Tag Archives: politics

The climate crisis and the far-right in the Pacific Northwest

The Pacific Northwest has been marked as a potential climate haven for the increasing masses of people who will be fleeing the worsening climate crisis. Cliff Mass, a University of Washington climate scientist, has pointed out that the area will largely escape the worst of the intensifying disasters that will affect the rest of the continental United States: sea-level rise, heat waves, hurricanes, droughts. Indeed, some research, like a 2015 paper in Science, has found that the Pacific Northwest will actually benefit from climate change, with increased agricultural productivity and lower energy costs.

But this potential haven will have to reckon with the parallel movement of far-right extremists into the area, a trend that has been happening for several decades now, and which only seems to be escalating. In the 1970s, white nationalist and neo-Nazi circles came up with the Northwest Territorial Imperative, which saw the northwestern states of Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming as an ideal region to settle and construct a white separatist state. Militant groups, such as The Order, sprang up in the region, and carried out a series of robberies and killings to attempt to agitate for and fund a separatist movement. Meanwhile, more above-ground groups like the Aryan Nations set up compounds in remote areas of North Idaho, which is also where the infamous 1992 Ruby Ridge incident took place.

More recently, there has been a migration of far-right Christians into the region, via the American Redoubt movement, which was launched in 2011. Like the Northwest Territorial Imperative, American Redoubt sees the region as prime real estate, but for conservative and libertarian Christians and Jews, rather than whites only; it also explicitly excludes the coastal regions of Washington and Oregon, since a key element of its ideology is to prepare for the collapse of the United States and its infrastructure, and the resulting fallout in and around its major cities. According to a 2016 Economist article, hundreds and perhaps even thousands of families have answered the call and have relocated to the region. (Its not clear what any of these movements think about the many large Native American reservations in “their” territory, like Wind River in Wyoming, the Blackfeet and Flathead reservations in Montana, or Nez Perce reservation in Idaho).

American Redoubt is quieter, but more sophisticated than its neo-Nazi predecessor. It taps into a much wealthier crowd of people, as is clear from a 2016 Washington Post essay. The new settlers have quite a bit of disposable income, enough to put down hundreds of thousands of dollars on property, special bunkers, off-grid energy systems, food supplies, and ammunition; and their relocations are facilitated by a matrix of ideologically-aligned real estate firms and survivalist/prepper supply companies.

But while they aren’t robbing banks and getting into shootouts with the feds, they are certainly dragging regional politics even further to the right than it already was. The shenanigans of state representative Matt Shea are an excellent case-study of this (see Ep. 384 of The Dollop for a humorous podcast overview of this). Shea has represented a far-eastern legislative district of Washington, next to Spokane, for over 10 years, is a supporter of Redoubt, and has consistently pushed a far-right, Christian extremist message of securing the region against big government, communists, and Muslims. One of his pet projects is splitting Washington and making a new state, called Liberty, out of the rural eastern half.

Its clear that Shea does not envision a peaceful future for this movement. Last year, light was shed on a document he wrote that summed up his idea of Christian warfare, which included massacring all the males of communities that do not submit to the “Holy Army”; and within the last few weeks, his ties with a paramilitary training camp for Christian extremists were exposed. Shea, along with other far-right regional legislators, have also connected with various wings of the militia movement, especially via the Bundy family during their standoff with the feds in Nevada in 2014 over grazing rights. Shea and company later tried to intervene during the militia occupation of a wildlife refuge in Oregon in 2016, and in fact, its likely that Shea helped plan various aspects of the occupation and the surrounding political theater.

Members of the Oath Keepers in Oregon

All of this far-right organization is bad news for climate change mitigation, even as the Democratic Party strengthens its hold on the state governments of Washington and Oregon. A couple months ago, Oregon Democrats tried to pass a cap-and-trade bill. Republicans, who are in the minority, couldn’t block the bill, but what they could do was deny quorum and prevent a vote from being held at all. So, they walked out of the capitol and went into hiding; and regional militia groups — including some that occupied the wildlife refuge in 2016 — declared their intent to defend the Republican legislators against any attempts to force them to return. An additional threat to rally at the capitol caused the building to be shut down for a day. Eventually, the bill was killed, and the Republican senators slunk back to work.

This fiasco paints a grim picture of the future, where far-right Christian and white nationalist settlers continue their merger with the far-right militia movement, and create a powerful armed bloc against climate mitigation and climate refugee resettlement. And the Democrats, of course, will be of little help, given how they are toothless and terrified of actually standing for anything. They were certainly unwilling to call the Republicans’ and militias’ bluff on how far they would go to shoot down the cap-and-trade bill.

All this must be taken seriously, but at the same time it is important to not overstate the current power or centrality of the far-right. The militias certainly played a role in disrupting and delaying the legislative process around the cap-and-trade bill; but in the end, it was not them or the Republican senators who ultimately killed cap-and-trade, but a successful lobbying effort by Boeing to peel off a Democratic senator from supporting the bill. The biggest and most potent force in climate crisis denialism remains mainstream neoliberal capitalism.

Either way, the fiasco demonstrates the need for the climate justice movement to become better organized, more aggressive, better connected with the abandoned rural heartlands where fascist forces are festering unchallenged, and take seriously the question of armed self-defense. Neither the big corporations nor the far-right will back down from undermining a progressive and adaptive future, and will likely grow more militant and violent as the contradictions of capitalism, climate, and borders become more and more strained. If this all sounds extreme, its only because we’ve gotten far too used to accepting the massive gap between our rhetoric and our actions on the climate crisis– and its beyond time we closed that gap. If the Pacific Northwest is a future climate haven, it’ll be one that was fought for.

4 reasons to prioritize the study of the Bolivarian Revolution

The Russian Revolution has a disproportionately prominent position in the imaginations of modern revolutionaries in the West. Regardless of how smart and insightful Lenin was, and the trailblazing  efforts of the Bolsheviks, the hard truth is that the Russian Empire in the early 1900s was a totally different society than the ones we are dealing with today. Instead of focusing so much on the Russian Revolution, would-be revolutionaries should put much more energy into studying the Bolivarian Revolution, which is still playing out in Venezuela today, and which will have continent-wide ramifications. Now of course, the Bolivarian Revolution can be a controversial topic, and there are a lot of disagreements within the radical left about whether it is “truly socialist” or whatever; but regardless of these debates, I think we can all agree on the basic fact that the last couple of decades have seen some truly remarkable experiments in revolutionary praxis happen in Venezuela.

The first and most obvious reason to study the Bolivarian Revolution is that it is actually contemporary, starting in the 1990s and continuing today, as opposed to taking place 100 years ago during a totally different historical context. It started at the dawn of the information age, during an era of relative peace and a uni-polar US-controlled world order, and rebelled against neoliberal capitalism. These factors still mostly hold today, although the geopolitical context is certainly changing quite a lot, with the rise of China and Russia as economic and military rivals to the US, respectively. Compare this to the situation in the early 1900s. Basic technologies we take for granted today, like electricity and oil-based transportation, were just barely getting off the ground; the world was getting ravaged by vicious wars between evenly-matched imperial powers, in the worst violence that humanity has ever seen; and capitalism, in its modernist-developmental phase, was non-existent or peripheral to many regions that were still largely feudal in nature — such as Tsarist Russia.

Second, the Bolivarian Revolution took place in a highly urbanized country, which is again a stark contrast to Russia in 1917 (~20% urban), or really any country that saw a revolutionary socialist movement take power in the 20th century, like China, Vietnam, or Angola (Cuba is a possible exception, since in 1960 it was almost 60% urban). This is a huge factor for revolutionary politics, since the socio-economic and political dynamics of cities are extremely different than that of the rural countryside. Cities tend to be “fully capitalist”, with people totally subsumed by markets and wage-labor. In rural areas, markets have a presence but tend to exist alongside other social relations. The economic basis is also wildly different, with cities being orientated around industrial and service sectors, while rural areas revolve around energy and resources (agriculture, mining, etc), and corresponding differences in class and social composition. Given that the West is heavily urbanized, we should look closely at how radical politics has taken such deep roots within Venezuela.

Third, the Bolivarian Revolution was largely a peaceful process that combined electoral politics with autonomous social movements. This is quite novel in the history of revolutionary socialism; the closest parallel to this was the Allende government in Chile in the 1970s, which only lasted three years before being overthrown by a military coup. Chavez’s democratic road to power is crucial to study, given how hegemonic and popular democratic institutions generally are in the US, other developed countries, and wide swathes of the Global South. Despite the structural limitations of bourgeoisie democracy, its hegemony means that revolutionaries have to figure out some way to engage with it — albeit in a very different way than Western electoral parties, socialist or otherwise, have done so thus far. Hence the need to learn from the electoral experiences of Venezuelan socialists. The key lesson is probably in the relationship between electoral politicking and non or extra-electoral organizing, which has taken place across a dizzying number of cooperatives, clinics, affinity groups, neighborhood associations, etc., and how they feed into each other — a process that is much more complicated and interesting than current debates on the matter in the US and the West have acknowledged thus far.

Fourth, the Bolivarian Revolution is a revolution based on oil. The Chavez administration has used Venezuela’s oil industry as the material base for organizing and mobilizing the Venezuelan masses, turning its huge profits into funding for the aforementioned network of grassroots cooperatives and associations. This worked as long as oil prices were high (which was an explicit policy goal of Chavez), but their collapse has been the key factor in the recent crisis and potential end of the Bolivarian Revolution. This whole experience is an important lesson in the relationship between political economy and revolutionary strategy, and strategic questions about revolution and global processes — namely, imperialism and climate change. Venezuela’s oily socialism was dependent on exports to the US, which is obviously untenable for any serious revolutionary project in the long-term. And dependence on oil is itself untenable given the ongoing climate crisis. The (failed) attempts of the Bolivarian Revolution to break from US imperialism and fossil fuels must be studied; whether we can figure out how to actually overcome our material entanglement with US imperialism and fossil fuels will make or break all future revolutionary struggles.

Enron and 1990s capitalism

It is remarkable how much of bellwether Enron turned out to be regarding structural changes within capitalism — despite the fact that the company ultimately turned out to be fraudulent house of cards built on bizarre and incomprehensible accounting tricks (although then again, maybe its fraudulent aspect is precisely that which most represents capitalism’s fundamentals). Studying the rise and fall of Enron is like studying the political economy of the 1990s in general. The Smartest Guys in the Room: The Amazing Rise and Scandalous Fall of Enron (2003) covers the whole saga with definitive detail.

Initially, in the ’80s and early ’90s, Enron was a logistics company in the energy industry, specifically focusing on owning natural gas infrastructure. This involved being the intermediary between gas production plants and consumers, selling access to pipeline capacity, ensuring delivery, etc. Before long, Enron started to financialize all these physical assets, which coincided with the steady deregulation of the energy markets. Gas contracts were made more short-term, and trading markets were set up so that contracts could be bought and sold by third parties, and speculation on future prices started to increase. Of course, since Enron controlled a large portion of national natural gas infrastructure, they had access to high-quality information to inform their bets.

Even as Enron slowly morphed into primarily being a financial firm, they expanded their physical operations globally by hopping on the international development train that was taking off after the end of the Cold War. This was a time when privatization of assets and contracts across the Third World was heating up, and Enron was buying up energy and resource access in places like India and Brazil. A lot of these deals turned out to be total busts, not least because Enron was far more interested in closing big deals, fast, than in actually running an efficient and profitable operation, or even making deals that made long-term financial sense. And when they did make a profitable longer-term deal for themselves, as in the case of the infamous Dahbol gas plant in Maharashtra, India, they turned out to be such blatantly crooked deals that they were eventually shut down by popular backlash. For an analysis specific to Enron’s global operations, check out Vijay Prashad’s Fat Cats and Running Dogs: The Enron Stage of Capitalism (2002).

Within the company, the real fraud turned out to be in the accounting. Enron used “mark-to-mark” accounting, popular on Wall Street, which allowed you to book the total expected profits from a deal immediately, instead of as the cash actually came in over the life of the deal. The flip side of this is that if the expected value of the deal decreases in the future, you have to mark that down as a loss. Of course, Enron never did that, and took the abuse even further by twisting their assumptions about deal profitability to absurd lengths to book whatever amount of profits they needed to hit their quarterly earnings targets. And when they did have to face a loss, Enron shuffled away them away in weird shell company entities so that losses and debt were moved off the company books. However, these didn’t actually disappear, and slowly grew as a ticking time bomb over the course of the ’90s.

But even before the accounting fraud finally blew up, Enron became infamous for their actions during the 2000-2001 California electricity crisis, when they took advantage of a shoddy power deregulation effort to manipulate the markets and engage in serious price-gouging. By this point, Enron’s physical assets had grown to include power systems, and they used these to do things like withhold or divert power to drive up prices, or overload the transmission line schedules to get paid to not produce power, and so on.

Last but not least, Enron even tired to get into the Internet business, by trying to roll out broadband networks and to build a trading operation for Internet access like they had done for natural gas and electricity. This turned out to be a bust, not only because they didn’t understand the technology, but also because the dot-com bubble popped in 2000.

So to sum up, the story of Enron is also a story of logistics infrastructure, energy deregulation, state privatization, international development and neocolonialism, financialization and speculation, Internet and tech — and, fundamentally, the short-term systemic thinking that is central to the overall operations of capitalism. Wowza!

Post-Western films and the violence of capital

There has been an interesting trend in Hollywood in recent years around a new kind of Western. I’ve been calling them “post-Western”. Films in this category are set in the modern Western hinterlands, in the small towns and back-countries of states like Texas, Arizona, and Wyoming, and feature similar plots and themes as the old Westerns, like anti-heroes, lawlessness, individual valor, isolation, revenge, etc.

The main difference between the traditional Western and the post-Western is not in the actual time period (1800s vs. modern times), but rather, the portrayal of the changing position of the Western landscape within global capitalism. Westerns portrayed an area that was the dynamic edge of capital, with white settlers clearing the way for industrialization and development by chopping through Native Americans and Mexicans. It was a celebration of a civilization conquering fresh and promising new lands, sparsely inhabited by barbarians and rabble. Post-Westerns, on the other hand, examine this same region it its contemporary phase: stagnant, exploited, and decaying, whatever promises and romances the area once conjured up now revealed as a sick joke.

[Discussion/spoilers ahead for: Hell or High Water, Sicario, Wind River, No Country For Old Men, and Logan] 

Hell or High Water (2016) captures the post-Western perfectly. This film centers around two middle-aged brothers who are robbing banks across small-town Texas, in order to pay for their recently deceased mother’s mortgage — owned by the same bank they are robbing. The film also features two Texas Rangers, one white and one Native American, played by Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham, respectively. A conversation the two partners have during a stake-out of a bank sums up the socio-economic trajectory of the West:

Hamilton: Just relax, and enjoy this little town.

Parker: You wanna live here? There’s an old hardware store that charges twice what Home Depot does; one restaurant with a rattlesnake for a waitress; and how’s anybody supposed to make a living here?

Hamilton: People have made a living here for 150 years.

Parker: People lived in caves for 150,000 years, and they don’t do that no more.

Hamilton: Well, maybe your people did…

Parker: Psh, your people did too. Long time ago, your ancestors was the Indians. ‘Till someone came along and killed them, broke them down, made you into one of them. 150 years ago, all this was my ancestors’ land. Everything you could see. Everything you saw yesterday. ‘Till the grandparents of these folks took it. And now its been taken from them. Except it ain’t no army doing it. Its those sons of bitches right there. [points at the bank]

This discussion reveals one of the cruel ironies of the West today: that the denizens of the rural and small-town West find themselves being cut down and devoured by the very same forces that their ancestors once served. It is this cannibalism by capital that infuses the background of Post-Westerns.

texas_bank

Hell or High Water was written by Taylor Sheridan, and his other scripts also fit the Post-Western genre. Sicario (2015) showcases the US-Mexico borderlands and the reach of the underground drug economy, as well as the nature of the modern national security state. In the traditional Western, lawlessness and vigilantism are shown as the consequence of the young and untamed nature of the frontier. In Sicario, we are confronted with a powerful and mature institution that is absorbing and co-opting the very criminality it is supposed to suppress, a mutation of the armed wing of the state in an opportunistic and self-serving feedback loop — which shouldn’t be surprising, given the traditional relations between American empire, various reactionary paramilitary formations, and the drug economy (see: Colombia).

Another of Sheridan’s films, Wind River (2017), is set in the Wind River reservation in Wyoming, home to the remnants of the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes (and unfortunately and inexplicably, still has two white actors as the leads). The film turns the lens back to original victims of America’s western expansion, and shows that even if capital is now crushing those whose ancestors aided in its expansion, this doesn’t mean that the crushing of Native Americans has ceased in the meantime. The film revolves around the rape and murder of a Native girl, which is ultimately tied back to white oil workers stationed at a nearby extraction site. This, of course, points to how the conquest of native territory was always about seizing control of some kind of natural resource, from fertile farming lands to mineral deposits to fossil fuels. The pillaging of the land, and the accompanying human violence, has remained a constant presence across the West since the appearance of the first white settlers.

Since it is the specter of capital lurking around the background that defines the Post-Western, it is a bit tricky to lump No Country For Old Men (2007) under the label. Despite aesthetically being some kind of Western, the overall setting doesn’t really have the same kind of characterization that it does in Sheridan’s trilogy; there isn’t much sense of history or change in the motels, ranches, and small-town stores that the actual characters move through. However, perhaps the specter of capital here is actually directly personified in the demonic antagonist, Anton Chigurh, whose philosophical nihilism is only matched by his ruthless violence against anybody who stands in the way of his mission — even those who hired him in the first place. Chigurh’s inexorable march toward victory, and the bodies he leaves behind, echoes the way the ceaseless operations of capital explicitly liquidate the small town and back-country backgrounds of Sheridan’s films.

And just what is the end-point of capital’s inexorable, ceaseless processes? For this answer, we could turn to an unlikely candidate: Logan (2017), the final installation of Marvel’s Wolverine franchise, starring Hugh Jackman. This film fits the category of post-Western, as much as it does superhero, science-fiction, and/or dystopian. Corporate paramilitary groups appear to hold dominance not just in the US-Mexico borderlands, but across the US entirely. The degenerating national security state that we saw in Sicario is either completely absent, or has mutated into something totally unrecognizable. Mutants have been wiped out, and those who are left are seen as a resource to be enslaved and harvested for bio-genetic and military R&D. Capital, left to run amok, has uprooted and disintegrated everything that may have been good in this world.

It is a deeply grim picture; and yet, the goofiest aspect of the movie is also the one that may have the most to say about the Western landscape and its past and future. Logan’s ultimate enemy in the film ends up being a cloned version of himself, young, healthy, and strong, and stripped of all the moral trappings the real Logan has gained over the years. This confrontation can reveal an allegory of the Western genres. The real Logan, like the post-Western setting, is old, ragged, and full of self-doubt. The cloned Logan, like the traditional Western setting, is young, enthusiastically violent, and completely unquestioning of its mission and purpose. The real Logan is the West at its decaying end; the cloned Logan is the West in its blood-soaked beginning.

Despite the odds, of course, real Logan — with the help of his clone-daughter and other young fugitive mutants — defeats the clone Logan, and then promptly dies, allowing the torch to be passed on to the next generation. It is here that some hope can be found, among all the bleakness and nihilism that has thus far defined the post-Western and what it shows about the dying Western hinterlands and the ever-present specter of capital. Despite its bloody, imperial origins, the modern West can still harbor resistance and rebellion, even among those whose ancestors partook in its original savagery. The key is to not look backward, toward a mythical golden era that never existed, but indeed to bury this mythology and look forward to what may still be created, against and outside of capitalism.

“Business as usual” during the Holocaust and the climate crisis

I’m reading Ward Churchill’s Pacifism as Pathology [PDF], a polemic against pacifism and non-violence as a moral-political code. The rather grim and harsh section analyzing the Holocaust stood out to me. Ward unpacks what he sees as a general pattern of non-resistance among most German and European Jews against the Nazi’s steady escalation from discrimination to genocide. He argues that a key factor in this was that local Jewish leadership at the time was largely pushing a pacifist strategy, where resistance was seen as potentially inviting more repression and violence against Jews, than simply going along with Nazi oppression and hoping not to anger them more. Much of this was about sticking to “business as usual”.

Bettelheim describes this inertia, which he considers the basis for Jewish passivity in the face of genocide, as being grounded in a profound desire for “business as usual,” the following of rules, the need to not accept reality or to act upon it. Manifested in the irrational belief that in remaining “reasonable and responsible,” unobtrusively resisting by continuing “normal” day-to-day activities proscribed by the nazis through the Nuremberg Laws and other infamous legislation, and “not alienating anyone,” this attitude implied that a more-or-less humane Jewish policy might be morally imposed upon the nazi state by Jewish pacifism itself. (p36)

Now, I haven’t done much reading on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, beyond the basics, so I have no idea how accurate this narrative is here about whether Jews were that passive, or what the politics of the German Jewish leadership was like, etc. Nonetheless, this idea — that even in the face of tremendous and escalating evil and violence, people still clung to the idea that perhaps if they just kept their head down and obeyed, things would go back to normal — really struck home, mainly in the context of thinking about the ongoing collapse of Earth’s biosphere.

This collapse may very well turn into a sort of Holocaust, if current trends of expanding fossil fuel infrastructure and political non-action continue. And despite this, much of the organizing against the climate crisis does not seem to match the reality of the situation; it is generally legal, non-disruptive, and not a significant threat to “business as usual”. There are some notable exceptions, of course, mainly in indigenous struggles like the Standing Rock standoff. But mainstream environmental movements are simply not acting with the seriousness and anger that their rhetoric would seem to demand. Its all generally very respectable and reasonable, fully rooted in normal day-to-day activities; at most, they wheel out the same dusty and tired tactics of performing street theater and perhaps some symbolic arrest rituals coordinated with the police. Meanwhile even The Economist is acknowledging that things are going pretty badly, with fossil fuel companies cheerfully continuing to expand their operations; Exxon Mobil is apparently planning to increase oil production by 25% by 2025.

Likewise, mainstream politics still continues to marginalize any serious discussion about climate change; it was barely mentioned in the 2016 US presidential elections (except for maybe that one time Bernie Sanders brought it up in response to a question about national security) and so far none of the presidential candidates for 2020 have made climate change even close to a central campaign plank. The recent hullabaloo about the Green New Deal is a welcome change to this trend, although it remains to be seen whether it’ll fade away the next time Trump says something stupid and scandalous. It would be fair to hypothesize that Democratic politicians are secretly climate change deniers, given how little action they actually take despite rhetorically upholding the grim scientific consensus.

Nathan J. Robinson of Current Affairs has written more eloquently about all of this. In “The Climate Change Problem“, he points out the huge gap between rhetoric and action about climate change, and how it could be a factor in why many people don’t take it seriously or think its a hoax. More recently, in “The Choice We Face“, he goes to town on the zoo of dipshit centrists who are scoffing at the Green New Deal without providing even a hint of an alternative — which again, betrays the fact that they are, functionally, climate change deniers, albeit more subtle and quiet about their denial than their brash Republican counterparts.

To tie it back, a lot of this most definitely has to do with the fixation on maintaining “business as usual” — not just in terms of capital accumulation, although that is central, but in terms of keeping with the inertia of one’s day-to-day routines, the general safety of normalcy, and the comforts of remaining an obedient citizen. Robinson suggests that those who really believe in climate change should be spending all their time trying to move their fellow humans toward action — but of course, nobody wants to be that guy, the loudmouth who gets invited to fewer and fewer parties and hangouts, because he won’t shut up about the trees and the bees. And climate change is certainly a much more abstract crisis than Nazism and the Holocaust — the latter was most definitely present in your day-to-day life, an undeniable force to take into account, even if this was done passively. But if people for the most part really did not resist their own extermination then, what exactly are we to do today to actually halt our collective civilizational dismemberment?

I’m really not sure. But there are a few things we can start doing, mainly in the realm of ideas. For one thing, while we should try not to annoy people, since that is self-defeating, we should definitely bring up climate change more in conversation, especially with folks who aren’t that political and/or have a long-term dream of quiet suburban family living. A more fun suggestion is that in terms of proposed actions, we ought to up our rhetoric; enough with the mundane bullshit about calling your representative or recycling or whatever, let’s talk about climate vengeance. Lets work toward normalizing the idea of ruthless property expropriation and punitive measures against the capitalists and politicians responsible for the crisis. Name names, call them out as the real eco-terrorists, and talk about seizing all their assets and locking them up. Fire and brimstone sort of stuff. Lastly, pacifist ideology needs to be countered within the environmental movement, and there needs to be a larger strategic discussion about how to actually push the large-scale system change needed to reverse the collapse of the biosphere. The movement absolutely has to get more aggressive, more disruptive, and yes, more violent. No more with unquestioned  self-confinement to the rules of the non-profit industrial complex and the broken legal system. Climate change is already a large scale act of ongoing violence, potentially unprecedented in scope and depth; fighting back is a question of self-defense.

US Marxist-Leninist electoralism in the ’70s and ’80s

I recently read two good things on US Marxist-Leninist groups in the ’70s and ’80s: Out of Oakland: Black Panther Party Internationalism During the Cold War (2017), and “Lessons From One Left to the Next: Revolution in the Air Revisited”.  The first is a book on the Black Panther Party (BPP) and its international organizing efforts, and the second is a book review on the New Communist Movement.

It is extremely interesting to see how the BPP, as it started to fall apart after 1971, started to very rapidly turn toward electoral politics.  And this turn didn’t even try to maintain much of a veneer of revolutionary communism.  In 1973, the BPP more or less fully pivoted away from revolutionary struggle and focused on electing Bobby Seale as Mayor of Oakland, and Elaine Brown to the Oakland city council.  Their leaflets urged voters to “Elect Two Democrats”; they advocated for the economic benefits of having police officers live within city limits; and they proposed a “Multi-Ethnic International Trade and Cultural Center” on the grounds that it would help trade and cultural exchange with developing countries and help grow local businesses and tourism.  By the end of the decade, the BPP was basically nothing more than an appendage of the Democratic Party; Elaine Brown attended the 1976 Democratic National Convention as a delegate for Jerry Brown’s presidential campaign.  (Malloy 217-9).

What the hell happened?  The book doesn’t go into much detail, since its much more about the way BPP’s politics and philosophy on internationalism changed over time, than about the internal dynamics of the party domestically.  My own hypothesis, as argued here, is that the BPP was materially dependent on social bases outside of its lumpen-proletarian core membership, namely elite white liberals and black businessmen.  For a short while, these groups were willing to support the BPP in its radical program.  But as the Vietnam War winded down and the US government opened up space for the emergence of a black middle class, these groups became increasingly moderate, and the BPP was forced to follow this moderating trend.

Of course, the BPP wasn’t the only revolutionary group operating during this time period, even if it was the biggest and most visible.  The New Communist Movement saw a number of radical left groups organizing explicitly around Marxist-Leninist lines in the ’70s and ’80s, in the aftermath of the New Left movements of the ’60s.  Unfortunately this area of organizing seems rather understudied comparatively to the ’60s movements, which is why resources like Paul Saba’s bare-bones website, part of the Marxists Internet Archive, are so useful.  The Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP), which is now a creepy cult around its leader Bob Avakian, is one relic from this era.  Another large and relatively well-organized group was the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), which was founded in 1977 and collapsed in 1982 — perhaps for the better, given that the party opposed gay liberation, supported the Khmer Rogue, and called on the US to arm mujaheddin fighters in Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion in ’79.  This report, written by a leading member who resigned in 1980, seems like very interesting and insightful reading on the trials and tribulations of the CP(ML).

Around the same time, another very interesting group formed, the League of Revolutionary Struggle (LRS), which unlike the CP(ML) was largely composed of people of color organizing around national liberation movements.  The LRS was a merger of I Wor Kuen (made up of Chinese Americans), and the August 29th Movement (made up of Chicanos).  It soon merged with the East Wind Collective (made up of Japanese Americans), Seize the Time (made up of Blacks and Chicanos), and Amiri Baraka’s Revolutionary Communist League.

Sounds super cool, right?  Except, skimming through the documents, the most active campaigns that the LRS seems to have engaged in was…campaigning for Jesse Jackson in the Democratic Party primaries in 1984 and 1988.

What is it with Marxism-Leninism and milquetoast electoralism???

But snark aside, the post-’68 movements are extremely interesting, not to mention important, given that they were attempting to organize and (supposedly) trying to stir up revolutionary struggle at precisely the time when capitalism was restructuring into its modern neoliberal form.  Taking a closer look at the activities and internal debates of the New Communist Movement groups could tell us a lot about how to deal with such a terrain of struggle, give us a better understanding of US radical organizing that is more recent than the ’60s, and of course give us valuable lessons for today at a time when the debate within the radical left around democratic socialism, revolutionary struggle, and the Democratic Party is heating up.

Google and Microsoft workers are starting to rebel against imperialism

Several weeks ago, Google workers successfully got the company to not renew its contract with the Pentagon around the development of artificial intelligence technologies for drone warfare — a surprising victory, and a demonstration that such struggles have room to continue to grow and move into more radical directions.

Now, a similar struggle appears to be developing at Microsoft, where workers are vocally upset at the company’s contract with ICE.  This contract isn’t new, but the current political mood has shifted drastically into one of disgust and anger at the Trump administration’s policies around family separation and child detention at the border, and so its an opportune time to shed light on one’s company’s connections with odious institutions.  And as discussed in the case of Google, this is also an opportunity for Microsoft workers to push for workers’ control, as argued in this piece from Notes From Below from Wendy Liu, a former Google worker, which dives deeper into issues of engineering ethics and worker power.

It is interesting to examine how the two struggles reveal particular contours of contemporary imperialism.  Project Maven is about drone warfare, which is primarily taking place across the Greater Middle East (North Africa to South-West Asia), in areas that have been drawn into the increasingly flailing and unending War on Terror.  The Azure-ICE contract is about immigration and border control, whose main hot-spot is at the US-Mexico border, where people are attempting to flee northwards away from gang warfare and generalized social decay, which is in no small part due to the effects of US-backed militarization and free trade policies.  The infrastructure that keeps imperialist violence in operation in these areas is sprawling and monstrous, far beyond the scope of tech contracts.  But nonetheless, the fact that tech workers are struggling to deny the Pentagon access to cutting-edge AI tech, and ICE access to advanced cloud-computing, should be a good morale boost for all.