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In 2006, I attended a sizeable antiwar protest in Washington D.C. Tens of thousands of activists filled the streets as far as the eye could see. Office buildings and monuments became our only reliable geographical coordinates. At the time, large protests were the norm: millions of Americans were in the streets opposing Bush’s illegal and immoral war in Iraq (but we couldn’t get many people to speak out about Afghanistan).
A couple of years later, I testified at the Winter Soldier Hearings in Silver Springs, Maryland, where dozens of veterans shared stories about war crimes committed in Iraq and Afghanistan. When I arrived at the venue, an older Vietnam veteran came up to me and said, “Vinny! We’re gonna end this war! Those fuckers in the White House will have to respond to us now. No way they [the media and politicians] can ignore the vets!” He believed in the power of narrative and symbolic protest, a victim of the post-1968 left political culture.
Unfortunately yet predictably, in hindsight, the powers that be did ignore the Winter Soldier Hearings — as did 99% of Americans who never even knew the event happened. Tens of thousands of dollars spent (perhaps hundreds of thousands). Leftwing media abound. The results? Some new donors and members. The strategy? There was none. The whole event was a performative and symbolic spectacle meant to “shift the narrative” — typical NGO babble.
Years later, Occupy kicked off, and the same dynamics played out. Tens of thousands of Americans took the streets and engaged in prefigurative politics. In those days, consensus decision-making and participatory everything was all the rage. Of course, we accomplished very little during Occupy’s heyday. We remained stuck in Mobilizing Mode, speaking only with like-minded people who already self-identified as progressives and radicals. We never expanded our base. Yes, the narrative shifted from austerity to inequality, but actual political power (the state, capital, the courts) moved to the right.
The Tea Party took the house in 2010. Republican governors across the U.S. passed anti-union ‘Right to Work’ legislation and stripped public unions of their ability to bargain collectively. The Supreme Court became dominated by right-wing conservatives. The same in the lower courts and state legislatures. Voter rights were turned back, with hundreds of thousands of black voters disenfranchised. Whistle-blowers were attacked and jailed. NSA surveillance programs expanded. ICE became more powerful, as did the CIA. The drone program expanded, as did the never-ending wars. Fracking, off-shore drilling, and tar sands became the norm. Republicans took back the U.S. Senate in 2014, and Donald Trump was elected POTUS in 2016 — hardly a good period for the left, though some leftists disagree.
Indeed, some of my friends argue that the post-9/11 era has seen a resurgent left. To some degree, that’s true: more organizations, movements, and leftwing electoral campaigns exist today than did in the 1980s or 1990s, and the Democratic Party is surely less neoliberal than it was ten years ago, but that’s a pretty low bar. Many of these efforts are hollow (lacking large numbers of ordinary people) and incapable of wielding substantial power. Unions are on the ropes. Black Lives Matter (BLM) remains amorphous, at best. And groups like DSA, OurRevolution, the Greens, the People’s Party, and various other progressive-left NGOs face the problem every self-selected political group, small or large, faces: namely, the question of how to build and employ power in a non-structure.
In this strategic and methodological vacuum, many leftists opt for a fictional approach to politics. Here, I’m thinking of the anarcho-syndicalists, anti-civilization activists, online leftists, and various others whose politics bear no resemblance to our political and social composition and material conditions. It’s as if people have spent so much time socially alienated that they’ve forgotten that we do, in fact, live in a society (contrary to Margaret Thatcher’s absurd sentiments), one that’s shaped by existing systems and institutions, networks, and relationships.
Many leftists treat politics no different than a role-playing game (RPG). In RPGs, players control a fictional character who navigates a fantasy world defined by specific regulations, settings, norms, and rules. As Andrew Rollings and Ernest Adams write in their book, On Game Design, “The [RPG] game world is often a speculative fiction (i.e., fantasy or science fiction) one, which allows players to do things they cannot do in real life.”
Leftists who advocate for revolution, insurrection, or massive uprisings (all common suggestions from left commentators who have virtually no experience organizing actual working-class people) are not only irresponsible and unserious, engaging in a political form of RPG— they’re dangerous and counter-productive.
At its core, politics is about power. And power is wielded through force, coercion, or social control. Since the existing left can’t implement any of those approaches, it makes little sense to suggest that working-class Americans “take to the streets.” Again, calls for people to engage in “mass resistance” usually come from commentators who have little connection to actual working-class political organizations. For example, in a recent article, Chris Hedges writes:
Yet, to fail to act, and this means carrying out mass, sustained acts of nonviolent civil disobedience in an attempt to smash the megamachine, is spiritual death . . . The capacity to exercise moral autonomy, to refuse to cooperate, to wreck the megamachine, offers us the only possibility left to personal freedom and a life of meaning. Rebellion is its own justification. It erodes, however imperceptibly, the structures of oppression. It sustains the embers of empathy and compassion, as well as justice. These embers are not insignificant. They keep alive the capacity to be human. They keep alive the possibility, however dim, that the forces that are orchestrating our social murder can be stopped. Rebellion must be embraced, finally, not only for what it will achieve, but for what it will allow us to become. In that becoming we find hope.
Engaging in “mass, sustained acts of nonviolent disobedience” is a tactic, not a strategy. And “smashing the megamachine” isn’t a vision. Such appeals might invoke the spirit of resistance and sound nice on paper, but they mean very little without a clear vision of the society we hope to build, the strategy needed to successfully achieve our vision, or the organizations and structures required to carry out such a strategy. This, again, is the problem with commentators making suggestions about how people should respond to our cascading and multi-layered crises. Punditry is not the same as organizing. Commentating is not the same as strategizing.
Likewise, the religious left’s over-moralizing provides no path forward. What, exactly, does it mean to have the “capacity to exercise moral autonomy?” Yes, we should encourage strikes, or what Hedges calls “refusing cooperation,” but those acts require highly disciplined and organized bases of supporters (ask the CTU), ordinary people, who are engaged, empowered, and sophisticated enough to develop a collective identity. That doesn’t simply happen through people “taking to the streets.” Millions of Americans took to the streets in 2020. The results? Joe Biden barely won the White House; Democrats took a beating in down-ballot races; right-wing protesters attempted a coup; and there’s no evidence to suggest that long-lasting political organizations with a clear, serious, and sophisticated vision have developed as a result of the George Floyd uprisings.
Americans have long been obsessed with the concepts of “personal freedom” and “meaning.” We need a serious discussion about what “personal freedom” looks like in the 21st century. In the context of a rapidly growing global population and runaway climate change and ecological devastation, it’s not entirely clear. In addition, I’m skeptical of any pursuit of “meaning” and agree with Avital Ronnel: the pursuit of meaning has many fascist undertones. Here, the religious left and the fascist right share a common ideological orientation — whereas some of us can function perfectly well operating under the assumption that our existence, our life, our being, carries no inherent meaning, others relentlessly pursue a life of meaning, often accompanied by a dogmatic sense of moral righteousness. “It’s our duty to do the right thing!” No, it’s not. Human beings have no inherent “moral duty,” and surely no collectively decided upon “moral duty” (unless I missed the meeting).
If all the left can offer ordinary working-class people is a set of lofty moral sentiments, vague and non-strategic calls for rebellion, and silly calls for hope, it makes more sense for ordinary people to remain on the sidelines and enjoy themselves until the whole damn system collapses. Without a serious plan, that’s the only rational response to the system we endure and the context in which we live. Rebellion is not its own justification, unless, of course, one believes human beings have a purpose on this planet. I don’t. Rebellion without a serious, viable, and strategic plan is an act of political suicide or fantastical role-playing. Extinction Rebellion is a perfect example of this sort of childish and non-strategic approach to political activism/mobilizing.
The inability to articulate a vision that has a serious connection to material reality or the forces that currently dominate and comprise our political, economic, cultural, and social institutions is a problem the anarcho and religious left has faced for at least as long as I’ve been engaged in political activism and organizing (fifteen years), if not for decades. Appeals to “erode structures of oppression,” which sound pretty on paper, mean utterly nothing to organizers and working-class people who are strategizing on the ground. Further, calls to “erode structures of power” fall into the same failed category of “anti-politics” that the anarcho-left has peddled for years: constantly calling for “dismantling” this, or “abolishing” that, or “resisting,” but never articulating a viable vision for the 7.8 billion people who live on this planet, never building, never winning — always on the defensive; hence, always focused on destruction.
The only way to “keep alive the possibility” that capitalists/bosses and right-wing zealots/fascists (we should name our enemies and targets) can be stopped is by actually stopping them. And the only way to stop them is by engaging in deep-organizing. The left’s current approach to politics isn’t working. Simply repeating the cycle will only engender more apathy and cynicism. Moralizing won’t cut it. And left-wing virtue-signaling is embarrassing. Leftists with a platform have a responsibility to change course.
Hedges should know better. He’s not intellectually lazy. Does he not speak with organizers? Does he not understand the difference between Mobilizing and Organizing? Does he not believe that vision and strategy are essential components to victory? Does he not think about what victory would look like? Does he enjoy writing the same essay over and over again? Wolin. Camus. Conrad. Freud. Arendt. Horrors of society; Nazi reference, followed by small glimmers of hope and vague calls for resistance. Rinse. Repeat.
It feels like I’ve been reading the same Chris Hedges essay for ten fucking years. When I was 25 years old, reading Hedges was provocative, challenging, and interesting. Today, it’s boring, predictable, and unproductive.
I also find it very interesting that a guy who supposedly loathes electoral politics decided to run for U.S. Congress as a member of the Green Party. Why not help develop a serious independent left media entity? You know, instead of a bunch of assholes on YouTube operating as individuals, pushing their individual brands. Why not organize with working-class people with the aim of conducting “massive acts of civil-disobedience?” Turns out, that work is difficult. Turns out, Hedges’ ideology and assumptions about the working-class would quickly evaporate if he had to actually put them to the test.
Talking about politics is easy. Actually doing politics is difficult. Instead of participating in the hard part, Hedges regurgitates decade-old lines about resistance and throws his hat in the ring for elected office, yet has the audacity to talk shit about groups (DSA) and politicians (Sanders) who actually win reforms in the real world. That garbage might impress someone sitting at home, but it doesn’t impress those of us who are actually organizing.
In the end, I don’t believe in hope or moral duty. And I’m very skeptical of the concept of justice, which I think lends itself to a form of punitive politics, often aimed at the wrong people. I believe in the power of ordinary people and their ability to wield it at their workplaces, in their communities, and through the state. I believe in using state power. I believe in material results in the material world. I don’t care about spirituality. I believe in plans, discipline, and individual and collective accountability. I believe in winning. I believe in living.
Everything else, for me, is leftwing Pokémon and I don’t have time for it, nor do any of the organizers I know who spend their days and nights strategizing as opposed to moralizing and sloganeering. We’re in a life or death battle and we need all hands on deck. That means fewer cartographers of the apocalypse and more strategists for the revolution.