Friday, November 02, 2007

JoAnn Wypijewski's Response to 'Is there a Left left'?

Please note: This is JoAnn Wypijewski's response to my post on 'Is there a Left left,' a talk she and Alexander Cockburn gave at UMass Amherst on October 15, 2007. It is posted here with JoAnn's permission.

I just saw your blog about the talk. Too bad we didn't get to meet at the event. The question 'Why hasn't the Left done better at organizing around these key issues?' presupposes there is a coherent force in the country that can be called by that name. I don't think there is, in the sense of any potent organized force, let alone mass movement or even mini-movement that is challenging the fundamental terms of the system and is equal to the moment. And this -- the disequilibrium of movement to moment -- I think, is the cause for so much despondency (secret and not-so-secret) among American leftists, who certainly are alive even if some identifiable political and ideological home with a clear project, "The Left", is not.

There are a lot of reasons for this -- obvious ones, like the long-term effect of the imploding of the Soviet Union, the long-term effect of a reigning ideology in the West that 'there is no alternative', the demobilizing effect of Clintonism on vast sectors of progressive America, disorganization and disarray of the black community as a result of repression/criminalization, deindustrialization and split level economic conditions (economic catastrophe for part of the community, McMansions for another part), the continuing long slide of organized labor, a generalized sense of insecurity (economic and personal) that lends itself more to caution than to daring, and so on.

I don't think there is any magic formula, any set of approaches, to 'fix' this, and it would have been presumptuous or dishonest or both to say there was. Why, for instance, is the antiwar movement basically nowhere on campuses? I don't know, and the people on campuses I've spoken to don't have good answers either, but it's up to them to answer that. They were disappointed when the war wasn't stopped before it started after the Feb. 15 worldwide demos. They were disappointed when it wasn't stopped after that, and after a few more marches. They were disappointed and demoralized when Bush was re-elected. They can never get more than 15 people for a meeting and 5 are pushing a sectarian agenda, 5 want to talk only about Palestine and 5 can't get past identity politics. This last, admittedly, I've only heard from Columbia students, but the point is the institutionalized leadership of UFPJ and ANSWER isn't being challenged by a younger generation pushing itself to the lead. And that institutionalized leadership is exhausted. Friends who work for UFPJ every day as volunteers say privately, "It's hopeless." Work goes on, the demos get planned, people do their vigils.

The only force with any juice, it seems to me, are the military families, the counter-recruiters, the antiwar vets. I don't believe some tactical adjustment will change this -- ditching "Support the Troops", ditching big demonstrations, embracing the Moratorium idea of doing one small thing every day on the same month in the same place, ditching UFPJ, ditching any engagement at all with electoral politics, throwing all effort into electoral politics, waving the flag of the Mahdi Army or whatever faction one wants to choose of the Iraqi resistance.

All of those tactics have been proposed by various people. We can discuss till we're blue in the face the various merits or demerits of such ideas, but I think it's foolhardy to think any one or combination of them is going to invigorate the antiwar movement into an edgy potent force. I'm not meaning to be glib. The antiwar movement is in a weird position: it's job is not to sway public opinion, since a majority of Americans agree with it; but nothing changes, so people are demoralized. They're not illogical in their demoralization. And there is neither the wild courage nor the organization to throw a spanner in the works to disrupt the war machine -- not from labor (though some unionists on the West Coast and internationally are trying to see what they might put together toward this end), not from the campuses, and only so far among the soldiers. The latter are the most promising, but are nowhere close to the situation of mass mutiny of drafted armies past. At this point it looks as if the war will end when the Iraqis punish the US beyond endurance or the generals mutiny or both, but I don't think we should have illusions that that will be a glorious day for the Left.

I see you have an entry about a meeting with Naomi Klein. I don't think either that cheerleading -- we need the will! we need the courage! another world IS possible! -- is much of a solution to anything, though I wasn't at that meeting so I won't presume that reflects the whole of it. There are world historical forces afoot here, and one of the jobs of anyone who considers herself on the left is to try to understand them.

I don't think the Left in the heady days of empire really thought too much about the privileges and distortions being children of the empire conferred on it, except to say, in some quarters, We don't want any part of it! But opting out only goes so far, and is delusional even if understandable. Now that the empire is exhausted at the top -- and we could disagree about that, but I think the signs are more indicative of fundamental weakness than of strength even if the US can still kill everyone in the world many times over and still 'afford' billions of dollars a day doing that in one way or another -- radicals are feeling what it means to be part of the general decline. How do we deal with it? That's not an idle question, or one that has an obvious answer.

What I was suggesting was that there was a certain amount of chauvinism attached to the American Left in the sixties, a sense of being at the center of the political universe even if people did make their trips to Hanoi or Ghana or Paris. And part of that was even justified, because America at the time could be said to be "swinging", as I quoted Andy Kopkind from 1967. It's not swinging now, but at the same time it's awfully narrow to have to think of 'the Left' as something that's bounded by national borders. And if we look beyond our borders, there is clearly a Left, in the sense of powerful movements or currents challenging the fundamental terms of the world economic system.

So if one asks, Is there a Left left? the answer is clearly yes, but not necessarily within our borders. So then how do we engage with that? What does solidarity and internationalism, as opposed to rad-tourism, demand today? What can we learn from those who have set out a task of developing "socialism for the 21st century" or autonomy and freedom from the neoliberal chokehold? And how can we support those efforts, while not abandoning organizing at home that might not rattle the world, at least not this minute, but is still necessary if one has any sense of politics as being a long walk?

You ask, in reference to my comments on Latin America, is this something Americans should 'imitate'? and then say isn't it doing that on countless blogs? Come on, you have massed organizations of peasants, workers, farmers, indigenous people in Bolivia toppling two governments, facing bullets and suffering casualties to do so, asserting in the most powerful way claims against the force of privatization, deregulation, immiseration, etc. You have the Zapatistas arising from seemingly nowhere on the eve of NAFTA's implementation saying No, everything is not finished; it is still possible to put up a fundamental fight -- and changing Mexican politics. This is not akin to blogging. And it's not something that can just be 'imitated', which I never suggested. Nor is it something -- either in Bolivia or Mexico or Ecuador or Venezuela or Argentina or Cuba or Brazil -- that is perfectly realized, without contradictions, without setbacks, weaknesses, disappointments and more likely ahead. Most of all it is not something to be romanticized.

But it is, I believe, where the center of political energy has shifted. It is where what Eqbal Ahmad called "the logic of daring" is at work. And it is the original homeland of millions of people now in this country whose movements and organizing here may be uneven, may not conform strictly to some notion of the Left but do bear attention and support from the rest of us. I don't believe I used the term 'new energy' in the pollyannaish sense you imply, but certainly in the realm of labor, organizing by immigrants is where most of the action is. I think one can with justice say that May 1, 2006, was the closest thing to a general strike that the US has seen in a long time, to take the most obvious example.

Now that movement is fractured too, and has its contradictions, and has come under severe repression. That there has been no wider Left in the US to defend immigrants, to articulate the rights of people not only to move across borders (mobility of labor) but also to stay in their homelands and survive -- and to link the international experience with the domestic experience of dispossession on any number of fronts (the most glaring being Katrina) -- indicates that there is a task at hand considerably more robust than blogging in the fight for a world fit to live in.

There are people and groups chipping away at a piece of this here and there, but I'm certain they don't think it will be realized off
a breezy checklist of 'things to do' and I doubt you would have been any more satisfied with the talk if Alex or I had suggested that it could be.

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