‘But I don’t want to go among mad people,’ Alice remarked. ‘Oh, you can’t help that,’ said the Cat. ‘We’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.” (Alice in Wonderland)
The past month or two I have been running from one demonstration and issue to another in support of various causes. I have attended several of the various demonstrations in support of Palestinian rights as Israel, with the backing of the United States, once again, exercises it’s barely hidden genocidal agenda. The past week and a half, Israel has been pounding Gaza with a massive bombing campaign and an aggressive ground war. The Palestinian people have already been devastated from a seven year siege. Many people aren’t aware that Israel, which puts forward the myth that Gaza is an independent entity, still controls most of the power, water and goods going in and out of Gaza – Gazans currently get about four hours of electricity a day and three hours of water once every three days. In the week and a half since the “war” began over 1,000 Gazans have been killed (a majority women and children), millions of dollars of infrastructure have been destroyed. At last tally, 45 Israeli soldiers and three Islaeli civilians have died in the conflict and Israel gained controlled of approximately 1/3 of the remaining land in Gaza which they now call a “buffer zone.”
This is the third such incursion since 2008. The other two bombing operations resulted in thousands of additional deaths and demolished neighborhoods and the ongoing blockade prevented Palestinians from rebuilding. People often forget that the destruction of the infrastructure, once the bombing stops, is often more dangerous to the people’s health when they cannot have drinkable water (95% of Gazans don’t), adequate power and shelter.
For the first time, Palestinian voices are being heard, even by the mainstream — if only because the devastation is so great they cannot be ignored. Demonstrations in Europe reached over 100,000 in England and France. There is clearly a movement that is stronger today than in the past. Many of the demonstrations I attended were sizable –between one and two thousand people. In New York City, a stronghold of Zionism, that is no small number and shows the changing landscape in regard to the Palestinian issue –even here in the belly of the beast. And yet, today, as I write, there is no cease fire and the people of Palestine are still under attack.
I could go on about Gaza, but there are so many other issues. Like the 57,000 undocumented children coming across the Mexican border, fleeing from dictatorial states like Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras that the United States supported. Most recently the USA supported the coup in Honduras which ousted President Zelaya after he made two fatal mistakes – he doubled the minimum wage and he planned to join ALBA, a group of seven Latin American countries which have formed a coalition to fight the United States neoliberal agenda in the South. President Obama was the only leader in the western world who did not condemn the coup and gave immediate recognition to the new government. The United States government plans to send the majority of the fleeing children back to these states for their “safety” which is the reason that they fled and made the dangerous trek to the United States in the first place.
And then there are the other “domestic issues.” Thousands of poor, elderly and disabled people in Detroit are being denied water because they can’t pay their water bill, often after the state cut off their pension due to the Detroit bankruptcy. A young man brought my attention to another black man, Eric Garner, killed in Brooklyn due to excessive police force. .(The young man who told me was unaware of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict).I also just learned, today, that there was yet another incident yesterday in which the NYPD stomped on another black man’s head – also captured in a video. Oh, and there was newspaper headline about the “open carry (guns) advocates who stood on the grassy knoll (where Kennedy was killed) and criticized Obama. Guess what man – you’re still black.
Finally, there is the civil war in the Ukraine which recently resulted in the deaths of 298 civilians in an air crash (many of them AIDS researchers) when the Russian backed rebels shot the plane down by mistake. Many of the US backed forces, which recently took the Ukraine over in a coup are real old fashioned fascists (which feels a lot worse in Europe than it does here given the fact that Fascists have actually held power in Europe and we experienced the results).These new Ukrainian leaders are pressuring Europe to put more and more sanctions on Russia. I’m old enough to remember the cold war between the Soviet Union and the United States and this certainly feels like de javu.
But I digress. There is a big demonstration planned in Washington for August 2nd for Palestinian rights. Kerry is negotiating right now for a short cease fire that does not actually change any of the conditions in the siege on Gaza. Hamas (and it seems like most of the Gazan people including those who don’t back Hamas) say the cease fire must include the ending of the Siege on Gaza (what have they got to lose? They are already being slowly killed anyway with no drinkable water and half their land destroyed). Israel is unlikely to comply (Why should they ? They have our backing and the Siege meets their long term goals for a greater Israel just fine).
IN THE MEANTIME THE DEMONSTRATION IN WASHINGTON, D.C. IS STILL 7 DAYS AWAY – HOW MANY MORE PEOPLE CAN THEY KILL AND HOW MUCH MORE INFRASTRUCTURE CAN THEY DESTROY IN 7 DAYS? Of course, this is just an infinitely small fraction of the devastation we have visited on the rest of the world in just the 20th and 21st century. (Pick a region)
Have you signed your 150th petition today? Have you written your congress person or Obama? Have you gone on a demonstration? Do you feel good about doing your civic duty? I was watching TV the other night and the ad with the dog with sad eyes and the sentimental music came on soliciting donations so that the dog and other dogs could live without abuse. There is a similar ad with a small clearly starving child in Africa. As Bill Clinton would say “I feel your pain.” Synthetic, televised pain is not enough.
The definition of insanity someone said is to keep doing the same things over and over and expect different results. With the advent of the internet and globalization, the world is turning faster now, and the contradictions are heightening. “We do what we can” we say. We “keep the faith, “we keep hope alive.” But as Mao would say, just “tolling the bell” (doing the usual level of political work or doing the usual rant as I am doing now) is not enough. We need to give ourselves a wake-up call.
What is to be Done?
Alice: Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?
The Cheshire Cat: That depends a good deal on where you want to get to.
Alice: I don’t much care where.
The Cheshire Cat: Then it doesn’t much matter which way you go.
Alice: …So long as I get somewhere.
The Cheshire Cat: Oh, you’re sure to do that, if only you walk long enough.”
― Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
The Arab Awakening globally, exemplified by the Occupy Wall Street movement in the States, gave renewed hope to populist and people’s struggles. The style of organizing also reflected the changes brought about by globalization. While these movements were wildly successful on one hand, and have continued to influence our organizing in many ways, they have disintegrated to a large degree. We were not able to hold the square (the public space). Was this ever the intention? If so why did we fail? If not, where should we be placing our energies now?
There are three ways of making social change. 1)Economic 2)Political and 3)Militant. In our recent past, we were able to use all three to make certain reforms. The economic tool was the strike in which workers removed their labor power from the owners of the place of employment, thus preventing them from making the products necessary to make a profit. This worked in the period we call the industrial revolution. People moved from the country to large industrial factories in the cities which created a large number of workers who could act together in solidarity and, just by their magnitude, disrupt the making of profit. The strength of the political or public arena (the commons) was also stronger since people were centered in large numbers in cities and towns which made discussion of issue and transparency among the people easier.
During this period, one of the major ideologies that effected social movements was the concept of socialism (mainly as developed by Karl Marx and later, by the leaders of the Russian revolution (Lenin, Trotsky, Kollantai, Bukharin, etc.) They discuss several basic and important ideas that impact organizing in a globalized economy, if only in some cases, to see how it is different today.
The first is Marx’s concept of dialectical materialism. In traditional Hegelian dialectics, each idea (thesis) can create a different contradictory or different idea (anti-thesis) and it is the struggle between these ideas that produces a synthesis which produces, in turn, a new stage in history. Marx turns this idea on its head. Instead of starting with the an idea for a society, he starts with the specifics of the material conditions of life, how humans interact with the physical environment to reproduce the socially necessary goods we need to survive. These are the objective conditions. For Marx the most important factor in social change is the particular economy (how we produce things in a given stage of history – the level of technology, the location and resources, whether it is an agrarian or industrial society) which he calls the Base.
Marx then calls these different stages of history “Modes of Production.” All the other subjective aspects that create change (culture, politics, the state, religion, art) he calls this the Superstructure and suggests that the most important thing in making social change is the relationship of humans to their means of production and how they can change it. While some critics feel this is too simplistic, if one reads his work, one can see that he does not see these two aspects (Base/objective and Superstructure/subjective) as distinct. To use a simplistic metaphor, the economic system is more like the skeletal structure and the superstructure is more like the muscles and skin. Neither has importance without the other.
The final concept that Marx introduces is value and surplus value. The labor Theory of Value and the surplus value simply says that the real value of a commodity, depends on the quantity of labor used to produce it. Other means of production such as capital, land, technology are useless without labor. He defines the value of things as the socially necessary labor to produce them (the amount of work put in) and surplus value as any additional worth the product you produced might have (a new tool might let you harvest grain a little faster or better in less time so that you end up with more grain than is socially necessary for your society). Marx further distinguishes between the use value (the value of the commodities to satisfy human want) and the exchange value (what it can get in exchange with other values = trading power). The labor has a very high use value but very little exchange value. The difference between the two is called the surplus value that capitalists gain through exploiting the workers. (Money here is necessary as the surplus value would be very limited in the barter system)
And here is where problems start. According to Marx, how that extra or surplus value is distributed will determine what kind of society you develop. If you distribute goods equally, everyone will be equal and have equal power. If someone manages to get more of the surplus, either through force, exploitation on the job or just luck (better land) pretty soon your tribe will have a “chief” who is making more of the decisions and has more of the power.
I am not going to go through all of the historical modes of production, but it is important to note two changes that all modes of production, except the first primitive subsistence mode, have had inequalities. The capitalist mode of production has two aspects which have formed our particular inequality. The first is that the Feudal Mode, right before Capitalism, was an agricultural mode in which the Lords and “church” (those who managed to get all the surplus)used force (weapons) to make the others (the peasants, slaves, etc) do all the work of producing socially necessary goods plus whatever other goods the controllers of the means of production wanted. Capitalism arose when enough surplus occurred that the workers were able to set aside enough surplus to first barter, and then sell for money, to get some power on their own (if they didn’t get caught). As the money market and capitalism developed, some folks who got more and more of the surplus, developed the idea of private property and started buying up public land. In the case of the lords and church who already controlled the majority of the land and goods produced, they simply declared it their privately owned property, and kicked off the peasant workers (the enclosure movement – funny how so much of our history is determined by fencing and unfencing land).
Since the peasant workers no longer had access to the means to produce their own livelihood (free land and tools) they were then forced to go back to work for the new private property owners for whatever the owners would pay them or starve. So those without a surplus could as individuals be “free” to starve. For the new property owners, the freedom to starve soon became the preferred method of controlling the new wage workers – whether the workers liked it or not – because they found they could extract more labor or surplus with this new market mode of production.
At the same time, some workers did like this new freedom because they were not imprisoned on the land even if the collective social contract required that they be fed. Once kicked off the land, the workers acted as free individuals. The concept of individual rights developed in this period. John Locke, one of the Enlightenment thinkers, wrote the quote “The right to the pursuit of life, liberty and private property” which later, in the United States Constitution became “life, liberty and happiness. So although it has become a major problem under capitalism (the fifth amendment right to private property in the Bill of Rights was used, in the Dred Scot, to justify slavery), it has also led to concepts of individual liberty and democracy.
With globalization and the advent of the microchip, the relationship of people to their work and workplace changed. The multinational corporations could now “outsource” jobs to other parts of the world where labor could be had not only cheaper, but, with the new mobility of capital, whenever workers tried to organize, the owners could move factories to another region and even divide up the production of one product into several factories spread over several continents. Workplaces became smaller and more decentralized and, today, many people can work from a single modem in their own home.
With the growth of globalization and ever larger multinational corporations under monopoly capitalism, people’s lives have become more individualized and privatized as the continuing growth of commodity production has overwhelmed our public institutions: Barnes and Noble and now Amazon have replaced our public libraries, charter schools have made inroads into our public school system (in 1996 the IMF mandated that all public education should be privatized) and the town hall meetings, mostly of yesteryear, where we discuss and democratically determine our ideology and morals, has been replaced by the 24 hour news cycle and the talking points of paid pundits on privately owned cable TV shows. The one bright spot in all this has been the creation of the open, free and public internet which may soon be a thing of the past as, on one hand commercial enterprises and on the other the NSA, are trying to “own” this space too.
The Occupy Movement tried to reverse this trend by reclaiming public space, bringing back the ideas of grass roots, decentralized organizing and emphasized the importance of the individual person in a democratic process of decision making. In doing so, they revitalized populist movements. Even more importantly, they established the idea of the 1% and the 99% reinvigorating the idea of inequality. This had been missing from our peace and justice movements which, for the past fifty years, had focused specifically on admittedly critical contradictions such as sexism and racism. These contradictions still have to be dealt with, but were used by the dominant ownership class to divide and conquer people by focusing on these differences to the exclusion of class issues. This is nothing new: in the 13th century, the kings tried to divide the peasantry from the urban workers; under the Patriarchy, the Catholic church used sexism (culminating in violent witch hunts, burning thousands of women live at the stake) to divide men and women workers; in the United States, the owners used the shameful history of slavery and racism to divide white from black workers. In fact, all three of these contradictions are still live and well in our societies today.
One of the main problems I see with the Occupy movement is that, while it did define the problem in term of the rich (1%) and poor (99%) and proposed new ways of struggle by suggesting cooperatives (equally owned by the members) would replace hierarchical unequal work relationships, it did not really discuss how this would be done except through a generalized, voluntaristic struggle. it was very vague on Marx’s ideas of class struggle (how the 99% would get back the wealth/capital and control away from the 1%) and did not show how the relationship of the worker to the means of production could be helpful in determining the actual struggles needed to win. I.e,., Instead of taking over the public space, workers could take over and “de-privatize” the means of production in their shops (like Republic Windows – now New Era – did in their factory in Chicago and over two hundred factories did in Argentina). And, depending on the objective conditions, they could refuse to pay the previous owners declaring that the labor they had already spent working there was already payment enough for the goods they had expropriated.
Finally, back to the initial issue of having to run around to many different demos that don’t seem to relate to each other. Several of our folks (Galtisalie, UnaSpenser) have recognized the problem and called for democratic international solidarity as a means of overcoming the global isolation. I particularly liked UnaSpenser’s approach of getting down and personal with different types of people (I won’t quote her here cause its too long and this is long already).
But most of the viewpoints suggest we still see this kind of solidarity as voluntarily working with “the other” instead of focusing on what we really do have in common – we are not just the 99%, we are the working class. And it is through that commonality, that we can relate in real solidarity. Israel is not just about religion or culture, but about European colonialism helping to establish a state that it can use as a capitalist foothold in the Middle East to protect and advance its oil interests. Ditto for Latin America since we established the Monroe Doctrine in 1824. And the boy in Palestine who was beaten and killed by right-wing extremist settlers in revenge for the death of three Israeli soldiers is no different than the father who was killed by NYPD in Brooklyn; the cutting off of water to Gaza connects to the cutting off of water to the citizens of Detroit; and the children – the children who cannot leave Gaza and are shot down like turkeys in a turkey shoot are no different than the children of Central America fleeing terrorist dictators (that we support in the name of capitalist interests), only to be returned to live under the violence.
I think one of the areas that have inadvertently caused the OWS movement problems is that they grew out of an anti-hierarchical movement. People so treasure the freedom of individual liberty and democracy having lived under a lack of both (whether it is the opaque United States Government run by the Koch brothers through Citizens United or the concepts of the often dictatorial Marxist-Leninist left which developed in a pre-democratic period). But that is not for today. In a couple of months I would like to do (or maybe someone else will do) a diary on individualism vs. the community.