Tuesday, July 6, 2010

The Movement and the Moment – Part II, Defining the Moment

Marx was wrong. I’m sorry to say it, but it’s undeniable. He was not all wrong, but he was seriously wrong.

He was not wrong, of course, about his historical analysis, and he wasn’t wrong about what was going to happen in the immediate future of capitalism. But he was wrong about the inevitably of socialism and he was wrong about capitalism’s inability to adapt to the challenge of an organized proletariat.

Okay, so maybe that’s old news. But why, then, do leftists continue trying to deny it? If there is one reason why global capital has been able to proceed unfettered by meaningful resistance, it’s that leftists in the capitalist countries persist in trying to cram the 21st century reality into a nineteenth century solution.

The people who sell Socialist Worker at demonstrations, and those of us who secretly sympathize with them, are the Luddites of our time.

Luddites were not were not irrationally opposed to technology. Eric Hobsbawm, the British Marxist historian, calls them “simple-minded laborers … smashing the machines which they thought responsible for their troubles,” but that is unfair. They correctly saw that the machines were taking away their livelihood. They were simply deluded in believing that they had the power to hold back the march of capital and its brainchild, mechanization. If we do not want to be described by some twenty-fourth century historian (aboard the Enterprise, no doubt) as “simple-minded activists smashing at the banks they thought were responsible for their troubles,” we need to acknowledge that we have no power to stop the consolidation of capital.

What we might have the power to do is push forward the historical process we’re in, if we can figure out what it is. In Wiccan circles, we sing a song that goes, “Even though it is the darkest hour, no one can hold back the dawn.” The Luddites forgot that, or they didn’t realize that they were at the dawning of the Industrial Age. So what age is dawning now?

I imagine a cell of radical dinosaurs hunkered around the campfire at the La Brea Tar Pits, plotting to overthrow T-Rex, when out of nowhere, along comes a meteor and punches a massive hole in the forest. So what do the Socialist Brontosauruses do? Do they continue trying to organize the foliage-growers and rodent-hunters or do they go help rebuild tar pits for the displaced pterodactyls? Or do they look at what is seeping through the hole in the earth and try to figure out how to turn it into food and shelter, maybe getting there before the ruling dinos do? Well obviously, they didn’t do that, or we would not be here today, but we’re supposed to believe in evolution, so theoretically, we can learn from their mistakes.

There are big historical shifts, like the Industrial Revolution and the rise of nation-states in the Renaissance, there are small shifts, like the difference between Carter’s foreign policy and Reagan’s, and there are medium shifts, like the creation and breakup of the Soviet Union. I maintain that we’re in a massive shift right now. Massive, but not unprecedented. It’s easy to imagine that things are more terrible now than they’ve ever been in history, because we know so much more about conditions in so many places. But in fact, it’s hard to believe that things are worse now than during the Plagues in Europe, or the slavery era in Africa or the famines in Ireland, or the nuclear bombing of Japan. Like many times in the past, it’s a time of great crisis and a time of great promise. When people sound the death-knell of life on the planet, I can’t help recall the predictions of total collapse on Y2K which so many leftists embraced with thinly veiled glee. I called it the Millenialist Bug. Whether you’re a religious or secular apocalyptic, it’s comforting to believe that it’s out of our hands, that the world is about to have its way with us and all we can do is try to ensure we’re standing on the right side when the end comes.

I don’t believe it. People are going to suffer, people are going to be forced to move, but, sadly, that’s been the case many many times in human history. Climate change is how the first people ended up on this continent, right?

Does that mean we don’t try to reduce carbon emissions, lessen our footprint, and all that? No, of course not. But it means that we recognize that usually, political changes come about as adaptations to new geophysical conditions, not the other way around. So I propose that we look at the new geographic and demographic conditions taking shape, and try to imagine what adaptations to those conditions might look like. And that might suggest political paths that are with the tide rather than against it.

So one of the new geographic conditions is that an increasing number of people have national identities which are not tied to the place where they live. Combined with that is the rise of transnational identities, some of which are religious, some cultural and others related to other social classifications. This shift in primary identity creates a lot of anger and nervousness in people who have grown up believing (because it’s been drilled into them) that loyalty to the nation we live in is the highest value that there is. And that translates into reactionary social policy not only in places like Arizona, but also in places like Iran, where openly gay people are considered “West toxified,” in Switzerland, where mosques are being banned, in Cambodia, where feminist activists are imprisoned, in France, where schoolgirls are forbidden to wear hijab, and in Sudan, where women are flogged for wearing pants.

I think one big historical shift we’re on the verge of is the disappearance of national borders. Or they might exist as more or less fictional boundaries, like in much of Europe now – something that determines which soccer team you root for (or whether you call it soccer or football) but doesn’t have too much to do with where you can live or work. And to the extent that is true, it’s sure to be scary to people who have never had a passport.

What are people afraid of, that makes them seek policies like the Arizona laws calling for profiling of immigrants and banning accented English? In its most distilled form, they are afraid that these “newcomers” (many of whom are hardly new, but that’s not here nor there – what they stand for is new) are going to force them out of their homes. And that’s something we should be able to empathize with, even while we reject both their analysis and their solutions.

So while boycotting Arizona, blockading their borders, marching against their policies, ostracizing their sports teams are all legitimate and satisfying responses to hate legislation, we also have to look at those opinion polls saying that 58% of people in the country support those policies. And while the accuracy of opinion polls can be questioned, that number is probably not off by that much. That raises a few interesting points. One is that if we don’t figure out how to calm those fears, we are soon going to be boycotting nearly every state in the country, including our own, which is hard to do. Another is that given the demographics of the country, some of the people who support anti-immigrant legislation are immigrants themselves, and many more are the children of recent immigrants. Which means that much-heralded date in 2024 when people of color become the majority in this country cannot be counted on to produce a more compassionate society.

If indeed, borders are about to become more fluid, then it doesn’t make sense to continue promoting statist solutions to social problems. So one thing the left needs to do is let go of our attachment to the state and start envisioning forms of social organization that can remain constant while the population around them is ever in flux. Another thing we need to confront is how to create a sense of security in a rootless world. For that we can certainly look to immigrant and migrant communities, who have shown remarkable abilities to replicate the institutions of “home” often in a series of new locations.

I am the last person to suggest that we should make common cause with the Tea Parties or the Minutemen. But what I do suggest is that we are as nostalgically attached to the salvation offered by the state as they are to that of the nation. And possibly, if we can find a way past our own nostalgia, we might discover a way past theirs.

I wrote the above yesterday, after thinking about it for the last several weeks. Then this afternoon, I heard Peter Ward, author of The Flooded Earth, on the radio predicting that borders will be erased because of flooding. He also suggested that countries will respond by using nuclear weapons to safeguard their borders. If, however, we look at what happened to Europe, when the Berlin Wall came down, it seems more likely that the surge of refugees across borders will result in new regional forms of units of government. But certainly, it is on us to lay the historical groundwork for the latter, rather than the former.

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