Evolving Politics?

We had an interesting Talk at CounterPULSE last night on “Tactical Evolution: Protest Culture, Dissent and Radical Change”. After it was over we had our usual dozens of informal chats going on and I got into one in which we were ruminating on the enormous immigrant marches last May 1 and how rapidly they had disappeared from the radar. If anything they’ve been tracked into a demographic blip that “affected the election” but the sense of an autonomous social movement erupting from its prior invisibility is well-buried again. Not that it has disappeared in fact, because it’s only a matter of time before the mechanisms of political control–primarily the electoral circus–are shoved aside again for something more direct.

The government staged a huge nationwide raid on Swift meatpacking plants a couple of days ago. Latina Lista posted an informative blog entry (hat-tip to Firedoglake for linking to it) about it, airing out a number of specific details on the illegal and inhumane proceedings carried out in the name of Homeland Security (do they do anything, ever, that is good for any humans anywhere? no). There is something painfully ironic about the round-up of immigrants at meatpacking plants in 2006. Barbara Kopple’s documentary “American Dream” told the story of Local P-9 in Austin, Minnesota, a UFCW local of meatpackers that gets broken with the blatant complicity of the International. From that time in the early-to-mid-1980s to the present, the unionized meatpacking industry has shrunk to a fraction of its former size, replaced by vast meatpacking factories employing non-union, mostly Spanish-speaking workers recruited from Mexico and Central America. Big surprise, lots of them got to the U.S. “unofficially” and that makes them even more suitable for employment in the Jungle-like conditions of today’s meatpacking plants. Schlosser’s “Fast Food Nation” tells the grim story of how brutal, unsanitary and unsafe the meat industry has become again in the wake of the widespread de-unionization of the Reagan era. (No One Is) “Illegal” immigrants are the easiest workforce to keep unorganized historically, since if they start to organize they can be rounded up and deported… their kids be damned… family values? an inconvenient marketing label… next question? Indecipherable in this glorious defense of the homeland is the extent to which the 1,200 meatpackers rounded up were organizing themselves against the miserable conditions they’re forced to work under. Maybe someone reading this has more information they can share… Clearly this kind of repression will eventually meet its match in the millions-strong immigrant communities to which U.S. industry (what’s left of it) has hitched itself.

While we talked about the immigrant movement we noted how separate it was from the trajectory of affinity-group, direct-action, global justice activism that a lot of folks at the Talk last night hailed from. The presentations by Kate Raphael and David Solnit were rich with the last 20+ years of campaigns, from the anti-nuke demonstrations, the Livermore Action Group’s effort to stop nuclear weapons work, Queer activism around AIDS and even Palestine, the connections that grew between the anti-nuclear campaigners and the Western Shoshone and other Native Americans in the Great Basin testing zones, the eventual connection to the Kazakhstani movement that stopped nuclear testing in the former Soviet Union, and eventually to the WTO-Seattle opening. The presentations were fairly brisk but still went on too long to leave enough time for adequate discussion (as usual, unfortunately), so we’ll be revisiting this topic in the future.

In particular, I’d hoped the topic of “tactical evolution” would naturally lead us to publicly contemplate where we’re going next. After all, the 3 years of Iraq War has led a lot of folks to feel fairly immobilized and defeated, in terms of the efficacy of political action. The old forms, as I’ve lamented here in past posts, are broken and don’t ‘work’ in ways that activists tend to imagine they will. Last night’s Talk was good for making visible how much work goes into producing something as remarkable as Seattle in 1999, not just in terms of the intensive months of organizing up and down the west coast that preceded it, but also the years of small, incremental lessons learned from dozens and dozens of meetings, protests, demonstrations, interventions, political street theater and satire, etc. Some of the talk last night reflected the divergence between groups that are focused on specific tactics (like ANSWER’s one-note ability to stage large street demonstrations) or focused on specific policy goals (like LAG’s effort, unsuccessful, to stop Livermore Labs from working on nuclear weapons). Of course all efforts have stated goals, as all efforts have to employ some form or another of “action”.

The points I tried to raise, which didn’t engender much response (there wasn’t much time for a response in any case!), were two-fold: the importance of the arteries of the capitalist economy (the roads) as points of leverage in this era; and the impotence of a strategy that gears itself to media coverage, given the reconfiguration of mass media as unapologetic organs of government and corporate propaganda.

On one hand there’s a romantic old left attachment to identifying the ‘agents of history,’ usually at the point of production, so a political focus on workers seizing their workplaces as the primary point of leverage. Obviously general strikes and major interventions at work are still potent arenas of political action, but very little of our contemporary political culture is geared in that direction. To a great extent a lot of people reject that kind of workerism for the implicit hierarchy of political importance given to manufacturing workers, and probably due to the long history of political failures associated with such old left strategies (when have workers really ever gotten power over their everyday lives? very few, and short-term examples)… But in the same way that seizing factories can be powerful, nowadays people disenfranchised from capitalist development have found leverage in seizing the roads, from Bolivia to Argentina to Mexico City, to the Reclaim the Streets and Critical Mass movements, the vulnerability of class society to disruption of transit is quite profound. As John Robb has intelligently described it at Global Guerrillas, it’s the evolving 5th generation warfare that is open-source, mobile, decentralized, and focused on “systempunkts” or points of cascading vulnerability that can quickly bring down complex systems. Blocking roads can often fit that pattern. So I brought it up as an example of a way to rethink our political action in terms of its efficaciousness.

The second point about the media is more commonly known. We live in a Spectacular Society and political actions that are focused on showing up as soundbites on the evening news are easily subsumed in the larger panorama of infotainment, defanged of their political meaning. The rejoinder Kate Raphael offered was to point to the Web and our abilities to broadcast our own versions of events far and wide, and that’s certainly true. The rise of indymedia from Seattle onwards is an example of one of many new forms of independent, grassroots media that just didn’t exist until the 21st century. It’s far from a ‘solution’ of course. But we’re only a half decade into the new world wherein the ability of the old propaganda systems to utterly shape the facts is being steadily eroded, so there is plenty of reason to be optimistic about the different terrain we’re operating on.

The larger question is the relationship between political action and its representation. Does a sit-in exist if no one knows it happened? What is the relationship between localized direct action protest and/or street theater and its further portrayal on-line? How do tactics and strategies emerge from multiple, disparate locales and actions to eventually gel into something bigger, stronger and able to contest the machinery of globalized capitalism and militarism? without succumbing to mirroring logics of power and control?…

I tend to think that answers to these questions are emergent. They appear in fits and starts all the time, but our well-founded antipathy to centralization makes it easy to keep reinventing things, going around the merry-go-round again and again, reaching for a brass ring that if grabbed won’t actually alter the deepening crisis… Somewhere along the way our creative and intelligently subversive actions and schemes will have to find a different political voice, and probably find a way to scale up without losing the local and specific dynamism that feeds our humanity and the pleasure we take in living a life of mirthful contestation!! Not that there’s anything funny about any of this! stop laughing!

P.S. A different kind of political evolution might be more characteristic of our era than anything we hope for as political dreamers… over at Global Guerrillas again, Robb refers to an article by Ralph Peters about the rise of ethnic and tribal loyalties in the face of the catastrophes of globlization. Our fond fantasies of another world are dauntingly impossible if this kind of analysis is true. The mistrustful, xenophobic and inward-looking fundamentalism that characterizes growing swaths of the planet’s cultures is probably more powerful and growing faster than anything remotely resembling an ecological common-wealth based on a reconfiguration of science and technology towards bioligically sane existence that I like to hope for…

3 comments to Evolving Politics?

  • Biker-X

    “It’s the fun that will attract people, not the anger.”

    Gee, and I thought it was the endless hours of consensus making prior to taking any action at all, to get the most watered-down, tame, politically correct slogan to rally behind that will offend and motivate no one…

    Road seizures and attacks on military convoys have proven extremely effective in slowing US death squads in Iraq…

    Don’t bother with fiber-optic cables: the next fake terror attack will most likely target financial infrastructure to provide cover for the collapse of the dollar and US economy, the looting of the working class’ savings by the elite, and a hopelessly bankrupt and corrupt federal government. The propaganda mill has already been primed for that scenario, with the useful idiots in the CIA-directed al Qaeda already the guilty party:

    The same story appeared on CNN and the rest of the USA’s timid, self-censored, unquestioning corporate media.

    The decades of marching up and down the streets have provided some good, healthy exercise if nothing else. And they’re nice venues for poseurs polishing their self-image. Then, when it’s all over, we all go home and make the “best” consumer choices we can, unaware that we’re feeding the same corporate monsters we’re writing letters to. Here’s one example:

    But haven’t we all earned the convenience of a Big Mac after a hard day of marching around?

    As for myself, that’s why I moved to the country to start a seed sanctuary for non-GMO organic seeds, rather than expecting a million letters to Monsanto to have any impact at all. But that takes a lot more time and resolve than attending a feelgood protest every now and then.

  • Road seizures can be effective if they are lengthy and take place at major bottlenecks. Canada’s First Nations conducted a lot of them in the early 1990s that were generally out of the U.S. media but were quite effective, the biggest being at Oka, Quebec. I could imagine it being quite effective to take over the rail line at Truckee, California or one of the remote Interstate highways across the desert of the American West. But how long would such a road seizure last? Critical Mass is tolerated in part because, contrary to the myth, it doesn’t have that much effect on traffic, especially the traffic that matters — going to work. (That was why in the early proto-critical mass rides we rode in the morning, not the evening — to interrupt the flow of commerce. We never had more than 20 riders.)

    Urban street seizures are fun but I don’t think they have much long-term effect outside the group conducting the action. It’s pretty easy for information industries to shift production on a moment’s notice from downtown to suburban homes, from the San Francisco sales office to L.A. And in the long term, repeated street actions in cities contributes to the evacuation of businesses, such as Chevron and Bechtel, to better protected homes in sprawl, where the streets are huge, the populations dispersed, and the media absent, making a street seizure both harder to start and more dangerous to maintain.

    Increasingly, the arteries of capitalism aren’t roads but fiber optic cables. I recently talked to someone who was wiring fiber lines into a government building. He was blocks away from the structure. It struck me how few of us even have maps of the physical geography of this “critical infrastructure.” Controlling it in a direct action is difficult if we don’t even know where it is, and equally hard if we don’t understand how it works. There have been direct-action Denial of Service attacks, as CNN’s Lou Dobbs show was subjected to one during a pro-immigrant rally in May, but this isn’t fun, visible, or even effective unless maintained for a long time.

    About the mass media, I agree that demonstrations geared to amplification through the press are stupid and boring. They need to be real experiences, not theater shows, as most people don’t get as much thrill from showing off as they do from actually doing something. I disagree that Indymedia and the Web have had any major effect. Seven years into Indymedia’s existence, few Americans have ever heard of it. And if you look at Web habits, people tend to waste their time with the same crap you find on TV — it turns out the Man was telling the truth all these years, He really was giving the people what they wanted. Albeit without enough tits or get-rich-quick schemes.

    What I like in San Francisco political culture is the healthy mix of anger/disillusionment with delight. I think political activists in most places are too stuck on the first and inadequately appreciative of the latter. It’s the fun that will attract people, not the anger.

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