The Birth of a Movement, the End of Democracy
Part I: Boy, I Hope This Doesn't Suck
I made a comment last weekend that Joe, gulfgal, and JtC asked me to turn into an essay. The gist of the comment is that arguing about whether we should be focused on electoral politics or not misses the point of where we are, politically, right now. It's been a hell of a slog trying to make it into an essay, because I'm trying to sum up where I think we are politically without writing a 6-book series and boring you all to tears! So, I hope this doesn't suck--and I beg your indulgence.
Part II: Hard Labor
It’s difficult to start a movement. It’s even more difficult to start a movement that persists over time. Under the current conditions, which is to say, after at least 40 years of counter-revolution, it’s more difficult than usual, because the invisible hands that hold up any movement have had their fingers broken in a vise. The genius of Lewis Powell’s famous memo—which every progressive and leftist should read, if they haven’t, and here it is: http://reclaimdemocracy.org/powell_memo_lewis/ —was that it did not attack social justice movements head-on, but sought out the cultural and social foundations of those movements and tore them apart. It was the invisible hands holding up the political movements that had to be put in a vise and broken, in order to make America a place where such movements were overwhelmingly likely to be doomed before they started. I won’t list all the parts of American culture, white, black, and otherwise, that came under attack, but I’d like to touch on three important ones that have sustained massive damage, and either have been left broken, or have been co-opted so that they are now part of the assault on workers and on the world.
The First Object of Attack--Communities
First, and most importantly, the communities that undergirded successful people’s movements in the early- and mid-twentieth century have largely been decimated , or, in a few cases, co-opted and corrupted.
The labor movements in the early 20th century relied on urban immigrant communities that were tightly knit. The Civil Rights movement from the 40s to the 60s relied strongly on Black church communities. People were connected, they trusted each other, they were in proximity to each other and used to helping each other. In the case of labor movements, these people both lived in the same neighborhoods and worked in the same places. In the case of Black communities, they lived in the same neighborhoods and worshipped together. All these things helped hold those movements together; they represented cultural and psychological work that the movements didn't have to do—they didn’t have to bring these people together, or hold them together, because they already *were* together. They weren't introducing strangers.
For the past forty years, workers' communities have been undermined. In the case of white people’s communities, they have been undermined through the scarcity of work, the decimation of the people’s wages, and the corresponding assault on time (if you have to work three jobs where you once worked one, you will have much less time to spend forming bonds with your neighbors; if you have to move five states away to get a job, you will lose your old community and be forced to start a new one from scratch.) Black people’s communities have been subjected to an all-out economic and military assault that beggars description, but appear to have weathered the storm better than white people’s communities. Asking why that is would be a worthy endeavor, but it isn’t what I’m trying to get to in this essay (though I have my theories of course, one of them being that suburban life mitigates against the development of workers’ communities; another being that shared religion provides a strong foundation for community that isn't dependent on the workplace, and gave many Black communities a partial shield and bulwark against Powell’s attack plan.)
The Second Object of Attack--Time
If your neighborhood is not comprised of the people you work with in the same factory, or the same mega-farm, or the same mines, then you will need to spend time outside of work bonding with your neighbors to build a social community, and if you want a political community with a decent chance of survival, it will likely grow out of that community you form with your neighbors. If you could organize such a community right at work, it would be different, but in an age of fractured, weakened unions, punitive bosses ready to downsize, and mutual suspicion and fear amongst co-workers, most workers do not feel safe organizing anything political at work. We live in a world in which 12 years ago, a woman lost her factory job because she had a Kerry sticker on the bumper of her car. (Her floor supervisor apparently told her "You can work for John Kerry, or you can work for me." )So what happens when the time you have outside of work has dwindled to the point that you feel lucky to have the time to go over your kid's math homework and collapse in front of the TV with your spouse for an hour and a half before getting up to do it all again?
To put it another way, if you don't have time to have a Friday night beer night with the guys (or gals), how the hell are you going to manage to launch an alternative currency, a community garden, a child-care co-op? How are you going to muster a large number of people to refuse to buy goods from multinational corporations?
As Virginia Woolf once said, it's really difficult to do serious work when you have no time and space to do so (she recommended having one's own room and income, which is basically what the oligarchy is trying to deny to its opponents)although, as she also mentioned--people do sometimes manage: Yet genius of a sort must have existed among women as it must have existed among the working classes. Now and again an Emily Brontë or a Robert Burns blazes out and proves its presence. In other words, a strong enough will to work does sometimes find a way. If an Emily Bronte can write a novel despite everything that obstructed her, sometimes a Tim deChristopher can infiltrate an auction of public lands and prevent them from being despoiled, or an Edward Snowden can bring the dirty secrets of the security state out of the shadows and show them to the world.
But we are not talking here about the few heroic individuals. A persistent problem of the American psyche is to assume that if a heroic individual can do something, everybody ought to be able to do it, and it's not a problem--except a problem of character. It must be that we're lazy, insufficiently committed, selfish. We want to be couch potatoes. Nobody ever questions *why*we want to be couch potatoes--maybe because we've just come from the second or third of our shit jobs, looked in on our infirm elderly mom and brought her groceries, gone over our kids' math homework, gotten them cleaned up and in bed, and now have a whole hour to watch Netflix before we need to go to bed so we can get up and do it all again. We're supposed to be Martin Luther King, or Edward Snowden, or Emily Bronte, or Sojourner Truth. So instead of focusing on the structural assault that's weakening us, we engage in the time-honored American tradition of beating ourselves and our fellow citizens up as unworthy pieces of shit.
The Third Object of Attack: The Press
When communities collapse, and time outside of work vanishes, how do people connect to a larger political community?
The two answers in America from the 80s until 2002 were: through the media, or through the church. For the white left, which is mainly secular, the church was not an option, which left them singularly vulnerable to the oligarch's attack on the press. Black people, again, had the black churches as a partial shield and bulwark, which is lucky because the attack on them was far more devastating and murderous.
I’m guessing just about everyone will agree that the press has been corrupted, co-opted, bought , and that its control by the wealthy is a problem. It becomes a bigger problem when the only way people connect to a larger community than their families and closest friends is through the television, which helps them form an idea of what the people of their city, state, or country are thinking and feeling. To take just one example, the proliferation of cop shows from the 1980s on to the present day transmits the idea to the American people that their fellow citizens are untrustworthy, larcenous, and liable to blow their heads off, and that the cops attacking the people is good, virtuous, and necessary. The election of untrustworthy politicians, even when fraud and voter purges are evident, is used to transmit the idea that American voters are stupid—I can’t count the number of times that I’ve heard left-wing people talk about how stupid the American people are, how lazy they are, how selfish and uncaring, all derived from the fact that some millions of the people have been tricked into voting against their self-interest and more millions have withdrawn from a system of staggering corruption into inaction. If the people believe that the American people, as a whole, are selfish, lazy, stupid, and violent, are they likely to join with these strangers to form a movement?
None of this is intended to convey that there are not truly horrible Americans in existence, and not just at the top of the economic ladder; none of this is intended to deny the actual existence of things like racism, homophobia, and xenophobia in the American population. It’s intended, rather, to throw a light on how we are encouraged to make generalizations—and which generalizations we’re encouraged to make--and, more than anything to look at how much we were at the mercy of an increasingly corrupt press for about 20 years.
Obviously, the counter to the mainstream press is the Internet. I wish that the Internet were what I thought it was in 2003--a cure-all pill that could provide truthful journalism and community in record time, thus neatly working around much of the damage done by the three attacks I just described. The fact is, that the Internet can provide the truth, honest communication, and communities of trust; the fact is, that the Internet can also provide a fertile field for bullying, lies, sockpuppetry, shills, and spooks. We've all experienced this at Daily Kos, and if anybody wants to look at some of the theories behind this, they can look at the research of Cass Sunstein, who used to be a top aide to President Obama: http://www.salon.com/2010/01/15/sunstein_2/ or at the excellent work of Glenn Greenwald on how the security state uses the Internet: https://theintercept.com/2014/02/24/jtrig-manipulation/
The truth appears to be that the Internet is both a strong weapon against propaganda and exceedingly vulnerable to it; that it is at once a remedy for many psy-ops and a fertile medium for them.
I'm very glad we have it. But it's not "the answer" I thought it was in 2003.
Part III: So Why Is Any of This Important?
Right now, we have a bonafide people's movement that has coalesced around Bernie Sanders. It has many issues that concern it: climate change, war, predatory capitalism, political corruption, and others. Sanders' willingness to say some things that are verboten by the current political paradigm essentially popped the cork out of the bottle and the genie--temporarily--escaped. Or, to put it another way, there was a lot of pressure building up silently and Sanders banged a hole in the dam--and water's pouring through.
I can tell this is a real movement that could persist by the way people are acting. They're eating together. They're creating art and music (without being told to). They're organizing events (without being told to). They're talking across boundaries that have been solid walls for a long time (this has to do with the fact that it's not only a real people's movement, but a symptom of political realignment). They have their own stories, and are even developing their own legends and mythology associated with the movement that aren't derived from the mainstream press. They are creating their own symbolism for the movement. All of these things are good signs. The best sign of all is the number of people who say "I don't care what Bernie Sanders does, I'm not going to vote for Hillary Clinton." The reason that's the best sign of all has little to do with #BernieOrBust per se, and a lot more to do with the fact that many people do not perceive Bernie as their reason for being in the movement--even though he was the focus that brought them out and brought them together. They see him instead as a much-loved or well-liked spokesperson.
However, the fact that Bernie Sanders is the focal point brings danger and difficulty to the movement, because despite the many people who don't perceive Bernie as their reason for being there, there are also many who almost certainly do. So if Bernie disappears into the woodwork, or tries to make the case for Hillary Clinton, some people will be lost. Either they will drift away as soon as he disappears, or leave because he tried to lead them to Hillary, or some of them may follow him to Hillary while others go off in a huff because he endorses her--all of these things would diminish the movement's numbers and focus. In a worst case scenario, it could end the movement.
Under these conditions, the electoral vs non-electoral binary opposition is singularly unhelpful, because we have a larger-than-electoral movement struggling to be born from an electoral campaign. It's already spawned some persistent electoral spin-offs, like the New Congress movement, or whatever it's called. But it's clear that there's far more energy in this movement than can be taken up with elections. This is a movement that wants to create entirely new forms, beginning, I think, with the media. Cenk Uygur, for instance (whom I pray nightly is a sincere man and not a second Markos Moulitsas or Rachel Maddow) has correctly assessed that this wave is building, and is trying to ride it to success for himself and TYT.
So what I'm trying to say is that AT THIS MOMENT, the quarrel over whether to focus electorally or non-electorally has never been more unhelpful. You might as well say "Do we want to focus on the mother's health or the health of the fetus?" two months into a pregnancy.
Part IV: The Fetus Is Healthy
We're looking at a hard labor, folks, because the transition into a larger-than-electoral movement is unlikely to be easy, even if we don't have to confront devastating attacks such as an attack on the Internet itself.
My current hypothesis, shared by Nina Illingworth (http://www.ninaillingworth.com/2016/06/01/the-foggy-bottom-of-clintons-m...) and Douglas Schoen (http://www.zerohedge.com/news/2016-06-01/sorry-hillary-former-clinton-ad...) among others, is that the likely countermove of the oligarchy is jettisoning Clinton and replacing her at the convention with Bankruptcy Biden, who isn't as hated as Hillary Clinton, and whose credentials will be buttressed by the presence of Elizabeth Warren as his VP.
I really have two points in this endless morass of discussion.
First, we have a genuine people's movement growing in the womb of the Sanders campaign. It should be our hope to deliver it, healthy and alive, into a larger world. And it's healthy! But we could be looking at a rocky delivery, and we may or may not have Sanders' help in bringing it to birth. In my opinion, as much as I like Bernie, we'd better not count on him being there as a midwife.
It doesn't matter that we don't like the fact that it's growing in this particular womb. There's no point in beefing about the dangers that the electoral womb present--like, for instance, the possibility that various corrupt or crappy actions taken by politicians such as Barack Obama, Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, and their backers could negatively impact the movement trying to be born. There's no point in beefing about the fact that Bernie, though honest, is not as radical as the movement he inspired, and is far more willing, apparently, to settle for somewhat useless concessions like progressive planks in a platform nobody pays attention to anyway. There's no point beefing about any of this. The people's movement is--where the people's movement is. We might all wish that it hadn't happened this way. We might wish that it had arisen as a bunch of leftist non-partisan political kibbutzes in 500 American cities and towns, engaging in a mass experiment of alternative currency, non-corporate economics, and organic homegrown vegetables. But it didn't. It is where it is. It's our job to try to bring it to birth.
Second, we should keep an eye on those politicians and what they're likely to do, so that we can come up with possible countermeasures. For instance, I believe that the DNC is going to jettison Hillary Clinton, or let her sink under her own weight, and replace her with Bankruptcy Biden, with Warren as a VP. This will sideline Warren and stifle her voice against Wall St--which has mostly been words rather than deeds, but I'm sure Wall St will be happy to have her silenced anyway. More importantly, it turns Warren into a poisoned apple which many in the movement will be tempted to accept, turning her from a critical voice into a force of co-optation. In my opinion, this move--which likely comes from Obama--is the most potentially dangerous blow the plutocracy could strike at the infant movement, because if enough people are placated by a Biden/Warren ticket, a large part of the movement could dissipate. It is, in essence, the attempt to do again what Obama did so effectively in 2008--get in front of the movement and dismantle it.
But more than that, it is a way of getting people to accept, because they are desperate, a President and Vice-President who didn't receive a single vote during the primary process, and who, in fact, were essentially appointed by the DNC. Although this process has always been legal, in the current age, in which journalists ask billionaires whether democracy itself isn't the problem, and Hillary supporters say on Twitter that superdelegates exist to control the passions of the people, it represents a dangerous move in an ongoing psy-op to convince people that the public is a bunch of untrustworthy fools who need experts like Barack Obama and the DNC to give them what's good for them.
Apart from an assault on the Internet itself, which the movement uses to talk to itself, this is the greatest danger I see to the movement trying to be born.
What we should be asking is: How can we bring this movement to birth? How can we protect it from those who want it dead on arrival?
To those who have struggled through this whole ponderous essay--my thanks.
And any answers or thoughts you have in response to my last two questions are welcome.