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Sunday, January 16, 2005

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reg

Yes...yes...yes...

Thanks for opening this one up.

richard

Despite what some may think of Znet (I have mixed feelings myself - speaking even as a graduate of ZMI) I recall something Michael Albert wrote and has said over and over (paraphrase): "Some people on the left just want to "fight the good fight." I think this is wrong. We don't want to fight the good fight and lose. We want to fight the good fight and win."

John Moore (Useful Fools)

I think a fair number are just having fun. It was that way in the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations and it looks that way at the demos I have attended more recently.

The left also has a problem in that it has many causes, and many factions, and to the public appears like a bunch of looney movements.

Times have changed.

Joseph

John, your cliche posts really do get tiresome. Try a google search and see how many hits you'll find with "loony left" (41,000). Sticking to substance would be nice, indeed.

jim hitchcock

Disagree, Joseph. I don't think John is saying there aren't sincere people protesting. But I think it's fair to say a lot of folk are there to put themselves on display (ie. the ones you see on TV. Reminds me a bit of the regulars at Grateful Dead concerts
(which I attended for the music, of course).

steve

"It was that way in the Vietnam anti-war demonstrations and it looks that way at the demos I have attended more recently."

It's rather obvious that John hasn't really attended many anti-war protests,and to the extent he has he has just sought out fringe elements and decided they are representative of the majority of protestors. When I was in Taiwan, the KMT used to do this everytime a mass protest occurred and was overwhelmingly peaceful. Their media would seek out the few oddballs or, even better, the agent provacaterus pretending to be protestors, and put them on the TV news front and center as threats to order. Todd Gitlin, even though he has more or less done much like John does in exaggarating the oddball behavior at protests, documented well the way the media would look for and portray front and center the most odd persons at protests, thereby making protestors more 'interesting' to report on.

This piece by Doug et al is an expansion of a piece he wrote in a journal on the same topic about 2 and a half years ago. I liked it and told Doug as much at the time. I think in a nutshell this is a process that will take time to work out. The rush on the part of the 'moderate left' to embrace the US military as a prominent mechanism to resolve the problem of certain kinds of terrorism doesn't make it any easier to come up with analysis that is coherent on the left. However, that's not to say it hasn't emerged. I thought, for example, the examination of the origins of the official US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2002 was the kind of stuff that would be useful to what Doug et al are looking for:

https://monthlyreview.org/0503rupe.htm

https://monthlyreview.org/iraqwar.htm


"And how much of it is rather just a lifestyle option, a hobby that makes its participants feel better about themselves while accomplishing nothing?"

For some it surely is that and for many others it's something far more than that. You'd have to analyse the question along elements of what is broadly and usually murkily called 'the left' in the US, kind of like Doug et al do in that article.
Here's one interesting observation, though I'm sure one can counterattack me for overestimating the influence of labor in much of anything these days, so be it. But one positive element of the recent antiwar movement is not only that it is currently and has been for a while much bigger than the antiwar movement of 1965, but that there has been much more labor participation in the antiwar protests this time around at a much earlier point in the movement's activity. Ditto veterans' involvement in the antiwar movement currently, which took until about 1969 before it could really solidify {I think that is the date Lembcke sets it at...?).

BTW, another excellent example of where the type of serious thinking and analysis is going on in the left and able to take place on the air, in addition to Doug's own program, https://leftbusinessobserver.com/Radio.html , is Sasha Liley's excellent program https://www.livingroomradio.org/ that airs on KALW.
There is hope for the left in the US indeed.

PJ

Great article. If there's any hope for the left, it's honest and cheerful critics like these writers. Maybe there is no overarching message, though, and that's why the movement has been reduced to empty spectacle.

Joseph

Sorry, I stand by what I say. Making repeated reference to the left as "loony" because it has many causes? That's just silly, and a straw man. One, incidentally, that gets boringly pounded time and time again (41,000 hits, remember). Valid points and arguments are one thing, but sloganeering is an unproductive bore.

steve

Joseph, by loony is meant usually ideas that one does not agree with, at least when the phrase is used to describe the leftists one disagrees with or the left in general. It's also common to cast those with whom one disagrees on the left in black and white terms, 'that person is a follower of....", they are 'extremists', etc. I've been described as 'loony' and much worse on this comments board even though I am not any different to any significant degree in outlook from those three authors that folks are now praising in this thread.

John Moore (Useful Fools)

Looney does not apply to the whole left. But the most visible on the left are far enough out to give that impression, and that was my point. There are looney left and looney right. The left in general seems more likely to stage demonstrations, where the various looney fringe groups show up, along with those not looney (just usually wrong, of course, in my personal opinion).

The reason there are so many hits on "looney left" is because the visible loons go to the left.

To answer Steve (a bad habit of mine), for every characterization of leftists as looney, there are characterizations by the left of the right as dumb, evil, uncaring, etc - but usually with much stronger language. That is frequently visible here - applied to myself.

Tom Grey - Liberty Dad

I think the "feeling" left wants the feeling of mass, collective action to do good. Unfortunately, the easy way to get such a feeling is to join a protest against something "bad".

The 60s anti-War folk decided, correctly, that the Vietnam War was bad. From 69 on the loony left refused to discuss, honestly, what the alternative to continued US fighting was. Kerry admitted that thousands (2-3000) would be murdered by the N. Vietnamese in a 'civil war' that the US had no business interfering with.

In fact, he was supporting government by Commie Death Squads.

I remember the "loony left" protesting against the Shah of Iran; a very imperfect dictator. (Marc, I'd guess you were against the Shah too?) I remember Iranian communists against the Shah, and asking them what they favored, and getting a mix of idealistic and often contradictory positive visions. All of which I considered highly unlikely. None mentioned a theocracy, though.

Today the loony left is against the US liberation/occupation in Iraq, without saying what they realistically expect if the US leaves. They might hope for much better, but what do they really want? They are loony because, in the name of accepting "fellow traveling" Bush-haters, or America-haters, they have no agreement on the alternative, or even on the principles that such an alternative should be based.

Richard, what does "winning" the good fight look like? To you, or to the Left?

To me, it looks like a World Without Dictators. And Bush is doing one heck of a fine job in taking steps towards this, despite his all too human imperfections.

Anyone here notice how his tax cuts have increased the GDP and tax revenues and reduced the deficit? Or how many more millions in the world have more human rights because of the US military actions?

Define the goals, what winning looks like, and measure the progress.

too many steves

The larger issue that this article articulates is much more interesting: effecting change in government policy and action is hard work, being an "activist" - as defined by making noisy public displays - is too easy and largely ineffective.

Having a well thought out point of view is easy. Articulating it to others in such a way that they are convinced to agree with you is harder, it takes time. Sure, a protest against the war is impressive - if the crowd is large enough - but nothing is going to change if all those protesters do afterwards is go home, have some dinner, and head on into their week as they usually do.

steve

"To answer Steve (a bad habit of mine), for every characterization of leftists as looney,"

Thankfully there are plenty of others on this comments board who don't subscribe to your belief that your super long extended screeds are somehow more valuable than my shorter and to the point comments.

"here are looney left and looney right. The left in general seems more likely to stage demonstrations, where the various looney fringe groups show up, along with those not looney (just usually wrong, of course, in my personal opinion)."

Wow, now that is a powerful well developed theory.

"there are characterizations by the left of the right as dumb, evil, uncaring, etc - but usually with much stronger language. That is frequently visible here - applied to myself."

I've said it before, the extent of vicimization of the right wing in the United States knows no boundaries.

Tom Grey opines:
"Today the loony left is against the US liberation/occupation in Iraq, without saying what they realistically expect if the US leaves."

Empirically baseless, you demonstrate your complete ignorance of anything that has been written on the left addressing such issues.

Too many steves writes:
"The larger issue that this article articulates is much more interesting: effecting change in government policy and action is hard work, being an "activist" - as defined by making noisy public displays - is too easy and largely ineffective."

Ok, well, there is the option of upping the ante, mass direct action civil disobedience. However, you have to have people ready to have their heads bashed in, spend short and long periods in jail...such things take time, unless you're of the belief that we're there now?

another steve

An article co-authored by Doug Henwood, his wife Liza Featherstone and Christian Parenti has been making the rounds on the Internet. It is now the subject of discussion on Indymedia, a website geared to anti-globalization activists, and Infoshop, an anarchist website run by the red-baiting Chuck Munson.

https://www.indybay.org/news/2004/02/1669669_comment.php#1669937

https://www.infoshop.org/inews/stories.php?story=04/02/08/4177015

It originally appeared in Radical Society, a small-circulation journal put out by CUNY professors. For people on Marxmail who are not familiar with US politics, a word or two of background. Henwood is the author of "Wall Street", the best-selling book ever published by Verso. Featherstone is a free-lance journalist who wrote red-baiting attacks on the ISO for the Nation Magazine in her capacity as "movement" expert. Parenti, the son of Michael Parenti, has written a well-received book on the American prison-industrial system. More recently he written an article from Baghdad in the Nation claiming that Iraqis are anxious to give us all the oil they have in exchange for safe streets, jobs, running water and electricity. (Of course, somebody should tell Parenti that the Nigerians worked out the same deal, but have gotten nothing back so far.)

The article is titled "Action Will Be Taken: Left Anti-intellectualism and Its Discontents". It addresses what the authors call "activistism", which put simply is action minus theory. With what I know about the trajectory of these three celebrities, I had to rub my eyes when I read their description of what theory is lacking, namely Marxism:

"Activistism is also intimately related to the decline of Marxism, which at its best thrived on debates about the relations between theory and practice, part and whole. Unfortunately, much of this tradition has devolved into the alternately dreary and hilarious rants in sectarian papers. Marxism's decline (but not death: the three of us would happily claim the name) has led to wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism, and an indifference to how the system works as a whole. This blinkering is especially virulent in the U.S. where a petit-bourgeois populism is the native radical strain, and anti-intellectualism is almost hard-wired into the culture. And because activistism emphasizes practicality, achievability, and implementation over all else, a theory dedicated to understanding deep structures with an eye towards changing them necessarily gets shunted aside.

"Marxism's decline isn't just an intellectual concern - it too has practical effects. If you lack any serious understanding of how capitalism works, then it's easy to delude yourself into thinking that moral appeals to the consciences of CEOs and finance ministers will have some effect. You might think that central banks' habit of provoking recessions when the unemployment rate gets too low is a policy based on a mere misunderstanding. You might think that structural adjustment and imperial war are just bad lifestyle choices."

To start with, it is somewhat surprising to see them speak so derisively about dreary sectarian newspapers since Henwood has stated publicly that he is a fan of the Spartacist League newspaper, which he describes as well-written. I guess that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

It also puzzles me to find them disparaging "wooly ideas about a nicer capitalism", since Henwood has backed a vote for John Kerry because it would create "a marginally better policy and a better discursive and organizing environment." Talk about diminished expectations. I haven't seen such bowing and scraping since 1968, when the CPUSA urged a vote for Hubert Humphrey.

I also got a big chuckle out of their swipe at philanthropies:

"Unreflective pragmatism is also encouraged by much of the left's dependency on foundations. Philanthropy's role in structuring activism is rarely discussed, because almost everyone wants a grant (including us). But it should be. Foundations like focused entities that undertake specific politely meliorative schemes. They don't want anyone to look too closely at the system that's given them buckets of money that less fortunate people are forced to bay for."

This objection apparently did not persuade Christian Parenti from turning down an offer as a fellow at George Soros's Open Society.

Turning to the question at hand, to what extent does the US left suffer from a kind of mindless activism? To be sure, there is a powerful legacy of pragmatism in this country, as much of an official philosophy as Confucianism was in China. This means that activists veer between street militancy one year and parliamentary cretinism during a presidential election, or a combination of both as was evidenced in the 1968 Chicago protests when smashing windows on behalf of a "peace candidate" epitomized the limitations of the American left.

Ultimately, I think that the problem is not just an absence of theory, but a failure to think politically. Since the rise of the anti-globalization movement, you have seen a renewed interest in anarchism and its second cousin "autonomism", a nominally Marxist theory/movement launched by the obscurantist Italian political science professor Toni Negri who advocated physical attacks on CP members in the 1970s. Both of these movements have little interest in *politics*, which they equate with reformism.

The anti-globalization movement posited itself as an "anti-capitalist" movement, which was all to the good. Unfortunately, it failed to understand that this kind of "maximalism" is of little use except for periodic protests at meetings of some international trade body when physical militancy in support of demands that the capitalist system be terminated was put on display. Meanwhile, these trade bodies continue on their merry way while making few concessions to the mass movement. It is interesting that the most serious challenges to neoliberalism have come from governments of the left in Latin America that are held in such disdain by anarchists and autonomists. Ultimately the only way that the IMF can be forced to retreat is when it is confronted by a *state* with armed bodies to back it up rather than by symbolically tearing down a chain-link fence.

Finally, there is not simply a need to study Karl Marx, who the authors note is found on the bookshelves of European activists. There is also a need to *apply* his theories in a creative manner. This means engagement with the body of Marxist literature that lives through the ages, including those works written by V. Lenin, the arch-demon of the "acceptable" left. Lenin's writings were consumed with the question of what to do *next*. Unless the radical movement in the USA begins to think in such terms, the task of ridding the world of capitalism will remain a fantasy at best.

Brian Siano

The essay makes some good points. But it seems to me that it's addressing several distinct things among activists under a generalized notion of "activistists."

Okay. Obviously, there are theatrical sorts who show up at protests for personal, emotional reasons, like exhibitionism. Maybe they show up in costume, or in nude body paint, or perform some silly theatrical stunt like a "die-in." (In that respect, a protest march isn't much different from a science fiction convention. I speak from some experience on this.) Those are clearly people without much of an ideology-- or, if they actually have expended some brainwork on politics, it's not coming through in their actions. (Call me a conservative crank when I say they irritate me, but I didn't see any Clowns for Peace whe King marched on Selma.)

But when we start looking at the less theatrical elements of activist groups, we get into problems. That's because _everyone_ sees themselves as having some intellectual heft-- and when others have different opinions, well, it's _those others_ who are the obstructionists, the cranks, the doctrinaire robots, the embarassments.

And it's those others who can be regarded as both over-intellectual and anti-intellectual. They're over-intellectual when they insist on educating the masses, or bringing forth detailed analyses-- after all, most citizens don't want to hear Grand Intellectual Schemes, so why alienate them by boring them with chatter about, say, Marxism or Walter Benjamin or alienation. But they're also anti-intellectual when they insist on their particular doctrine to the exclusion of others-- say, mine.

In other words, I can see how a lot of people who are _targets_ of the essay will read it and see it directed at everyone _else_.

Frankly, I'm starting to suspect that the mass protest may be pretty much ineffective as a tactic. At some point, the spontaneous gathering of masses of people may have put some fear into the ruling classes. But now, it's just a matter of crowd control, and part of the general scenery. Maybe we'd be better off with the boring tchniques of petitions, lobbying, fundraising, media coordination, and the like.

GMRoper

Marc, great posting and on the nose. But you left out that much of the article in LiP could also apply to activistists on the right.

In a lighter note, "Activistism" is a whole lot easier to say than "Anti-Antidisestablishmentarianism" ;-)

Seriously, activists of any stripe need to look not only about what they are "against" but specifically what they are for, with specific goals in mind and attainable methods of getting there. It's not enough to say "end world hunger" unless you can propose ways to do it. Otherwise, it's "feelgoodism." When those on the Left (and on the Right to be sure) don't propose solutions, then they are part of the problem whether they like it or not.

DennisThePeasant

Good post, Cooper (three words I'd never thought I'd be stringing together).

Anyway, there is a third option to lifestyle and hobby...career! Don't underestimate the allure of getting a paycheck for perpetual activism without regard for results.

jim hitchcock

Tom Grey: "To me, it looks like a World Without Dictators. And Bush is doing one heck of a fine job in taking steps towards this, despite his all too human imperfections".

Sure, you're right, Tom. Everybody can see that the current mixed up muddled up mess in Iraq has nothing to do with complete disregard to planning AFTER the invasion. Just a little human imperfection. Right.

"Anyone here notice how his tax cuts have increased the GDP and tax revenues and reduced the deficit"?

Actually, no. We've been too busy watching the current economic
soap opera, `As The Dollar Plummets', (forty percent since Bush took office). And maybe we're a little to distracted by record budget and trade deficits, which may have been ignored by someone as on the pipe as you.

DennisThePeasant

Jim-

It would appear that what you are really distracted by is an enthusiasm for Bush-bashing and a lack of an elementary knowledge in economics. Presidents have a limited ability manage macroecomonic trends within the economy...trends such as trade deficits and the value of the dollar.

In any event, trade deficits are highly beneficial to our trading partners, especially those partners whose economies are underdeveloped and need the capital for investment and economic growth. You can make a case that the U.S. economy injecting cash in the economy of, say, Chile, is more beneficial to all than having the U.S. pull cash out via a trading surplus. Similarly, a weak dollar is not an unmixed evil to the economy and can, in fact, be quite beneficial to different sectors of the economy...providing new jobs and business opportunities.

That's all easy to ignore when the urge for Bush-bashing preceeds your urge to develop economically literate and intellectually coherent criticism.

Ask yourself: Just how much of such verbal activism today is thought-out, strategic and effective? Do you think your post will have any sort of positive effect with those who understand the workings of the dollar and trade deficits? Or are you simply satisfied to get any sort of criticism up, irrespective of its' effectiveness?

Marc Cooper

GM.. indeed. I dont mean to exclude the Right from these ills... they are equally guilty. It's only that God put me in charge of the left, not the right.
Dennis the Peasant: Yes, there is also a job quotient in all of this. Some left NGO's exist merely to provide rather perpetual employment for their small staffs. They are willing to trade relatively low wages for almost certain and eternal tenure.
The greatestt example I can think of in that regard is Pacifica Radio: Millions are raised each year to "keep community radio alive"... comunity this and community that.. but in the end, the same ossified group of programmers and staff cling to their positions (often now deep into a third decade) knowing full well that if dislodged from their sinecures they would likey to starve to death. It's pathetic and distateful.

PJ

People like me, Dennis, GM ask and ask again: what is it you want? What form of government, what economic system, what type of military does the left want for the US, right here and now?

If you knew the answer to that, your activism could be more directed. Right now the movement has become Big Activism, just like Big Labor or Big Government. It's an institution supporting its adherents, and politically it's mere oppositionalism. Criticize the war, write a report, mobilize the next march -- hey, it's a living.

Good thing the left wasn't as organized at the time of the Civil War or we would have given up on that one, too.

steve

"Criticize the war, write a report, mobilize the next march -- hey, it's a living."

Well, yeah, except that as someone who hasn't organized a march or a movement, it's rather easy for you to make such 'criticism' of the anti-war movement,and in the process reveal little knowledge of how antiwar movements get built and sustained. I'd say if you wanted a vision of what the antiwar movement wants, ask them. Isn't it odd that, the conspiracy theories about the 'left-wing' corporate media aside, the antiwar movement activists are rarely featured in media interviews to begin with, forget given the opportunity to express what it is the antiwar movement wants.
Thus, at best, your criticisms, unlike Henwood et al's, are made from a position of not wanting people to know what the antiwar movement wants.
I don't think the vision of the left has changed that dramatically that you can say you don't know what it wants.

GMRoper

Steve writes: "I don't think the vision of the left has changed that dramatically that you can say you don't know what it wants."

Great comment Steve, now, would you explain what the left wants and please use specific examples, ie, increase taxes to fund the Tom Bigbee waterway. Or, Establish a department of Peace! Or have a Cabinet Level Secretary of Hunger and Food Transportation to Third World Countries. I know that (at least, as I recall) in the past you have said that you organize and participate, so, here's your chance.

DennisThePeasant

Steve writes: "I'd say if you wanted a vision of what the antiwar movement wants, ask them."

If the anti-war movement was doing its' job correctly, we would know without having to ask. It really doesn't matter whether we do 'not know' because we aren't listening, because they are talking to themselves rather than us, or because they are not talking at all. If the anti-war movement was serious about their cause the vision would be there for all to see, and would be seen by all irrespective.

jim hitchcock

A partial Mea Culpa, Dennis...but help me in my education by addressing the budget deficits.

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