When C&C published Chris Williams’ article Strategy and tactics in the environmental movement last month, we expressed the hope that it would “promote a much-needed discussion on how to build the fight against climate change in particular, and against capitalist ecocide as a whole.” That’s just what has happened. For weeks it has been the most frequently read article in Climate & Capitalism, and many other websites have linked to it.
Now, we’re pleased to publish a reply to Chris Williams by Sasha Ross, a member of the Earth First! Journal Collective and editor of the forthcoming anthology Grabbing Back (AK Press 2014). He questions Williams’ focus on the anti-pipeline movement, and argues for a bioregional approach that will build local communities of resistance.
Chris Williams’ response, which follows Ross’s critique, says that Ross has misunderstood part of his argument, but that there are significant differences between them in regard to the “prefigurative politics” that Ross advocates.
We encourage a continuing discussion on these issues. Please use the Comments section to share your views on how we can best build the environmental movement today.
SASHA ROSS: A REPLY TO CHRIS WILLIAMS
In a lengthy article entitled “Strategy and tactics in the environmental movement,” radical educator Chris Williams opens the dialogue surrounding anti-capitalist movements and NGOs. After a controversial interview given by Naomi Klein claimed that “Green groups may be more damaging than climate deniers,” many aligned with the Gang Green ironically attacked Klein for their equivalent of “selling out”—betraying the big box movement for an ineffectual anticapitalist attitude. Those with more radical tendencies accused Klein of hypocrisy, pointing to her well-known affiliation with 350.org. Amidst this intensity, Williams attempts to draw together a mass movement strategy relying on updated tactics of the grassroots civil rights movement to unify environmental justice campaigns and growing leftist socio-political struggle. In my opinion, Williams is correct in his appraisal of present material conditions, but the focus on 350’s campaigns obscures a more direct, bioregional focus.
Williams calls McKibben “confused” and “contradictory,” and problematizes the “vacillating” electoral politics of 350. In defense of 350, however, Williams suggests that we “learn by doing” while maintaining the Keystone XL fight and supporting 350’s moves to radicalize students divestment efforts. Williams declares that we “the most important thing is to dive into the resistance as and where it currently exists and consistently engage with the fight for the immediate goals of shutting down KXL and forcing universities and pension funds to divest, while holding no illusions that these are the be all and end all of a successful struggle” (my emphasis). Yet, Williams claims that there may be some room for autonomy within these struggles: “At this point,” he states, “it is unclear whether a group like 350 will be able to evolve into the fighting organization that is required, or whether students will have to form their own, more grassroots organization that is financially independent, democratic and more forcefully directed against capital.” Williams concludes his piece with a rallying message: “Our challenge is to build on the revolts of 2011, take inspiration from the uprisings in Turkey, Greece and Brazil, and implement tactics and strategy that take us forward to a revolutionary reconstitution of social power in the interests of social and ecological justice.” But how would this revolutionary reconstruction come about through a two-pronged approach of KXL and student activism?
Whatever way we look at it, for Williams the salvation of 350’s campaigns towards a broader Left is most important, as we build the new in the shell of the old. As a strategic overview, this position is inadequate, because it asks too much. First of all, Williams admits that we would have to subordinate the practical victory to the symbolic one. While we could strive to stop the last piece of construction, we can also note that there are hundreds of miles of pipeline projects underway throughout North America with “shovels already in the ground,” and there are alternative routes that could take tar sands traffic if Keystone is indeed shut down (Line 9 is one example). Should we hold fast to the symbolic position of KXL, or grow outwards to more bioregional campaigns with the knowledge that Obama betrayed the movement as soon as he signed off on KXL? Lest there was any confusion remaining, we have only to cite Obama’s most recent statement to the UN regarding West Asia: “The United States of America is prepared to use all elements of our power, including military force, to secure our core interests in the region.” After evoking the memory of the Gulf War, Obama continues, “We will ensure the free flow of energy from the region to the world.” Given statements like these, how will the aims of a group like 350.org, which once blocked Ralph Nader from a rally podium for his anti-Obama positions, represent the needs of a single campaign to stop the KXL—much less a global, grassroots movement?
In general, we are in a place to grow the movement, but Williams’s suggestion that we dig in our heels at 350’s positions is, in my view, misguided. Williams claims that KXL will not divert local organizers, saying that “I have yet to meet an activist involved in the KXL or divestment campaigns who believe those things are the only thing to focus on, or that they will come close to solving the problem. In New York those involved in the anti-KXL 350 protests are also fighting to stop the Spectra fracked gas pipeline into lower Manhattan, along with fights to close Indian Point nuclear plant and to ban fracking in New YorkState.” Many have questioned this perspective, asking, “What if people were able to focus their efforts on local campaigns? Would they not have more local perspective and investment, which would attract other locals who are fully invested in their own place, and increase the size of the movement, rather than riddle activist sectors with burn-out-inducing intensity on three different fronts?”
It is true that this argument, by itself, is defeatist unless it stresses the urgency of the KXL campaign in its own right. I am not calling for the disintegration of an important campaign, as some did when criticizing Earth First!’s Redwood Summer campaign, which drew thousands of people from around the country to stop clearcuts in the Pacific Northwest. It must be granted that there are many different potentialities for the KXL campaign. Friends of mine who have engaged in the KXL campaign in East Texas have emerged disenfranchised with 350, but not the campaign, itself. To paraphrase one comrade, “It may be extremely important to block KXL as a local issue with global implications. But 350 has a tendency of distorting the political implications, overshadowing the work of the tree sitters and folks doing direct action who are not necessarily desiring to affiliate with 350.” While activists remain committed to stopping KXL—and it is absolutely important to stress that this is not a campaign people should be giving up on—there is much debate to be had over the focus of the campaign and 350’s influence.
Here, Williams presents a rather nuanced point to support his perspective: “[C]ontrary to the idea that all of the students are mechanical ‘worker-bees,’ there are ongoing and increasingly sharp debates between 350 activists and student groups about the top-down organizational structure of 350 in deciding on campaigns, as well as its political direction and choice of allies.” If the idea here is to watch these divestment movements liberate themselves from the structures of NGOs and embark on autonomous grassroots organizing, we are moving in the direction of action; if we are trying to dispel the notion of “worker bees” overextending themselves with too little connection to decision making, then we are failing to identify the meaning of internal struggles emerging within the climate justice movement.
I have personally witnessed bioregional action building community. Before we attempt to use internationally symbolic campaigns to expand an organizational structure, why not learn from other international movements resisting locally, and turn those methods into local action in the heart of the beast? Our own notions of the symbolic victory emerge, through this perspective, as a privileged perspective of an overarching campaign. In regions of China resisting land grabs and big industrial polluters, it is not symbolic victory that will rally the movement; there are, however, a high stakes sequences of counterattacks in regions most affected. Arguably, if the different regions of China collaborated on mass actions, or group events, there would be even greater success, but only if the cross-regional autonomous action builds the network for those kinds of formations—not the other way around. Is KXL really more important than the fossil fuel shipments slated for the Pacific Northwest, which threaten to export far more fossil fuels, simply because 350 has poured so much more symbolic capital into that campaign that it draws more attention? If the answer is yes, then I think we are thinking about strategy in a very abstract way—especially considering the fact that even 350 has shown signs of drifting away from the centrality of the stop KXL campaign by moving towards other important and immanently winnable campaigns around the US with its Summer Heat campaign (although that was followed by the KXL-focused Draw the Line call-out).
In his eight prison notebook, Antonio Gramsci states, “it might turn out, as it does in human life, that the more an individual is compelled to defend his own immediate physical existence, the more he will uphold and identify with the loftiness and most complex values of humanity.” For Gramsci, it was not always the “leaders” of the movement, but the relations of autonomous self-activity that galvanized the Risorgimento, and pushed the Italian people to victory. To do this, the Risorgimento had to do the opposite of focusing on singular symbolic positions; it had to fuse, among other things, class struggle and a militant fight against an occupying force to unite people on numerous heterogenous and regional fronts into a “hegemonic bloc.” Local, direct action generates momentum that builds networks from the ground up—this means, I think, favoring regional environmental justice campaigns over national NGO strategy. As it was with the Clamshell Alliance, which threw a wrench in the US government’s plan for a huge expansion of nuclear power, so it can be with networks collaborating on bioregional direct action for climate justice and wilderness.
So much energy is funneled into the protracted KXL campaign through a national media campaign that in some cases favors photo ops over local engagement, and this arguably has had a damaging effect on the overall movement. Like others looking for some new anti-capitalist movement via the manipulation of existing reformist movements, Williams suggests that we continue the problem of overlooking or passing over important bioregional struggles in favor of the overarching NGO purview. While I agree with the idea of “diving into the resistance as and where it currently exists,” it seems folly to me to focus on KXL rather than, for instance, important autonomous indigenous blockades across Canada; exciting mass mobilizations like Idle No More; long term campaigns against fracking in the Marcellus Shale and deforestation on the West Coast by Earth First!; extensive popular organizing against coal and oil shipments out of the Pacific Northwest and tar sands megaloads through Idaho and Montana by Rising Tide. Resistance is never in one place alone, and if we build forces in East Texas, the bastion of global oil commerce, we may be wasting resources and people who would otherwise be mounting successful struggles in their own locales. So instead of “moving towards the resistance where it exists,” perhaps I would posit the notion of “building resistance wherever you are.”
Williams seems to dismiss Rising Tide (RT) with only one cursory mention, yet that group has an international reach of at least 20 chapters. While necessitating a different kind of critical eye, movements like RT do not necessarily look like 350.org, and they remain promising in ways that 350 does not. By marginalizing these groups, Williams comes dangerously close to obscuring hegemonic diversity in the environmental movement in exchange for a kind of 350.org-centric strategy in favor of toeing the line. Discussions of strategy and tactics are better suited to regional networks, with NGOs supporting such a direct democratic approach; the opposite of this is having NGOs pick and choose where to place their symbolic capital with regional activists trying to ride on their coat tails.
Let me stress that this is not, in general, an attack on 350 or on NGOs for that matter. It would be pointless to call for people to abandon 350, although the bar of 350 PPM may have been set too low. 350 has generously donated funds and efforts to climate and environmental justice groups for symbolic actions (like the Richmond refinery action, which echoed the successful occupation of the Seabrook Station, and the Rising Tide symbolic blockade of the Columbia River). At the same time, we might note that the continuous calls to action from 350 and other groups may be fatiguing for local activists, and group organization would perhaps be better suited to independent networks than to the top-down approach. We could look to linked efforts, such as Rising Tide’s local initiatives. In Portland, RT canvasses door-to-door in the mostly-black neighborhood of North Portland to bring information about coal shipments and ask about ways to help support the local community. This process has yielded study groups and new social networks. In another example, Wild Idaho Rising Tide’s solidarity with the Nez Perce blockades has helped bring about a ban on megaload shipments through scenic Highway 12. Also important are the three Trans and Women’s Action Camps organized in three different corners of the US by Earth First!ers working to open the direct action movement to consensus and prefigurative social change. Granted, these projects will not change the world by themselves, but they provide key footholds in the movement to stop the mounting resource extraction carried out by the Obama Administration. On this point, I completely agree with Williams: “the question is primarily about social and political change rather than technological advances or technocratic solutions.” In my opinion, however, the solutions are much more complicated and diverse than simply following 350’s strategic and tactical model.
Another point of reference would be the BoggsCenter in Detroit, which has united hard-bitten union organizers with environmentalists and community rights activism to bring livable conditions to a place abandoned and land banked by capitalists. Though the BoggsCenter is unique, there are organizations coming up all over the country that do not toe the 350 line, and promote focused and radical direct action around the country. Why not look to the communal back to the land movement of the 1960s and 70s, locally-based community organizations like the BoggsCenter, MOVE Organization, and MNS, as well as peasant and land-based movements around the world, from China to Mexico, Argentina to Romania, Kenya to CoastSalishTerritory, for a more comprehensive understanding of strategy and tactics? Building fundamental social change must begin with counterinstitutions from the ground up, not with discussions or strategies and tactics balancing on singular campaigns. The popular organization of peoples’ movements must trump NGO investment in the framing of strategy and tactics in the environmental movement, if it is to be radically ecological and land-based. I feel that we have a better chance of victory when mapping out these networks of survival and popular struggle, rather than perpetuating the focus on 350s campaigns with or without 350, itself.
CHRIS WILLIAMS: A RESPONSE TO SASHA ROSS
I am very happy that my piece on strategy and tactics in the environmental movement has led to further fraternal debate between all of those fighting for a more socially just and ecologically sustainable future. I very much appreciate Sasha Ross’s contribution to the discussion and hope that my remarks come across in the same spirit of genuine collaboration evinced by Ross’s written response to my original article. I offer my comments in the desire for ongoing debate and discussion on our substantial areas of commonality, as well as our political differences, while we continue to organize together.
For, whatever we think we’ve been doing up to this point, and not withstanding some important successes around the world from which we draw inspiration, it self-evidently has not been enough. Therefore, in amongst the activism, we need to set aside time to discuss with great seriousness our political choices, organizational decisions, history, theory and methods for spreading the movement for ecological justice, both quantitatively and qualitatively. As the ideas of ecosocialism filter into the movement and attract greater interest, I believe they have an important contribution to make toward that goal.
Today, in Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg’s evocative phrase, the “uncertainty of social existence” generated by capitalist social relations, has been exacerbated beyond what she could have imagined possible in the almost 100 years since her execution at the hands of the German state. An uncertainty of existence which now encompasses the basic biogeophysical cycles of the planet and ultimately, as she would have affirmed, has absolutely no solution within the confines of capitalism.
As a result, and here Ross and I concur, there is a growing political radicalization emerging across many sectors of society disillusioned with the politics of personal responsibility and unfulfilled by the visions for change on offer from pre-existing mainstream environmental organizations. This is the single most important development over the last few years and in these dark days, should be embraced as the source of light toward which we should walk.
I’d like to make two further points. One more of a clarification, as I believe Ross has misconstrued my position on the campaign against KXL. Secondly, where Ross begins to talk about back-to-the-land movements of the late ‘60’s or the BoggsCenter in Detroit as examples we should look to for inspiration and emulation, I believe we do have strategic differences. These are worth elucidating as we collectively try to move forward to build bigger and more effective actions against capitalist ordained planetary ecocide.
With regard to the first point, to quote Luxemburg once more: “At the beginning of every social advance, there was the deed.”
This was my starting point for evaluating the importance of the fight against KXL. While we attempt to read the winds of protest, not to mention do our best to fan them, seasoned activists cannot predict with any great accuracy which campaign, or what movement for social change, will catch fire and draw in larger numbers of people, nor at what point in time the fuel of exploitation will ignite the flame of resistance.
Rather, we hope to build that resistance, speed up the arrival of these explosions, and use our experience in other battles to help hone the sharp, cutting edge of the struggle into a successful fighting force, while raising larger questions about whether, instead of having to fight the same fires, we should ask who keeps starting them.
It is indisputable that KXL is the inflammatory environmental issue that has energized tens of thousands of people across the country to get involved in activism, many for the first time in their lives. Around KXL, much of the organizing to date, including the largest civil disobedience in decades, with over 1000 protesters arrested in DC, has been initiated and led by the singular focus of Bill McKibben’s 350.org. That organizing has grown and been extended into a student-led divestment movement, in the spring a national march and demonstration of 40,000 plus, and a Summer Heat campaign to keep students active and involved when not at university.
I see no reason not to state that, without the birth and growth of that protest movement, KXL would already have been approved. Furthermore, Barack Obama wouldn’t be bringing it up in a major policy speech on global warming this past June and so carefully finessing his words to maintain the fiction he’s on our side.
The ripple effects of the successful delay and negative publicity surrounding KXL, caused by activism, are illustrated by the increasingly desperate moves of the Canadian government to pressure First Nations to accept the Northern Gateway west or, as that doesn’t look to be working, to upgrade Line 9 through Toronto to Montreal, east. None of these campaigns are seen as separate by activists. I know for a fact that people organizing locally on the ground in communities in east Toronto against Line 9 are ecstatic about the possibility of victory against the northern section of KXL across the border. Our role is to strengthen those connections and deepen the links with First Nations through organizations like Idle No More that challenge the racist, colonial nature of the Canadian state. Additionally, the fight against KXL offers opportunities for cross-border solidarity work which are extremely important.
On a recent (protested) visit to New York City, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper himself had to respond to the controversy. While recognizing that KXL might not be built, he bullishly went on to declare that Canada, just because of “politics”, would refuse to accept rejection of KXL:
“My view is you don’t take no for answer. We haven’t had that but if we were to get that, that won’t be final. This won’t be final until it’s approved and we will keep pushing forward.”
When was the last time we had two of the world’s most important heads of state publically discussing the effects of our movement and the crimp we’d put in their plans for fossil-fuel expansion? Which is where the Canadian government’s plans for a massive expansion of rail traffic come in. If that happens, we will have to take a leaf from our French and German comrades in their struggle to prevent the shipment of nuclear waste from France to Germany. The last rail journey carrying its lethal cargo required the deployment of 20,000 police and several days to reach its destination, as tens of thousands of protesters held giant demonstrations, dug up track and engaged in mass civil disobedience.
If we agree that engagement in activism and struggle against the system, a system represented in this instance by fossil fuel corporations, heads of state and the financial sector, is key to opening people’s minds to the need for more critical inquiry and further activism, then we have much to reflect on. I don’t see why any of this can do anything other than inspire others to get involved, whether that’s in anti-KXL organizing or other environmental campaigns.
Furthermore, preventing the construction of KXL makes sense as an objective to focus on for reasons that may well come back to haunt the ENGO’s involved in supporting the campaign. Part of the reason it was chosen, and part of the reason it has gained such popularity as a target, is not only the question of preventing the most intensely polluting and environmentally devastating, extraction and burning of oil from tar sands being transported for refining and export.
Just as notably, the final decision rests with Obama and his state department and so, should KXL be approved, Obama will be unable to hide his decision behind Congress. Though it seems highly unlikely that major ENGO’s will reevaluate their dependency and belief in the Democratic Party as an ally, a reassessment by others, McKibben among them, will be inevitable.
350.org’s ambivalence to Obama and the Democratic Party will be under enormous pressure, giving activists inside and outside 350 a lot to think about. Thus, even in defeat, new possibilities for future organizing on a more fruitful political basis will open up, independent of the primary organization rightly seen by radicals as the place social movements go to die.
In the larger context, for all the current political and organizational limitations which I extensively noted and need challenging – and are being challenged by many activists who associate themselves with 350, it is nevertheless clear that 350 is doing something qualitatively different to other ENGO’s. To be exact, 350 is motivating people to become activists and build a movement, not simply endlessly begging for money to spend on slick advertizing campaigns, court cases and lobbying, all of which actively discourage activism.
Mainstream ENGO’s don’t believe that ordinary people can or will rise up and fight for clean air or water, that’s why they don’t bother asking for anything other than money. Once the elitism of your overall strategy is that entrenched, there’s plainly no need for internal democracy either.
The exclusivity of this strategy, especially when tied to the dead-end of the Democratic Party, plainly hasn’t worked and things have gotten markedly worse. Given the state of the world and the weight of defeats during 30 years of neoliberalism, which has sought ideological adherence to the cult of the individual, this situation could easily have compounded feelings of apathy, cynicism and despair. Instead, jolted by the phenomenal events in 2011 of the Arab Spring and in particular Egypt, which then inspired people to become involved in Wisconsin and Occupy, rather than further retreat, it has led instead to a growing grassroots and collective desire to do more, not less.
Within this context of budding activism and bubbling debates, I want to make clear that I am not setting anti-KXL organizing against other local or regional campaigns. Ross seems to impute this from my comments when he poses the supposed dilemma: “Should we hold fast to the symbolic position of KXL, or grow outwards to more bioregional campaigns?”
I see no contradiction between doing both, and don’t perceive why there should be any necessary conflict between anti-KXL organizing and other local and regional campaigns. Getting the balance right between these areas of work is an important tactical discussion that requires democratic and open debate, something which seems to be lacking in 350, but it doesn’t raise any significant political differences between Ross and me. I agree completely with Ross when he acknowledges that “there are many different potentialities for the KXL campaign”, some of which can and will lead to further radicalization and wider involvement by more people, which is one of the reasons already-convinced radicals should very much be part of it.
Actually, if anything, Ross appears to promulgate the false dichotomy which he erroneously lays at my door, when he puts forward that, “if we build forces in East Texas, the bastion of global oil commerce, we may be wasting resources and people who would otherwise be mounting successful struggles in their own locales.”
On the one hand, Ross expresses an important point: there are always far more issues we need to be involved in than is possible; how we prioritize is an important discussion. The reason we have so much to fight against is because capitalism disfigures nature just as surely as it deforms and alienates every single aspect of human endeavor, culture and behavior, in order to reduce it, in Marx’s words, to a point where “no other nexus between man and man other than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment’” exists.
In case this wasn’t clear, knowing that most people cannot do so, I was not advocating that people travel to East Texas to join the blockades. My comment that “people should dive into the resistance as and where it currently exists” was meant to weigh in against those sitting on the sidelines, waiting for their idea of what constitutes a sufficiently ideologically perfect movement, in which to throw themselves. That resistance could be any of the issues that Ross or I mentioned, including arguing within 350 or the broader anti-KXL movement for different tactics, more democracy and debate, or a reorientation of goals. If there isn’t anything happening near where you live, call a meeting and start something. In this political moment, people will come.
Having said that, for those activists who can travel to East Texas for example, and become involved in protest tied to a national campaign, I see it as a useful component of an overall strategy of maximizing resistance across the country. One which will complement activists who fight in their own localities: each can inspire the other. We should see different campaigns as symbiotic, not parasitic.
What should anti-fascist fighters have done in 1936? Was it correct to take trains from all over Europe to fight Franco’s fascists in Spain, so beautifully and tragically portrayed in Ken Loach’s Land and Freedom? Or was this detrimental to local struggles against the rise of fascism in crisis ridden Western Europe?
Along with hundreds of others, was it correct for me to go to Wisconsin and represent my union in the middle of the uprising and occupation of the Capitol building in 2011, to show solidarity with the teachers, public sector workers, students and people of Madison? Or should I have stayed in New York to build protest here?
There is nothing inherently more progressive about local versus regional or national struggles. They are not necessarily in competition with one another as much as they can be mutually reinforcing. This all depends on the political outlook of participants and to what extent there is cross-fertilization, democratic debate and a desire to spread, rather than limit, participation and objectives.
Alongside periodic days of action, what 350.org needs, in my opinion, apart from a definitive rupture with the Democratic Party, is more of this debate and an increased focus on education work to balance the activism, explain the science and why opposing pipelines and fossil fuels is vital, in order to draw in more people.
I’m not in 350, but I work with people who are all the time and I help to coordinate protests with them, while I engage in debate with activists and work within other coalitions such as System Change not Climate Change, which are more forthright on the root cause of the problem being capitalism. I do the same sort of things in my union, despite the fact it’s horribly top-down, undemocratic and wildly conservative.
However, as I mentioned in my article, the environmental movement has historically suffered from a lack of political discussion and a belief that localism is superior to a larger perspective, as personified in the slogan “Think Globally, Act Locally”. Calling for prioritizing a bioregional approach over a national one, as Ross does, falls within the same frame of reference.
Seeing the need for national organizing and the creation of a grassroots organization or coalition that is anti-capitalist, democratic and one that debates strategy and tactics in order to plan demonstrations, civil disobedience campaigns, conferences and which holds regular meetings all over the country to give input to those activities, seems to me to be the missing link.
Perhaps Rising Tide can fulfill this role, perhaps System Change or some new grouping can. But I believe we have to at the very least be thinking along those lines and not dismiss national organizations just because the scene is currently dominated by the compromised environmental NGO’s.
As we have lived through a period where movements have seemed to explode out of nowhere, then almost as rapidly disappear, the question of how to sustain movements and protest through organizational and political decisions is of prime importance. Such as this analysis, two years on, of the lifecycle of Occupy, the lessons we can draw from it, and the connection to the newly formed ecosocialist coalition System Change not Climate Change.
As for the more pre-figurative solutions Ross poses as an alternative to engagement in political activity, or at least as part of a dual strategy, this is where I believe we have our strongest disagreement. This important debate cannot be given justice in my response.
However, I will observe that if we want to turn what is taken as “common sense” by tens of millions of people – that the acquisition of property is the route to social status and thereby happiness (even if, deep down, they know something is wrong), into the most preposterous idea, and replace those values with sharing, cooperation, conservation, solidarity and equality, it is completely utopian to believe this could be done without the active involvement of those self-same people. It will be transformative and, in the moment, fundamentally pre-figurative. The question is: how do we get to that point?
The vast majority of people, for a host of reasons, cannot “prefigure” the future society. What they can do, is take part in struggle. A daily fight that is easy to engage with because of the exploitation in the workplace to which almost everyone is subject and to which the unemployed seek to gain subjection or face starvation. But if we accept the previous point as valid, that we need a mass movement for transformative change, then it is mass struggle which activists should seek to promote and work on, not pre-figurative ways of living.
Which is not to say that activists should dismiss the entire idea of pre-figurative politics. Clearly, there are a lot of things we consciously try to prefigure and do our utmost to live by: for example, consistent anti-racism, anti-sexism and homophobia. We try to waste as little as possible and think about what we consume, how we travel to work etc. All of these reflect, in microcosm, some of the best attributes of the society we’d all prefer to live in. And, to the extent we can, we do our best to embody these values and put them into practice.
Not only do we fight against racism, we consciously practice and try to function as anti-racists in all aspects of our personal life. Undoubtedly, there is a dialectical interaction between action and ideas. But that is not the same as basing a political strategy on one’s own way of living and stressing that as the agent of political change. What institutions or social power has the motivation and influence to transform society? Is it Time Banks, urban gardening and workers co-ops? Or mass strikes, giant demonstrations and the taking of state power?
The “visionary organizing” and its “transformative” approach to politics espoused by Grace Lee Boggs and others of similar politics, critiqued by Detroit activist Aaron Petkov here, fundamentally does not believe that the contradictions of capitalism will force a mass fight back or that ordinary people have that revolutionary potential.
But we need mass struggle which can challenge the state, a topic that has been enormously under-theorized and discussed by activists in the age of neoliberalism. What is the role of the state under capitalism and how has it changed within its neoliberal incarnation?
To quote Petkov on how we should see fighting for change:
“[W]e should not predict and build all the forms and features of the future society, as the utopians [of the 19th century] tried, but instead we should try to discover the basis of the new society through revolutionizing the present…The forms of the new world begin to emerge, not from a blueprint of how the world ought to be, but from the practical necessities of mass struggle. The new world cannot be invented; rather, it must be discovered.”
Or to quote a conversation I overheard between two young teenagers walking back from the Capitol building in Madison, Wisconsin during the occupation and mass demonstrations: “I wish every day of my life could be like this.”
Ultimately of course, we need an international perspective, something socialists have long espoused. Not least because bioregional areas will be located somewhere else as climate change alters rainfall patterns and temperature gradients. Globalization, where two thirds of international trade is between different units of the same corporation, and state-sanctioned corporate pillage of human and natural resources has reached a stage whereby the only solution for the 99% is that, “Workers of all countries, Unite!”
We need to do so resting on the basis of the antithesis of capitalist values. Namely: cooperation in place of competition; production for human need, not for profit, which means a sustainability ethic for production stretching seven generations into the future, and based on real, bottom-up, democratic decision making from the smallest, most local level on up. A society where humans see their self worth reflected in the relationships they establish with each other and the natural world, rather than the commodities they can buy.
Only a global revolution, jumping from country to country, carried out by the vast majority of the world’s population, stands any chance of bringing about such a radically changed society, one which sets humanity and nature onto a socially just and ecologically benign course. That is a vision worth fighting for.
Williams’s caution that we should not counterpose things that ought not be counterposed is, of course, reasonable. And it did seem to me that there was a bit of that in Ross’s piece. It is a common mistake in debates on the left and it’s important for us to avoid it.
But then Williams commits the same error: “What institutions or social power has the motivation and influence to transform society? Is it time banks, urban gardening and workers’ co-ops? Or mass strikes, giant demonstrations and the taking of state power?”
Why not engage on both fronts? Why is it one or the other?
In the past many counterposed the strategy of taking power to the strategy of prefiguration, on both sides of that equation. Many still do. I have come to the conclusion, however, that this is a theoretical error–especially now in the context of the environmental crisis. I say that about the present moment for a variety of reasons that I will not go into here because it would make this comment longer than I want it to be. For now let me simply state my opinion: prefiguration in the form of things like time banks, urban farms and workers’ coops can be a contribution to the process by which we prepare the mass movement to take power. They can also help create the social conditions where it actually becomes possible for an alternative power to take shape, not to mention doing something in the here and now to address the ecological crisis. (We cannot, after all, just sit back and wait for the revolution from that point of view.) Yes, we do still have to talk about taking power and aim in that direction. But it is not all we have to talk about or aim at.
I disagree with Chris when he writes: “The vast majority of people, for a host of reasons, cannot ‘prefigure’ the future society. What they can do, is take part in struggle.” Our program should be more imaginative than that. Why not, for example, develop the idea of urban farms connected to food coops in every community so that everyone in those communities can participate in a prefigurative process? Surely that is not utopian or impossible. (There are already CSAs in many or most communities, at least here in New York City.) Why can’t traditional labor unions be in the forefront of those forces attempting to create such institutions? Why can’t that be part of the perspective revolutionary-minded activists bring to discussions in their unions?
Our broad program for the labor movement today already includes a reduction in the work week. Why not, then, begin talking about the idea that time spent working on urban farms or in food coops, with appropriate compensation in the form of discounted prices or a share of what is produced, might become a generalized alternative to time presently spent in more alienated labor earning traditional wages, making it extremely attractive on a mass scale? Why can’t unions or religious congregations or other such groups of people sponsor housing cooperatives that would be constructed on ecological principles, offering units at below-market rates because they could be not-for-profit enterprises? How about skill-sharing websites that include things like child-care, elder-care, and housekeeping services? Why not community pantries and kitchens that would promote an eco-friendly diet, composting and other forms of recycling? Such social institutions could be created by people themselves, acting through whatever collective formations already exist, not requiring any state authorization and before we take power. Developing this list, and beginning to actually create such institutions, requires only that we–that is the anti-capitalist, class-struggle oriented and ecological left–start to devote some attention to it as a conscious project. This should not be counterposed to traditional forms of mass struggle leading to insurrection. All we have said in the past about the need for this and how to get there remains true. But there is an additional truth that also needs to be recognized today.
If it is correct to say that right now most people do not have the opportunity to engage in projects of this nature that is a difficulty we can do something about. Our goal should be to make it not only possible, but a normal part of life for the vast majority of people to help prefigure the future eco-friendly socialist society we envision. That would transform their consciousness and it would transform the social conditions in which our present struggle is taking place.
Yes, I believe there are strategic differences between the perspective that Williams and Ross present, related to this and other questions. But they are strategic differences that we should try to see as complimentary rather than contradictory. Let’s avoid a conversation in which there is any suggestion that the movement as a whole has to decide which is “the priority.” It is true that individuals need to make choices about what areas to be engaged in. No one person or organization can do everything. But I tend to think that most individuals and most groups will naturally be inclined toward one side of this duality or the other, setting priorities based on that preference. The movement as a whole should promote an atmosphere in which all of the positive choices made by any group or individual are welcomed by all, even if it is not the choice we ourselves might make. (Excluded from this should only be the truly negative practices of the environmental NGOs that both Williams and Ross seem clearly to be aware of.)
Really interesting on movement strategy bringing the discussion a lot more forward than Chris first contribution. With Mikes comment one wonders if there is any difference left between the two contributions. That would be if Sasha and Mike are of the same opinion, priority should be given to local and regional struggles, “which is were the rubber meets the road”.
So is there no time when priority should be given to global struggle? Were they wrong 1890 when a global international action day was called for with the demand 8 hour working day? Of course not, priority to local and regional and local struggle is creating stupid unnecessary contradictions.
Is not the global action day against the Iraq war another good example on the need for global struggle. I would say it was a disaster far beoynd the hsitrical necessity and objective pssotibilties, not because of the global character, (although wrongly overestimated, 1st of May is the most succesful international action day, not the one time event in 2003). But for another reason. The political content was devastating narrow. While in the 1960s people in common refused to look upon the Vietnam war as an issue connected to economic realities like the global financial system enabling US to get money financing the war it was the opposite in 2003, people in common understood often that it was a war for oil. But according to the least common denominator tactic so much used by selfstiffling leftist pragmatics the opportunity to bridge the antiglobalization movement with its foucus on economics with the environmental movement with its focus on energy politics and oil the lasting mass movement opportunity was lost.
Likewise is 350.org doing today when blocking the global justice movement from starting a global struggle against green economy/carbon trading/neoliberal environmental politics. Sasha seems to not be interested in global struggles challenging neoliberal politics here and now, only a wide array of local and regional concerns that one day might end up in something wider. Chris seems not interested either in spite of claiming to have another position, at least not on any concrete level. he states:
“We need to do so resting on the basis of the antithesis of capitalist values. Namely: cooperation in place of competition; production for human need, not for profit, which means a sustainability ethic for production stretching seven generations into the future, and based on real, bottom-up, democratic decision making from the smallest, most local level on up. A society where humans see their self worth reflected in the relationships they establish with each other and the natural world, rather than the commodities they can buy.
Only a global revolution, jumping from country to country, carried out by the vast majority of the world’s population, stands any chance of bringing about such a radically changed society, one which sets humanity and nature onto a socially just and ecologically benign course. That is a vision worth fighting for.”
Here we have visions and values, but not a concrete struggle which becomes part of the daily struggle here and now. So we have one part saying everything starts from below (and primarily by pre figurative politics?) and local/regional and theo other saying we have to be pragmatic and see how 350.org develops while at the same time claim we have an ideoligcally advanced ideas to challenge capitalism building a national organization on anti capitalist values.
The option excluded both by Sasha and Chris is the third option, global struggle for concrete demands and not only values, demands like agroecology the way Via Campesina does globally and just transition of fishery, forestry, transport, energy, industry etc. the way it is done by trade unions in South Africa together with environmentalists are doing or in Denmark. In Copenhagen the System Chnange not climate change declaration was approved by 50 000 people at Klimaforum09. The network that organized the forum continued. They have been able to get cooperation between main stream trade unions and small groups of fishermen, peasant and ecological groups. The initiator of Klimaforum09 was Permaculture international, not any anticapitalist group. It is not at all necessary to state you have to be against capitalism to become a movement that make something of interest for people in their daily liufe that not only put forward ideas about different values but also something more tangible. Green transition give jobs is the message from the alliance in Denmark. Is not the challenge to see how the struggle in Wisconsin against the attack on trade unions can be tied with the climate justice struggle rather than stating that the starting point is 350.org pragmatism in connection with idological anti capitalist avantgarde.
A week ago Scandinavian environmentalist and trade unionists met in Malmö. Most of us see capitalism as a way to understand the root cause behind the simultaneous destruction of both the welfare state and nature, yet what we organize are campaigns with demands concerning climate change (in Sweden 40 organization against carbon trading among other things and just transition) while national and hopefully now more internationally demanding green transition to get jobs by a just transition of both industry and countryside economics. Of course we are positive towards intellectual analysis about capitalism and some write also like Asbjörn Wahl, chair of the International transport workers union climate committe.
In the world of Sasha such things seems to not exist and if they do they are wrong, a main stream trade union can by definition not be interesting as it works on the global level. And for Chris living in this odd part of the world called the US it seems also outside reality, what is necessary is to challenge values, if there is already a concrete programme made by a global trade union which is now used in several Scandinavian countries and probably elsewhere maybe it is below the radar because it is not primarily stating capitalism as the main problem.
But is it not about time to see that the US kind of single issue mass mobilization with couragues civil disobedience is at the end of the road. The civil right movment failed to develop any economic agenda, the environmental Earth Day was completly interwoven with corporate strategies and some ecofascism and the anti nuclear movement never was able to go beyond this limitations either nor the short lived Seattle protests. What is needed is not only pragmatic mass civil disobedience made holy. Pragmatic acclamation of what is a mass movemnt as by definition good is bad. Out of it does not necessarily something good come. It is not one more single issue mass protest movement nor one more ideological left wing avantgarde we need but a local, regional, national and international/transnational movement making resistance and promoting comnstructive solutions at the same time which challenge the present development model. This is what is going on in many parts of the world like when envrionmentalist and trade union cooperate for 1 million climate jobs in South Africa while at the same time supporting local struggle or in Brazil were Via Campesina struggle for a people’s project against corporate wpoer is a lot more advanced. There is a world outside the US, maybe some lessons could be drawn from there?
Coordinator of global climate action days 1991-92 which was opposed by US global NGO groups like Climate action network as we claimed that the global struggle is based upon local conflicts and connected 500 places in 70 countries in these actions, a memory lost in the US and left wing dominated history writing of the movement. Since then the US NGO tactics and left wing opportunism as SWP in London have destroyed any attempts at calling for radical climate justice action days building on trust in local groups to make their own definition of the issue. Instead in practice a neoliberal agenda was promoted. Demands against carbon trading were excluded. Challenging the development model by stating local action or popular movemnts as the main historical agentand has been replaced by call for world leaders to do something. Triumph of the will of Trostkyism a la London and 350.org.
Also international contact person for System change not climate change declaration in Copenhagen 2009 (which acknowledged the need of translocal alliances among direct producers like workers, fishermen, small peasants etc and did not limit itself to claims about the local against the larger levels). Opposing left wing domination of attempts to state anticapitalism as the main ideology for the whole movemnt as long as I have been active and seen so many attempts in this direction turned into intellectual careers and failed movements, always positive to discussions about capitalism in the movement as well as other oppressive ideologies and ways to organize society (racism, patriarchy, antirural bias etc).
With this: “where Ross begins to talk about back-to-the-land movements of the late ‘60’s or the BoggsCenter in Detroit as examples we should look to for inspiration and emulation, I believe we do have strategic differences,” you may be finding “strategic differences” where none exist. Unless you are privy to other information about Ross that readers of his response are not…
In any case, Ross’ response gives no indication that he follows a “prefigurative” (autonomist) strategy. All of his preceeding words and examples indicate that Ross proposes a grass-roots, mass- movement building strategy to challenge the power of the rulers, which incorporates initiatives like the Boggs Center. And, as the Greek workers who took over and ran the state television station showed, or as the workers at Republic Windows showed, or as the Black Panthers showed, such tactical initiatives have a vital role to play in the context of a growing and radicalizing social movement.
Such initiatives play a quadruple role within a revolutionary strategy. They can certainly “prefigure” the type of grassroots democratic participation we champion. They can even offer some relief to the economic calamity faced by the most oppressed. They can empower participants to act collectively to challenge the capitalists and their state. And they can provide organizing centers and spaces, which have been progressively closed off to us under the neoliberal juggernaut.
Where you do have a difference is on the issue of the role and trajectory of 350.org, and the relative place of local and national organizing. And here, both of you have valid arguments. First, any successful effort to challenge capital must have national and even international coordination and a national and international scope. The movement may not initially have this coordination and scope, but it must build toward it. But, none of this precludes a priority on local and regional struggles, which are where the rubber meets the road.