This is my response to that invitation, which is welcome because we surely need the conversation. And there is a solution; we just need to think in larger terms than those to which we are accustomed.
1. Our economy, politics, and culture are dominated by corporate capital, to the immediate detriment of more than 99 percent of the population and the ultimate detriment of 100 percent. The aftermath of Barack Obama’s 2008 election was a stark reminder that our history fails to support the myth that we can truly get our needs met by electing better people. Even before the Supreme Court removed the few boulders around which the river of money to politicians had to flow, virtually no one could hold state or federal office without pursuing policies acceptable to wealthy backers. Populist rhetoric is okay; congruent action is not.
So the super-rich control government, moderated only by whatever are the current limits on what the rest of us will stand for. Their legislatures have seen to it that alternative parties, if they can get on the ballot at all, can only siphon off protest votes from the major parties. They also control the dominant media, which create most of the public’s understanding of what is happening in public life and what is possible.
Because of their conditioning, belief systems, and the societal structures within which they operate, those with all this power cannot stop themselves from driving us to ruin.
2. Our potential power is far greater than that of the elite. We do the work, pay the taxes, fight the wars, and — to a lesser but still decisive extent — buy the goods and services that keep the whole society running. Any day that we collectively stopped doing any of these things, those in charge would find themselves holding on to the levers of power, but nothing would happen when they moved them. We could stop any war, compel changes to any law or the resources devoted to its enforcement, and force any budgetary and policy decision needed to meet the needs of the people and the planet.
3. The super-wealthy’s control of our polity cannot be changed by working within the system. Their representatives will continue to block meaningful campaign-finance reform, as well as electoral reforms which could theoretically permit inroads in the dominant parties’ duopoly. Initiatives to ban money from politics and give third parties a chance to offer more than a protest vote are valuable for raising consciousness. What these initiatives seek, however, is more than mere tinkering with the system. Their success would have revolutionary consequences. They therefore cannot be accomplished without the power it would take to accomplish an actual revolution. The forces that fight so ruthlessly for their unfettered freedom to make profits throughout the world will give up the capacity to do so only when confronted by our superior strength.
4. Seeking to build movements to pressure government to do the right thing in a myriad of policy areas is a rear-guard action, hopelessly inadequate to the crises we face. Fragmented, relatively spontaneous protest actions without a movement-building strategy are no match for the forces arrayed against us. Powerful movements do win concessions, the importance and permanence of which depend on the strength and duration of the movement. They do not change the underlying dynamics that make movements necessary for rolling back just the worst excesses of what most of the wealthy class considers to be in its interests.
Movements for reform have an impact, but, as the Labor, Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women’s, Environmental, and Occupational-Safety Movements demonstrated, ground is lost as soon as the pressure is off. Moreover, there are so many policy areas that need attention, and we have yet to find a way to unify those who focus on each separately. We need to build a sustained, massive, and united popular movement, one that at first recalls the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam-War Movements but ends up dwarfing both in its size and its longevity.
5. It is time to jettison the idea of flexing our power to influence policy in favor of replacing the corporate elite’s government with our own, in a peaceful revolution. Progressive forces are sharply limited in our ability to ignite and sustain our own enthusiasm and that of the populace as a whole by failing to raise our sights above a vision of endless struggle. We cannot avoid the need to organize for defensive actions, but it should not be our fundamental strategy. Rather than merely pressuring a system, the underlying dynamic of which is against our interests in virtually every realm, our ultimate goal should be to take it over — to nonviolently use our collective power to make the government our own.
This is the vision that will inspire: To move towards the day when we need protest neither to stop wars or bailouts nor to start truly taking care of our citizens and the planet, for government will have become our own instrument for mobilizing our collective resources in the interests of peace, social justice, environmental responsibility, and a society that is overall hospitable to the needs of the human spirit.
6. The main prerequisites for truly revolutionary change are 1) widespread popular understanding of both its necessity and its possibility; and 2) the organization of a massive, united, disciplined, and sustained movement, guided by a long-term vision and strategy. It is conceivable, though unlikely, that we will ultimately achieve the transformation we need through forcing democratic reforms and then electing leaders responsible to us. Whether, however, the transitional scenario is that one or an outright forcing of the government from power, the same degree of revolutionary mobilization will be required, as noted above.
One of the prongs of any strategy for creating such mobilization has to be the development of creative and effective means of educating those who should be working together for our common aims. The American people are not dumb, but on the whole we are woefully uninformed and misinformed. We are also fragmented, and we are brainwashed into limiting our vision of what is possible. So the other strategic task is empowering people, teaching them to organize for unified, effective action.
7. We can create these prerequisites for transformation of our polity if we build a grass-roots, membership-based political party. It must eschew the trap of a rigged electoral game and focus on its two primary tasks, educating our people as to their true interests and the path forward, and organizing them. We can win over our friends, neighbors, co-workers, and fellow congregants with specialized literature, independent media, classes, and forums. Opportunities to do so will arise both in our daily interactions and as we enter all the campaigns around the issues that corporate rule thrusts in our faces. But we must work in those campaigns, not only in the pursuit of their immediate goals, but to build a new level of consciousness and organization.
Where there is no such organization, with a clear vision and strategy, crises can produce movements so large that they topple governments. What replaces them, however, can be just as bad or worse.
8. An effective party will be united around a clear program, strategy, and tactics, developed democratically; encourage autonomy and creativity in their implementation; confront head-on the challenges to multi-class and multi-ethnic cooperation; and approach the work with the professionalism needed to effectively challenge the most powerful ruling class on earth. Developing true unity is the only way that all who want to work for the same goals can do so, and in a manner that they can agree is ultimately most effective and reflects our values. The Occupy Movement stayed so open and relatively unorganized that anyone could act in its name. If we do the same, there will be no clear vision to attract people to, and we will be discredited easily by elements that embrace random violence, people acting on behalf of sectarian leftist groups, and provocateurs. We also need a unified vision in order to work in immediate, issue-oriented struggles in a way that advances the long-term cause.
Many progressive initiatives come from educated people of higher socioeconomic standing. We who would build a new party must — from the beginning of that effort — do our best to involve people of all classes and ethnicities in the dialog on how to do so, understand and confront issues of privilege without making anyone wrong for being who they are, and recognize and work with the differences in viewpoint, needs, and styles of communicating that accompany coming from different backgrounds. A serious organization will need means of training its members so that everyone willing to take up one of the party’s tasks — whether proselytizing in a large or small way, organizing, or providing leadership — can do so well, and so that at every level we know how to hold meetings that are rewarding to be a part of. We need means of producing the literature and establishing the media that will support educational work. And we need mechanisms for deciding when to have a statewide or nationwide campaign on this or that issue and ways of choosing its goals, slogans, and tactics.
9. A commitment to nonviolence is essential. The original labor movement of the early 20th century was attacked with violence, as were the Civil Rights, Anti-Vietnam War, and Occupy Movements. Such attacks produce, at a minimum, temptations to engage in vandalism and provoking the police, à la Occupy’s Black Block. When repression grows, heavier tactics like “armed self-defense” and “bringing the war home” have their appeal as well. However, a group that sees oppressors and those they recruit in their service as simply evil, and that accepts fighting fire with fire, implants into its own DNA the genes that replicate a demonizing, oppressor mentality. It generates organizational forms, values, and practices that conflict with the humane and democratic ideals that it seeks to further. And it creates so many enemies, so much armed resistance even after succeeding, that a heavy hand is needed to maintain control then as well.
Images of dignified Civil Rights marchers being blasted with fire hoses built sympathy for them and reduced that for the defenders of segregation, while modern images of Black Block antics made it easy to diminish the sympathy Occupy originally drew. As for whatnonviolence strategists call the “pillars of support” of the existing system — armies, police, media, those working in government itself — effective nonviolent movements split those supports and can even cause their disintegration, while violent resistance strengthens them. Thus, when a movement repeatedly demonstrates the lie of those who portray them as terrorists or violent revolutionaries, some percentage of journalists succeeds in getting their editors to allow portrayals of the truth. When police and national guard are repeatedly ordered to fire on peaceful protesters — not “radicals” but their friends and neighbors, they begin to defect in a way that never happens when firebombs are tossed their way.
10. The party’s program and tactics must implicitly align with spiritual values. A movement, the goals and methods of which reflect the deepest yearnings of the heart, will draw millions. Other human tendencies pull us towards self-righteous anger and the many varieties of opportunism, but they can be countered by a commitment to nonviolence; always remembering that our opponents — even when their actions are at their most evil — are deluded, ignorant, and victims of their own conditioning and that they pay a psychological or spiritual price for what they do; and encouraging selection of leaders who have worked on themselves enough to be less at the mercy of their egos than are people who are merely ambitious or angry.
We can also use such simple devices as beginning every meeting with a minute or two of silent reflection. There is no endorsement of religion in inviting people to connect with their deepest purpose in showing up and to reflect on how they want to treat the other beings with whom they are joining, as well as with any conception of Source that may fit with their beliefs and experience.
We must develop respectful norms of treating each other, especially when we are working through disagreements, as well as to delineate in advance what constitutes disruptive conduct and refuse to tolerate it. Both practices reflect the values of nearly every spiritual and religious path, but neither is unique to those who consider themselves religious or spiritual.
11. The bad news: failure to take up the work is an invitation to fascism. One element of fascism — political power in the hands of corporate capital — is already in place. A second typical element is massive use of the tactic of whipping up popular sentiment against supposed internal or external enemies, and employment of that tool has only partially receded from a post-9/11 trend towards fascist levels. This and the remaining typical element — police-state repression of any true dissent — will surely be employed here if necessary and if we allow it.
If this seems inconceivable, one need only look at the brutality of this country’s overseas wars and the dictatorial governments whose forces it has trained and sustained consistently for decades. Paler glimpses came in the repression of the early labor movement, the Red Scare of 1919 and the McCarthy campaign, murderous attacks on the leadership of the Black Panther Party, and the use of spies and provocateurs in movements from the Civil Rights era through Occupy. Not to mention the recently-revealed surveillance of all of us that the Executive Branch, the Congressional Intelligence Committees, and the FISA Court all considered justifiable.
Economic, political, social, environmental, and spiritual crises loom on all sides. It is possible that things will reach a point where the most hard-nosed elements of the ruling elite see the need for imposing a 21st-century American version of fascism and can overcome the scruples of their more moderate comrades in doing so. Only a powerful Left, and one that has its roots in — and is listened to by — a very broad segment of the population, can forestall such developments. Once fascism has the momentum to gain the upper hand, it is too late, and the results are lethal. Already the near-demise of principled, courageous liberalism in the Democratic Party (and what was once the liberal wing of the Republicans) and concomitant capitulation to, and compromise with, the Right have just emboldened the Right to go for more, and more, and more. It is up to us to step in.
12. The good news: we are called on to embark on a joyous enterprise, not a grim one; only the situation is grim. What is demanded of us is to step into adult shoes and develop real power, in contrast to hoping for the best from this or that Democrat or Republican, sending money to groups that lobby for them to do the right thing, putting up protest candidates, or organizing action after action without a strategy. If we stick to the old ways, we are acting like children, unhappy with our parents, expressing our displeasure and trying to get them to give us what we want, but staying in the accustomed role of complainers. In contrast, there will be joy, freedom, aliveness, connection, and love in stepping out of oppressive helplessness and empowering ourselves and the people around us.
Moreover, among us there are thousands of writers, poets, artists, composers, and musicians and other performers. Nothing would fulfill them more than using their talents to bring fun and heart to our movement. Of the many hallmarks that will attract people to our undertaking will be that it is not only a soul-driven enterprise, but one that takes care to feed the soul as we do our work.
Circumstances demand that we come forward with a long-term vision for becoming masters of our collective fate and a strategy for achieving that vision, rather than reactively lurching from election to election, war to war, crisis to crisis. Many of us desperately need a way out of real privation. For the rest of us, it is time to give up the powerlessness, hopelessness, anxiety, and dread that infuse the air we breathe. Far better to move towards the construction of a society of which we are proud and a more hopeful future for our descendants than the one that appears to face them now. In the process, every one of us who shoulders that joyful burden — in whatever big or small way we can — will find new meaning in our lives.