Don’t fight the riptide. It’ll wear you down. A riptide occurs when water at high tide gets pooled behind reefs or sand bars so when the sea goes out again, the trapped water has to find a channel through which to escape the pool. It empties through that opening with such force that it can sweep a swimmer out to sea. Our instinct is to start swimming toward shore as hard as we can. The better strategy is to swim parallel to the coast until you are out of the riptide, then ride the regular waves to shore. Left activists know the feeling of being caught in a riptide without knowing the way out. When the political tide runs against us it takes all our effort just to stay in place. Our standards slide until a “victory” just means that we didn’t get screwed as badly as we could have been. Our gains are swept away the moment we turn away.
When conservative activists faced this problem, back in the mid-1960s, they tried something different. Instead of swimming faster they looked into what it would take to turn the tide around. They pulled it off. With the tide behind you, you can achieve all kinds of success even with less that brilliant leadership. It’s a lot easier to slash local school budgets when half the population already believes that government is incompetent, teachers are lazy, taxes are evil and the private sector can do it better. That’s the tide.
One swimmer swims against the rip tide and is steadily pushed out to sea. Another heads out of the current and floats in on the surf. They both faced the same challenge. The difference is what was in their heads. This essay is about what’s in our heads and how it can transform the terms of struggle and therefore the course of history. It is also about butterflies.
When butterflies migrate they don’t just start flapping their wings in the right direction. They don’t want to work that hard and get blown in to bushes and buildings by every gust of wind. They go straight up, sometimes up to twelve thousand feet high, find a current headed their way and ride it for a thousand miles. Their light, fragile wings–a liability among the treacherous ground winds–are now their great asset.
The visible world is defined and determined by an invisible one. A glance at the landscape won’t tell you the likelihood of earthquakes. You have to know that invisible pressures accumulate along subterranean fault lines formed in the distant past. The butterfly and the organizer must be attuned to currents that are not apparent unless you look for them. The activists who launched the Montgomery bus boycott in 1955 knew that undercurrents of anger at racist indignities were reaching critical levels and were searching for a way to turn them into a force with which to challenge segregation. The conservative activists who gathered in the wreckage of the Goldwater presidential campaign nine years later sought to harness fears stirred up by the civil rights struggle, the spread of consumerist immorality and the erosion of religious certainty and give them ideological and organizational expression.
In the USA we don’t like to overthink things. We prefer action. We run off to parties without grabbing the address. If we feel a current we swim against it. We fight oppressive conditions without asking what holds them in place. We swing between wishful thinking and hopelessness without seeing that they both reflect a disconnect between the strategies we repeat and the successes that elude us. But it is not just harsh conditions that confound us. All seeds start in the dark, after all. It’s how we interpret and respond to them. Among Malcolm X’s many abilities, his most remarkable gift was his oratory. He used the magic of language to help traumatized people uncover a new story about themselves. This change in perspective revealed new avenues for action and turned what had been dreams into possibilities. The rest is history.
Strategic vision is the precondition for effective strategies. It is the rain that spurs the strategies to growth just as strategies in turn give seed to tactics. A strategic vision encapsulates our perspective on the landscape we are challenged to cross and our understandings of who we are and what we dream of becoming. The purpose of this paper is to demonstrate how strategic vision is the pivot which can turn our defensive struggles into political initiative, unite isolated reform efforts into a movement for change and open up new possibilities for effective action in every field of struggle.
The lay of the land
The transformative promise of the Obama Presidency was not, in the end, derailed by Republicans or sabotaged by conservative Democrats or even betrayed by Obama himself. It never existed. The illusion that it did and the collapse of that illusion both result from a structural dilemma which defines both dominant political parties but particularly bedevils the Democrats.
The Republicans are a coalition between the corporate elite and an array of conservative movements and institutions comprised of the Christian right, nativist, gun rights, white supremacist and anti-choice groups, small government Tea Partiers, corporate front groups and others. This conservative base delivers votes, campaign workers, foot soldiers for corporate front groups and an ideological message which galvanizes popular support. In return they get to advance their patriarchal and racist moral agenda and receive ample funding for their cultural warfare apparatus. The reactionary opinion molders (the “perceptioneers”) on talk radio, cable TV, blogs and in legislative offices translate the agenda of the corporate elite (anti-labor, pro-deregulation, privatization, interventionist and anti-democratic) into a populist narrative of personal liberty that resonates with the conservative base. The result is that the demands of the conservative social base are closely aligned with (or at least do not impinge upon) the agenda of the corporate sector.
The Democrats are a coalition between the same corporate elite and a constellation of non-profits, unions, communities of color and environmental and social reform movements. Their demands revolve around basic needs such as access to food, education, livable wages, healthy workplaces and communities, affordable housing, quality education and an end to discrimination. In other words the satisfaction of the aspirations of the Democratic grassroots would require a massive transfer of resources to the base of the social pyramid and consequently would tilt the balance of power toward labor and organized communities. The Democratic leaders have to implement policies that their corporate sponsors require and which hurt their constituents in every respect. To the base they can offer little more than placebos, small measures that don’t cost much or symbolic gestures such as White House dinners, Presidential declarations and seats on advisory panels. They can promise but they can’t deliver.
The presence of a corporate elite that pursues its own collective interests is the invisible planet of our political system. One can discover the existence of an unknown planet by observing its gravitational tug on the orbits of its neighbors. The discovery of such a body decodes the motion of the rest of the system.
The policies that guide our government are researched and outlined within a network of brain trusts housed in political institutes, policy think tanks, academic institutions, corporate departments, business associations, intelligence agencies, specialized publications and private strategy centers. Their role is to define policy goals, develop the “framing” with which to secure public support and develop candidates to fill top and mid-level government jobs. These broad policy outlines become the parameters of the “accepted wisdom” in the corporate media.
Henry Kissinger’s career provides a window into this world and its operation. His trajectory carried through many top corporate and quasi-governmental institutes including The Psychological Strategy Board, the Harvard Center for International Affairs, the Operations Coordinating Board of the National Security Council, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Rand Corporation and the Trilateral Commission. He was a protégé of oil magnates David and Nelson Rockefeller whose patronage landed him in the inner circles of government. (Many of Obama’s first and second tier appointees are drawn from these groups.)
By 1974, as Secretary of State, Kissinger had concluded that US allies were a greater threat to its world dominance than were its enemies. The growing clout of Europe and East Asia marked their emergence as worrisome rivals. Kissinger’s doctrine called for establishing undisputed dominance of the world oil and gas supplies on which these economies would depend for growth. This policy became integrated into the elite consensus and remains in place today. This fact makes sense of US policies toward West Asia and the Middle East. It explains its behavior in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq: each time Iraq sought to appease US demands the United States declared that the effort was too little, too late, increased its demands and insisted on escalated international reprisals. The Kissinger policy framework of seeking direct control of the oil fields could not be consummated with a diplomatic resolution. The Obama administration is reading from the same script in relation to Iran. Inevitably we will see a ratcheting up of efforts to bring the vast oil and gas reserves of Venezuela and Bolivia back into the corporate fold. The groundwork is being laid with the construction of a half dozen US bases in Colombia.
Attention to the invisible world does more than illuminate the workings of the power elitel: it reveals sources of popular power as well. In 1969 the Chicago chapter of the Black Panther Party established an alliance with the Puerto Rican Young Lords Organization and the white Young Patriots. They called it the “Rainbow Coalition,” a name later appropriated by Jesse Jackson for his 1984 presidential campaign. The Patriots were the kids of recent immigrants from southern, mostly Appalachian, states. They wore confederate flags on their jackets and had family members back home in the Klan. Brining them into alliance with communities of color around common class issues required deliberate and persistent courtship on the part of the Panthers. It meant attending their court hearings, shooting pool in their bars, sleeping on their couches and talking late into the night about police harassment and substandard housing. In the end, as Panther organizer Bobby Lee put it, they would have “stopped a bullet for me.”
Had the Panthers followed today’s practices and looked just at the surface evidence, they’d have written the Patriots off as hopeless racists. Instead they asked why these folks were hurting: was their racism based on vested interest or had they been fooled into it. They concluded that in the big picture they all had more to gain as allies than enemies.
This approach has nothing in common, by the way, with the Democratic strategy of courting white, suburban swing voters by catering to their prejudices. The Panthers came to the table with an organized political base united around an alternative program. What they offered the Young Patriots and their community was a more promising vision.
Offering an alternative vision, so central to history’s most successful movements, is foreign to today’s left-liberal non-profits whose operating principle is “fight for what’s winnable.” This in a nutshell summarizes the contrast with the right: we fight for winnable “gains” while they fight for power. We go as far as we can without brushing up against the barbed wire. They decide when to move the wire closer, steadily limiting the “winnable” possibilities.
The battle over health care reform lays bare how this plays out. Corporate lobbyists were invited to the White House to draft legislation that would regulate their industry, thus guaranteeing that their core interests would be protected whatever the outcome. They then backed a campaign to defeat it, resulting in the steady removal of what little nutrition was in the package. Desperate to pass a law, the White House continually watered it down in successive attempts to win Republican approval. When finally introduced, the bill came under heavy Republican fire and was compromised further. The President suddenly found his populist voice, touring the land, blasting the evils of corporate greed. This galvanized the unions and non-profits to pull out all the stops to pass what by now was a giant, brightly colored placebo. The final bill incorporated some “gains” that progressive spokespeople could point to even as it entrenched the position of the insurance and pharmaceutical corporations at the heart of the “reformed” system. These corporations not only gained an expanded captive market but are in a comfortable position from which to deploy their vast army of lobbyists and bottomless campaign chests to undermine and erode any progressive gains that irritate them. We measure our progress in “gains,” they measure theirs in power. At the end of the day power it’s power that counts.
Watch as this formula is replayed with financial, immigration and oil-exploration “reforms.”
In the martial art of Tai Chi, the practitioner enlists the force and direction of motion of her opponent to achieve victory. A similar sensibility can be applied to political struggle. I like to adopt the outlook that our enemies exist for the purpose helping us defeat them. Our job is to make it as easy as possible for them to do so. The first thing they will do for us is tell us where they are vulnerable. The ways they deploy their resources is a map to their perceived weaknesses. The fact that I wear a helmet when I bike to work tells you where I think I need extra protection.
Let’s apply this on a larger scale. Let’s step back from our daily struggles to encompass the entire political landscape in our field of vision and notice the defensive posture of the empire. One of its most striking features is the exponentially expanding penal system. Communities of color are subjected to a punitive social management regime that has little apparent connection real crime. This system has quickly emerged to fill the space of the segregationist Black Laws, fashioned to keep the African American populace vulnerable and off balance under the guise of being color-neutral. A tremendous immigrant workforce is likewise regulated through a quasi-military system of intimidation and mass punishment. This should tell us that these are powerful constituencies whose hands are being tied precisely because—by their demographics, location and traditions– they represent a potential threat to the operation of the system. Freeing them from their legal straightjackets is therefore strategically vital if we hope to loosen the grip of corporate rule.
Republican strategist Karl Rove has taught us that what an opponent assumes to be a major advantage can be transformed into a strategic weakness. The “swift boat” offensive against Democrat John Kerry, for example was directed at his military service, a credential he assumed to be unassailable. The strategic heart of right wing power resides in its unparalleled ideological warfare apparatus. It is able to transform the agendas of corporate managers into the battle cries of the angry masses. Any opposition can be quickly declared to be communistic, fascist or terrorist.
The Power of Strategic Vision
The left abandoned any pretense of posing a real alternative in the wake of COINTELPRO repression and the Red Scare that preceded it. Understandable, but it has put us in the awkward position of seeking winnable improvements for specific groups while our opponents proclaim a grand moral mission.
What would it look like if we had the audacity to challenge the moral vision of the right with one of our own? What if we placed the New World that we say is possible on the public menu of choices in clearly understandable terms? Much would depend on how well that vision resonates with people’s dreams. To take this notion for a test drive I humbly submit a partial list of core values that reflect the world I am fighting for, translated into language that a second grader can understand.
1) No one gets seconds until everyone has had firsts.
2) You don’t make a mess you can’t clean up.
3) Food is for feeding people.
5) Don’t take stuff that isn’t yours.
6) The Earth is a home shared by all who lives here.
7) Everyone gets access to clean water, air, food and shelter.
8) People should get to make decisions about their lives and share decisions that also affect others.
9) Human habitat can be healthy only if natural habitat is healthy.
10) No group of people is inherently better or more deserving than other groups of people.