I stated earlier that I think the Koch Brothers are being framed for the events in Wisconsin, but I don’t want you to get me wrong here: the Koch Brothers will get no defense from me — nor would they need or want one. They are libertarians who really do want to get rid of the welfare state — or at least the parts they find offensive to their property rights; but show me an election where the libertarians have garnered more than two percent in any national election contest.
Still, I do not offer the argument that the Koch Brothers are innocent of this attempt to break the unions and impose austerity on working people. And, why would I offer that argument in any case? Isn’t it obvious already that the capitalists in their battle against the laborers always seek to reduce wages to the lowest possible sum? What do we add by jumping up and down like imbeciles wagging our fingers in their faces declaring, “You want to starve us!” like a bunch of naive progressives who believe the antagonism between capital and labor can be overcome at the negotiating table? The point isn’t that the capitalist always and everywhere wants to maximize profits by reducing the wages of the working class to the barest minimum, but that it is precisely this effort that constitutes the historical mission of that class — they are compelled by this insatiable hunger for profit to develop the productive capacities of society!
So I am amused by the meaningless statement by Felix Dzerzhinsky, in his post, Two, Three, Many Wisconsins on the Kasama website that, “we need to put the demand to make the rich pay at front-and-center…” It is a naive slogan almost universally reflected in the posts of Left-leaning writers who invariably point to the same shopworn examples of efforts by Capital to reduce their taxes:
Today’s “debt crisis” is the culmination of the long-term “starve the beast” strategy from an organized corporate-conservative movement. By cutting taxes for the wealthy they have starved the government, created massive debt (guess where the interest payments go) gutted the infrastructure, and put our country on the road to third-world status. This conservative movement has an agenda, and is not interested in working out “bipartisan” compromised.
All of this is incontestably true, but how does this effort on the part of Capital lead to the slogan, “Make the rich pay”? This sophomoric progressive slogan has nothing to do with communism. Pay with what? Every dime the rich have they have extracted from the labor of the working class. They “pay” for nothing — not even for the labor power of their wage slaves. That this demand, which is nothing more than the silly delusion of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, should be uttered by a communist is not just silly, it is incomprehensible.
Even for those with only cursory knowledge of Marx’s writings it is obvious that, in his theory, the entire cost of the State are nothing more than proceeds of the unpaid labor of one portion of the working class paid out as wages or subsistence income to another portion. That the capitalist class should want to shift these costs directly to the productively employed working class — to reduce their consumption by an amount proportionate to these costs, and therefore allow the wages of one worker to suffice for two — doesn’t require a degree in Hegelian philosophy. It only requires commonsense.
The capitalist class would be more than pleased to see the costs of the imperialist adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, the countless military bases encircling the globe, and the ever increasing burden of debt service, deducted directly from the wages of the working class, and to not be forced to see their plunder of working people shared with the vile, parasitic organs of the State. My argument has nothing to do with entirely predictable attitudes of the Koch Brothers. I don’t think the Koch Brothers family agenda is the only force behind Walker’s provocation, and, the drive for austerity in general, as many on the Left imagine.
As the slogan, “Make the rich pay”, implies, the working class has no more desire to absorb the cost of the State than does the capitalist class.
Thus, we are left with no other conclusion but that both Capital and Labor — each class driven by its own empirical needs — are trying to throw off the burden of the State. That, in a society founded on class conflict, this general attempt by society to throw off the cost of this parasitic and wholly unproductive organ takes the form of a conflict between classes on how to divide this burden, should be no mystery to communists.
So long as fascist State economic policy assures an expansion of economic activity, the conflict between the two classes exists only in its latent form — the State issues lucrative contracts to capital; and, directly and indirectly prompts ever greater employment of redundant, superfluous labor-power. The two classes settle, into a more or less uneasy coalition made possible by the fact that each finds the essential condition for its existence — the purchase and sale of labor-power — relatively stable and expanding.
It is only when State economic policy runs into difficulty, when, for a shorter or longer period, the State is incapable of realizing general economic expansion, and when, therefore, the purchase and sale of labor-power is threatened on a more or less universal basis, that the contradiction inherent in the capitalist relations is again brought to the fore, and society descends into open class conflict.
During this period, when the economic crisis has assumed its sharpest form, the burden of the previous accumulation of superfluous labor, and of the costs associated with this superfluous labor, become intolerable and must be cast off. The mode of this casting off is already given in the contradiction inherent in capitalist relations themselves, as each class attempts, by all the means available to it, to push off onto its opposite the burden of the crisis.
The class conflict resulting, which must threaten the existence of the State itself, cannot be resolved simply by passing the burden from one class to the other, but only by the further expansion of unnecessary labor, and by expansion of the State — if this cannot be accomplished, or can only be accomplished in part, the crisis must lead to an unwinding of a part, or even all, of the accumulated superfluous labor, and the abrupt devaluation of both existing capital and labor-power — the form of resolution I turn to in the next part of this series.
To be continued
Call me unnecessarily skeptical about these things, but when I run into a narrative that fits neatly into my assumptions I immediately begin to question my assumptions.
The cartoonish battle unfolding in Madison just does not hold up to scrutiny: we have unions that are not unions and only exist because the state of Wisconsin granted them the right to organize the labor force. These unions have no protection under the law and were expressly excluded from the Wagner and Taft-Hartley slave labor acts.
We also have two-bit players in the oil industry, who, despite resounding rejection in an election contest, have managed to rise to the position of the cutting edge of the capitalist onslaught against labor — setting the agenda of the fascist State.
Excuse me, but, as a jury member, I am not buying the circumstantial evidence.
I often like to surf Marxist sites and tweak their noses by crapping on their archaic analysis of the world around them. Despite years of painful self-examination these Marxists insist on donning the blinders worn by generations of predecessors regarding the State.
In a recent foray, I visited the Kasama site to see how they were covering the events in Madison and was greeted with pretty much the same insipid analysis as that presented by labor historian and author Peter Rachleff in the first section of this piece. One writer, Felix Dzerzhinsky, has called for, “Two, three, many Wisconsins”; a play on Che Guevara’s call for revolutionaries to emulate Vietnam in its resistance to American imperial aggression in the 1960s. Of the prospect for a successful outcome in Wisconsin, Dzerzhinsky dutifully writes:
All of this could change for the better or worse tomorrow. Everything depends on the ability of workers to maximize the disruption of business as usual in the state: keep the Capitol shut down, keep as many schools as possible closed and teachers and sympathetic students at the Capitol or in the streets, etc. The rest of the country is watching, and the activists among us are wondering if we’ll be able to reproduce this level of constructive anger in response to the attacks that we face.
Predictable Marxist pap, but what is interesting about Felix’s analysis — why I am fascinated by it — and what escapes most of the idiots on the Left, with their knee-jerk support for the Potemkin village unions currently battling Walker’s assault, is that Felix alone seems to have an inkling that defense of these worthless company unions was precisely the wrong place to begin the fight against austerity.
Why has Wisconsin risen up? I’m happy to report that they were able to start in a place where I suggested we not start: with a militant defense of the rights of public-sector workers. Economic hard times, I wrote, mean that this is a bad place to start, because so much of the public resents public-sector workers who have benefits that they do not have. Better to defend public-sector workers only in the context of a broader fight against service cuts, I said, and then we need to put the demand to make the rich pay at front-and-center, lest we lose too many people to capital’s mystifications about taxes. I still think a lot of this holds true going forward, but I also think I underestimated the catalytic potential of public-sector workers. After all, their unions are still the big battalions of the fight to defend public services. And perhaps more crucially, no matter where you are, everyone knows a teacher. Everyone knows a city trash collector or state worker. Everyone knows a firefighter; they were exempt from Walker’s direct attack, but they know the meaning of solidarity, and are aware that their own bargaining positions will be weakened if other unions are weakened, so they showed up at the Capitol in some strength. And yes, everyone knows a cop: they were also exempt from Walker’s attacks, but reports indicate that plenty of them showed up to support the other unions as well — out of uniform, of course, but thereby marking the first time you were ever grateful to see a plainclothes policeman at a demonstration.
Despite his insight regarding the danger of letting the battle against austerity turn into a battle for the defense of the public unions, Felix welcomes this disastrous turn of events. The reason why this is a disaster still holds, he acknowledges, but, blinded by the apparent numerical strength of these fictitious unions, and their enthusiasm, he gets swept up in the unfolding events.
Moreover, it never seems to occur to Felix that this was the entire motive of Walker’s unnecessary, and wholly gratuitous, attempt to remove the bargaining rights that, as I have already shown, the public unions never really had in the first place. The attack on bargaining rights was an ambush; a deliberate provocation designed to bring the unions into the streets. Walker wanted to goad the public unions into a fight they could not win so he could paint them as the face of the public sector. The public unions are to serve as the black welfare queen of the 21st Century — the racist stereotype of the single mother introduced by the Reagan administration — and which stereotype was confirmed by President William Clinton when he signed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act into law — with the strategic placement of smiling black women on either side of him.
The union leaders — instead of warning their members, and admitting the reality of the unions’ cardboard existence — led them into a fight in which they are outclassed and have already lost.
Is it possible to recover from this disaster? Frankly, it doesn’t look good.
According to Kasama, “The 97-union South Central Federation of Labor voted Monday night to prepare for a general strike that would take place if Gov. Scott Walker succeeds in enacting his budget repair bill, which would strip most bargaining rights from most public employee unions.” Only about 15% of workers in Wisconsin are covered by unions — a percentage that is higher than the average for the United States, but down from the more than 20% union membership rate in 1989. Moreover, a spokesman for the Federation was unclear on how many of its 385,000 members would actually take action, nor did he give an estimate of how many of the more than 2.2 million non-union labor force could be expected to join.
Finally the spokesman provided little information on what strike action would take place or its target:
“It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to stop working on a particular moment or day,” Aniel said. “It means that we are preparing so that the decisions are made in a very significantly different way so that it protects the people of Wisconsin.”
But some services would be shut down, he said. The labor group would still have to determine which services would be shut down, he added.
“If it was decided the governor’s mansion really wasn’t that important and it wasn’t that important to heat it or give it electricity or to guard it, then those things wouldn’t happen,” Aniel said.
Two or three more disasters like this? We can only hope not.
To be continued
The battle lines seem familiar enough: on the one hand we have a coalition of the most regressive right wing forces who have set out to destroy unions and the rights of labor generally; and who appear intent on driving wages to levels commensurate with those of the age of robber barons. On the other hand, a coalition of unions who are bearing the brunt of this unrelenting assault, and who, inspired by events in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya are making a determined stand against it.
Labor historian and author Peter Rachleff provides us with an overview of the forces arrayed in this battle, which, at first glance, seems less like David and Goliath, and more like a collision of two massive powerful sumo wrestlers:
WITH THE Koch Brothers footing the bill for his campaign, Scott Walker assumed the governorship of Wisconsin on January 7, 2011. Walker’s first action as governor was obeisance to the corporate class that that put him in office: he gave $140 million in tax breaks to businesses, including WalMart, and then screamed “budget crisis!” This move allowed him to introduce his “budget repair bill,” which would require state workers to pay $5,000 to $7,000 a year towards their health insurance benefits and pensions.
Uninformed, public-sector-bashing Walker supporters see this as an overdue come-down in public sector workers’ unfair advantages. But the scope of Walker’s bill is much broader than public sector wages, benefits and unions. It is a salvo in the broader Republican war against working people and all unions, proposing radical positions in the right’s plan to create a permanent under-class of non-unionized workers: 1) reduce public employee collective bargaining strictly to wages; 2) prohibit all public employee strikes (the National Guard is on stand-by in Madison); 3) eliminate automatic deductions for union dues; 4) limit collective bargaining contracts to one year; and finally, 5) require union members to vote each year to “re-certify” bargaining units.
Of course, the bill also proposes cuts in public education and public services. And right behind Walker’s “budget repair bill” is an additional bill to make Wisconsin a “right-to-work” state, which would severely limit the powers of private-sector unions. The one-two punch.
Giddy with the alignment of Republicans behind him in the House and Senate, Walker called a special session to demand immediate passage of his “budget repair bill.” Simultaneously, he sent a letter to every state worker, warning that there would be no extensions of current contracts beyond March 13–a decree which would eliminate collective bargaining. He declared all of this non-negotiable.
Look for the Union Label
The sheer breadth and depth of Walker’s comprehensive demands on the unions should be enough to alert us that, though formally appearing as equals on the plain of battle, the unions are far from equal to the forces Walker has deployed against them. Walker has essentially demanded that the unions cease to exist: constantly fight for their life as organizations by stripping off the routine automatic deductions that fund their operations; seek annual recertification from their members; and make it impossible for them to enforce any of their demands by threat of strike. Such demands as he made would be unthinkable had Walker confronted labor organizations capable of fighting back and both willing and determined to bring Wisconsin government to its knees to defend themselves and their members.
Simply placing these demands on the unions, Walker exposed them as coddled, dependent in-house organizations, that survive and operate only at the pleasure of the State. The demands are excessive not by reason of the comprehensiveness of the ultimatum, but because the comprehensiveness of the demands themselves demonstrate how little need there was for the demands in the first place. These organizations were never unions, they were in-house organs for the management of public employees by the State.
The Union-busting Kochtopus from Hell
If you want poster boys for the Right-wing conspiracy against working people, you need look no further than Charles and David Koch. Name an organization on the Right that wants to strip workers’ rights and turn the economy into a vassal-state of Capital, and more than likely you have named an organization receiving contributions from the Koch Brothers. They have been linked to astroturf organizations like Americans for Prosperity, Patients United Now, Citizens for a Sound Economy, and Citizens for the Environment.
According to the Wiki:
Charles and David Koch also have been involved and have provided funding to a number of other think tanks and advocacy organizations: They provided initial funding for the Cato Institute, they are key donors to the Federalist Society, and also support the Mercatus Center, the Institute for Humane Studies, the Institute for Justice, the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution, the Institute for Energy Research, the Foundation for Research on Economics and the Environment, Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the George C. Marshall Institute, the Reason Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute.
With billions of dollars at their disposal and a family history of extreme Right-wing causes — including the founding by Papa Fred Koch of the John Birch Society — the family has long been opponents of the post-war statist agenda. In 1980, Charles Koch was candidate for president on the Libertarian Party ticket and has long advocated not only the abolition of Social Security, but also public education and even the Central Intelligence Agency. In the 2010 election cycle, according to the wiki, the Koch Brothers backed Scott Walker’s campaign and one of their related organizations, Americans for Prosperity, lobbied for Walker’s public union-busting plan.
Today, Charles and David Koch must feel a little like a young black man on trial: convicted of an as yet unknown crime before the trial has even started. On the Left, almost unanimously, they are being singled out as the chief instigator of the unrelenting assault on the company unions in the public sector. Somehow, against alleged widely held, long-standing, liberal society expectations, these minor bit players in the oil industry, who barely garnered one percent of the vote in the 1980 presidential election, have managed to change the terms of the debate in all of society against the public unions who compose half of all unionized workers in the country.
Frankly, I smell a frame-up.
To be continued
(Shown in the above chart is the historical correlation between the change in debt and the rate of unemployment. Courtesy of economist Steve Keen and chrismartenson.com)
Libertarians, anarchists and communists who sincerely favor a stateless society must realize that the present crisis is not merely, nor even primarily, an economic crisis — it is a crisis of the State itself. There is no exit for the State from this crisis, and it must result in the collapse of the State.
How we approach this crisis can spell the difference between a long drawn out process of collapse, or a much shorter one.
The two great issues facing Washington in this crisis are the rising public debt and the rising population of persons who cannot find work. Since World War II, Washington has been able to enjoy a trade off between these two symptoms of capitalist breakdown by encouraging the accumulation of private and public debt to offset the tendency toward a fall in productive employment of labor power.
The growth in public and private debt has allowed Washington to perform its essential role in a period of capitalist relative breakdown: to maintain generally stable conditions for the purchase and sale of labor power. This role corresponds to the needs of both the working and capitalist classes insofar as we only consider them as poles within capitalist relations of production.
In the face of falling demand for the productive employment of labor power, Washington has encouraged and facilitated the expansion of unproductive employment based on various forms of consumer debt in particular — mortgage, credit cards, auto loans, etc. — but also public debt, including ever increasing levels of federal debt. This debt, since it can never be repaid and sits on the books of financial institutions as fictitious assets, must be succeeded by increasing levels of new debt. It is a classic Ponzi scheme that had to unravel eventually and finally did in the Great Financial Crisis of 2008.
Since 2008, Washington has attempted to stabilize the economy by accumulating massive amounts of debt in its own right, hoping for its stimulative interventions in the economy to trigger a new round of debt accumulation by consumers. Consumers, who have been hit hard by the loss of millions of jobs in 2008 and 2009 have not responded to Washington’s stimulative interventions, and appear to be having an increasingly hard time even servicing existing debt.
The central problem facing Washington is that massive amounts of new debt must be created each year to absorb those who lost their jobs in 2008-2009. Moreover, this new debt must be sufficient not only to absorb those who lost their jobs, but also more than a million new workers who enter the labor force each year looking for work, and those who continue to be displaced from productive employment because of improving productivity. If consumers (who are, overwhelmingly, those workers who still are employed) are not able to carry a sufficient new debt burden to absorb this huge mass of new and existing unemployed, plus offset the falling demand for employment of labor power resulting from improvements in productivity, Washington will face an ever increasing mass of unemployed persons who are living on the edge of starvation.
At the same time, since Washington has been trying to compensate for inadequate consumer debt accumulation by running massive deficits in 2009, 2010, and 2011, a broad section of the population has been growing uneasy with the seemingly endless river of red ink in the federal budget. It doesn’t take a degree in economics to figure out that the massive accumulation of new federal debt must in time be offset by equally massive increases in the tax burden on the population and severe austerity of the type already evident in many European countries.
The result must be the steady conversion of public taxes into debt service to line the pockets of the big holders of federal debt, even as Washington tries to maintain its completely superfluous expenditures on military adventures, while the social safety net is ruthlessly eviscerated; leaving large segments of the population to starve. In its extremity, the fascist State consists solely of an ever increasing mass of new debt undertaken to maintain itself as an aggressive military machine.
Washington is thus trapped in an intractable crisis of rising public debt coupled with rising unemployment and an increasingly naked militaristic posture, even as it fails to address its most basic function: maximizing the purchase and sale of labor power. To an extent not seen in the post-World War II period, we are seeing the formation of permanent unemployable mass on the scale previously experienced only during the Great Depression. Despite two massive stimulus injections of nearly $1 trillion each, unprecedented zero interest rates for more than two years, and Federal Reserve money printing on a scale never seen before in history, unemployment has not fallen to anything approaching pre-crisis levels.
Washington is vulnerable to attack by those who favor a stateless society on both fronts. I would suggest libertarians, anarchists and communists pursue these points of agitation in their work:
- Debt and deficit spending: Oppose any attempt by Congress to increase the debt ceiling. It is clear that the Obama administration is working with both the GOP controlled House and the Democratic controlled Senate to slip through another increase in the debt ceiling this Spring. Libertarians, anarchists and communists should not stand aloof from this fight. They must combine efforts to ensure a NO vote on raising the debt ceiling, and to identify those Republican and Democratic Party representatives and senators who are conspiring with the Obama administration to saddle the nation with more debt.
- Unemployment and hours of labor: To the charge by apologists for Washington that deficit spending is necessary to combat rising unemployment, we should answer that it is not necessary. The unemployment crisis is solely the result of the refusal by Washington to reduce hours of labor. Those who stand for a stateless society should point out that increasing productivity of labor has made the reduction of hours of labor the pressing issue of our time. Any attempt to substitute State intervention in the economy for this reduction can only lead to further accumulation of debt without solving the problem of unemployment.
Washington is caught in a cul-de-sac from which there is no exit. Now is the time to strike a deathblow to it, and pave the way for a stateless society. If we fail to take advantage of this opportunity, we will have only ourselves to blame.
I will tell you a story, “and we are speaking now of another time…”
Beginning with Mario Savio* and what came to be called by Time Magazine or some other such establishment entity: The Free Speech Movement, the sand beneath our feet began to shift, although we could not have felt this shifting at the time. In fact, even the shooting of the young Catholic President who our parents loved meant to us simply that, someone shot the President. I heard it coming out of 8th grade band. A kid in the lunch area told me and I said, “I don’t believe you,” and he said, “go look at the flagpole,” and I did and the flag was flying at half mast and so it must have been true. Tell me, just what the fuck is that supposed to mean to a self involved 8th grader. In the days that followed all I know is that I missed the live shooting of the guy they called Lee Harvey Oswald, and that pissed me off. I could only pretend the next day that I did see it and I doubt I pulled that off even as good a liar as I was. But more importantly and to the point, once again, we did not feel the shifting of the sand.
(The “We” in this case are the original Baby Boomers, those of us born directly after WW II, 1946 through 1952; to extend this group to 1954 is a bit of a stretch for the purposes of this lengthy comment.)
In any event, The Free Speech Movement as presented by the media and as discussed in various households was the first time the boomer’s heard the word: Movement. Sadly, The Beats, if that can be called a movement, for us were co-opted, a parody, represented in Mad Magazine by bongos and on television by Dobie Gillis’ friend, Maynard G. Krebs and in the Beach Blanket Bingo movies as goofs to be snickered at and so we missed whatever they may have offered in the way of wisdom or otherness. (This power of imagery and the use of television to distort, confuse and misdirect will come to us again and again as this essay moves forward. And it will not be an insignificant tool of power.) We missed out on the Beats entirely though many of us had the presence of mind to look back for it later on and say what one will, the true beats did not surrender to the state and reality as represented by state or government.
In fact, for the purposes of this entry it may well be said that they did offer a glimpse of what could be called a “voluntary association,” totally removed from the state and government, a sort of modern day and stoned out Thomas Becket: “Its all too easy, man. You bring the sardines and I’ll bring the wine and we’ll just cool out.”
It seemed odd to us, the word Movement. We had no concept of what a Movement might be. We all acted collectively, but it was a “voluntary association” of sameness, wearing the right shirts from the right stores, the right shoes, etc. etc. The social pressure of junior high and high school in the arid Leavitt Town sameness of de facto segregated Lakewood, California, population 84,000, of the early Sixties can not be overstated. And, as concerns Free Speech, well, truth be stated, to us, we were just learning how to use swear words in a useful manner that suited our macho image that we were all busy cultivating for ourselves. All we knew about Mario and his movement was that it was pissing a lot of WW II fathers of us off. A lot. And that once, he made the cover of Life Magazine. It was all the grownups talked about that week.
And then something happened. The same year that I heard the first Beatles album I was walking up Woodruff Avenue on a bright, sunny blue sky day and a fellow I knew from the neighborhood and all through school, he was quite a few years ahead of me, named Jack came walking toward me. He was wearing what I learned was the uniform of a Green Beret and he was using a cane in his right hand, putting his whole weight on the cane each time his leg moved a step. His was the first thousand mile stare I ever saw. The year was 1964. I was fourteen turning fifteen that year and living the life of the Artful Dodger. I was on my own, no parents in sight. I knew nothing. All I knew about life was that one had to eat, one had to fight or bluff off the fight, one had to steal for bread, and, if one were lucky and I was, one had to fuck. That is about all I knew of this world until that day with Jack. He was very tall and I was short and so he looked down at me with this tight smile as he answered my questions about his injury and appearance. I do not believe he once made mention of the country, Viet Nam.
What a difference four years make. By 1965 another older friend, Bruce Waters, wearing full USMC gear had hit the beach in Da Nang and the nation was suddenly at war. This was of little matter to me as I was still living life as an Artful Dodger. 1966 found me in a safe house with a family who, I don’t know, out of pity perhaps, who knows, took me in to live with them. And that proved to make all the difference. All those other Artful Dodgers with whom I hung out are now dead or in prison or both. By 1966 I was making music on stage with dudes twice my age and getting laid as often as I walked out the door.
There was one vaguely nagging fact that was beginning to interrupt the river’s flow. Viet Nam began to enter our living rooms during the evenings by way of the television. Not every evening, mind you, perhaps only weekly at first, but often enough so that by the end of the year every citizen now knew of a country called Viet Nam. And, there was a draft going on. My older brother was drafted and served in Germany. Good duty that.
The next two years, 1967 and 1968 proved to be the defining moment and nothing less than the shaping impulse of my entire generation.
In June of 1967 The Beatles who had been in the basement mixing up the medicine released the Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album, Pepper as it came to be called and our world wide culture was changed forever, overnight. The total tonnage of the written word as regards this album and its effect does not need to be added to here, but suffice to say the spiritual connection we felt to this work of art was visceral and sublime, and it shattered and rendered moot all our previous views and acceptation of the status quo as regards “the establishment,” freedom to and freedom of, the rigid control of hair, and, most importantly, the collective norms of Norman Rockwell’s America.
This collection of songs and sounds represent the seminal moment of the Sixties; the zeitgeist , if you will, exploded into being with this event. Now there are those who would argue this point but they will not convince. Not me in any event.
All that followed was coda. For our generation this was the beginning of our voluntary association. We grew our hair together, we rolled our joints together using the album to separate the seeds from the grass, we talked of consciousness together and yes, we talked of war and peace together. It was this event that put us on the course of looking back together and realizing that we were a part of something much bigger than ourselves. We had a lot of catching up to do but we did it with a will and with a purpose. We discovered Lenny Bruce together, Tom Hayden and the SDS and the Anti-War movement, we rediscovered Mario Savio and the Free Speech Movement, the Civil Rights Movement, The Charismatic Black Panther Party, the Feminist Movement with a dish at the forefront, and finally gathering all these causes and movements were rolled into something we just began to call: “The Movement” was for us a reality, an entity, and so it was that our political awareness began and developed and evolved out of the initial act of listening to this album. We came to believe that its release was a revolutionary act and that we ourselves were by the end of 1967 becoming revolutionaries ourselves and we began to make the claim and stake ourselves in voluntary association with The Movement. Oh, and there was one other small matter that measured how committed one was to The Movement that had nothing to do with Sergeant Pepper. It was an easy mathematical formula:the closer one came to draft age=the degree one was passionately engaged with radical voluntary association with The Movement.
A minor point to be sure, but one that should be made.
By 1968 we had well over half a million troops on the ground in Viet Nam and were dropping enough bombs and agent orange to eliminate a continent and The Movement was at its zenith and then came the Tet Offensive. We took it to the streets in what Locke called, “An appeal to Heaven.” We chanted and vowed to “hurl our bodies against the machine,” Martin Luther King had a dream and got dead, we chanted “Run Bobby, Run” and Bobby got dead, and it became to seem we were in a death struggle with the government and it wasn’t about leaders now, there were no Robespierre’s, no Tom Hayden’s, we didn’t give a shit if the revolution would be televised or not, we were pissed and now it was just The Movement and we meant to bring this government down and nothing short of that would do, we would go to our deaths rather than go home, which brings us to this rip in the fabric of time and Flash! to the events in Egypt of the past two weeks. It is like an acid flashback to the “happenings and Love-Ins” of yesteryear. I see young Egyptians laughing and dancing in the streets, a bold relief of the Summer of Love. I see them making art out of the stones that just a few days ago were breaking their heads open, an echo of the flower child placing flowers in the gun barrels of the National Guard during the March on the Pentagon. I see in these young people the very same actions and acts of bravery I gave witness to all those years ago. I am extremely proud of them and all they have accomplished thus far, and I am most proud of what they who have spent the entire two weeks on the front lines are saying: “No one now in consultation or negotiations with the government talks for us. We who brought this change about from our actions alone are not represented by anyone.“ These are without doubt bold, courageous and strong words of contempt aimed at anyone who would claim to be representing in legitimate fashion the peaceful revolution of the youth movement that brought down a government that by any standard would have been considered one of incontestable power. Those words were not stated in the form of a complaint mind you, but as a matter of fact. To paraphrase, “You knuckleheads do not represent us. You have yet to hear from us.”
And, it is in these very words from the youth that lend hope, if that is the right word, to those who see in the events of the past few months in the Middle East beginning in Tunisia and culminating in Egypt the possibility of an evolution of thought that edges closer to a stateless society, a society of voluntary association, defiance and revolt gone global.
But I am also extremely weary. Weary and wary.
In the final analysis what did The Movement win? What did it lose?
For me I see it now as through a glass, but darkly. I remained active up and down the West Coast moving from campus to campus, street fight to street fight, was drafted into the USMC with a CO status, pulled a Muhammad Ali after I kicked in Anderson’s ribs with my boot for fucking up the platoon with his sub-par performance; they got to me and that is all I have to say about that, I rejoined The Movement, got busted by the FBI on my way to Wounded Knee, we ended the war, we ended the draft, black folk got a taste of freedom, woman got what ever the fuck woman want, Congressmen grew sideburns and longish hair, Nixon resigned and then it was over, the Sixties ended. I don’t know; I am unable to measure it all.
I tend to my own garden now. I taught my children well and I told them the stories because I believed it made them better men. It did.
Television, the lights and wires in a box that Murrow warned us of is now telling us what the events in Egypt mean and the Secretary of State and that cipher of a President are moving the shadows on the cave wall as best they can, and hope remains where it has always been, at the bottom of Pandora’s Box. Who can say if her time has come?
But if nothing else of note comes from all this, and the actions of the youth of Egypt are co-opted with the smiles and sideburns of a new and improved version of the status quo this truth will remain: come what may of their efforts and contributions they will be able to say with all truth and certainty to their children and their grandchildren, “I was there on St. Crispin’s Day, we few, we happy few, we band of brothers and sisters.”
And they will roll back their sleeves and show their scars and nothing the future brings will ever take that away from them. Nothing.
And their children and grandchildren will love them and honor them. As well they should.
I think it should.
The popular uprising, somewhat discredited as a means of achieving a stateless society until recently, appears to be in vogue again. What makes it of particular interest to me is that the uprising is itself a voluntary cooperative act by members of society against an intolerable state machine. It doesn’t take much curiosity to wonder if this voluntary association can do more than simply challenge the existing order.
Can it replace the existing order as was attempted with the Paris Commune?
I have been reading the French philosopher Alain Badiou’s recent talk “Alain Badiou on Tunisia, riots & revolution”. As usual, this monumental thinker clarifies a lot of things in my opinion. Just reading his talk aided my own understanding of the Egyptian uprising going on now.
Here is how Badiou analyzes the Tunisian uprising:
The particular problem of the riot, in as much as it calls state power into question, is that it exposes the state to political change (the possibility of its collapse), but it doesn’t embody this change: what is going to change in the state is not prefigured in the riot. This is the major difference with a revolution, which in itself proposes an alternative. That is the reason why, invariably, rioters have complained that a new regime is identical to an old one…
The power of the uprising, Badiou argues, “is essentially negative (‘make it go away’)” All uprisings are acts of despair and desperation and this desperate act is a striking out against, and throwing off of, the intolerable burden of the existing State.
The problem with this act is that it does not, of itself, address the question: “What now?”
The riot is a desperate rage against an intolerable State, which, even when successful, has no affirmative design beyond getting rid of the existing order. Absent a positive conception of a new order to replace the old one it offers no obvious solution to the problem of the intolerable power whose overthrow it has just effected. The danger posed by the absence of a positive aim after the overthrow of the old order is that the old order merely reconstitutes itself in a new form. In a remarkable passage in which he identifies Egypt as a potential target, Badiou explains this reconstitution of the old order:
The Western press has already responded by saying that what was expressed there was a Western desire. What we can affirm is that a desire for liberty is involved and that such a desire is without debate a legitimate desire under a regime both despotic and corrupt as was that of Ben Ali. How this desire as such suggests a Western desire is very uncertain.
It must be remembered that the West as a power has so far given no proof that it cares in any way whatsoever about organising liberty in the places where it intervenes. The account of the West is: “are you walking with me or not?”, giving the expression “walk with me” a signification internal to the market economy,* if necessary in collaboration with counter-revolutionary police. “Friendly countries” like Egypt or Pakistan are just as despotic and corrupt as was Tunisia under Ben Ali, but we’ve heard little expressed about it from those who have appeared, on the occasion of the Tunisian events, as ardent defenders of liberty.
Without a positive conception of its aspirations the uprising will fall prey to the reconstitution of the old order that is not merely the Mubarak regime, but the empire headquartered in Washington, for which the Egyptian state is only the local outpost. The hallmarks of this reconstitution are constitutional reform, replacement of the most odious personalities, a reshuffling of the cabinet, and a promise of “free and fair elections” — what Badiou calls the “Western inclusion”. Beneath all of this reshuffling, however, the existing State continues undisturbed.
Badiou asks: “Is there another possibility?” He answers: “Yes.”
If it is true that, as Marx predicted, the space where emancipatory ideas are realised is a global space (which, incidentally, wasn’t the case with the revolutions of the Twentieth Century), then the phenomena of Western inclusion cannot be part of genuine change. What would genuine change be? It would be a break with the west, a “dewesternisation”, and would take the form of an exclusion.
If there were a different evolution than the evolution toward Western inclusion, what could that attest to? No formal response can be given here. We can simply say there is nothing expected from the analysis of the state’s process which, through long and torturous necessity, will eventually result in elections.
What is interesting about Badiou is he never feels the need to tack on some finishing touch to his analysis. He goes only so far as his analysis takes him and leaves it there. This gives his analysis the appearance of being unfinished, but it is actually his most powerful argument. Badiou simply tells us that, so far as he can see, there is no reason why an uprising has to end up with “free and fair elections” and the perfunctory reforms orchestrated by Washington. In the case of the Tunisian riots, he concludes only by stating that what the riot lacks in terms of an affirmative statement can only be discovered by studying the events themselves:
What is required is an patient and careful inquiry among the people, in search of that which, after an inevitable process of division … will be carried by a fraction of the movement, namely: statements. What is stated can by no means be resolved within Western inclusion. If they are there, these statements, they will be easily recognisable. It is under the condition of these new statements that the development of the organisation of figures of collective action can be conceived.
So, what can we learn from Egypt about the possibilities for a stateless society in light of Badiou’s analysis of Tunisia? In my opinion, the following:
In his inquiry Badiou poses the alternative affirmation as an essentially negative act: “an exclusion” or break with the West. It is expressed in the form of a declaration of intention by the uprising that is fundamentally incompatible with the existing order — with globalization and empire itself.
However, so far as I can tell, the uprising in Egypt is this negative act of exclusion already. By challenging the legitimacy of the Mubarak regime the uprising called into question the entirety of relations of which Mubarak and his henchmen are only the local expression. Confirmation of my conclusion can be seen simply by reviewing Washington’s response to the uprising — the Obama administration certainly believes that its fundamental interest are at risk.
What Badiou demonstrates, therefore, is that the uprising must become aware of itself as an active challenge to “the West” — to globalization and empire. To become more than a mere riot, the uprising must recognize that it is the first act of a voluntary association — the first act by which this voluntary association establishes itself as a new basis for society. Badiou demonstrates that it is not a question of organization, but a question of consciousness on a mass scale that is wanting.
The question we all have to ask ourselves at this point is simple: What separates the uprising of January 25 from the Paris Commune?
In the case of the Paris Commune, the uprising recognized itself as the solution to the intolerable burden of the State. It did not merely sweep away the existing order, but set about to manage society itself in voluntary association. It invited the rest of France to join with it.
Every local uprising like January 25 should aspire to become a non-local event – to declare itself as the new basis of social organization and to appeal to the oppressed of the world to join with it. The call for a transitional government, constitutional reform, new elections, etc., should be rejected. The January 25 uprising must avoid being defined as something of significance only to Egypt; it cannot win if it is confined to Egypt — it must strip off its national form. In response to the secret negotiations directed by Washington, the January 25 uprising will have to aggressively declare its intentions to go global.
If the January 25 movement does not acquire a consciousness of its own global significance it will be isolated and suppressed. It has to aspire to more than changing local personalities and declare that the empire, headed by Washington, is the enemy.
What is truly revolutionary in the uprising in Egypt is that it can become a universal event, spreading beyond Egypt – a general rising of the oppressed. To do this, the uprising will have to reject every attempt both to confine it to Egypt and pacify it with minor changes in the existing State.
The target is Washington and its empire; the aim is to replace this empire with the voluntary association of individuals.