by Robert Wrubel
(Swans - August 29, 2005) Two great global crises confront us now -- both easily demonstrated and both apparently unthinkable to our leaders: global warming and peak oil. Both of these developments present future scenarios that are truly frightening -- the end of our industrial economy and total disruption of our way of life -- and for that reason seem to be beyond addressing by said leaders.
Our only hope, in the face of these two predictions, is that they turn out to be premature, as so many similarly Malthusian predictions have in the past. But I don't count on it.
A second level of crisis confronts us too -- a variety of developments that have converged in America to form what might be called a single crisis of democratic government. These include the influence of the military in government (see Chalmers Johnson's Sorrows of Empire), corporate control of media, the corruption of government and elections by money, the eclipse of the opposition party and the weakening of checks and balances, the rise of religious fundamentalism, the abandonment of the New Deal philosophy of government, the promulgation of a permanent state of war and the drift toward authoritarian social control that war requires.
In this gloomy condition, the question we must pose is what can a progressive do? Is there any point in being a Democrat? Is there any future for labor? What are the root issues we should work on -- electoral reform, media reform, health care for all, curbing the military? For writers and intellectuals, there is the further issue raised by the remarkable statement attributed to a high administration official in a recent interview with Ron Suskind: "We are an empire now; we determine reality. You (intellectuals and journalists) can study it all you want, we just make new realities before you're finished." (I take this to mean, while we slowly realized that "compassionate conservative" meant just the opposite of what it sounded, they had already moved on to "healthy forests" and "No Child Left Behind"; or while we argued about WMD, they had already shifted to "regime change," "spreading democracy," etc.)
In this situation, many of the issues that occupy us -- judicial appointments, confidentiality for journalists, presidential elections themselves -- may be just phantoms, red-herrings tossed out to keep progressives busy and away from the deeper issues that confront us.
At the same time, I don't hesitate to admit, addressing these temporal issues may be the way we build progressive coalitions, making our voices heard and little by little extending their reach.
To return to the question -- what should a progressive do? -- there is a layer cake of current views on this. At the top, the most superficial level, there is the Democratic Leadership Council, whose recent revitalized agenda promotes 1) strong defense, 2) family values, and 3) -- does it even matter what the third is? Next comes George Lakoff and the exhortation to "reframe" our discourse, by better understanding our core values and more powerfully communicating a simple world view. We might place next the DFA movement (Democracy for America, formerly Dean for America), the effort to get grassroots Democrats focused on local politics -- getting them to run for school boards, city councils and county government, while building stronger state Democratic organizations -- in imitation of Republican and Christian Right strategies of the past two decades. Advocates of sustainability are on this level, too, realizing that the chances for implementing their ideas are better at the local level than elsewhere.
Above the aforementioned, in my view, are a small group of anti-war activists who are beginning to realize the need to reach out to other groups -- labor and minorities, for example -- in order to build stronger and broader coalitions to affect political change.
All of these strategies are rightly called ameliorist, in that they are attempts to make the system better, restore it to some previous state of transparency and responsiveness, reverse the lurch toward unrepresentative, authoritarian government of the last five years. The question is, can any of these approaches deal with the large structural problems mentioned at the beginning of this article?
To put the question in a slightly different frame -- give it some chiaroscuro -- consider the argument of David Michael Greene in a June 14 article on Commondreams.org ("In the American Bunker"), that regime change in America is not just a matter of returning Democrats to power, but of reversing the trend toward fascism, both from the top, in the policies and personalities of the current administration, and from the bottom, in the susceptibility of the fearful, marginalized lower middle classes to simple answers, strong leaders, and even to a vision of apocalypse. This is a truly serious challenge, much more important than getting Rove fired, and worthy of suspending all sectarian arguments on the left and focusing on this one issue.
But how do we address a proto-fascist mob, and turn their needs and fears toward a more creative solution?
Two recent books provide inspiration for me. Multitude, by Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt, is a Marxist analysis of the present state of world capitalism. These writers have no illusion that a political change in one nation, even the most powerful one, will stop the forward momentum of empire. Empire is a transnational movement of capitalism, only temporarily led by America. Their hope is in the observation that this same movement toward empire is already creating a reaction of global resistance. This resistance is arising from, or points to the existence of, what the authors call the "multitude" -- a vast sea of specific and local discontents that contains the seeds of future global democracy. While the authors have no idea what the form or content of this democracy will be, they observe three central issues around which grievances are being expressed: 1) An end to war (now officially proclaimed to be endless, and tragically, becoming almost the main basis of legitimacy of the modern state); 2) The need to address global poverty; and 3) The need to restore democracy to government. These three issues, to me, provide strong compass points for progressives to navigate by.
The second book, Afflicted Powers, by a collective of SF Bay Area writers called Retort, adds to the discussion the importance of "spectacle," by which they mean the way the state now affects and tries to control not only our physical lives, but our subjective lives as well. In pointing this out, the writers are not merely repeating the theme of 1984, but suggesting a further (encouraging, and almost comical) point that the task of managing the realm of spectacle may be more than this state can handle. It can easily be argued that in response to 9-11, America reacted more to the symbolic event than the real one. The symbolic meaning of 9-11 was that America was now seen to be vulnerable. The Bush administration characteristically reacted to that with bravado, with showy displays of military might, but little attempt to deal with the real enemy or real causes of the event. In doing so, it failed both on the physical level, in Iraq, and on the symbolic one -- giving the Arab world Abu Ghraib where we said we were bringing democracy.
Opponents of empire and fascism have this on their side -- that power breeds megalomania, and arrogance breeds stupidity. As Guy Debord, the originator of the concept of spectacle observed: "When the state thinks exclusively in terms of spectacle, it no longer can think strategically." Control of subjectivity is the terrifying truth of 1984, but it is also the weak underbelly of the current regime.
At this moment, a single mom who lost her son in Iraq is standing at the entrance to the president's "ranch" in Texas, demanding to speak to him. Other families who lost their daughters and sons are rushing to join her. The police are gathering, the networks are there, and the news this morning is that they plan to arrest Cindy Sheehan. Of all the stupid possible responses, this is the worst -- to confront grief and courage and humanity with the stern impersonal visage of the state. They just don't get it! Once again, they are losing the battle of symbols, and symbols are the stuff of legitimacy.
So, my recipe for progressives in a time of change is this: keep your eye on the three main issues: war, poverty, and true democracy. And think outside the box: the Wizard of Oz will eventually be unmasked.