferguson that came out of the rebellions seems to be a non-profit called Operation Help Or Hush, which was founded for the explicit purpose of helping protesters and activists deal with day-to-day needs, helping secure people everything from food to housing to jobs.  Hardly a radical venture, but its tactics are an indispensable part of any aspiring proletarian mass movement.

There are lot of lessons in Ferguson.  And a clear one is that mainstream liberal-progressive activism is utterly unsuitable for the actual needs of the working classes.  Contrast the protests-turned-photo-ops with the directly material nature of the Black Panther Party’s self-defense squads of the ’60s.  The former sucks up energy while bringing little concrete benefit to locals, except perhaps a sense of recognition; the latter could directly intervene against the police robbing residents.  We need to bring this kind of materialist strategy to the forefront, and put it at the center of our theories and practices.

Radical left critiques of liberal identity politics

The last few years — and particularly the 2016 election season and its aftermath — were packed with a variety of contentious perspectives on race, and how to best go about fighting racism and white supremacy.  In particular, there has been lots of development around radical left critiques of mainstream liberal identity politics.  Here is an incomplete selection of some essays that I find compelling.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-option is a lengthy essay from a group of radicals in Occupy Oakland that analyzes and critiques a variety of issues associated with mainstream conceptions of race and identity.  The piece touches on the nature of non-profits, the way elites of color can and do participate in white supremacy (and thus, the inadequacy of making elite institutions “more diverse”), the role of capitalism in producing/reproducing racial stratification, the way liberal analysis tends to essentialize/reduce/boxe-in people to their respective “identities”, the way liberal analysis tends to infantalize and remove agency from people deemed “oppressed”, the way identity politics can be cynically used to erase people of color from allegedly “white” spaces, and more.

Dear #BlackLivesMatter: We Don’t Need Black Leadership by R.L Stephens II of Orchestrated Pulse is a critique of observed tendencies for “identity politicians” to exploit the people and the communities they claim to speak for in order to increase their own individual power, and looks to the historical examples of the ’60s-era Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party and mass politics during the Reconstruction era as political models to emulate today.

Fighting racism and the limits of “ally-ship” by Khury Petersen-Smith and Brian Bean in Socialist Worker is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically in the way it over-emphasizes individual inter-personal relations at the expense of mass struggle.  

From charity to solidarity: a critique of ally politics by Cindy Milstein in ROAR Magazine is a critique of the concept of “allyship”, specifically on the way it depends on a narrow and superficial understanding of race, the way it reinforces unhealthy tendencies of guilt and self-righteousness, and how it pushes people away from being autonomous political actors.

The Safety Pin and the Swastika by Shuja Haider of Viewpoint Magazine analyzes the way many parts of liberal identity politics is being appropriated by the far-right as a way to create an unironic form of “white identity politics” that is used to uphold white supremacy and white nationalism, and the need to return to substantive multiracial organizing and grounding anti-racism with anti-capitalism.

White Purity by Asad Haider of Viewpoint Magazine is a critique of privilege theory, arguing that we need to see white supremacy as detrimental to white people as well as non-white people, as argued by old-school communists like W.E.B. du Bois.

A letter from students and workers “of color” in the Takeover of Humanities 2 is a communique from a group of leftists at University of California, Santa Cruz, countering critiques from liberal campus activists about the alleged “whiteness” of an occupation, and raises larger points about multiracial organizing and the tendency of certain kinds of “identity politicians” to side with institutions of power.

Black Panther Party and the Young Patriots Organization, Chicago 1969

The shiny gloss of liberal tolerance, coating a violently racist global system

Nike recently announced a new line of athletic hijabs, making them the first multinational fashion/clothing company to do so.  How progressive!  And yes, they do have their “swoosh” corporate logo on the side.

Liberals will likely laud this move, and conservatives will likely get irritated, but I’d prefer to get away from America’s culture wars and ponder what the supply chain for manufacturing these hijbas will look like.  As of 2014, most of Nike’s clothing was manufactured in China, Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan, and Malaysia.  Any guesses as to what conditions might be like for the Muslim women working in the Indonesian, Pakistani, and Malaysian sweatshops that will be making Nike’s hijabs?  I’m a bit surprised that Bangladesh isn’t on that list, but looks like Nike has slowly backed out of the country since the series of garment factory collapses in 2013, most notably the Rana Plaza collapse that killed more than 1,000 workers.

Point being, mainstream culture wars in the West around race, religion, etc. tend to completely ignore the way discrimination functions in global capitalism — especially when the focus of discussion is on the aesthetic nature of commodities, and are driven by the public-relations strategies of powerful multinational corporations.  And it isn’t like people don’t understand the inherently superficial nature of corporate liberalism (after all, “college diversity brochure” is a constant punchline all by itself), but it still feels like this kind of cringey pandering is the dominant trend of anti-racist theory and practice in the US.

The juxtaposition between mainstream corporate liberalism against the racialized and violent nature of global capitalism is captured beautifully in the introduction of this recent essay on race and the 2016 election:

Back in the day, two knucklehead members of my old union local at a Union Carbide plant in New Jersey fashioned KKK hoods out of chemical filtration paper and paraded through the lunchroom on Halloween. The corporate HR executive sent to investigate summarily terminated both workers within hours of arriving at the plant. She loudly proclaimed the company’s “zero tolerance” to racial harassment.

Now this was very interesting considering that her employer was the prime suspect in the unpunished industrial murder of 764 mostly African American workers on the Hawk’s Nest Tunnel in the 1930’s and its current corporate chairman, Warren Anderson, was a fugitive from justice wanted by the Indian government in connection with the 1984 criminal manslaughter of at least 15,000 Indians in Bhopal. Over the next 15 years, the same HR exec who showed Phil and John the door was the point person in the shutdown of all three unionized Union Carbide plants in New Jersey, leaving behind a series of toxic waste sites contaminating communities throughout the state and 2,000 black, white and Hispanic workers, many suffering from uncompensated industrial diseases.

This episode comes to mind while contemplating the detritus of the Republican and Democratic conventions and the growing trope that the rage of the white (male) working class has propelled both the Trump campaign and the critique of the Clinton campaign from the left. The politics of race and gender often obscure much more than they reveal. It is true that individual white workers can be horribly racist and misogynist. But it is also true that the worship of “diversity” often serves as a cover for gross hypocrisy and ruthless class rule.

Obviously, the take-away here should not be that individual acts of racism, bigotry, prejudice, etc. should be tolerated.  On the contrary, these people should (and do) get their ass kicked.  But casting individual prejudice as 100% the source of racism and bigotry, as many mainstream liberal commentators seem to argue, ignores the larger systematic ways in which racialization is an inherent tendency of an unequal and hierarchical capitalist world, and in fact can often be manipulated to justify the power and privilege of the ruling class.  Nike hijabs will do very little to either fight Islamophobia in the US or raise the status of working-class Muslim women globally.  But expropriating and collectivizing Nike’s Asian factories, on the other hand…

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.

Sunday Interesting Links

  • Critical analysis on the “Fight For $15” minimum wage campaign and the absence of political organization, from Orchestrated Pulse
  • Argument for “selfish solidarity” over “allyship”
  • Article about recent scholarship on the politics of land reform in Afghanistan

A socialist critique of the liberal-progressive “theory of momentum”

The blog Orchestrated Pulse recently published this essay picking apart certain ideas about social change that dominate certain liberal-progressive circles.  Specifically, the essay targets the “theory of momentum” described in This Is An Uprising: How Nonviolent Revolt Is Shaping the Twenty-First Century (2016) by Mark and Paul Engler.  The “theory of momentum” appears to focus on public opinion as the key marker for success, and thus centers organizational efforts that generate media attention.

For the Englers the currency of politics is “attention,” especially  that of the news media, which allows activists to reach their audience. They constantly use the language of spectacle, speaking of how activists can dramatize or expose some unjust aspect of the social order, and use getting in the mass media as a forum to reach this public audience.

The focus on “attention” and “spectacle” should be familiar to those of us interested in radical social change and non-electoral politics.  We see this theory in action across wide swathes of the activist world, via various forms of protest theater: small street marches, die-ins, public skits and stunts, and the occasional sit-in/occupation that is usually peacefully resolved with the cops “arresting” the participants via cite-and-release.

The main problem here, from a Marxist perspective, is that this is entirely an idealist conception of history and politics, rather than a materialist one, that assumes that struggle must take place entirely in the realm of ideas, debate, and imagination.

What’s missing here is any theory of class, or really of any other kind of structural system of power reproduced in everyday social relations. The Englers see civil society as a public debate about collective values, not as a sphere of class struggle where ruling groups materially dominate and organize social life. This means that for them, an uprising is a spectacle, a method to change hearts and minds, not a society-wide struggle to overturn deeply material structures of repression and exploitation. In this vision, people are recruited to movements on the basis of their values, not the ability of the movement to deliver concrete gains.

The alternative, materialist view:

The most politically successful disruption is a disruption to the relations of dominance and privilege that are essential to the preservation of a stratified society, like obedience to bosses, fear of the police, deference to a dominant race or ethnic group, respect for property. When social movements succeed, it is not because they are especially persuasive, but because they discover strategies that allow people to break from these ordinary scripts of social life and transform their immediate conditions by force.

The essay makes some other excellent points, particularly on issues of non-violence, the nature of the Civil Rights Movement, the relationship between the “theory of momentum” and the centers of US power, and the need to bring labor organizing back into the picture.

I would say that its important to not throw out everything that the Englers argue.  The kind of protest theater that they advocate does have an important place in an overall movement–but the key problem is that endless acts of spectacle, protests, and theater isn’t grounded in any sort of self-sustaining mechanism that delivers concrete, tangible benefits. Thus participation tends to be largely restricted to middle-class professional activists.  At best, you have the occasional mass protest that slowly dies out as most people have to return to work, school, and family.  The only way that protest theater can be sustained is if it is grounded in a material base, in day-to-day activities and organizing–largely hidden from the gaze of mass media–that helps alleviate and overturn the pressures of capitalist life, sustain the social and economic lives of members/militants/participants, and forges new autonomous institutions.  Or in other words:

Prominent revolutionary movements typically follow the strategy of delivering immediate and concrete benefits to the masses, while simultaneously developing institutions parallel and opposed to those of capitalism.