On January 27, what was by any estimation an enormous number of people gathered at the U.S. Capitol to protest the continuing U.S. war and occupation in Iraq. Despite the diverse geographic origins and political persuasions represented in the huge crowd, the demand for a speedy end to the war and withdrawal of U.S. forces was clear. If nothing else, this enormous, unambiguous outpouring of anti-war opinion highlighted the distance between an increasingly angry and concerned populace and a professional political class largely in business-as-usual mode, with most still maneuvering to extract every possible advantage from the vicious bloodletting taking place on the other side of the world.
As I have written previously, I believe that too great a share of resources go into large, mediagenic events and to conventional efforts to pressure centers of government directly, at the expense of the sustained local and regional organizing and institution building essential to the kind of social change we will need to reign in the U.S. empire and the runaway global corporate capitalism that it sustains and dominates (see, e.g. Scale, Locale, and Demonstrations. Further reflections on this point and others regarding the state of the anti-war/peace movement follow in the latter part of this piece). But there are times when it is essential to muster as much “people power” as possible to just say NO, and this was one. It was such a moment not only because of the ongoing horror in Iraq, but because of the threat that the American juggernaut may roll on to Iran, unleashing consequences that only those utterly ignorant of history could claim to predict.
As the coming months unfold, we will see whether the Congressional opposition to the Iraq war amounts to anything more than the careful positioning of otherwise status quo politicians for gains in the next elections. We will also see whether there is real opposition among political elites to another war of aggression against Iran — or whether the “centrist” elements of the narrow U.S. official political spectrum are simply waiting to see whether the administration can generate a propaganda campaign sufficient to provide political cover for another Congressional mandate for war. In all of this, we will learn something about who truly rules this country. The idea that over half a decade of war-making, repression and torture on a global scale could happen by mistake or be sustained by a small “cabal” of ideologues is a myth. And if we attack Iran, it will not be because ideology somehow has run wild, with broad-based, complex social currents pushing the politicians unwillingly to the brink. The U.S. population today is largely an amalgam of quiescence and frustrated discontent, with only a distinct minority still blindly willing to follow the martial banner. In a nation where concentrated wealth translates quite directly into political power, we will attack Iran only if a dominant fraction of the most powerful interests desire it.
David Brooks, representative of the right-center punditocracy, recently pronounced the war party alive and well:
“The Democrats, meanwhile, campaigned for Congress in 2006 by promising to increase the size of the military. The presidential front-runner, Hillary Clinton, is the leader of the party’s hawkish wing and recently called for a surge of U.S. troops into Afghanistan. John Edwards, the most ‘leftward’ major presidential contender, just delivered a bare-knuckled speech in which he castigated the Bush administration for not being tough enough with Iran. To ensure that Iran never gets nuclear weapons, we need to keep all options on the table,’ Edwards warned.
This is not a country looking to avoid entangling alliances. This is not a country renouncing the threat of force. This is not a country looking to come home again. The Iraq syndrome is over before it even had a chance to begin.
The U.S. has no material need to reconsider its dominant role in the world. The U.S. military still has no serious rivals, even after the strains of Iraq. The economy is humming along nicely.
The U.S. has no cultural need to retrench. Vietnam sparked a broad cultural revolution, a shift in values and a loss of confidence. Iraq has not had the same effect. Many Americans have lost faith in the Bush administration and in this particular venture, but there has been no generalized loss of faith in the American system or in American goodness.
There hasn’t even been a broad political shift in favor of the doves. The most important war critics are military types like Jack Murtha, Chuck Hagel and Jim Webb, who hate this particular war but were superhawks in other circumstances.” David Brooks, “The Iraq Syndrome, R.I.P.,” The New York Times, February 1, 2007.
Brooks’ assessment here likely is slanted by the desire of a war supporter to put the best face on catastrophe. Brooks (like many other pundits) also ranks the relative importance of war critics automatically according to his assessment of their militarist credentials: the more warlike the critic, the more significant their views. Unfortunately, however, we have seen nothing that contradicts his main thesis– that there is little principled opposition to a global U.S. empire enforced by endless “small wars” in the upper echelons of the governing classes. We have seen little to suggest that those in Congress who have objected only to how the war has been fought– not enough troops, inadequate equipment, bad intelligence, planning, and management– would oppose a better executed war of aggression in the future. The mainstream media remains a transmission belt for the state of play among the powerful. The only voices heard on matters of state are past and present military officers, elected officials, and experts certified by well-funded institutions. The rest of us are reduced to statistical bits, numbers in one-shot police story-style coverage of demonstrations and in polls that limit the political universe to choices that reaffirm the general order of things. (This has long been the case; see, e.g., Andrew Rojecki, Silencing the Opposition: Antinuclear Movements and the Media in the Cold War (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1999).
A culture without roots, a politics without depth
Against this background, it is worth pausing in the wake of a surge of anti-war activity to reflect on our tactics, and their meaning in the context of a longer-term strategy. My own belief is that we will alter little beyond the rhythm of increasingly severe cycles of war abroad and repression at home unless we are willing to address the fundamental causes driving both: an out of control global corporate capitalism that systematically generates great disparities of wealth and that destroys the natural and social environment in blind pursuit of endless “growth” measured solely in profits. It is likely that a great many of the people who rallied in Washington last week believe something like this to be true. But the marginalization for many decades of all discourse critical of corporate capitalism has led to a kind of “short cut” oppositional culture, an endless quest for ways to re-assemble tools and tropes crafted to justify an inequitable present ultimately enforced by overwhelming violence to somehow promote a fair and peaceful future. Such efforts are subtly reinforced by patterns of professionalized politics, which elevate technique over both content and community, and which resist any departure from the corporate-militarist “mainstream” sufficient to obstruct smooth re-integration after the moment of opposition has passed.
These deep currents in American politics operate largely below the threshold of consciousness, enforcing the limits of political possibility even among those who strive to resist them. Cornell West eloquently characterized how they are manifested in one segment of the population, but I believe it is true for us all:
“Without a vibrant tradition of resistance passed on to new generations, there can be no nurturing of a collective and critical consciousness– only professional conscientiousness survives. Where there is no vital community to hold up precious ethical and religious ideals, there can be no coming to moral commitment– only personal accomplishment is applauded. Without a credible sense of political struggle, there can be no shouldering of a courageous engagement– only cautious adjustment is undertaken. If you stop to think in this way about the source of leadership, it becomes clear why there is such a lack of quality leadership in black America today. This absence is primarily a symptom of black distance from a vibrant tradition of resistance, from a vital community bonded to its ethical ideals, and from a credible sense of political struggle. Presently, black middle-class life is principally a matter of professional conscientiousness, personal accomplishment, and cautious adjustment.” Cornell West, Race Matters (Boston: Beacon Press, 1993), p.37
West here is touching on an important point, too seldom addressed even on the Left: ethics (as well as democracy) has a material base. Critique of the existing order by holding it to account for its own claims– for example to economic fairness– implicitly requires some standard of fairness to carry any weight. These standards are embedded in the endless variety of ethical traditions that emerged during the long history of people living in communities where the scale and face-to-face nature of social relationships allowed all to understand their interdependence, and how their livelihood was taken from the earth. Even amidst great hierarchy, there were always ethics of mutual support and solidarity at the lower levels of society, and in most cultures at least some conception of reciprocal obligation between the rulers and the ruled. And there is a related point that is equally important: meaningful opposition to great power also requires a material base, the physical infrastructure necessary for sustaining a shared alternative vision, organizing resistance, and surviving repression.
Corporate capitalist modernity has been a vast experiment in which billions of people have been ripped from their roots in the rural communities where human life had been centered for millennia, and set down in vast urban agglomerations where the mechanisms that support collective life are for most both oppressive and largely incomprehensible. Communities and institutions are built and then destroyed in an endless, accelerating round of “creative destruction,” making it ever more difficult to construct and sustain “a vibrant tradition of resistance” rooted in “a vital community bonded to its ethical ideals.” Throughout, resistance to exploitation and oppression has been strongest where human-scale communities, or at least collective memory of such communities, lived on. Labor historian Herbert Gutman, for example, noted in his work on 19th century labor movements that long strikes were more readily sustained in smaller communities where face-to-face relationships still prevailed. Gutman also showed how such contexts fostered a greater degree of cross-class solidarity among working people and the middle class, the new, large corporate enterprises often being perceived by both groups as socially disruptive, undemocratic, and unjust. See, e.g., Herbert G. Gutman, “The Workers’ Search for Power: Labor in the Gilded Age,” in Gutman (Ira Berlin, ed.), Power and Culture: Essays on the American Working Class (New York: The New Press, 1987), 70, 76 et.seq.
In the United States today, the corrosive effects of global corporate capitalism have destroyed or transformed beyond recognition virtually all the face-to-face institutions that were the inheritance of pre-capitalist life, and have gravely weakened most of the modern “civil society” institutions, such as labor unions, that provide a modicum of solidarity and political power for ordinary people. The totalitarian states of the 1930’s had to mobilize both mass street terror and the power of the state to destroy or subordinate institutions that incarnated pre-modern ethical traditions (churches, peasant communities, etc.) and the modern institutions that pointed towards some real form of democracy (e.g. some unions and some opposition political parties). Here in the U.S., the political earth already is fairly scorched. Most places in this country, there are few places left to turn in a genuine crisis– for mutual support, for organizational resources to form an initial focus for collective action, even for information one can really trust about what is happening, and what it means. And when there is no place to turn in their communities, people turn on their TV’s, and are subjected to perhaps the most powerful and sophisticated propaganda apparatus the world has ever known.
The response to 9/11, and the way that response varied across the country, should have been a wake up call in this regard. Compared to the experience of many other countries, the actual 9/11 attacks were a relatively small physical shock, leaving the lives of most Americans untouched. Most of what we experienced, remembered, and what are officially portrayed as the “effects” of 9/11, of everything “changing,” were the result of the way those in power responded to the event, not the event itself. And they were able to implement a broad program of repression, accelerated militarization, and war precisely because there was so little capacity on the ground to resist it.
The few places where there was visible, coherent resistance to war as a response to the 9/11 attacks were those with dense surviving networks of alternative institutions, constructed in past waves of organizing that saw the building of alternative institutions and an alternative political culture as important. It should be noted by those who, claiming to be “practical,” would devote the preponderance of resources to direct legislative and electoral initiatives at the expense of movement and institution-building that such networks are the only way ordinary people can achieve some measure of power in existing political fora. Oakland’s Barbara Lee was the sole Congressperson able to resist the post-9/11 hysteria to vote against the open-ended grant of war powers to the Executive not because there’s something funny in the water out here, but in large part because her district contains a wide array of progressive organizations with dense networks of working relationships. I have yet to see evidence that the contemporary opposition takes very seriously the need to build the kind of social and political infrastructure that might enable people to support one another in concrete ways and to actually practice democracy.
In sum, domestic resistance to U.S. empire, U.S. wars, and the narrow elites who benefit from both over the long run is fundamentally weak at the base. This should be a primary consideration in determining how we use our time and money. With rare exceptions, I believe that in the current conjuncture we should put a far larger share of our resources into organizing and human-scale institution building on the local and regional level. Under the best of circumstances, the erosion of pre-existing communities and their institutions and the increasing concentration of wealth and political power in the hands of global corporations that are systemic consequences of corporate capitalism would have required sustained, thoughtful grassroots movement and institution building to avoid a corresponding erosion of what partial democracy had been achieved in this country. But such work has largely been abandoned for the last couple of decades. A growing share of resources has gone into top-down forms of politics that reduce political action for most people to passive voting, check-writing, and sending pre-formulated messages to legislators. The local and regional, immediately accessible organizations that survive were built largely by social movements that peaked two decades or more in the past.
As a consequence, I look at large demonstrations, and particularly those that depend on large numbers of people traveling great distances, first in terms of the enormous amount of resources they consume. Others have made the point that a demonstration drawing 500,000 people to Washington, D.C. involves the expenditure by all participants of $50 million dollars or more, assuming people spend on the average of $100 to get there (see, for example, Bill Scheuer’s “Why I March (This Time); he uses a higher estimate. Scheuer would put the resources directly into electoral politics; for all the reasons set forth here I believe electoral efforts largely are premature; see also my Learning to Walk before We Run: Social Movements and Electoral Politics). Most of the money spent in connection with a large Capitol rally, furthermore, is cycled directly back into the corporate economy via expenditures for transportation, food, and lodging. Virtually none of it goes to building or sustaining an alternative political culture.
The costs to all participants of a single large event of this kind could fund hundreds of organizers in cities and towns around the country, complete with fully equipped offices and modest budgets for local events. When a real crisis comes, having held 20 big rallies in Washington or New York over the past ten years will mean little, if most of those who attend are going back to anomic lives, with virtually nothing in the way of local organizations that can provide at least the bare bones of organizing infrastructure and mutual solidarity. Having several hundred local “nodes” around which informed, mutually supportive resistance can coalesce would mean far more. Given the bleak state of our national political landscape, one can not use the past as a guide to the extent to which truly grave social and economic crisis here will spark political mobilization, or at least any kind of mobilization we would like to see.
At the risk of oversimplifying, very large demonstrations that are expressions of a mobilized, self-organized populace might be thought of as falling into two broad categories: manifestations of the social power constructed by sustained organizing efforts, and relatively spontaneous expressions of opposition to actions of those in power. The latter are most useful where there already local organizing nodes distributed throughout the polity that can channel a spontaneous outpouring into more sustained efforts.
Today, the combination of modern communications– particularly the internet– and relatively cheap long distance travel allow very large demonstrations that fall into neither of the above categories, but rather are staged mainly for the media. Unlike events that are manifestations of broad discontent or culminations of long-running organizing efforts, such “demonstrations” are largely exercises in professional political method, using standard tools of direct mail, paper and electronic, and other public relations techniques to generate a telegenic crowd. Celebrities who have gained their fame via the production of apolitical mainstream cultural products for corporate vendors, such as Hollywood movies or pop songs, may be employed to pump up attendance. These methods may be chosen not as the result not of any manipulative intent but rather due to confusion of the substance of social movements past with the images preserved and most frequently dredged up for us by a popular media that seeks moments of high drama and conflict. But in the end, such events have an impact that differs little from the carefully stage-managed events that routinely provide the backdrop for appearances by government officials and campaigning politicians. For those seeking a more peaceful, fair, and democratic society such events are a waste of resources, a false short cut.
Most big demonstrations are some combination of the above types. Long-running social movements may pick times of widespread discontent to mobilize, hoping for a breakthrough. Moments of great discontent may provide an opportunity for fragmentary movements to expand and gain cohesion. Internal disagreements may–and usually do– result in compromises between short-term, shortcut-prone elements and those with a longer view, resulting in events that appear to provide a little something for everyone.
Trial and error: a few examples
United For Peace and Justice (UFPJ), the umbrella coalition that organized the January 27 march and rally, has been open to debate and reflection on these issues. It has moved from an emphasis on large demonstrations to encouraging a mix that includes coordinated, locally focused actions. It has experimented with techniques that might give people not affiliated with any organization ways to meet and connect at large demonstrations with those having similar issue priorities or from the same locale. A relatively transparent decision-making structure and accessible, representative elected leadership and staff has made it possible for many (myself included) beyond its inner circles to have their voices heard in the process of planning events. And as I noted at the outset, this was a moment when a large anti-war demonstration in Washington seemed particularly appropriate, at the beginning of a new Congress narrowly controlled by an “opposition” whose willingness to do anything concrete to stop the war remains in doubt, and with an administration in power that appears determined to press on with its war, and perhaps more wars, despite the rejection of its policies at the polls. I believe it is worthwhile, however, to assess the strengths and weaknesses of this event, and to think carefully about where we should focus our efforts in the coming months and years.
This march and rally mainly was of the surge of discontent variety, augmented by the network building that UFPJ has done over the past four years. UFPJ itself is the product of a broader reaction to recent US wars, and is for the most part a coalition of already-existing organizations across the country, rather than a new effort to build bottom-up organizing capacity. The rally also showed certain elements of the made-for-TV event style, particularly in its use of celebrities. It is hard to see what their presence added, even from a very immediate, crude crowd-building at all costs perspective– I find it hard to believe that a single person decided to come out because movie stars would be there. This was a time to put forward our own best thinkers and our most committed organizers, increasing their visibility, providing insights about our predicament that won’t be found in the mass media, and sparking conversation on how to build the movement we need.
Some of my colleagues have argued that the “stars” in question have long histories of supporting good causes, so their appearance on the podium is appropriate. But there was not one of them who would have been considered as a speaker at a huge national peace event but for the celebrity that they had gained creating standard mass culture products for sale by media conglomerates. Putting movie stars up front allows the mass media to stay safely in the bounds of tired narratives about liberal Hollywood, avoiding more searching and critical narratives that might have been offered by people who had devoted far more of their lives and thoughts to social change. For the hundreds of thousands of people in attendance, the prominent role of celebrities subtly pushes the event, and the prevailing consciousness, back into the all-too-familiar frame of mass consumerism: we are not doing something together, the talented few are doing something, the rest of us are watching. Spokespeople who earned their fame via corporate entertainment careers provide no model of political action for the rest of us to emulate; it is neither easy nor particularly useful to imagine ourselves following in the footsteps of Jane Fonda or Sean Penn.
Another “short cut” element visible here and there throughout the weekend was the theme of “supporting the troops.” U.S. peace movements long have been vilified as unpatriotic by propagandists in the service of arms makers and other giant corporations that have grown richer and more powerful through decades of apocalyptic fear-mongering punctuated by increasingly frequent “small wars.” Much of the current anti-war movement has responded by colluding with the sacralization of the military, clothing mercenary service on the behalf of lawless, authoritarian elites in an aura of spiritual self-sacrifice. Those who have been pressured one way or another–by economics, by propaganda– into serving the ends of the unjust, amoral powers that rule us deserve our sympathy and our support as human beings– but not as “troops.” We must not reinforce the myth that there is virtue inherent in putting on a uniform, following a flag, and killing to sustain the privileges of those who benefit from an inequitable and ultimately unsustainable global order/disorder. Doing so only makes future wars– and the sacrifice of future generations of young people on all sides to false idols– a certainty.
Individual soldiers who take the risk of refusing to fight– a risk far greater than most of us have been willing to take to stop the Iraq war– deserve our unqualified support. But attempting to establish one’s “patriotic” credentials by advocating particular measures to “support the troops” as troops is likely to backfire in immediate, concrete ways. The argument that troops have been sent to war with inadequate equipment, particularly armored vehicles and body armor, for example, was included in talking points distributed at an otherwise very useful and well-attended day of briefings and workshops held Sunday following the march/rally. (That day of activities also provided time and meeting space for those planning to visit their representatives while in D.C. to meet and self-organize by state or congressional district.) This argument, its prominence largely an artifact of Democratic party tacticians seeking ways to appear critical without actually opposing the war, is far more likely, in the current political context, to result in expanded military procurement budgets and expanded ground forces than to help bring an end to the current war or to prevent the next.
Finding our way forward
The larger issue raised by big national marches is far more difficult– that of channeling a greater share of resources to local and regional organizing necessary for the development of an alternative political culture willing and able to seek some kind of alternative to our authoritarian-militarist plutocracy. It is hard to argue for a re-distribution of resources without some coherent strategy, and it is hard to develop a strategy in the absence of a vision of where we want to go. The careerist professionalization of politics and a short-cut political culture both manifest the lack of such a vision, of any coherent, broadly appealing alternative narrative of who we are as a society, where we came from, and where we should be going. An alternative narrative of this kind implies, and requires, an alternative ethical and political framework, a vision of what is fair and of how we should make decisions. In the lack of an alternative vision we exist in a world where all politics degenerates towards mere technique in the service of factional interests and short-term ends.
We are not likely to see any new vision emerge out of the current U.S. political landscape. Mainstream think tanks and advocacy groups appear to operate with no strategy for social change beyond standard interest group pressure forms of legislative and electoral politics. They offer no answer (and show no signs of even noticing) that the official political apparatus of parties, elections, and government officials everywhere has lifted itself beyond the reach of ordinary people, with political parties largely becoming arms of interdependent concentrations of state power and private capital. Large, well-organized political parties and organizations representing urban workers and other lower-income segments of the population– formations that once wielded significantly more social power than their fragmentary equivalents ever have mustered here–have been either suppressed or co-opted. Even when in power, what once were labor parties from Europe to Brazil now pose few obstacles to the immiseration of four-fifths or more of the world’s population. (For a sobering assessment of the trajectory of Brazil’s current regime, for example, see Chico de Oliveira, “Lula in the Labyrinth,” 42 New Left Review 5 (November/December 2006). Countries, and cities within countries, compete to become or remain high-value-added, high-skill nodes on global supply chains producing products that only a minority can afford to buy. Both the losers and rural hinterlands everywhere are pillaged for whatever is saleable, but otherwise are left to slide into stagnation and decline. The most likely future now for everyone, everywhere, is one of islands of wealth in a sea of poverty, with isolated fortresses of privilege defended by steadily escalating levels of violence. Imperialism has become universal.
A great deal of the resources that might have gone into building a locally based alternative political culture have been siphoned off by the so-called “netroots” political networks centering on a few large internet-based fund raising entities and the “blogosphere.” Much of the money raised has been channeled directly into electoral efforts, supporting election campaigns (including a number that were successful) for some somewhat more liberal politicians. But here too, most the dollars, even for non-electoral issue work, are cycled quickly back into the corporate economy in the form of conventional professional services, media buys, and the like. It remains to be seen whether these mechanisms will support any more substantial efforts towards social transformation. So far, however, they have created very little visible on the ground in terms of places people can gather or infrastructure (beyond the internet itself) for local self-organizing. The social connections created are intrinsically tenuous, being in large part physically dispersed and single-media. Ask yourself: could you rely on your “blog community” or people from a one-shot Move On meet-up to take care of your kids while you were in jail, or to share incomes in times of economic hardship? No amount of bandwidth can forge this level of trust and mutuality. And this is the level of concrete interdependence that we must build to sustain ourselves in any real challenge to the existing order, a challenge effective enough to reign in the empire and end its wars. Further, the plebiscitory democracy practiced by Moveon style groups both internally and externally, implicitly assumes, as do the approaches of older mainstream “liberal” interest groups, that we can make sufficient progress solely by better use of conventional legislative and electoral channels. It also assumes a transparent social world, in which the path that genuinely leads forward is easy to see. Neither approach encompasses the construction of sustained, face-to-face settings where we really can learn to understand the world and to make hard choices together, much less for any substantial re-ordering of the structures of economic and social life.
The patchwork of surviving local and regional U.S. groups willing to link particular issues with the workings of the system as a whole, meanwhile, have little in the way of institutional capacity that fosters reflection, discussion, or even preservation of collective memory. And most academic work on the Left is highly abstract, segmented off in university settings and specialized discourses that are removed both conceptually and socially from the everyday work of organizing. (One of the preeminent social facts across the political spectrum in the U.S. metropole is a high degree of social stratification. I have been doing peace and disarmament work for decades in the San Francisco Bay Area, a region full of universities and “progressive” academics, but have had far more actual conversations with scholars from outside the United States.)
A new vision likely will emerge, if at all, from re-dedication to work at the bottom, from a period of experimentation in practicing democracy in human-scale settings. These problems are of a kind that cannot be resolved in thought alone, but rather require the commitment of many to a different path, with the genuinely new emerging from working together in new ways (and carefully chosen neglected old ways as well), beginning on a modest scale.
Issues like imperial wars, the U.S. military budget, or a global economy that increasingly forces development choices on cities and entire countries that benefit only a fraction of their population would seem to require work focused at the national and international level. The foundation for our work, however– the construction of the social power that allows anything more than superficial, ephemeral victories at that scale– still must be built from the bottom. The hard conversations, the difficult process of building trust and working alliances that last, most often take place around concrete struggles over whether and why we should reject a new military base or factory and the high-paying jobs that come with it, over whether a city or region should try to swim against a tide that will raise high the boats of those fortunate few who work for or sell to global corporations, while casting the rest of us adrift. In my experience, at least, it has been this kind of work that has advanced understanding of the structure of the economy and its impact on the natural and social world, and that has built long-lasting relationships among people from diverse backgrounds and organizations focused on different issues. In the political wasteland of the last quarter century, it also has been the level where the most real victories have been achieved. Having the experience and institutional resources at the local and regional level to think about these problems together and negotiate solutions also is likely to become even more important as energy shortages and an increasingly chaotic climate further disrupt the complex, far-flung structures of the global economy.
Politics is not a linear endeavor. There are good reasons to believe that a breakthrough of some kind is more likely to come from building an alternative political culture starting in many small-scale settings where people can gather and work together, than by pursuing an endless series of quick-fix efforts to concentrate all of our (still inadequate) resources on far away decision makers in efforts to stop one or another policy disaster. Among other things, an approach centered on local organizing and institution-building can start to reclaim the terrain of interpreting a complex and frightening social world on a face to face basis, in a context of a sustained local presence offering some measure of social support. This is ground that has for decades largely been ceded to the Christian right, and I believe that this, rather than their “message,” is at the core of their success in convincing millions of people to act politically against their own material interests (I have written in more depth about this elsewhere; see “Why Ordinary People Vote for Those Who Represent the Rich: Progressive Politics and the Need for New Communities of Resistance”)
Focusing our attention at the top– on changing the cast of characters who wield state power– is hard to resist, particularly in a time when the problems we face seem overwhelming and in need of immediate action. But the global corporate capitalist system repeatedly has proven capable of negating even significant changes in national governments where they have not been accompanied by far broader social transformation (and even when they have, but the country in question had insufficient economic power to pursue an independent course). This does not mean that we should downplay the importance of the State, and particularly of the most powerful State, in enforcing an inequitable global order. But there is no reason to believe that our structures must mirror the centralized structures of the dominant order. Organizations that locate most of their work in centers of power, far away from the places and people where the decisions they seek to challenge have their effect, are likely to become captive to the definition of issues, modes of discourse, and the universe of information that is deemed acceptable there. The notion that a different reality prevails “inside the Beltway” is more than a cliche; it reflects the enormous gravitational pull not towards some mythical, reasonable political “center” but towards the requirements of those who hold the most power.
I am not arguing for abandoning national and international work, but rather for decentralizing it. We need to move the locus and the resources for action, for collective reflection, and for choosing political direction down and out of capitol cities, re-embedding it the actual work of organizing against and searching for some kind of an alternative to the doomed path we are on. We need national and international work that reaches out laterally, locale to locale, allowing us both to support each other and to learn from the experience of people working in diverse ecological settings, political contexts, and segments of the global economy. (United for Peace and Justice, to the extent that it functions more as a network than an organization, lean at the top and structured for the most part to allow member groups to coordinate and extend their work, is a small step in this direction).
We do need people in centers of power who can both provide information on their workings and be our voices there. Presently, however, our politics is so out of balance as to have been turned upside down. Political technicians, often people with little experience in any kind of work outside the Capitol, now tell us what we should do. They limit the agenda to what they consider to be “practical,” which means what they can show to the big “progressive” funders as “measurable goals,” which means largely what can be achieved in Congress this year or next. If you think that all the system needs is a few tweaks and hence that our problems can be solved by what’s likely to be on the Congressional agenda sometime soon, then you should continue to support conventional Washington-focused think tanks and pressure groups. If you think it will take more, start building a piece of a genuinely different politics close to home. Put your time and money into places where you can have an actual relationship with other people in an organization, and preferably where you can participate directly in its work, and in making decisions about what to do and how to do it. Support organizations that do cross-issue coalition building on the local level (many national, single-issue organizations have little in the way of a local presence most places, or have local operations whose main purpose is to raise money to support professional policy and lobbying staff thousands of miles away).
In our organizations, we need to emphasize activities that get people working together with others in a sustained way, and where an increasing number of people are learning the skills needed to initiate and carry through work themselves. Some questions we might ask ourselves in choosing actions to build a movement which is sustainable for the long term are:
- Does the action increase our understanding of the issues we are working on in a way which also will be understandable to others? Does it help us to understand and explain the connections between our issues and other concerns that people care deeply about and that affect their everyday lives?
- Does the action build skills in its participants (and especially volunteers), and provide them with a way they can become and remain engaged with the issue?
- Does the action help to build community among the people involved? Once again, in current organizing, one way this has come up is in questions of scale– is crisis-driven organization of large events in a few major cities the right focus, or should we be thinking about events and organizing techniques that start small in many communities, building new groups, organizations, and coalitions for the long term?
- Does the action build organizational structures which can be sustained? In particular, does it create or help to maintain new organizing “nodes” around which further activity can coalesce, particularly in geographic regions or sectors of society where there currently is little activism on our issues?
- Does the action build coalitions which will last?
- Does the action help to shift the boundaries of debate in a positive way?
- And finally, because no one really has a definitive answer for these difficult questions, do our campaigns and organizational forms encourage a variety of approaches, and are they designed to help us learn from experience and from each other about what works and what doesn’t?
We must begin by admitting that what we have been doing hasn’t been working. Pressure group tactics that rely mainly on conventional lobbying and public relations methods seldom prevail where the goals run counter to fundamental interests of large sectors of corporate capital. This is particularly true where the same interests are shared by powerful parts of the government, as in the case of any effort to reduce the profit share and political power of the military-industrial complex. In such “business as usual” forms of politics, the concentrated wealth and organizational advantages of corporations and the state are decisive.
We cannot go back to a pre-modern, pre-corporate capitalist world– but we cannot go forward for long in our current way of life without catastrophe. The easy answers all have proved illusory. It is time to commit ourselves to the hard work of building the foundation, the rudimentary possibility, of an alternative politics, and eventually a different society. The only thing I know for sure is that the longer we wait, the harder it will be. And the next time half a million march for peace in Washington, lets make it because they are marching in their own streets, along with tens of millions of others marching together in cities and towns across the country– marching not only for peace, but for an end to the causes of war. When that day comes, real change will become possible.