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Announcement :: Labor
The Will to Intervene
by Alexander Selkirk
Email: leretif9 (nospam) gmail.com
02 Mar 2017
The final document in the upcoming book ´Subversion in Capitalist America: A User´s Manual´
'Subversion in Capitalist America: A User's Manual' examines three decades of anti-state communist action in the United States. These actions range from short-lived adrenaline-rich kid stuff of riots, vandalism and sarcastic pranks to more substantive efforts inspired by combative proletarians in Italy in the 1970’s and by minority extremist tendencies in the long gone classical workers’ movement. Inventive aggressive action improving on what I describe here can play a significant role in the approaching turmoil.
Several efforts examined here have focused on housing and social space. This does not make me a "housing activist." The efforts I’ve been involved in that have the greatest mass popular potential have attempted to use big city public transit systems as a platform for a large-scale rejection of market relations, but that doesn’t make me a “transit activist” either. In an aggressively depoliticized United States I had to seek trouble wherever I could find it. Most of these efforts have been outside of the workplace, on the periphery of the reigning mode of production. The period of social peace that limited my range of action is coming to an end.
For most of the past hundred years various forms of Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism effectively occupied all political space to the left of the Democratic Party. Marxism-Leninism and Trotskyism were the politics of the counter-revolution in Russia, but the Leninist left often attracted energetic, capable, dedicated people of a caliber not found among today's anarchists and ultra-leftists and militants of these forms of left capitalist politics often played a central role, and sometimes a positive one, in real world social struggles. With the collapse of the Soviet Union the Leninist branch of the left-wing of capital effectively became defunct. Most of the M-L and Trotskyist groups went belly-up a generation ago. Nothing has arisen to fill that corresponding empty space. More significantly, liberal democracy no longer has the ideological allegiance of the majority of the populace. An opportunity without historical precedent is being neglected. This must change now. We are in a unique position. Authentic anti-capitalists can assert an entirely new kind of mass politics in a rapidly deteriorating society ruled by an ever-more inept and self-discrediting political apparatus.
Some of the specifics of how a small, organized and energetic extremist tendency can come into being, establish rigorous internal political cohesion and contribute effectively to a larger society-wide dynamic are examined in an article titled, ‘The Anarchist Subculture and the Leftist Protest Ghetto,´ available in various places on the internet.
We now need:
1. Collective reading and discussion of texts, beginning with the Situationists -- ignoring Vaneigem -- and after this works by Gilles Dauve and 'Unions Against Revolution,'
2. Combined with ongoing public action among wage earners, not protestyprotester shit.
We should get involved in fights of wage earners against employers. We should assert direct action solidarity with immigrants against the U.S. government. We should take part in fights over housing, gentrification and public space. But our central ongoing emphasis should be on public transit system operators and riders in major cities -- and on enlisted people in the Armed Forces.
A well-organized group of anti-capitalists can spread its message, with an effective reach out of all proportion to its small numbers, and reach a strategically significant segment of the wage-earning class, by maintaining an extremely narrow focus among employees of public transit systems. Along with this, we can reach the widest and most diverse working class audience possible through low tech mass communication among transit system riders. A widespread self-organized movement emerging from joint action between transit system employees and riders can effect an entire urban region. Good ideas of this kind can spread from transit system to transit system, from city to city, and into non-transit workplaces.
We need to think big. This is about the working class recovering the political autonomy from capital that was lost in the U.S. eighty-plus years ago with the New Deal. And we should be wildly visionary: self-organized and extremely self-aware mass wildcat actions growing out of labor strife in metropolitan transit systems could conceivably develop, in depth and breath, and in ways that cannot be predicted at present, to create a working class-propelled political crisis for the regime we live under. A combative working class must become the central force in the unfolding crisis in this society. Mass action on mass transit could be the way that a new social movement begins.
3. We will also need an internal discussion bulletin, in photocopy form to avoid our exchanges deteriorating into empty online chit-chat, and,
4. A series of conferences assessing the strengths and weaknesses of our ongoing efforts and ever-evolving ways to tighten our focus and move forward.
Aspects of my analysis have changed with time, but it has always been clear that we need to create a network, based around a shared set of distinct perspectives, outside of and against liberalism, against identity politics, against the left, and indifferent to the protest ghetto and related fringe phenomena. This means gathering together the most capable, persevering and inventive troublemakers, people with drive and nerve -- we do not need a social club for college Marxist pedants and anarchist subculture scenesters. A self-styled minority tendency of this type is not a minority out of any desire to lead or manipulate others, or impart a Kautskyian-Leninist gift of socialist consciousness to working people. Until the moment when the capitalist mode of production is being scrapped only a small number of individuals are going to see that the world must be transformed in a communist way. A revolutionary mass movement cannot be organized -- but a small highly visible network of groups of people contributing to the rise of one must be organized, especially under ever more favorable conditions in the U.S. With ongoing involvement in mainstream working people's social struggles, and transparently clear shared perspectives, a high profile minority communist tendency can help give rise to a 21st century version of what the real IWW was at its best -- an anti-wage labor social movement of the wage-earning class. Paraphrasing Marx in ‘The Poverty of Philosophy’ we cannot forget that the social struggle is also a political one. We must prepare now for great events to come. And people should have started preparing for these future great events during the Jimmy Carter era.
I have always been eager to see the revolutionary event as being right around the corner. I have always been wrong. I am now more confident that I am less wrong than I have been in the past. A crisis that might take a mass revolutionary turn may not be right around the corner -- but it might be around the corner after that, or the next corner after that. The increasingly poor judgment-making skills of our rulers are giving us phenomenal opportunities that did not exist in the past.
A combination of class struggle anarchism and ultra-left Marxism is indispensable for an authentic anti-capitalist politics of our time.
Unfortunately this brings me to my experience of the kind of people who like to call themselves anarchists and ultra-left Marxists in the contemporary United States.
I have been involved in roughly a dozen anarchist or anti-authoritarian groups. The first anarchist/anti-authoritarian group I joined was 'Emancipation,' in Washington D.C. in the spring of 1981. The most recent one was the 'Precarious and Service Workers Assembly of Occupy Oakland,' in the spring of 2012. With the partial exception of 'Bay Area Anarchist Council' at the inception of the San Francisco Muni effort in 2005, not one of these groups has tried to do anything relevant to people in the larger society around us. They did not even bother to make an effort. A pattern of adolescent narcissist self-absorbtion has been consistent.
What gets called anarchism in today's United States is a phenomenon of terminal disengagement. The anarchist scene exists solely to provide anarchist scenesters with entertainment and a social life. The trite personal rebellion ethos at the heart of contemporary U.S. anarchism is in harmony with the prevailing ethos of consumer society and as such the anarchist scene and its scenesters are not an oppositional, subversive or dangerous phenomenon. The anarchist subculture is mostly made up of young people going through a phase and who soon age out of a subculture that doesn´t really appeal to adults. This scene is an abject loyal expression of United-States-style magical thinking and a U.S. style narcissistic indifference to the world at large -- it is a product of many decades of Americans being socially engineered by our corporate masters to be incapable of engaging with anything that is not immediately pleasurable or entertaining. The anarchist scene is a relentlessly self-indulgent phenomenon of people who can be counted on to not be counted on. The scene is akin to the subculture of people who wear Mister Spock ears and Starfleet uniform costumes at science fiction comic book fan conventions and who go on at exhaustive length about the engineering specs of the Starship Enterprise and Mister Spock's Vulcan ancestry. These sad facts are etched in stone. Today’s U.S. anarchist scene will never be adequate for tasks beyond the endless reproduction of the scene's existence as a torpid and trivial fringe phenomenon. People who are serious about the fight for a mass revolutionary movement that can dismantle market society and replace it with a society worthy of the human beings who live in it should ignore the U.S. anarchist subculture, its sheepish flaky scenesters and their middle school melodramas. This should be easy. All the world ignores the U.S. anarchist subculture, and with good reason.
This brings me to ultra-left Marxists.
The only supposedly public-oriented ultra-left Marxist effort that I'm aware of in the U.S since I first stumbled onto ultra-left Marxism in the early 1980’s took place in Berkeley in the autumn of 2001.
An opposition to capitalism in the United States must focus in part on the foreign policy crimes of our rulers. This is not simply an Albert-Camus-style proper moral stance; the Vietnam War helped give rise to major stateside unrest, something akin to this could happen again and authentic subversives should try to be at the forefront of it. Mass civilian casualty attacks are one of the main tools of U.S. foreign policy. On Sept. 11, 2001, U.S. government–style mass civilian casualty attacks orchestrated by former U.S. foreign policy assets took place in lower Manhattan. My memory of the immediate aftermath of 9/11 in the San Francisco Bay Area is that stunned silence reigned for days, and then huge American flags fluttering from junk cars appeared everywhere. Imperial bathos and patriotic slobbering dominated the landscape. Opposition to U.S. foreign policy atrocities is the main way that what passes for an opposition to the present state of things asserts itself in the SF Bay Area -- and nothing happened. No big demos or marches took place. It would not have mattered if they did, but this paralysis in the context of new developments was telling. 9/11 was a unique historical event, what passes for an opposition was silent, and the right kind of attention-grabbing public response could have been the foot in the door for an attack on the social order that gives rise to horrors like 9/11.
In the aftermath of the Sept. 11 2001 attacks, an individual sometimes described as “the leading left communist in the United States” initiated an ongoing series of meetings of ultra-lefts in Berkeley. I took part. My understanding was that we would move fast, come up with an analysis of the Sept. 11 events, and attempt to get this analysis out in some highly visible way. Sept. 11, 2001 was the first major battle of the 21st century, it was the first time that U.S. government-style mass civilian casualty attacks were perpetrated against civilians in the U.S., and it was blowback from Carter and Reagan’s foreign policy antics in the 1970’s and 1980’s. It was a unique historical moment - and a unique historical opportunity.
Politics is about communication. It was time to communicate. My preferred low budget mass communications method takes the form of posters on walls -- this may be a function of the limits of my imagination but posters had been effective in the recent past. With this in mind I acquired a paperback book with a color image of Ronald Reagan and his jack-o-lantern grin on its cover. Recent covers of ‘Time’ or ‘Life’ had a photo-shopped image of both World Trade Center towers going up in explosive flames, and my thought was to do 11 by 17 inch color posters of Reagan’s smiling visage in front of the burning and collapsing buildings, captioned in big yellow letters with red lines around them: ‘If you want to find the man responsible for 9/11, go to Bel Air and wake him from his nap!’ -- highlighting the fact that the 9/11 attacks were blowback from Reagan and Jimmy Carter’s efforts to get armed Islamic fundamentalism up and running in Afghanistan in the seventies and eighties. It was just a gesture and not particularly radical but it was simple, it could be done quick, and it was to the point. And if anyone had come up with anything better we could have gone with that instead.
The group met and talked. We met and talked. In compulsively inadequate ultra-left Marxist style we met and talked some more. Nothing happened. Grad student pedantry and incapacity were in a neck and neck race here. Our talk had drifted to plans for a ‘Capital’ reading group by the time I stopped attending the meetings; apparently those who can, do, and those who can’t form ‘Capital’ reading groups. Even this insular and inwardly-directed proposal went nowhere. The group folded. A unique historical moment had come and gone and with this a significant opportunity was lost. This is consistent with all experiences I have ever had with people who like to call themselves ultra-left Marxists in the U.S. going back to the beginning of the Reagan eighties.
In my encounters with “the leading left communist in the United States” I was struck less by this individual’s voluminous abstract erudition than I was by his complete lack of the practical political smarts that we develop if we assert unusual ideas in the complex world outside of our comfort zone. This fellow had been a left communist for almost 30 years and all he had to show for it was a collection of his writings that are equally unreadable in seven languages on a web page. In the decade and a half since our 9/11 group’s belly-button fingering sessions he has continued to dabble in his hobby in the form of a website called ‘Insurgent Notes,’ whose identity with a nebulous “revolutionary left,” clarion calls for working class revolt and paucity of accounts of sustained, credible, real world action add up to a politics of lite-rock Trotskyism. A few fiery ultra-left “positions” on unions, nationalism and the Bolsheviks after Brest-Litovsk don’t elevate ‘Insurgent Notes’ out of and away from the harmless left fringe of academia. These putative ultra-leftists don’t even appear to be decisively opposed to electoral politics, in the country that leads the industrialized world in the rate of mass abstention from voting and where mass abstention was in effect the number one vote-getter in the 2016 Presidential election.
Revolutionary extremism is what it does; if it does nothing, it is nothing. It is a real world phenomena or it doesn’t exist. It has to be credible; it has to be readily visible in the larger society around us and it must be taken seriously by friend and foe alike. Ultra-left Marxism is supposed to an uncompromising form of revolutionary analysis - and ongoing collective action - focused on class conflict in capitalist societies. Outside of the United States it sometimes is. The efforts of the ultra-left Marxist-influenced groups Wildcat and Kolinko in Germany, people associated with them in China and India, and comrades I’ve met in Athens, Bologna, and elsewhere are the real deal. But in the US ultra-left Marxism only attracts wannabe university professors who missed their calling and career grad students who project their academic incapacity onto the world at large.
Many Marxist-Leninist and Trotskyist militants I have known, in particular Trotskyists, offer a striking contrast to this. Members of the ‘smash-ist-and-fascist,’ Stalinist group Progressive Labor and of various Trot organizations often get jobs in strategic sectors, as transit system operators, longshore or hospital employees, and spend years asserting their perspectives among co-workers. They often structure their lives around the fight for what they believe in. Their politics are no good, but the long term personal commitment they display in fighting for their convictions is superb. Far from being “alienated” their “militant attitude” is a wholly admirable and necessary thing. People attracted to ultra-left Marxism in the contemporary United States - they are almost exclusively middle aged and elderly males - are incapable of asserting what they claim to be about outside of a series of small safe spaces. Ultra-left Marxist fanboys will hold a meeting, at which they will valiantly decide to hold another meeting, and if by that point they haven’t completely run out of energy they might mightily rise to the occasion and decide to hold another meeting. They and their passively held opinions add up to nothing.
In visceral antagonism to this I offer 'Subversion in Capitalist America: A User's Manual.' This work is a template. The pattern of action described here can be easily reproduced. The efforts examined can be a point of departure for better efforts than mine in the future.
"Down these mean streets a man must go who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid..."
There's a vast difference between lightweights who find radical ideas to be titillating and the energetic minority who are hell-bent on having an impact on the living world around us. What we need requires commitment. It takes nerve. It means taking risks. It takes time. It means trying something new not for mere novelties’ sake but because there is no credible opposition now and new measures are required to build one.
People who holler about boredom are bores. Mankind does not seek entertainment -- only the American does. The revolutionary struggle can be exhilarating. It can bring us companionship, laughs and joy -- but these are fleeting collateral benefits of what must mostly be ardent toil in the face of setbacks. Thomas Mann says that a fanatic is an individual who, on recognizing the impossibility of his cause, redoubles his efforts. Mann may have a point. An ability to dust yourself off and persevere in the face of endless setbacks may also be the hallmark of a disinterested nobility of character; you do what you do not for kicks or to accrue subcultural capital but because you know it must be done.
An ongoing collective effort by a band with conviction, energy and nerve will go farther than anything I was able to do acting sporadically and in isolation. The first word in the phrase "social struggle" and well as in the phrase "social revolution" implies the involvement of more than one person. Humans have always been social animals and a living resistance to an anti-social order must be an expression of this.
This work is in the public domain