don’t normally make New Year’s resolutions, or use the new year as an excuse for
significant reflection on the one just ended. But this year, I’m making an
exception. After all, we have (arguably, I know) entered a new millennium: and
the end of a thousand-year period– particularly one as historically significant
as this–should be seen as a moment of some importance. If nothing else, it’s a
good reason to examine where we’ve been, where we find ourselves, and where we
might be going.
millennium just completed has brought forth the best and worst in human
behavior. Nation-state empires, colonialism, and "democracy" all
developed more fully in this period. Agrarian societies evolved from feudal
arrangements, to capitalist ones, rooted in industrial production, to,
occasionally, systems based (in theory) on collective ownership. In the case of
the latter, most of these have collapsed, while "the market" has held
on and proliferated like kudzu. Capitalism has developed from local to national,
to international, to global proportions, generating much wealth for some, and
great hardship for others. And this is no mere Marxist cliche: it is the
inherent nature of such an order, one which capitalists themselves have
acknowledged at least implicitly for years, while nonetheless seeking to justify
the "collateral damage."
in this new century the world will continue to shrink, in the sense that
interaction between folks around the globe will proceed at breathtaking speed;
and that shrinkage will-as with shrinkages past-generate much wealth for some,
and great misery for more. And this too will be no accident, but rather, the
logic of the system working as planned.
there will be those who raise our voices in opposition to much of what goes on
in the name of this thing the winners call "progress," and who note
that such a world creates a surplus of "losers," and that the
"winners" are more than a little implicated in their suffering. And
there will be those who reproach us for pointing this out, accuse us of
fomenting something called "class struggle," and attempt to convince
all humanity they have everyone’s interests at heart, and so we should trust
them, while distrusting those who stand in their way.
it is at that point where our commitment will be (is being) tested: the point at
which those who labor for justice will be attacked, vilified, and even co-opted.
There we’ll have to define what it is we’re not willing to compromise; what it
is we’re willing to fight for, no matter the cost. It is at that
point-preferably before-that we’ll have to decide perhaps the most important
thing anyone ever has to decide: whether or not we will collaborate with the
injustices all around us, or whether we’ll actively resist them.
choice, between collaboration and resistance is the essence, I think, of what it
means to be human: or as Baldwin put it, to "become human." To become
fully human-because to think being a member of homo sapiens makes one
automatically human is to make a category mistake-requires that we decide
whether we’ll go along with the established order, or rebel against it.
of us, of course, is capable of resisting perfectly. Human frailty being what it
is, and the economic order being what it is-which is to say, a perfect system
for preying upon those frailties-guarantee that often we’ll fall short, and end
up collaborating with an injustice here and again. That such moments of failure
are inevitable does not, however, make it any less important to choose
resistance, and to offer alternative visions of how society might operate.
it’s important to recognize what constitutes true resistance and what doesn’t:
for despite the fact that we’ll all fall short sometimes, it’s critical that we
fall short-when we do-of a goal that is actually worth fighting for, and not
some pale imitation of the genuine article. That’s why we must stake out ground
that is not some mere reflection of liberalism, which accepts so many of the
tenets of ruling class hegemony-indeed is part of that hegemony.
was never so obvious as in the last few weeks, when I have heard
"progressives" praise Bill Clinton for "coming around" on
the WTO (that’s right, Michael Moore really said this); and claim that America
"has respect for human life" presumably absent from those foreign
"terrorists" trying to smuggle dynamite into the Space Needle, or
wherever (this from Paul Wellstone-the "leftist" who endorsed Wall
Street Bill Bradley); or saying that they "love capitalism" (this in a
USA Today letter from "Ben," of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, who’s
supposed to be a lefty because they named a flavor after Jerry Garcia, or
something). In any event, these are examples of what resistance isn’t. It isn’t
about flacking for the President, or voting for the lesser of two evils again,
or praising the profit system.
be "radical" means to seek the roots of a problem, and then, having
found them, to focus attention there, and dig until they’re exposed and
destroyed. Then, to be radical means to replace that which has been uprooted
with something better, more equitable and just, where folks aren’t subordinated
to illegitimate authority-be they politicians, or bosses.
many deride such talk as utopianism. But remember, nothing ever came about that
wasn’t first dreamt by someone; and none of the contemporary progress we’ve seen
in terms of justice was due to the efforts of moderates, or even liberals
really. Even when less militant types have accomplished something positive, it
has often required radicals to keep the liberals honest (or at least on their
took radical abolitionists, like John Brown to make the more
"mainstream" opponents of slavery take a stronger stand. It took the
more militant unions and champions of labor naming the system which disempowers
working people, to push more "mainstream" unionists-even for a short
while-to a position of strength earlier in this century, and to accomplish
(however inadequate) the reforms of the New Deal. It took SNCC-with its more
systemic analysis of the problem of white supremacy-to push SCLC and
"mainstream" civil rights groups, and the same could be said of the
effect of even more militant groups like the Panthers, the Nation of Islam,
Brown Berets or AIM.
it will take more than mere lovers of sea turtles and AFL-CIO types to stop the
WTO and the global immiseration that comes with the agenda of corporate elites.
who call ourselves radicals must be clear: the enemy is not the "far
right," but the system that limits our choices and the spectrum of thought
on so many issues. Were it not for the weak-kneed advocacy of liberals, and the
watered-down calls for justice which are their hallmark, the right wouldn’t be
the threat it is today. Liberals and the Democrats have enabled the right by
their tepid resistance to all but the most fascistic of reactionary plans. And
"progressives" have enabled the Democrats to enable the right, by
continuing to vote for lessers of two evils, no matter how evil the lesser may
radicals must disabuse ourselves of the notion that one more really well-written
position paper will make policy makers come around. Elites don’t do what they do
out of ignorance, or because they haven’t read the latest from the Center on
Budget and Policy Priorities. They do what they do because it’s in their
interests and the interests of those they serve to do what they do. We are not,
liberal protestations aside, "all in this together." Elites respond to
power; threats-if they can be backed up-and mass pressure. Liberals seek to
educate elites away from their class interests: Radicals seek to educate masses
about theirs, figuring the rest will take care of itself.
for the new millenium let’s make this resolution: let’s resolve to clarify the
difference between us and liberals with whom we’re often lumped. Here’s one way
to think of it: Imagine a man standing over another with a boot pressed against
the second man’s throat. Along comes a conservative who blames the man on the
ground for his position, since surely he must have done something to deserve
being there. When the man under foot asks for help, the conservative says the
man must help himself, as such a thing builds character. And then the
conservative walks away.
liberal, seeing this, rushes up, appalled at the condition of the man on the
ground, and the mean-spiritedness of the conservative. So he offers the man on
the ground a pillow for under his head, so as to alleviate the pain a bit, and
offers him a cool glass of water. He even puts a bumper sticker on his car that
reads: "Stomping People Under Foot Is Not a Family Value." And then
the liberal moves on.
our resolution, as radicals, let us resolve that whenever we come across this
kind of scene, we’ll focus attention on the guy whose foot is in the damned
boot, and that we won’t rest until the boot is removed. That’s the difference.
And it matters.
Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer, and antiracism educator. He can be
reached at [email protected]