Aleksandr Herzen, speaking a century ago to a group of
anarchists about how to overthrow the czar, reminded his listeners that it was
not their job to save a dying system but to replace it: "We think we are the
doctors. We are the disease." All resistance must recognize that the body
politic and global capitalism are dead. We should stop wasting energy trying to
reform or appeal to it. This does not mean the end of resistance, but it does
mean very different forms of resistance. It means turning our energies toward
building sustainable communities to weather the coming crisis, since we will be
unable to survive and resist without a cooperative effort.
These communities, if they retreat into a pure survivalist mode without linking themselves to the concentric circles of the wider community, the state and the planet, will become as morally and spiritually bankrupt as the corporate forces arrayed against us. All infrastructures we build, like the monasteries in the Middle Ages, should seek to keep alive the intellectual and artistic traditions that make a civil society, humanism and the common good possible. Access to parcels of agricultural land will be paramount. We will have to grasp, as the medieval monks did, that we cannot alter the larger culture around us, at least in the short term, but we may be able to retain the moral codes and culture for generations beyond ours. Resistance will be reduced to small, often imperceptible acts of defiance, as those who retained their integrity discovered in the long night of 20th-century fascism and communism.
We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity. The elites have successfully convinced us that we no longer have the capacity to understand the revealed truths presented before us or to fight back against the chaos caused by economic and environmental catastrophe. As long as the mass of bewildered and frightened people, fed images that permit them to perpetually hallucinate, exist in this state of barbarism, they may periodically strike out with a blind fury against increased state repression, widespread poverty and food shortages. But they will lack the ability and self-confidence to challenge in big and small ways the structures of control. The fantasy of widespread popular revolts and mass movements breaking the hegemony of the corporate state is just that a fantasy.
I am not a pacifist. I know there are times, and even concede that this may eventually be one of them, when human beings are forced to respond to mounting repression with violence. I was in Sarajevo during the war in Bosnia. We knew precisely what the Serbian forces ringing the city would do to us if they broke through the defenses and trench system around the besieged city. We had the examples of the Drina Valley or the city of Vukovar, where about a third of the Muslim inhabitants had been killed and the rest herded into refugee or displacement camps. There are times when the only choice left is to pick up a weapon to defend your family, neighborhood and city. But those who proved most adept at defending Sarajevo invariably came from the criminal class. When they were not shooting at Serbian soldiers they were looting the apartments of ethnic Serbs in Sarajevo and often executing them, as well as terrorizing their fellow Muslims.
When you ingest the poison of violence, even in a just cause, it corrupts, deforms and perverts you. Violence is a drug, indeed it is the most potent narcotic known to humankind. Those most addicted to violence are those who have access to weapons and a penchant for force. And these killers rise to the surface of any armed movement and contaminate it with the intoxicating and seductive power that comes with the ability to destroy. I have seen it in war after war.
When you go down that road you end up pitting your monsters against their monsters. And the sensitive, the humane and the gentle, those who have a propensity to nurture and protect life, are marginalized and often killed. The romantic vision of war and violence is as prevalent among anarchists and the hard left as it is in the mainstream culture. Those who resist with force will not defeat the corporate state or sustain the cultural values that must be sustained if we are to have a future worth living.
From my many years as a war correspondent in El Salvador, Guatemala, Gaza and Bosnia, I have seen that armed resistance movements are always mutations of the violence that spawned them. I am not naïve enough to think I could have avoided these armed movements had I been a landless Salvadoran or Guatemalan peasant, a Palestinian in Gaza or a Muslim in Sarajevo, but this violent response to repression is and always will be tragic. It must be avoided, although not at the expense of our own survival.
Democracy, a system ideally designed to challenge the status quo, has been corrupted and tamed to slavishly serve the status quo. We have undergone, as John Ralston Saul writes, a coup d'e'tat in slow motion. And the coup is over. They won. We lost. The abject failure of activists to push corporate, industrialized states toward serious environmental reform, to thwart imperial adventurism or to build a humane policy toward the masses of the world's poor stems from an inability to recognize the new realities of power. The paradigm of power has irrevocably altered and so must the paradigm of resistance alter.
Too many resistance movements continue to buy into the facade of electoral politics, parliaments, constitutions, bills of rights, lobbying and the appearance of a rational economy. The levers of power have become so contaminated that the needs and voices of citizens have become irrelevant. The election of Barack Obama was yet another triumph of propaganda over substance and a skillful manipulation and betrayal of the public by the mass media. We mistook style and ethnicity an advertising tactic pioneered by the United Colors of Benetton and Calvin Klein for progressive politics and genuine change. We confused how we were made to feel with knowledge.
But the goal, as with all brands, was to make passive consumers mistake a brand for an experience. Obama, now a global celebrity, is a brand. He had almost no experience besides two years in the senate, lacked any moral core and was sold as all things to all people. The Obama campaign was named Advertising Age's marketer of the year for 2008 and edged out runners-up Apple and Zappos.com. Take it from the professionals. Brand Obama is a marketer's dream. President Obama does one thing and Brand Obama gets you to believe another. This is the essence of successful advertising. You buy or do what the advertisers want because of how they can make you feel.
We live in a culture characterized by what Benjamin DeMott called "junk politics." Junk politics does not demand justice or the reparation of rights. It always personalizes issues rather than clarifying them. It eschews real debate for manufactured scandals, celebrity gossip and spectacles. It trumpets eternal optimism, endlessly praises our moral strength and character, and communicates in a feel-your-pain language. The result of junk politics is that nothing changes, "meaning zero interruption in the processes and practices that strengthen existing, interlocking systems of socioeconomic advantage."
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