The other day on "Democracy Now," Amy Goodman had her annual sit-down with her former partner (not sure what exactly their relationship was or is, but the guy she went to East Timor with all those years ago), Allen Nairn. They were talking about Obama's first year, and Nairn was certainly devastating to anyone who still cherished some illusions or hope about Obama as a force for progressive change. For me, he said nothing that I hadn't known for a long time, and I ultimately had to turn it off.
The next day I was talking to a friend who had found the interview fascinating and inspiring, and she asked why I turned it off. I said it was demoralizing. But that isn't really true. What I found it was simplistic. He made a list of things "Obama" has done in foreign policy which are against U.S. and international law, and he kept saying that "Obama could turn off the killing machine but he has chosen not to." While that's technically true, I guess -- the president is the commander in chief, as we all know, and has the power under the constitution to unilaterally set foreign policy to an extent -- it doesn't accurately describe how U.S. foreign policy has ever been made in my lifetime. Let's just imagine that Obama, having been elected on his promise to bomb Afghanistan and Pakistan, etc., etc., walked into the White House last January and said, "Okay, we're leaving Afghanistan starting tomorrow?" Would the Powers-That-Be -- more on that later -- have simply shrugged and said, "Okay, well he's the president, nothing we can do about it?"
This is not to say that Obama couldn't and shouldn't have done better. Certainly he didn't need to expand the military spending, and he didn't need to try to fulfill his pledge to close Guantanamo by sending more people to indefinite detention in places like Afghanistan, Illinois and the countries they were kidnapped from in the first place. But it felt to me that by focusing on Obama and on the law, Nairn was skirting the thorny issue of WHY Obama, along with every other president we've had in my lifetime (and probably before) has kept the killing machine working so smoothly. And that's that there's not the political will in this country to turn our society into one that cares about people, in this country or any other. People who campaign on those promises -- Jesse Jackson, Cynthia McKinney, Dennis Kucinich -- get somewhere between 1% and 25% of the vote.
So the question that I was plagued by, as I listened to Allen Nairn, was how do we create the political will to live differently? To be honest, even most of the leftists who oppose U.S. militarism don't imagine a society not governed through violence. They only imagine the guns in the hands of people they like.
Nairn did say one thing that stuck with me as I turned off the TV. He was running down a list of countries where the U.S. has backed repressive regimes, and he mentioned Honduras, where the oligarchic leader Manuel Zelaya decided to abandon his fellow oligarchs and pursue more social equity. And of course we know what happened to Zelaya, and I think that is exactly what would happen to Obama if he were to make the same decision. Maybe it wouldn't look overtly like a military coup, but Obama would be gone, probably dead, and someone the oligarchs liked would be in the process of becoming the democratically elected president.
So the first thing I thought about after I turned off Democracy Now was that we need to get that this is an oligarchy, not a democracy. I mean, I know most leftists know that on some level, but we keep convincing ourselves that our "democratic institutions," whether in the form of mainstream candidates, third parties, legislators, legislation, legal action or protest, can be made to work. But if we understand that this is fundamentally an oligarchy, then we understand that it doesn't matter how they dress it up; ultimately, you cannot do anything that undermines the power of the oligarchs. Protest, such as we are doing now, actually helps them because it makes people believe we have democracy. Electoral campaigns help them even more because they not only promote the idea that we have democracy but they tie up humongous amounts of time and money and leave lots of demoralized people when they fail. And armed resistance, be it stupid unfocused armed resistance like setting fire to SUVs, or plots like the one embodied by underwear bomber, helps them immeasurably by convincing ordinary folks that they're in danger, and need the oligarchic power structure to keep them safe.
I'm not trying to say that we can't have minor victories. I'm not even suggesting that I'm going to stop organizing protest or that my friends who do environmental or civil rights law shouldn't keep trying to stop the worst abuses (my friend Lisa just won a big victory in court, protecting the Desert Tortoise -- congratulations!). But I have started to think about what it would really take to create the political will to have a different type of society. And that has made me start thinking seriously of building alternative institutions.
Now I have never been very big on alternative institutions. I've done my share of volunteering, there are some organizations I love, but I've never gotten really into the community garden thing or the community food coop thing or the free clinic thing. I admire people who do them, but I've never thought I had anything to contribute and somehow I've always felt that they would take time away from my political activism. And too often, I have felt like the people creating those alternative institutions are anti-political, acting as if it's possible to fundamentally change this society through volunteerism or charity work.
One question that now occurs to me is how alternative any institution that is coexisting with the dominant institutions can be. Pretty much, every time we try to set up alternative institutions we either:
· end up founding nonprofits, which if they are really successful, such as the rape crisis centers or domestic violence programs, end up becoming an arm of the state
· end up creating something that is underfunded, understaffed and therefore doesn't provide whatever benefit it's meant to provide as well as the corporations do
· end up creating something that has too many internal contradictions because it's only accessible to people with lots of leisure time or people willing to dedicate all their non-work time to social projects
· have to abandon the project because we can't fund it; or
· spend all our time fundraising and not much doing what we're supposed to be doing.
Whether our alternative institutions succeed or fail (and they seem to mostly fail), they inevitably end up shoring up the dominant institutions by plugging some hole that it is supposed to fill, and/or proving that "the system works" -- i.e., charity is a viable way to get social needs met, or lack of childcare isn't a problem because people can just set up coops.
But what if we could really separate ourselves from the dominant institutions, withdraw both our money and our labor from them, and completely reject their services?
Everyone I know fantasizes about leaving this country. We know that we can't change its policies, and we neither want to be supporting/funding them nor be repressed by them. We feel dispirited and disempowered by continually ramming our heads against the wall of collective indifference. A few of my friends have actually moved to other countries -- some more happily than others, but for most of us it's not really an option. Where would we go, how would we make a living (do we want to teach English?), would we end up doing anything more worthwhile in some other country or would we be even more alienated because we would not even be citizens and most of us wouldn't know the language?
I have always felt that self-imposed exile would be nothing more than an abrogation of responsibility by a privileged few.
But what if instead of taking ourselves out of the U.S., we could take the U.S. out of us?
Could we create a liberated zone within the territory held by the U.S.?
Everyone within a certain community -- town, street, neighborhood -- stops working for corporations or the nonprofits they fund and stops paying taxes to the U.S. and the State. With our combined unpaid taxes as seed money, we free ourselves from the need to work for them. We declare that we do not want their protection, their schools, their hospitals, their roads. We begin to create our own economy, put our own labor toward building our own schools, roads, hospitals, as if we lived in the free country we want to live in, and in fact, we declare that we are a free country, we are not part of the U.S., we are not subject to their laws, we have our own governing agreements..
We open our borders to whoever wants to join us, regardless of their country of origin, we demilitarize, we educate our kids in the ways that make sense to us, we grow our own food and heat our houses with solar and wind and whatever.
If the U.S. doesn't mow us down before we get established, then we start visiting other towns and explaining how our community works. We invite them to join the experiment, trade with us, start some complementary industry to ours, and so on and so forth.
Okay, obviously, I realize that we would not be allowed to do this. Probably within a year or two, the federal and/or state governments would come in to collect their taxes, bringing their soldiers to throw us out of our houses, raze our schools, repossess (or steal) everything of any value, and imprison everyone in town if they couldn't figure out who the "leaders" were. Or they would just shoot their way in and kill us all. But let's just imagine for a few moments that that didn't happen. Let's play with the idea that we could do it. What are some of the issues that would need to be resolved, just among us, if this experiment were going to get off the ground?
· Where do we get water? Gas for our cars? Are we going to use animals for transportation? Food? Are we vegan?
· What other resources would we need that would be hard to come by?
· How large an area would we need to control? How many people would we need to include to start? What would we need to have gotten together before we could start?
· If all the land and property in town were owned locally, would that be enough to ensure that we couldn't be evicted right away?
· We would presumably need some kind of industry that provides us enough capital to start off with, and some way to deliver our product. What could that be? Software? Websites? Data entry?
· How would we protect ourselves? If we have weapons, then we quickly become Ruby Ridge or Wounded Knee. If we don't, then what happens when some group of people, governmental or otherwise, decides to attack us, for whatever we have, for the political example we are setting, or just because?
· Could we raise enough food to withstand the inevitable siege from the U.S.?
· What happens if people join us and won't follow the "rules"? What if we ask people to leave and they won't?
· Presumably if we had open immigration, the U.S. government would use the possibility of al-Qaeda or other operatives sneaking through our borders into theirs to invade us. And indeed, if we're demilitarized, how would we make sure that people aren't doing that?
· What if someone won't work?
· What happens when the kids grow up (assuming that there are kids, and assuming we last that long), and want to go to college in the U.S.? How would we establish their credentials? Would they all leave, and we would die out like the Shakers?
· What would we do for entertainment? Presumably we wouldn't be able to get much television, or Netflix, if we aren't going to buy them from U.S. corporations. Bootleg DVDs? Would that become a premise for the FCC to invade us?
· Would we give every person in town an hour a week on the local television or radio station to do whatever they wanted with? Would people do interesting things, and would we watch or listen to them?
· If we create our own passports and manage to get other countries to agree to accept them, where do we fly out of? What if the U.S. won't accept our passports?
· Could we create enough medical infrastructure? I guess if we couldn't, we could send people to hospitals in the U.S., just as people do in countries where there isn't enough medical care.
I have to say that all these questions have only whetted my appetite to get started. I keep wondering where we could try it. A coastal area seems best, or at least access to a coast. Emeryville? Alameda? Pacifica? West Berkeley? Treasure Island, with all that new housing created after the Navy left?
Anyone want to get together and discuss how we could make this happen?