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Resolutions for Radicals


Tim Wise

I

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.

The

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."

And

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.

And

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.

And

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.

This

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.

None

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.

And

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.

This

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.

To

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.

Sure,

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

toes).

It

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.

Likewise,

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.

Those

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

be.

We

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.

So

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.

A

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.

As

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.

Tim

Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer, and antiracism educator. He can be

reached at [email protected]

 

 

 

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