April 18, 2013
A Primer on thinking about the State and Government

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.

Venezuela

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.

April 2, 2012
Believing a Republican win will usher in a social revolution is an infantile disorder

For those of you who didn’t turn away right at the title, I have some really cogent analysis up ahead. Okay, not really cogent. It’s actually a little ‘correlation is causality’. But let me indulge. The perspective \one gets from some fellow #OWS radicals on this topic suggest the same poor sense that I’ve heard from dear friends for at least all of these years since Bush was handed the state of Florida in 2000.


1967

The Black Panther Party is founded. Seven years of Democrats and there is a vast and increasing antiwar/anti-imperialist movement. Open rebellion in the streets of scores of cities had long since been waged by oppressed people. Before 1969, many other communities had formed their own Black Panther auxiliaries.Years of Civil Rights struggles, social upheaval and opposition to war become something different. A viable assault on the system itself. Begun under LBJ’s watch.

1999

The response to exploitation by common people is in disarray. The left has focused on environmentalist, prison, police brutality and sweatshop organizing. These issues begin to merge until the despair of declase workers and students finds its voice in an uprising that still resonates with people around the world today. The Battle in Seattle. The shut-down of the World Trade Organization rounds by a green-blue-red alliance that was never thought possible. Direct action becomes the watchword. Street medics, indymedia, food not bombs and other projects balloon. And the coming-out ball of the North American wing of counter globalization ferment has legs for two to four more years. Under Clinton’s watch.

2011

The whole world is watching the toppling of dictatorships in Tunis and Cairo. The revolt spreads across Spain where ‘indignados’ fight a ‘dictatorship of the markets’. Revolt breaks out in Tottenham, Chile, and once again, Athens. In Wisconsin, a nonviolent labor uprising emerges against a Republican governor, but nothing else measures up. Until Occupy Wall Street. Everyone around the world takes note. It spreads like wildfire. If we got anything right, it was the common enemy and the need for justice through our own means. Like the Panthers, like the IMF protesters, these people have taken on direct action. And we’re not done. To this day. Under Obama’s watch.

The Democratic Party is one of two bourgeois parties, in a republican electoral system that is properly known as a form of bourgeois democracy. A state (not Kentucky or Vermont, but the entire state apparatus) is a monopoly of violence that is dominated by a class, seeking to rise above society. Limited autonomy, but still wielded like a weapon by a class. In this case, it’s the boss class. The rich. The capitalists. The bourgeoisie. The 1%. So a bourgeois democracy is clearly a far better place to live than any two-bit dictatorship (unless you’re brown and poor), but it’s still a monopoly of violence built for class domination. Having two (or one or ten) parties is an element of that class domination. The only options you have are ones that will serve the rich. If the Chinese Communist Party chooses who you are allowed to vote for in Tianjin, then Wall Street chooses the viable candidates in Omaha.

Johnson, Clinton, and Obama bombed and occupied a lot of countries. The latter two presided over massive numbers of lay-offs, outsourcing, and privatizations. It is to unbounding heights of naivete that someone must climb to believe that the systemic oppressions under which we have suffered for so long might be vanquished because the wealthy have allowed us to elect someone from the vaguely less right wing party.

Do I have my street cred? Is my radicalism now an armored suit that allows me to say things you wouldn’t otherwise accept? Well, then, let me give it a try. Andrew Breitbart-usage of my words be dammed (literally), let’s be clear. Obama’s continued presidency is immensely better for the cause of social revolt in this country.

Set aside the question of whether Obama enacts policies that are slightly more benevolent than the other party, or just how much more or less incrementally he will cut down our social services and civil liberties.

The basic thesis is as follows: when a Democrat is in office, an amalgam of issues-based movements exist that begin to coalesce around coalitions that directly confront the system as a common cause; whereas during Republicans, we (as leftists, civil resistance, or whatever your chosen nomenclature) get drawn into fights around the president’s own crimes at war or in the course of repressive policies, and droves of people enter the streets to demand the removal, by resignation or election, of the INDIVIDUAL and his PARTY.  In essence, with the election of Democrats, we gradually move against the system, while with Republicans we move only against their political party, offering the Democrats as a plausible solution.

And there’s a little bit more. We get flabby. We get people with weaker politics and zero analysis who then bog down our movements into lowest common denominator politics. If those tens of thousands more hit the streets with us to confront systemic oppression, then we are in a stage of more wide-scale radicalization. But weaker politics and demands in favor of greater numbers of people with heightened senses of urgency is not a trade at all favorable to real social change. To opened minds and the possibilities of victory. To a more long-term and cohesive level of movement forming.

There are two alternative theories worth overcoming. One is the ahistorical delusion that the election of Democrats will help us usher in the world we want to see. I will leave it to centuries of other articles to argue the point that the wealthy will never allow us to elect a master who will derail this great set up they have going.

The other is the terribly misplaced idea that a more authoritarian, further right wing regime will inspire the masses to the streets ensuing in some great leap forward to social revolt. The revolutionaries need not organize, because the people will be ready to fight. 

Adventurous urban guerrillas attempted to actualize a similar outcome to terrible effect. They thought that violent assault on the system would catalyze the police state to move harder against the entire populace, and the oncoming fascism would propel the people into a death match against all forms of oppression. This indeed heightened authoritarianism in countries like Argentina and Brazil, and overtly failed to do so in Western Europe, Japan and the United States, but in neither set of cases did people find themselves closer to a revolutionary situation. They more often found their movements, and those around them, decimated.

Bringing it all back, let’s look what happened with Democrats in office. The Civil Rights Movement and angry street rebellions pushed Kennedy and Johnson towards reforms. People realized that it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t that these laws were too little, too late. It was that people who had been mobilized now saw that forming the system is not significant. It doesn’t lead to liberation. Victories and state violence, a brutal war under the command of a Democratic presidency, and a general radicalization happening globally inspired some of the most exciting political organizing in our nation’s history.

The roll backs of the victories of the previous few decades began in earnest under Reagan. And the people were no longer mobilized to defend their meager gains. Some people put a lot of work into solidarity campaigns with revolutionaries in Central America and Southern Africa, and ACT-UP did incredible work around HIV and homophobia. Few, however, were in any way at a pace to challenge the system. Most work was defensive, or in opposition to offensives against third world peoples.

That remained the case into the 1990s. A number of causes became significant, among them environmentalist work, struggles around the prison system and police brutality, and anti-sweatshop campaigns. And something happened. A lot of work, coalition-building and militancy paid off. Tens of thousands of unionists, environmentalists, and radicals shut down the World Trade Organization rounds. The Battle in Seattle became one of the first significant moments in social conflict in this country that the rest of the world would point to in decades. It took the WTO years to find another location willing to host it, and then it went for a monarchist police state, Qatar. Emboldened, a myriad of activists stopped considering themselves simply working in causes that were in coalition. We continued to move. We shut down the IMF and World Bank meetings only five months later. Quebec, Quito and Miami were all shut down as they hosted FTAA summits, a hemispheric free trade body that our movements helped defeat outright.

And the demise of the counter globalization movement was largely blamed on 9/11, and the need to shift focus back against militarism, war and affronts to civil liberties. Drive out the Bush regime. Impeach Bush. By 2006, I personally advocated that we never mention his name or that of Cheney in our protests. They were lame ducks, and decoys at that. Eventually even the massive marches and city shutdowns that erupted around the Iraq war lost focus. The key for the progressives (RE: liberals) was to unelect the GOP, while radicals resorted to grasping at straws.

Which is what we were doing for the first chunk of Obama’s administration. We lost the flab of those whose only work was to elect the Democrats instead of the Republicans. We watched impotently as the Tea Party became the loudest voice in the streets. We tried to create something that would gain momentum. And in 2011, people who had been building up causes to defend social services, collective bargaining rights, jobs, public education engaged in a series of experiments. Most fell flat. The rising in Wisconsin in February, followed by whatever it is that we’ve been doing in lower Manhattan, nay, across the country, nay, across the planet since September 17th. We weren’t busy trashing Obama or the Democrats. We were becoming a mobilized force. We were striking terror into the heart of the system. We were inspiring ourselves in ways we’d given up on. We were forming a radical experiment in direct democracy, albeit subject to assaults from all of the byproducts of the oppressive structures around us.

In Spain and Portugal, where the indignados blasted open the complacency with which the citizenry let political change pass them by, the more right wing parties were elected. That wasn’t the fault of the 15-M or Real Democracia Ya movements. But they now realize how they could’ve planned with more long-term thought and self-awareness.

Occupiers are not a type that is open to silly groups advocating we focus on immediate demands.  We are not here to campaign. We are here because, what ever our place on the leftward wing of the spectrum, we have less than total faith in the electoral process under the thumb of big businesses. We will likely never endorse a candidate. But we have to be cognizant of the electoral context within which social movements expand and contract, and where wider consciousness opens and closes. If someone wants to work in the electoral system, they have a myriad of options that existed long before Occupy Wall Street.

But we do a great disservice to our struggles and dreams if we are incapable of looking beyond vague platitudes or ankle-deep analysis. If we want to continue passed indignation toward a possible game-changing moment, we will be better off without waging some errant culture war if we can put our sights on the system. The navigation of this particular fault line can’t be delineated by me alone. Marina Sitrin’s piece in Tidal, with which I have my caveats, echoes what she heard in the strategy of the Southern Cone. We must be Against, With and Beyond the System. We must refuse to vote or vote blank, we must vote, and we must create our own alternatives.

Our ambition is not to impress upon swing state voters that their plans to vote are counterproductive to the world we want to build. The election boycott is a tactic, not a strategy, and is invisible in a country with a long history of terribly low voter turnout. Allow some not to vote, or, like myself, to vote blank, which makes plenty of sense in the electoral winner-take-all system that will leave my voting area firmly in the hands of Democratic congressmen, senators, and presidents. But let’s not attempt to sabotage the victory of the Democrats any more than we seek to delegitimize the idea that a ballot box within a market dictatorship could make the change we want to see. The dog-and-pony show in Washington can impact where we are going, but the real power is in our communities, our workplaces, and our streets.

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