by Mauro Sifuentes
I’ve noticed a giant uptick in pop-culture criticism, especially within progressive, queer, and people of color communities. This criticism is usually aimed at news articles, current events, judicial maneuvers, police cruelty, movies, music videos, celebrities, etc. that…
It happens a lot. You look at some news headline about surveillance or policing and think to yourself “Here comes the lurch of fascism!” Or someone posts online to alarm us to the fact that we are the citizens of the Weimar Republic, and now is not a good time to be a Good German. Or you meet someone who lived under a dictatorship and you think you hear them say “this is how it starts,” and would like to use this insider tip to alert the world…
Stop right there. These are the tell tale signs of confused alarmism. Because guess what? Your parents, and maybe their parents, were thinking the same thing in the 1950s or the 1960s or the 1970s. It’s important for us to catch ourselves when we dull the twin blades of analysis and language. That racist columnist in that conservative webzine was not specifically being fascist. That conservative movement is not immediately this era’s Brown Shirts. This politician and his law controlling our bodies or our telecommunications is not the bell toll for an incremental government takeover.
First, let us begin with subject position. I am a fierce opponent of this thing we call the United States of America, on both gut and intellectual levels. If we understand the United States as the state that compromises the that territory and its institutions, along with the capital that dominates its civil society, and the adjoining mythos, national traditions, and ethos of the country, than I oppose the United States of America entirely.
I also consider myself antifa, a term connoting an international movement of active anti-fascists, something that would be irrelevant if someone who was antifa didn’t think fascism poses a real threat in parts of our world today.
From there, I firmly believe that to oppose a nation-state in particular, or nation-states in general, as well as fascism, it is important to have a theory of each. Without having at least some sense of theory that frames what we oppose, we cannot well know what we are fighting, nor how to fight it. Now, theory is a good turn-off for a lot of people because they misunderstand it. More important than a boast of how many books you’ve read, we should have a good command of critical thinking, though a few books here and there do help us with our method and our framing of a subject.
Now, I would point to my earlier short essay differentiating between government and the state as my attempt to help us frame our understanding of the state. In short, every modern state where there is a class system and private domination of wealth has a modern police force and is, in effect, a police state on some level of the spectrum from, say, Norway to North Korea. The genesis of the modern police force is ably explained by Kristian Williams in his book as well as in a selection of others, and the rise of incarceration is explained by theorists that include Michel Foucault, Christian Parenti, and Michelle Alexander. Policing and incarceration comprise a system of law, order and repression that meets many of the needs of the modern capitalist nation-state, and they have been augmented in many countries by what have been called the national security doctrine and the surveillance society, which in some of those countries then overlaps with both private security firms and a sprawling military industrial complex.
Rather than compartmentalize these violent organs of the social order as the National Security State, Carceral State, or Surveillance State, I humbly suggest they all fit as organs of an overall police state which is by and large a model for nearly every state that exists in the world, or their alleged aspiration as in the case of so-called ‘failed states.’ This police state was propagated directly by imperialism and neo-colonial projects that trained and sponsored the creation of essentially modern police forces, or by the creation of an international juridical order that offers standards through institutions like the United Nations. In many cases, they are underdeveloped and deformed, as in countries where borders are entirely porous, militaries serve the principal domestic function of preserving internal order, or where there isn’t even a facade that violence is monopolized by the state.
This is not a linear view of national development, but a stark reality that both the imperialist stages of the past 500 years and the Empire that Hardt and Negri see as globalizing the world have sought to build for the interests of capital.
This analysis must be taken further, though, to incorporate a view of the police state as, in Wendy Brown’s words, a masculinist state run by patriarchalist institutions, and the shell of a racist society- whose details may vary from state to state, but on a global level exists as broadly white supremacist.
We could continue, but my point is simple. Every state or country is authoritarian by its very nature, but the degree and the intent have varied in history and in our world. Modernity, however, is a racist, patriarchal system of capitalist exploitation, and it has developed a police state to help preserve its domination, not to mention the array of semi-autonomous institutions that reproduce its ideology and preserve its hegemony (consent of the governed). It takes a particular kind of anti-liberal, nationalist movement to move a society or regime into the violent waters of fascism.
Fascism as Movement and State
Into this development stepped fascism in the period directly following the first World War. The development of the nation-state is uneven and particular in different places at different times, but even if we understood it to have had a progression from the 1648 Westphalia treaty along through French, American and later revolutions through, to and passed imperialist expansion, the countries of Europe were in many different stages at the end of World War I. Italy and Germany were each in very particular places regarding their degree of national unification, experience with liberal parliamentary government, and industrial development. Within each country there were uneven developments and modernity clashed with feudal or old-style authoritarianism.
Fascism, it has often been pointed out, was born out of these contradictions and advanced using contradictions to its advantage. It contradicted itself consciously. Fascism wielded internal contradictions, which united a lot of disparate forces to its rallying cry- including small landowners, businessmen, urban petit bourgeois, returning soldiers- and whenever some of these parts became superfluous, they were sacrificed to save the sum. It initially claimed to be both revolutionary and conservative, (sometimes) socialist and anti-socialist, unifying and divisive, depending on which sector it was trying to impress. For this reason in particular, it is easy for tiny fascist sects and powerful fascist regimes to make very different claims on fascism long after the demise of the Italian and German regimes.
But those contradictions were overwhelmingly surface-level tactics used in the consolidation of a nationalist movement, and peeling back the layers, there have always been unifying features. One of fascism’s central elements that distinguishes it as a right-wing ideology against left-wing socialisms is that it “stressed the organic nation over class as the highest expression of human solidarity,” according to Alexander De Grand. Where left-wing socialism instigates progress through class struggle, fascism imposes class collaboration in order to worship the centrality of the nation.
A fascist regime has never been perfectly crafted, though the stereotypical German efficiency might suggest they came the closest. And it has adapted to different realities at different times, but that doesn’t mean that we can’t surmise a general criteria for determining what makes fascism particular. This is, I hope, the simplest way to be able to parse through the world’s police states and authoritarian currents to see where we truly find fascism, and where we are simply seeing some other form of fascism.
- Anti-communist/anti-left Counterrevolution- Facism enters the stage when it is cued by periods of social unrest that inspire the growth of left wing socialist, communist and/or anarchist movements. In Germany and Italy, the early fascist squads and their immediate predecessors took the lead in killing and assaulting peasant, working class and leftist struggles, as can be seen in the Biennio Rosso period and the Freikorps movement. This is then followed when fascism becomes a regime with an imposed class collaboration, which inevitably ends in the favor of the capitalist class.
- A populist rhetoric- Both bourgeois societies and totalitarian ones use mass culture, but not always with a bend toward populism. Here, the populist rhetoric claims that the rulers are simply the leaders of a citizenry, although who is allowed membership in that citizenry is carefully delineated, as we shall see below.
- Anti-liberalism- Liberalism, the most wholly capitalistic political ideology, suggests that the political form of society be liberal, bourgeois and representative democracy, and fascism comes in when that electoral strategy is failing capitalism. It dispenses with the pleasantries of a liberal civil society, from ideas of free expression, privacy and political or cultural pluralism, because fascism knows that it is needed to save the nation.
- A heightened police state- Whereas in most police states there is ostensibly some measure of checks and balances, fascism wrestles down even the appearance of checks and balances.
- A middle class base- Non-state sectors of the population are allowed to take a paramilitary role in safeguarding their state, national identity, and mythos, and often this is the small landholders, military veterans, managers, owners, and nationalist workers being used against the oppressed and the exploited.
- Voluntaryism- Known also as the triumph of the will, the idea that a perfect nation and race can use its will to perfect itself and seize everything it desires. In this, the will must be universalized, and any dissent must be eliminated. The greatest citizens will reveal themselves during the nation’s wars.
- Racial nationalism- A sense that the nation is linked to racial supremacy, and that in some way, through cultural genocide or brutal genocide or simple subjugation, inferior nationalities and races (race as genetics or ethnicity plus structural power) must be dominated or destroyed.
- Ultra-masculinity- The State is rhetorically conceptualized as the protector of the civilian population. This and other traits of an idealized masculinity are conferred upon the state.
- Totalitarianism- Because of all of these unifying features, fascism seeks to destroy each person’s private life and force them as much as is possible into a public life that proves their allegiance to the new central tenets of the God, family and country.
One of the common threads in the traits I have described is a total subservience of nearly everything to violence. From the nationalism to racial nationality to masculinity, dominance is proven by the centrality of violence. The violence comes through the usual state organs like police, political/secret police, and the military, but it is also exhibited in the populist rhetoric, the voluntaryist sense of will, and the use of civilian fighting squads to quash dissent. Without the centrality of violence, and an at-minimum rhetorical allowance of unbridled violence to prove supremacy, I do not believe we can call something fascism.
Fascism as Political Epithet
Godwin’s Law is a theory on the internet about the devolution of online threads that will eventually lead to someone killing any useful conversation by analogizing one of the objects being discussed to Hitler, the Nazis or fascism. While fascism has its defenders in the mainstream right of many countries, Nazis and Hitler are considered the absolute example of evil, both in their intent and execution. To liken something to Naziism is to shut down conversation in the way someone centuries ago in Salem might shut things down by just surmising their opponent was a witch.
Since fascism is real, and actually exists today- more often than not in the form of movements rather than regimes- we are rendered incapable of fighting it if we have dulled the blade of the term by using it at every authoritarian impulse. Likewise, we don’t know how to fight the angry dog of our current police state because we have cried wolf so many times, and you don’t necessarily deal with an angry dog or even a coyote as you might a wolf. It is easy for the right to call the center-left fascists, and the left to call the right fascists, and conspiracy claimants to call perceived threats as fascist, but it all allows any real fascist threat to move about unopposed.
It is easier to cast a movement as fascist than it is a regime, and indeed movements with varying degrees of fascism exist the world over. They range from the explicit, including the KKK and neo-nazi groups, to much more contemporary, home-grown varieties, like some elements of the American Legion in its day, or some elements of the Tea Party or the Minuteman Project very recently, composed as they are of violent, anti-regulation, middle class, nationalist civilians.
Now, one last note.
I said before that fascism has never been perfected, and that is important for understanding how we define fascist and fascistic regimes. In large swathes of Mussolini’s Italy, corruption and semi-feudal patronage systems ruled the land. In Franco’s Spain, the ruler himself was more a conservative and the forces that swept him to power ranged from outright fascists to nationalistic conservatives. In Pinochet’s Chile or Suharto’s Indonesia, a military regime used a coup d’etat to take power, though a widescale use of death squads and gangsterism were central to the regime’s survival.
The United States and the United Kingdom are not fascist states, and not all of their authoritarian proclivities foretell of fascistic overtones. Nevertheless, the US has a history of fascistic movements that wave its flag, often call for the elimination of unions and regulations of businesses, and/or focuses on the racial purity of the nation. Taken together with organs of the state and big business, these have often placed fascist-like domination upon Black, Latina, and indigenous people. Fascism, despite claims to a totalitarian society, is always uneven.
The key takeaway, though, is that racist police states and authoritarianism, and the social order they protect, are structures that are always worth combating, and we are more capable of doing so if we have a sober analysis of them. In particular, when some part of those trends actually are fascist, we are tasked with a particular responsibility to nip them in the bud or push them back lest they take hold.
Neither taxes nor debt nor being a highly criticized rap star is the new slavery. For that, take a peak into the prisons.
On September 11th, 2001, most of the country watched a second plane hit the twin towers on television- live or later. It was a mass experience that people internalized from the mass culture in a different sort of way than we internalize all of the other messages we are inundated by the mass media and culture. It traumatized us. It caused a collective trauma, one that was reinforced for days by re-watching the horrific scene. Most of us, whether we had endured serious trauma in the past or not, were hit hard by the initial images that we saw.
Over 4,800 Black or white people are said to have been lynched between 1884 and 1968 (in addition to Chinese, Mexicans, indigenous people and others), according to the Tuskegee Institute. The violence was advertised in newspapers, attended by large crowds that spanned the ages, and held against individuals or sometimes even entire communities. Like 9/11, the lynching was a method of violence in the form of terror, so even when an individual was killed, an entire people was threatened. When Emmett Till was lynched, it shook a people who had lived through that collective trauma for generations.
As is far too often, we are speaking different languages, and what is meant by that is that we are speaking from different experiences. So, when the five white jurors and one Latina juror, or many people around us, watched the story of the Trayvon Martin case unfold, they saw an individual incident. They didn’t see any patterns. Many people still don’t understand why the death of one young man caused such a storm of feelings in the hearts of so many people.
In the past thirty to forty years, about as many people have been killed by police as were lynched during the 84 years of that study I mentioned above. There are almost as many people in United States prisons and jails at any given moment as during the entire 30 years of the existence of the Gulag during Stalin’s reign, a number which is eight times the number of people incarcerated in 1970. Shootings by police are not lynchings, but they are very frequently racially inspired, very frequently of unarmed civilians, and very frequently the actual events are covered up by a deceptive official story. And they are national- everywhere, especially where predominantly Black and Latino neighborhoods are.
Add to that violence within Black and Latino/a communities is met by what many people see is institutional negligence by big businesses and government at every level. Governments close schools, health clinics and trauma centers, and cut funding to anti-violence program, while businesses cut jobs or promote terribly unhealthy media images. (If you think consumers create what is in the media, you need to go back and read Edward Bernays, the father of Public Relations.)
So, when a young Black man in a hoodie was followed and gunned down because he appeared as though he didn’t belong in a predominantly lighter-skinned and petit bourgeois gated community, generations of collective trauma are conjured up. When a courtroom restricted discussion of race during the trial of his murderer, and the late Trayvon Martin was put on trial rather than the defendant of the actual trial, people felt a lot of trauma. Sometimes trauma is digested through silence, sometimes by the creative impulse (think of the Blues or most other genres of music), sometimes by the need to have an outburst, sometimes by long-term, strategic work. But people have trauma, and if the causes of trauma are not dealt with, it compounds.
Mass violence spreads terror throughout any community that has a sense of collective identity. Keep it from the public eye, and it can become a form of constant and unspoken domination; put it in plain view, and there’s a more public sense of terror that offers people a space to respond with rage. That mass violence is felt in a different way when it targets those identities, be they nationalities, races, genders, religions, gender identities. Not all identities are the same, however, and there will always be a deep sense of anxiety for those whose visible identities are already marginalized by institutional factors, be they mass incarceration or Jim Crow policies. The trauma isn’t something people sorta kinda feel, it is something they feel in their bones, as people just like them, and sometimes people they know, and sometimes people they care deeply about, become the prey of this mass violence.
I hope maybe someone might read this who didn’t understand, and if you still don’t understand, please let me know and I will try to help you better. In those moments where my trauma isn’t taking over my ability to act.
"America was shocked. America leads the world in shocks. Unfortunately, America doesn’t lead the world in deciphering the cause of shock."
A lot of white people are embarrassed by white people right now. A lot of Black people are angry at Black people right now. I am mad at Latino/as. A lot of mi gente are floored right now and crying for Trayvon, but that doesn’t absolve us of the need to have a serious talk.
George Zimmerman’s racial identity is fluid. Regardless of his ethnic ancestry, because let’s not be deterministic that that is the determinant of race, do you follow? If Zimmerman considers himself white, that is a key factor; if he considers himself Hispanic, that is a key factor; if he bounces back and forth, that is a key factor.
We all suffer from internalized oppression. We internalized race *(loosely, ethnicity and/or skin color + power) over and above ethnicity because of the material conditions that are the effect of a white supremacist system. A global white supremacist system, though it may take on different flavors from place to place. If you don’t think it is global, look at a fucking map and read some political economy. And some brown people seek to be exempted from their race by a white society.
I don’t know Zimmerman’s thinking, but I know that he desires whiteness. Zimmerman neither represents Latinidad nor being mixed-race, but he represents an internalized oppression that seeks white passage and the bourgeois fantasies it often unlocks.
I have a superficially similar background to Zimmerman. As a light-skinned, mixed-race Latino, social pressures- indirect and in-my-face direct- and the anxiety they instill propel me to pick an identity. For a whole lot of reasons I make my choices in that arena, from the traumas and the jabs and the pinpricks and the flavors and the love and the tears. Zimmerman is a weak man, like a whole sea of weak people, and he wants what he was told to want to have. And you cannot have what the white bourgeois have unless you keep it from the Others. He seeks privilege which means he must marginalize. He chose to murder.
Meanwhile, too many people of all colors seek to essentialize race and often tie it to genetics. Latinos and Blacks can be as bad about this as whites. And it can lead to self-hate and a projection of that hate. They, of all colors, seek to determine everyone else’s race as if it was easy to distinguish the colors of the falling autumn leaves, the darker in a state of greater decay by society’s judgement. But it isn’t easy to tell the color of the autumn leaves, as speckled and peppered and in-between as so many are; and race- such as it is- remains fluid.
Zimmerman’s race fluctuates under the gaze and rhetorical needs of his defenders and opponents. Similar to Obama’s, or even to mine. Trayvon’s race remains fixed. So, too, Ramarley Graham or Emmitt Till.
Is Obama Black? It depends on if it benefits his racist opponents (and I’m an example of one of his anti-racist opponents) for him to be a mutt, a mongrel, a monstrosity, a freak product of miscegenation; or to spread the conspiracy claims that he’s a Muslim, a Kenyan, a definitive Other. What is Zimmerman’s race? When he needs to belong in a gated community, he’s white (enough); when he needs to not be a racist according to the courts of law and public opinion, he’s ‘hispanic.’ Zimmerman knows who will survive in America, and he wants to be on that winning side.
At any time, there are two judges of race (amid a multitude): the one who wears the skin, traditions, scars, history, and internalized desires; and the one under whose gaze they fall, this subject with its own skin, traditions, scars, history, and internalized desires. That’s a laundry list of dirty clothes to try to wade through for an answer.
Regardless of how confused we see race in other countries, other Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries, our minds cannot remain stable under the pressure they take in this country either. Born there and came here or born here but bleeding-there, it is both the a world system of oppressive race relations and a one with national boundaries that we are balancing between. Black people victimize Latinos, Latinos victimize Blacks, and all the while white people go where they want. Let a Black man enter a white neighborhood and it’s criminality; but let a white man enter a Black or Latino neighborhood and it is development and gentrification. And why is that ethnic cleansing and displacement not a criminality of its own. Because they are at the center.
But it isn’t all thorns and razor wire. Keep your eyes on the prize, hold on. Chicano, Black, white, inmigrante, it doesn’t matter who you are in the California state prison system right now. For the second time in so many years, all of these prisoners are on a hunger strike, the biggest ever in their state at 30,000, against a system that grinds them all down. The system may do it unjustly and inhumanely and illegally, but that’s not it. The system does it because it must for bigger reasons. And it leans that crushing and smashing down on people as their shades get darker- this is the system that people thought they might get racial justice out of sending Zimmerman into, remember- but the people who have been pushed to divide along racial lines in the starkest conditions have come together to keep their eyes on the prize. We could use some candor. Then maybe we’d be ready to fight alongside each other as well.
If you’re going to front load on national security trigger words, at least make it into a mad lib. Like:
I was riding my _C4_loaded_cesna_ from school to _fly_into_Shea_Stadium_ for dinner, when I saw an ice cream _car_bomb_ and decided I wanted to buy a _fertilizer_ cone. So, I put my hand in my pocket and pulled out a _box_cutter_ and offered it to the _environmentalist_ who gave me _anthrax_ in change, and handed me a _fertilizer_ cone. As soon as I got back on my _cesna_ I saw a _animal_liberation_ coming from around the _wikileaks_. I pedalled as fast as I could down _Pakistan_ Ave, and made it all the way to the _uranium_plant_ before I spilled my _fertilizer_ all over my _pressure_cooker_. I know that stains worse than an _qaeda_. So when I got home, my _mullah_ saw the stain on my _pressure_cooker_, and sent me straight to my _gtmo_ without any dinner.
Tell no lies, claim no easy victories…
I have been doing headcounts at protest marches for some ten years. I have only counted a fraction of the perhaps thousands of protests I have been in, but sometimes I think the crowd is of a reasonable enough size, and I don’t have other tasks. I offer to you the basics of my method, most of which simply depends on counting very rapidly and having a quick and attentive eye. There are some details worth sharing, however.
Pick a march & start small
For your first count, start small. Long counts require lots of stamina to remain equally attentive and alert. Pick a march that is in the hundreds. If you can headcount a rally, feel free to, but marches are much easier. In a march, almost everyone in the crowd is walking in the same direction, whereas in a rally, people are milling about, and there is greater variability of people coming and leaving, reducing the ease of a count. Also, marches that march on sidewalks or streets can get more narrow, so you have a better shot of counting across the crowd. I have counted up to 20,000, and you can too, but not nearly on your first try.
Where to count from
There are multiple ways to locate yourself, but there are a few criteria to help:
- First, use some of your knowledge as an organizer and a protester. Is this a point in the march before a lot of people will leave? Is this a point in the march after where a feeder march or rally might join? What’s the point of counting if you pick the smallest point? If the main rally is before the march, count as early in the march as possible, and if the main rally point is toward the end, then count later. If there is a site where people are rallying or marching into the march, wait until after that point.
- You’ll need to be able to see high and low. You’ll need to be able to see across heads, signs, banners, and puppets to the other side of the street, but you’ll also need to be able to see babies (I count them), children, short people, and people under banners and puppets. Be ready to move up and down like a gibbon, and don’t get too self conscious. Climbing can also help, but not if it still leaves any people who are short or behind something obscured.
- You’ll need to be able to move. If the march starts to pick up fast, or you find yourself counting too slow, you’ll need to be able to begin to move with the crowd. At this point, being able to recognize people you’ve already counted is important. Equally as important, learning to walk sideways or backwards without running into people or lamp posts. This means overhangs (like a Chicago El station) are not ideal, unless you are sure you can stay ahead of the crowd in your count.
- Make sure people can’t march on the other side of you. Pick a side, and if you are on a curb during a march in the streets, and some marchers cheat and take your sidewalk, try to count them or account for them.
- Find a bottleneck. One of the easiest ways to count is to find a part of the march that is either forced to be narrow (e.g. where there is construction on one or both sides of the street) and/or where marchers are forced for some reason to go slower or stop often. It’s a lot easier to count 10 across than 30.
Pick who you’re counting
I have my understanding of who I am counting. I count marchers, babies, and reporters, but not uniformed police, plain clothes police that I recognize, or bystanders that I am positive are not in the march (be careful with this one). I count press, because a lot of journalists who are there may support the cause, and because it is very difficult to distinguish between marchers and reporters, unless they have a foot-long Nikon lens in front of their face. Don’t stereotype by race, clothing, or culture who is in the march and who is not, unless it is plain-as-day (e.g. a march of uniformed union workers).
Don’t get distracted
The thing about counting is, you can lose track really fast. Don’t stop to look at friends, beautiful banners, or attractive people. Pretend you’re counting zebras or geese. Learn not to respond to friends if the march is moving too fast, and to flash them a smile while keeping your eyes on the prize.
There are too main methods I’ve used over the years to keep my count. One is to tally based on 100 and 1000. I can do this two ways: one is to have a pen and paper or a sharpie on my skin, to tally every 500 or 1000 marchers. I keep track of hundreds on my left hand, which begins as a fist and I pull up a finger for every 100. It can be useful to count by pointing with the other hand, if your eyes need the assistance. If you keep a good tally, you can start only counting to 100. Occasionally, say the full number aloud to a passerby, which will help you keep track.
The other way began in 2012, when a comrade who had seen my many counts decided to make my life easier by giving me a few tally counters. At first, I felt like John Henry seeing the steam drill, but then I realized how much this would help me. They are manual, and they should work great. Be prepared, in large marches, to need to switch which finger is doing the clicks. In this way, you can either still try to count the whole thing with the counter as a back-up, or you can start counting only to 10 or 20 at a time (pick a low-syllabic number close to the number of people who might be marching in a row). The key, then, is to click for every person you count.
If you lose count
Find someone in the crowd with a flask of bourbon.
Learn to stop counting
When it’s all over, remember to stop counting. The people on the bus or the subway will think you are weird or have OCD. If you need to keep counting for a little while afterwards, make sure to ended with a laugh like the Count on Sesame Street. You’ll still look crazy, but at least a bit more amusing.
Now, through the course of your count, you missed people. Someone was too short, or was under a puppet. Someone walked around you. Maybe you even got distracted (if so, up your game). More likely, people left the march before the point in the route where you started counting, and other people joined the march late. You simply can’t count everyone- even counting twice means you are only getting two numbers, not differentiating between who was in one count but not in another. When you give numbers, add a buffer that can honestly account for that. Consider variables like how many public transit stations did people pass before they got to you if they might’ve left early, or vice versa. Take an honest estimate of anyone who might’ve gotten around you on the other side (having worked in animal shelters, I’m confident few marchers ever get passed me). Add a small percentage of your count on top. So, if I counted 5,800, I might say 6,200. If I counted 390, I might say 415. You should never have a buffer estimate of over 10%. And in neither case am I suggesting I know how many people were in the rally, which I always assume to be bigger, since a lot of people don’t feel like marching for whatever reason.
The worst part of counting is that you have to tell organizers and marchers that they didn’t have two million people. If the spirits are high, and the energy is good, and you feel like your number is going to disappoint, consider only telling press, press relations activists, and organizers, until the next day. Make sure to put forth the effort, though. Organizers and press should be told on the spot, especially if you think they are likely to inflate or deflate the numbers. Be prepared to have to explain to people that they can’t believe their own estimate over your count, because your number isn’t an estimate, it’s a headcount.
First, it is laughable that any organizer ever uses the phrase “Speak truth to power” if they can’t be honest with the people they are trying to organize. You are not building a new subjectivity if you are treating people as objects. Be honest with your march participants and your movements.
Second, we can’t complain about the bourgeois press if we aren’t honest with ourselves. We have to be on point in honesty and being truthful. That doesn’t mean there isn’t a time and place for misleading the authorities or whomever is the target of your political action. But if you tell them you had multiple times the number of people in an action that you did, they will laugh at you, not be intimidated. Similarly, it’s easy for the press to deflate our numbers when they can never find the numbers we tell them to be credible. The only reason to lie to the enemy is to confuse them, not to try to scare them or to prove you’re bigger than you’re able of organizing, which leads me to…
We can’t assess our strength, our ability to mobilize, our needs as movements, if we sit around lying about the details. It is better, for example, that organizers know they had 6,200 marchers in May Day 2013, half of the 12,000 marchers in May Day 2012, so they can analyze both what they did differently, and how the material conditions of the moment made their mobilization easier. Sometimes our strength is in our numbers, and sometimes it is in our solidarity, our work, and our creativity. If we can’t guarantee 10,000 or 50,000 or 500 in the streets, then it helps us know not only that we need to organize better, but that we have to be more creative with the numbers we have. Maybe it’s just the historical materialist in me, but part of the fight for social justice (or social revolt, which I prefer) is the fight for critical thought, for agency, and for truth.
[Note: I wrote this before reading a lovely piece by a comrade. Check it out.]
(Note: The following is a draft. Expect an expanded piece soon.)
It had been unduly hard to discern where the emerging and sexier trends in Marxism have placed themselves, veiled as they are in ultra-left aesthetics and memes. Sure, plenty of cues are present, but those might’ve been incidental and only indicative of a desire to suggest a broad selection of socialist thought.
The need to investigate has ended. The Jacobin have staked themselves as pink, when what we need is a nice maroon. Bhaskar Sunkara has written a piece for In These Times that has planted his flag down for a revisionist stand for democratic socialism, a turf that seems to be populated by a lot of these groups and editorial boards, including as well The New Inquiry.
It isn’t that democratic socialism is altogether a sad derivation from Marxism. In fact, the energy these people are bringing to the table is welcome, and I, for one, hope their project of growing the democratic socialist left is successful, particularly if it finds a strong tendency toward feminism, ecology, and decolonizing politics. If anything, I would see their project stronger. The historicity of the contemporary moment in social programs that Sunkara lays out is finely laid out although severely incomplete, including its disregard for gender, questions of self-determination, and the significant impact of anarchism, and even more so autonomism, on today’s active radical left. He is right as well that progressive (re: liberal but social democratic) reform is a welcome alternative to the “things must get worse before they get better” strategic thinking that come out of the ultra-left and insurrectionary corners.
But what I will say is that Sunkara’s vision is not the best that Marxism can offer, and it is not the breath of fresh air I might’ve hoped to see. What we needed most was a Marxism that takes all of the lessons of the 20th Century, including decolonization and feminism and the recognition of the failures of the Soviet model, and what it appears we are getting is a retread of the revisionist politics that Lenin and Luxemburg were fighting against. It is a socialism that in the end didn’t challenge empire, held workers back from fighting for power, and devolved into what was termed economism- that is, the fight of socialists for immediate economic gains in lieu of a synthesis between economic struggle and the struggle for political and social power. It is a socialism that pulled back on the insurrections in 1919 in Europe or in France in 1968, rather than having faith in workers and students and oppressed groups to experiment with the seizure power for themselves. What we needed was a new communism, and what we are getting is a new Keynesianism.
My own communism (which I understand to be within the wider realm of socialist thought) has taken lessons that Sunkara seems to have ignored from anarchism. The anarchists, many not realizing that much of their style is derived from autonomous Marxists in Europe and Latin America (as well as feminists and environmentalists closer to home), including mass scale direct actions and shut-downs, bring a sense of rebellion into the post-Soviet era that has offered the vast majority of the participation and training in direct and participatory democracy this side of the non-profit industrial complex. Corporate-style as they are, the non-profits and unions have done some of this groundwork to rebuild a civil society, but the autonomism and horizontality in the environmentalist, counter-globalization and Occupy movements, as well as in a myriad of other movements, should not be dismissed nor dismantled. Just as progressivism and what Sunkara calls the labor-liberals should be pulled into a pink socialist camp, the far left needs a Marxism that takes on the tremendous advancements in thought and practice paved by those in autonomist circles as well as the radical agents who are correctly using identity-based tools to combat intersectional oppressions, without dispensing with the wealth of thought provided by Lenin and decolonization struggles in the last century.
Take, for example, the question of social programs, one that I recently laid some thoughts on, and the recognition of a profiteering non-profit industrial complex that itself is an amalgam of caring leftists trying to be useful, and poverty pimp careerists who couldn’t give a damn about questions of agency or self-determination in the hood, the barrio, or the workplace. These operations have strings that trace back to their financiers or state funding and to a politics of conciliation and sometimes even abandonment of poor people when they decide organizing resources are need to go elsewhere. While a greater entanglement with overt socialists would be invaluable, the mutual aid and direct action efforts of the farther left (which themselves are far from cooptation retardant where non-profits are concerned) offer alternative methods of organizing on the ground that many communities have found more effective and less top-down. From school occupations to copwatch to wildcat strikes, they have offered methods of organizing that cannot be halted by the Congressional sequester or a nervous donor. While the autonomists get stuck in dogmas around self-management, sometimes they offer valid lessons to projects for self-determination and direction in poor communities and workplaces.
Just as Sunkara’s democratic socialism (with markers that ring of eurocommunism to me) is needed to challenge and pull the liberal left, the autonomist and communist lefts need to be the radical projects that occasionally collaborate with democratic socialism from the left while building up our own institutions, intellectual and street-level. The dream of the young democratic socialists I’ve met in recent years cannot be an effort that pulls back on the reigns of the far more radical attainments made in the most spectacular elements of the left, themselves greatly influenced by social struggles in regions like Chiapas, Argentina, Venezuela, and Greece, where either the erosion of state control (or the governance of the Bolivarian left) has opened space for the creation of popular power in factory occupations and neighborhood assemblies. What the radical left needs is a break from its puritanical fetishization of tropes, a respect for the need to collaborate with other lefts, and most of all, a healthy, engaging series of projects in theory that the New Inquiry, the Jacobin, and others are affording to the soft left ideal. The left in the United States does not need a new praxis in the sense that the Jacobin is bringing it, but one that coalesces around the models and methods of lefts old and new, something we perhaps get to watch social movements do in places like Venezuela and Greece. We are neither of those countries, but it is not enough to fall back to a social democratic movement that in the past centered around poor method and led to capitulation to war, exploitation, and sell-out politicians and institutions.
Those of us who have spent most of our political lives in the streets need to engage more with theory, and we need to do so with the most open and critical minds we can muster. We need to bring our experiences and reflections to the minds of all of the newly radicalizing or older but reinvigorated radicals for a project centering around popular power, and foster a healthy environment of critical thought that creates a space for feminism to Bolivarianism and Pan-Africanism, while figuring out how to pull liberalism out of these frameworks. And we need to grapple with the dialectic of spontaneity and organization, figuring out how far left movements that have become incredibly decentralized and autonomous can find an interplay with modes of organization that allow the far left to be effective, expanding, and long-term, rather than falling into sectarian dogmas that lose the relevancy that is created in fits and starts.
If both Occupy and the counter-globalization movements (along with anti-prison, immigrants rights, environmentalist and anti-imperialist movements) has shown anything, it is that we can actually build institutions outside of the conservative ones present in neo-liberal society, and ones that are not stuck in the bitter nostalgia of wishing past methods of organization (e.g. Leninist parties and syndicalist unions) could just be done better. Rosa Luxemburg’s critique of revisionist Marxism was not to say that communists (and anarchists) don’t appreciate and participate in fights for social reforms, but that they do not confuse the means with the ends, and in that place they also don’t shy away from direct confrontation. We can march for reforms, but not in place of engaging in militant work to erode police power in brown communities or to building community-controlled institutions of mutual aid and struggle. Taken alone, Sunkara’s path can offer the strengthening of the imperial republicanism, of a bourgeois power that is actively killing our brothers and sisters in our streets and around the world. The militant left need not only be an alternative to an emerging democratic socialist left, but a complement to it.
I wish the Jacobin well, then, and hope it achieves something of the goals laid out by Sunkara. I hope he also takes these criticisms in the spirit of camaraderie as he might not have in the past. We can, nay, must have our alliances. We can collaborate. In the end, though, they can have their soft left, but in the radical left we go hard.
Sometimes, people who fight for social change feel dirty about particular work on reforms. Other times, so-called activists gloss over the need to have an understanding of the work that they do, and the institutions they are fighting for or within.
First, let’s come up with quick and simple definitions, since words should never be taken for granted:
The state is the organized monopoly of violence for the domination of a class over society.
Government is the system by which a state is governed for given periods of time.
So, for instance, the French state (laid over a nation, making a nation-state), can have successive governments that are empires, monarchies, and republics, but they each govern the same state. More particularly, successive administrations in power in the French Fifth Republic (the current one) may have different theories of governance, and therefore each successive administration may be understood as a different government.
In this way, the French state has always been an instrument of domination by either the feudal or capitalist upper classes against the exploited classes, including both those domestic and those in colonies or neo-colonial states. Therefore, the cause of the workers, women, and oppressed races and nationalities has always been to smash the state. But, different governments have existed that have had very distinct theories of governance, such that some have built institutions that serve the people and/or have been far more susceptible to pressure from the social unrest and organization of oppressed people. That leads us, I think, to suggest that the French Republic is preferable to monarchism or a Bonapartist empire for radicals, socialists, feminists, and anti-imperialists. The same could be said, for example, of the Spanish, Portuguese or German states, and their successive governments. We would be better to live and fight in a state governed by a liberal republican government than a fascist or monarchist government.
In this way, we can oppose the bourgeois state (a monopoly on violence for the domination of the bourgeois class), while fighting in our short-term work for more progressive governance and fighting in our long-term work for the abolition of the bourgeois state.
Two contemporary examples should best help us to express this on a practical level, social programs moderately, and Venezuela more radically:
Domestic Social Programs
Institutions of oppression can indeed change. The undeniably revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg begins the seminal pamphlet Social Reform or Revolution with a paragraph on how the two are a false dichotomy if they are understood at different levels: say, the first as means and the second as ends. A radical (most of whom are some form of socialist) should be understood to be one who does not confuse the two.
Outside of government, we can look at unionism or other efforts. The Community-Farmworker Alliance and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers can fight for Wendy’s or any corporation to pay Florida tomato pickers more, and those workers can be paid more. Aside from the lessons that collective social struggle makes social change, and the importance of cross-class and multi-racial coalitions in that change, there is another lesson. That is, that while no radical would argue for Wendy’s or Trader Joe’s to continue to exist, most radicals would agree that a change in their internal policies is better than a complete maintenance of the status quo. That lesson comes with the caveat that the change in policy cannot be the final goal of the social struggle, or it becomes a general maintenance of the status quo, but that it is nevertheless a step in a project with larger ambitions.
With the understanding that reforms within institutions of capital (i.e. businesses) are clearly more progressive than inertia or reaction, we can apply that lesson to institutions that serve capital, like the media or the government. The autonomy that institutions of government have from the state determines their level of progressivism. Their autonomy is generally related to the power that radicals have within civil society. So, we can oppose the state while fighting for a myriad of social programs and regulatory agencies. We can oppose the state while fighting for social spending to support non-profit or private entities that do important work (e.g. Planned Parenthood or PBS), or to fight for spending for and progressive administration of institutions like libraries, public schools, public utilities, state banks, fire departments, public transit, public hospitals, or what have you. We can also oppose the state, and sit in clear opposition to the imperialist, white supremacist, capitalist, patriarchal system, while demanding the government not neglect its role to regulate capital through the EPA’s regulation of the treatment of the environment, OSHA’s regulation of workplace safety, the SEC’s regulation of finance. All three of the types of things that those agencies regulate are exploitative, but we will not win a revolution if the Earth, workers, and civil society are all dead.
Liberalism is the idea that these reforms are the ends, even sometimes claiming that there are more radical but usually unspoken goals that we don’t need to mention in public. Liberalism, then, is conservative because in the end it seeks to conserve the state and capital’s hegemony. Sometimes, liberal sheep wear a radical wolf’s clothing to claim this is some evolutionary revolution. Liberalism also shies away from talking about the need for radical change, thus turning reforms into tools of the hegemonic power to maintain the consent of the masses. But left-wing radicalism (again, which is generally socialist) has no intention to stop there, either in word or in thought or in deed. Indeed, the best way for a radical to make sure their radicalism is more than skin deep is to have at least some theory of society, and some essence of that theory at work in their practice.
The record of socialist revolutionaries taking over the machinery of the state can best be described as two forms of failures: either they failed to maintain the monopoly of violence and were defeated (e.g. the 1973 coup in Chile or 1871 counterrevolution in Paris); or they failed to create the domination of society by the oppressed, instead creating a new oppressive class and system of exploitation (e.g. China or the Soviet Union). In each case, their failures were not necessarily predetermined, but were based largely on mistakes made in the act of experimentation in attempting something that had never successfully been done previously. Their failures are not to be dismissed, but to be learned from.
Many strongly interpret the process in Venezuela over the past 14 years (and increasingly in other Latin American countries) as another such experiment. The state in Venezuela is still very much one that secures bourgeois dominance of society. The Hugo Chavez-then-Nicolas Maduro government is one that is trying to transition out of that state, however awkwardly, into a socialist one built for, by, and of oppressed sectors of the society. For this reason, many communists and anarchists that fundamentally oppose the state are able to support and work for the government, and its participation with society in creating institutions that bring about popular power and social programs.
For this reason, we fight not only for Venezuela, but for its government and its Bolivarian-socialist process, in hopes that they are indeed in battle with the state’s preservation of capital.
I hope that this brief contribution has been in some way helpful to you, and that you consider it a tiny bridge in a longer path to understanding how to fight for a better world in the ashes of the old.
The United States bourgeois press didn’t learn the cliche that “a lie told enough becomes the truth,” it practically invented that method. From ThinkProgress to the New Yorker to the Atlantic, it doesn’t take Republican-alignment to find producers and publishers hurling falsities down an echo chamber.
Back track to the 1960s. To spoil one of my favorite long-form stories, I have had interviews with a Pananian former CIA agent. His work was not only to inform the agency of local political or military insider information, but to misinform. The CIA sent him scripts to read on his radio show to the Panamanian public for decades, and he was brought to the United States to tour and spread more misinformation about Panama-US relations in universities in the United States. I still have copies of the letters and photographs that prove his point. The CIA, was not alone, and he recalls recruiters from many US agencies and private contractors in the 1960s going after local students and officials. In order for the United States to be sure there is democracy, clearly, it has to make sure it controls the democracy.
The problem with misinformation is that it acts as a decoy. Rather than responding to the confusion or curiosity of sectors of the general public- maybe writing to youth or academics or working class families- too many of my comrades on the Left direct their focus to responding to the spray of vitriol. It’s like being afraid to put your washed clothes out to dry and instead washing what you’re currently wearing because the upstairs neighbor keeps dumping their bath water. The sheer volume leaves the respondent in shock and unable to even find sources to say otherwise in the search engines. A little decoding doesn’t hurt, but it all detracts from remembering our main mission to uncover the truth in the pursuit of social transformation. If you do it, do it short, sweet, and with a sense of humor.
Decoding the Vitriol
It doesn’t take a decoder ring to parse through the language of the bourgeous press.
Outspoken - Hugo Chavez was an uppity brown man who talked back to the United States.
Divisive - Hugo Chavez supported the poor and the working class, rather than US interests and local elites.
Extroverted - Hugo Chavez tried to inspire other countries to be uppity brown people who talk back.
He ruined the economy - Chavez made it harder to plunder Venezuela’s resources, prioritized social progress over the ephemeral cult of growth, and funded social programs rather than surrendering to austerity, and we will forget to mention the US-sponsored destabilization efforts that included a 2002 coup and oil industry lock-outs.
Chavez consolidated power - away from the local oligarchy and foreign capital. The Chicago Tribune and many newspapers supported the authoritarian coup attempt in 2002, in the Tribune’s case in an unrecalled editorial in the same front section that showed Chavez’s return on the front page. Oops.
Chavez was an anti-Semite - Chavez didn’t support Israel.
There is no security - Chavez didn’t use the highly authoritarian styles of policing that also haven’t worked in Mexico or Central America.
Anti-US/tense relations with the United States - He showed the United States Venezuela was not their backyard.
Strongman - See Chavez consolidated power and add orientalist-style denigration of brown peoples’ capacities to make their own democracy and their own destiny.
Authoritarian - Don’t read the article about the US federal governmen’s assertion of its right to kill US citizens on its own soil, or the US support for Fujimori, Pinochet, Rios Montt, Somoza, Trujillo, Noriega, Suharto, Marcos, Stroessner, Mobutu, the Shah, the Greek Colonels, Saddam Hussein, etc.
Despot - Elected with enormous popular support again and again in the fairest elections in the world, despite a unified opposition in the corporate media and the U.S.-backed coup. Special Thanks
Now that you have your unofficial decoder ring, skip the bourgeois press and let’s get back to seeking out the truth.
These are unedited notes. If you like them enough to want to publish, I’d be happy to come back and edit.There are many grammatical errors, however.
Our generation has few great heroes who have fallen before their time. Our parents can remember losing Malcolm and Martin and Allende and Nkrumah and Lumumba and Che and Medgar and so many others. But we have few we can really point to. And when we see them go, many of us are too quick to prove our disdain for iconography and our lack of faith in any kind of leadership.
Especially from the 1960s to the 1980s, Latin America was in the grips of dirty wars. Dirty, filthy, anti-communist wars. Wars in the shadows, wars in broad daylights, wars in mine-filled bay waters, in helicopters over seas, in industry-turned-torture chambers. Hundreds of thousands were tortured, murdered, disappeared. Continent-wide white terror heard that cliche about “You can’t evict an idea whose time has come” and set out to prove that death squads had a way of doing so. Towns erased, family lineages extinguished, peoples washed off the historical record, and dreams shattered. Dreams of independence, of socialism, of agency. On top of that, the Soviet-style dictatorships collapsed, and while the realities were complex (I probably don’t mean what you think I do), the writing was on the wall:
"History is over."
"Socialism was an experiment of the past."
"Neo-colonialism has won."
The 1990s (starting earlier for some, later for others) was a decade of defeat for many. It was a decade of rebuilding after the wars and dictatorships. It was a decade where neo-liberalism emerged atop the heap of rubble that was social unrest, and declared it had vanquished every foe. Cuba struggled through its Special Period. NAFTA had passed, and rushed processes that had hit people hard. The Zapatistas were a rare beacon of hope, and truth be told, their particular brand of autonomous struggle did not spread nearly as rapidly or forcefully as many other styles of revolt. The blood still visible in the streets. Privatization creeping across the lands like the Nothing. The Washington Consensus with its chin up. The people cowered.
It was into this mix that Hugo Chavez stepped. He was a man. Larger trends on either side of him propelled the possibilities. Squatters and anti-privatization uprisings and Zapatistas and social struggle. But Chavez’s victory, one I remember, signified that the Americas were not destined to be mono-polar. It signaled that the Allendes and Arbenzes and Bosches and Sandinistas had not existed in vain. And a hope sprung eternal, resonating across the continent.
Chavez played a huge role with social revolt across the hemisphere to resoundingly prove that socialism was not a dead fish in the water, and that capitalism’s warpath would not only go contested, but would take a beating back. Venezuela early on experienced a Constituent Assembly, where the same families whose loved ones had been massacred in the Caracazo of 1989 could participate in the creation of a new constitution, one of few countries to have ever successfully done one. Thanks to massive protests in every successive Free Trade Area of the Americas summit, Chavez was able to walk out of the project altogether. The process, be it revolutionary or socialist or radical, has often been slow, but it has happened.
And while Chavez was busy reapportioning the country’s wealth, building a different multilateral model in the Americas, breaking the oil oligarchy, nationalizing industries, and pushing back el tiburon (Uncle Sam), so much of the past 14 years in Venezuela was actually done because Chavez created the space for the people to do it. They no longer need fear another Caracazo massacre, death squads, or a dirty war. People occupied factories and reactionary institutions. It was people who set up this clinic and that literacy program, and people who demanded these resources or squatted land for community gardens. And when Chavez was ousted in a US-sponsored coup d’etat in 2002, a few days I will never forget, it was the people who revolted and did the unthinkable- overturned a fascist coup in a manner of days.
Uprisings and revolts across Latin America became increasingly common, as the masses were emboldened. Leftist or mildly left governments came to power in Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Peru, Bolivia, Paraguay, Uruguay, Argentina, Brazil, with varying results- but the point is that people across the continent (and indeed, the world) BELIEVED. They didn’t just fight, they believed once again that they could win. They believed it wasn’t just a ritual fight for their lives against inevitable doom. They took to the streets, or the haciendas, or the factories, and knocked oppressive structures flat on their feet.
You and I cannot assess Hugo Chavez right now. He is as worthy of biting criticism as he is of great praise. I follow Marx who contented we need “ruthless criticism of all that exists,” without fear of the results of delving deep. If you aren’t capable of that, you’re a poor Marxist. But you must look at the world for the forces that exist, and examine the balance of where we were yesterday and where we are today. Hugo Chavez impact was massive. He took a world spinning on an axis that would lead us all to ruin, and knocked it into left field. Venezuela struggles mightily with corruption, crime, and a violent criminal justice system. Y’know, like Mexico, Colombia, Iraq, Italy, and Chicago do. But the true assessment of Chavez is not what he did in life, but what carries on after him.
If Venezuela has been in the early throes of a socialist revolution, if the process was fueled by the creativity and sweat of the people, if that country and our region has built a sense of historical-subjectivity for those who were subaltern, bound to the margins, then Venezuela’s process has only just begun. Then Latin America is as much on a road toward a collective liberation and the downfall of authoritarian violence and mammonic exploitation, and the people across nuestra America have only just begun to fight and negate and build and create.
If it all ends soon, and we can’t simply point to some Western destabilization scheme as the sole cause (and we can’t), then I have been wrong. It was a wonderful moment, a huge and very exciting wave, millions saw improvements in their quality of life, and hopefully it will be done right next time. It will have laid some foundations, changed some details, saved many lives, and will be by-and-large rolled back under another reaction-Thermidorian or Chamorro-style.
But if it doesn’t, we are still just at the dawn of the future. And as Chavez has taken his last breaths, we move on that much stronger. A new world doesn’t just come correct. You have to build it. Our late comrade, I believe, has helped lay some strong foundations for that better world.
- Pop-Culture Criticism/Reactive Anti-Racism
by Mauro Sifuentes
I’ve noticed a giant uptick in pop-culture criticism, especially within progressive,...
- My initial reaction at the passing of Hugo Chavez
Our generation has few great heroes who have fallen before their time. Our parents...