The other night after the State of the Union Address I posted this as my status update on Facebook:
You don't have to agree with the President on everything to realize that he gave a masterful, galvanizing speech. He touched all of the right emotional notes, wrapped himself a bit in the flag, put forth a mostly and unapologetically progressive program and painted it in positive terms, not as negative reactions to Republican pettiness. He reminded everyone that he is the most gifted orator in the White House in generations. Coming a day after another Republican loon fest broadcast on national TV and before a wooden, lame, and negative response from an obscure governor that the NBC political reporters openly swooned for in contrast to actual Republican candidates, he just won back the wavering middle while shoring up the support of disenchanted liberals. A pretty good night's work, I'd say.
I knew what I was in for. I got a lot of likes from friends who are Democrats, liberals, and loyal Obama fans. I also got one scold from a fervent supporter of the Occupy Movement who wrote, “Turn off your televisions. Ignore the Newt-Mitt-Rick-Barack reality show. It is as relevant to your life as the gossip on ‘Jersey Shore,’” and provided me with a link to stronger stuff. Those sentiments were echoed by posts from several good friends, committed radicals each and every one.
Some of those loyal Democrats have in the past wondered at my steadfast support of the Occupy movement, and suggested that the movement was unfocussed, counterproductive, and that it diverted energy from the “real task” of electing progressives to set things right. You know the rhetoric, you’ve probably read it.
Both sides want to know, with some urgency, how I can reconcile being a fire breathing radical and open advocate of direct action and a proud old Wobbly on one hand, with being a plodding, loyal down-in-the-trenches Democratic functionary—a McHenry County Dem Precinct Representative—who will vote and work for the re-election of the President and for other party candidates. I contradict myself. Of course I do. In the words of Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Or consider my favorite quote from Ralph Waldo Emerson, “Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”
But there is some method to my apparent blatant hypocrisy and ideological apostasy. I am both an idealist and activist and a practical politician because I know how to play offense and defense.
On offense, I have long advocated for uniting in an open and aggressive assertion of our rights and demands. Elections in which no fundamental change is possible because we are locked into a two-party system representing factions of the same system are not enough, although not unimportant (see below for more on that.) Organizations like unions which have traditionally been the enablers of common struggle are more and more constrained by law and legalisms and marginalized as “pleading special interests.” The press and mainstream media are unanimously in the hands of defenders of the status quo of some type or another and cannot be relied upon to “crusade” in our behalf. The avenues of traditional dissent—petitioning, local demonstrations and pickets, vigils, and even annual mega marches on Washington that draw hundreds of thousands of participants can and are ignored by that media because they are “old news.” The militarization of police in this country coupled with the unlimited capacity for electronic surveillance and monitoring of every aspect of our lives effectively deters much more forceful protest. But happily not all.
I have advocated agile, new forms of organization unencumbered by either charismatic or bureaucratic leadership which can quickly reflect and implement the demands of the people. This is something that the unleashing of modern electronic communications—e-mail, social media, blogging, advanced cell phone capacities including special apps and instant sharing of photos and videos—has made possible as never before.
What I wrote in 2008 in connections with re-inventing the labor movement hold true for the even broader movement we have seen emerge from the protests in Wisconsin and the Occupy Movement:
The shape of what it [a re-invented labor movement] will look like is only beginning to emerge. But it will certainly come out of the knowledge that the traditional labor movement has bound itself to near impotency by accepting the restrictions of American labor law in exchange for the scraps of a supposedly “sympathetic” NLRB and the ease of collecting dues by check-off deductions from wages. New organizations may pointedly not call themselves unions or engage in direct bargaining with specific employers for contract defined benefits just so they can be free of the straight jacket the traditional unions have put on themselves. They will take advantage of modern technology and instant communications. Organizations like MoveOn have shown that, with the right spark unimaginable numbers of people can be linked together and organized for common purpose in amazingly short periods of time. And organizations of this type are apt to be loose, flexible, independent of massive bank accounts that can be seized at any time, and resistant to top-down leadership…I place my faith in the future in the hands of the dawning self awareness of the new working class and its creativity. May it ever be so.
Also critical is the reawakening of a sense of social solidarity which had seems crushed out of existence for decades in this country. The Occupy movement with its insistence that we are all the 99% united against the greed and arrogance of the oligarchy of the 1%. Writing in a Labor Day sermon, The Working Class Virtue of Solidarity in 2009, I put it this way:
Solidarity is the response of the week and marginalized to overwhelming power. Individuals learn that no act of their own can truly change their condition of oppression and exploitation. Those in power have the means, and an overwhelming motive, for ruthlessly slapping down any one who dare pop up in opposition. But members of oppressed class come to realize one simple truth: They can’t kill all of us. Not only that, they discover that together they represent a resource without which the exploiters cannot continue to reap wealth and benefits. Their power lies in both their number and in the dependence of the powerful on them.
The power of this kind of solidarity when taken to the streets has been shown over and over again since the People Power revolution against the Marcos regime in the Philippines two decades ago, to the wave color coded revolutions that brought down one after another the repressive Communist oligarchies of the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, to the mass anti-austerity protests that began to erupt in Western Europe last year, to the thrilling and unexpected sweep of the Arab Spring.
As the United States sank into an economic collapse of its own and faced millions being forced into poverty and the collapse of the middle class dream, the question on the world’s lips was “where are the Americans?” The Americans, in fact, were restrained by a number of factors, not the least of which was the “illusion of democracy” and the hope that the crisis was just another unfortunate blip and that prosperity would return.
After months, then years, it became apparent that there would be no return to the old, comfortable “normal.” And apparent that the Republican zealots and tools of the most powerful members of the ruling oligarchy who were swept into power by a misguided “throw all the bums out” vote protest were determined to launch an all out assault on the working and middle classes.
The spark that lit the powder keg, of course, was the loud mouth arrogance of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. In the blink of an eye thousands were on the grounds of the capital in Madison and stayed there through brutal winter weather. Protests spread around the states. Newly elected Republican governors in other states advancing the same bought-and-paid-for agendas found themselves with other uprisings.
Then came that Arab Spring. This time American working people were paying attention. They were asking, “Why not us?” It was a question I asked at a public meeting in support of Wisconsin workers in Woodstock last April. It was time to take to the streets as never before, not in orchestrated marches and carefully controlled rallies, but in the face of the oppressors and would-be oppressors.
The Occupy Movement sprang from a mere suggestion, a nice graphic poster from an obscure Canadian magazine published by ideological anarchists—note not the street fighting anarchists known for their violent disruption of international gatherings—and the power of social media to spread the word. It struggled at first and was dismissed as a ragged handful in a New York park. But with astonishing quickness, it spread. Hundreds of thousands joined as local Occupy movements sprang up around the country and around the globe.
It was spontaneous, yet it was disciplined. Through the use of regular Assemblies and the rejection of titled leaders or charismatic spokespersons it honed a message. And it developed a strategy—mass peaceful protest and willingness to engage in mass civil disobedience. It has stayed remarkably true to both the form of organization and its strategy. Despite massive repression and the constant danger of provocateurs and plants attempting paint the movement as violent, it has only grown and its influence has spread.
This is exactly what I meant about the “working class re-inventing” their organs and organizations.
The Occupy movement has survived a harsh winter and the loss of many, probably most, of their camp bases. It has adapted, found new ways to express itself, and is poised with the coming of spring to re-emerge on the streets as a mass presence.
And despite every attempt to discredit it or ignore it, the Occupy movement has shifted the American political conversation. A year ago class in-equality and the power of the economic elites over every aspect of our lives were not even issues that registered in any polling. Today they are front and center of the national debate. Demands across the board for ending corporate personhood, attacking income inequality, and protecting the vulnerable among us have picked up steam. Politicians notice and begin to echo popular sentiments. Poll after poll shows that most Americans broadly agree with the goals of the Occupy movement.
This is an offense that works. Keep it up I say.
On the other hand there is defense. The right wing has not been asleep. They have their own well funded populist movement—the Tea Party—to counter the rise of the left. They also have managed to achieve almost unlimited control of government at every level due to protest voting in the last election and sit-on-their-hands discouragement of progressives. Only the Presidency, the Senate, a minority of Governors and state legislatures, and some big city mayors stand between them and total control—a control which they would never cede again in truly free elections. The billionaires who bankrolled the Tea Party and bought the Republican Party out right are prepared to spend unlimited sums to complete their triumph.
They are also counting on a disaffected left to make it possible.
Despite the rhetoric of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum that we hear so regularly from some of the left, there is a difference—a huge difference—between Republican and Democrats on a wide range of issues. If you think things are bad now, wait until the Right gets total control and strips away, one after another, every social program that stand between families and hunger, every guarantee of a modicum of work place dignity, every regulation that stands between your pocket and legalized pick pocketing, equal rights for every despised minority including that majority minority—women—, any environmental protections that may prevent global catastrophe, rewards its religious allies with a virtual theocracy on “moral” issues, and belligerently threatens anyone in the world who doesn’t go along with the program.
Look, I know that Democrats are often spineless in Congress. I know that many of them are on the take from powerful interests. I am not blinded to Obama faults and deficiencies. I will join you in protest to all of that. No reason to let Democrats get away with crap just because they are Democrats.
But let me put this as bluntly as I can—if you think there is no difference between the two parties your are just plain crazy. If you think a boycott of elections will “get their attention” you are delusional. If you think that allowing the Republicans to win to “clarify the class relationships and force the people into rebellion” you are psychopathic.
And no, given the structure of our political system and the time frame to the next election a third or fourth party, the Greens, an illusionary Labor Party, or and knight-in-shining-armor independent presidential candidate are not valid options. All that any such efforts can do is make the heart of the Grinch smile.
The Kotch brothers and all of their friends hope and pray you are so pissed off that you stay home. It reduces the number of votes they have to steel or buy and saves them the trouble of trying to strip you of your vote via their voter suppression schemes. I say, if you want to do their bidding, you might as well take their money.
As bad as things are, they can be ten times worse in no time. So I will work, vigorously, for the re-election of the President and for Democrats up and down the ticket. That’s playing defense.
There is no reason to abandon either an offense or a defense despite what you hear from the purists of one side or another.