A sketch of an association of democratic,
autonomous neighborhoods and how to create it
by James Herod
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/GetFre/P.htm
© Copyright 2004 by James Herod and
this page is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/GetFre/P.htm
© Copyright 2004 by James Herod and
to contact the author, <email@example.com>
Getting Free (the entire essay, complete in one long file), is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Strate/GetFre/index.htm
The main purpose of this book is to try to persuade revolutionaries to shift the sites of the anti-capitalist struggle, and to select new battlefields. I identify three strategic sites for fighting — neighborhoods, workplaces, and households — which I believe will not only enable us to defeat capitalists but also to build a new society in the process.
The advantage of shifting the battleground to the three strategic sites is that it is an offensive strategy, not merely a defensive one. That is, it is not merely our reacting to things we don't like and want to stop, not merely our resisting what they are doing to us, but rather our defending what we are doing to them through our new social creations. It means that we would begin to take the initiative to build the life we want, and then fight to defend this life, and defend our social creations from attacks by the ruling class. I think people will be much more willing to fight for something like this, than to fight to stop outrages of the ruling class elsewhere, which often seem remote from their everyday lives. But we should be quite clear that this will involve us in terrible fights. We will never be able to establish free associations on any of these sites without directly confronting ruling class power.
In listing all the strategies that have failed it isn't my intention to denigrate the revolutionary efforts of past generations. Resisting and defeating capitalism has been an historical project of enormous scope; revolutionaries have poured their lives into strategies they considered best at the time. I'm simply trying to take stock, and to reflect on where we've been and what we've tried, and on where ought to be going now, and what we ought to be trying to do. I do not claim that the strategy I outline here is the end all and be all. It's a proposal, that's all, an assessment, a reflection on what I think it will take for us to win. But I'm only one person. Fashioning a new anti-capitalist strategy for our times is obviously a task for millions.
Nor is it my intention (in listing what I claim are failed strategies) to say that people should stop resisting altogether. It is to argue that these forms of resistance, although they have accomplished a lot, haven't gotten us very far toward our ultimate goal of destroying capitalism. They haven't enabled us to overthrow the system, defeat the ruling class, or build a free society, and I don't think they ever will.
Some of these failed strategies, like the Leninist vanguard party, social democracy, dropping out, and guerrilla warfare, should be abandoned completely. Others, like demonstrations and single-issue campaigns, should clearly be subordinated to the main task of building free associations in neighborhoods, workplaces, and households. It's not so much that strategies like strikes, civil disobedience, or insurrections are wrong in themselves. It's that they are not enough, and by themselves cannot defeat capitalism. To win we must add another whole dimension.
The sad truth though is that the three strategic sites we could be fighting on, and which might lead us to victory, are largely being ignored. The workplace struggles going on are largely reformist, as are most neighborhood organizing initiatives, while there is very little organizing at all being done around households. So the bulk of our energies are not going into these three strategic sites at all, but into other arenas. I would feel much better about all the demonstrations, the marches, the civil disobedience, the single-issue campaigns, if significant struggles were also being waged in workplaces, neighborhoods, and households. But in the absence of these fights, where does all the rest get us? Not to victory, that's clear enough.
The recent, spectacular resurgence of radical movements the world over, first symbolized by the Battle of Seattle in November 1999, and continuing on through Quebec City and Genoa, highlights the issues I've raised in a most urgent way. As heartening as these developments have been, and as wonderful as they are to see, it's all too possible that they will go nowhere, and will eventually fizzle out and disappear, just like the revolts of the sixties did, unless they can be linked to struggles to seize control of our lives on the local level.
Somehow, it has come to be accepted that this is what radicals do — demonstrate — when they want to protest or stop something, and that mass demonstrations take priority over everything else. I will be arguing that we have it just backwards, upside down. If we had reorganized ourselves into neighborhood, workplace, and household assemblies, and were struggling to seize power there, then we would have a base from which to stop ruling class offensives like neoliberalism, and if we then chose to demonstrate in the streets, there would be some teeth to it, and not be just an isolated, ephemeral event, which can be pretty much ignored by our rulers. We would not be just protesting but countering. We have to organize ourselves in such a way that we have the power to counter them, not just protest against them, but refuse them, neutralize them. This cannot be done by affinity groups, NGOs, or isolated individuals converging periodically at world summits to protest against the ruling class, but only by free associations rooted in real everyday life.
And if we were organized like this it might not even be necessary to go to mass demonstrations at all. We could simply announce what we were going to do to them if they didn't cease oppressive practices. But opposition movements gravitate again and again to these kinds of demonstrations. "Taking to the Streets", we call it. We can't build a new social world in the streets. As long as we're only in the streets, whereas our opponents function through real organizations like governments, corporations, and police, we will always be on the receiving end of the tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and, almost everywhere in the world but North America or Europe, real bullets, napalm, poisons, and bombs. This predilection for protests and demonstrations prevailed throughout the sixties, as the movement traveled to Washington DC time and again, taking to the streets. We are still like children, only able to 'raise a ruckus'. We are not yet adults who can assemble, reason together, take stock of our options, devise a strategy, and then strike, to defeat our enemies, and build the world we want.
We are living in a window of opportunity. Anti-capitalist forces have been at a strategic impasse for decades, with widespread confusion over both the shape of the new world we want and how to dismantle the existing one. But the complete collapse and discrediting of the Bolshevik model in Russia and all over the third world, and the equal bankruptcy of Social Democracy in Europe, opens up the possibility of redefining radical politics, of rethinking the goal of the revolution and its strategy. For the first time in over a century anarchist perspectives are back on the agenda in a serious way. Anti-statist approaches are gaining ground, even among some communists and marxists. I think of my essay as a contribution to this world-wide effort to redefine radical politics and to break out of the impasse that has stymied the revolution ever since the Bolsheviks came to power in 1917, the Socialist Democrats were defeated in Germany in 1919, and the Spanish Revolution went down to defeat in 1939.
My essay helps renew radical politics in several ways I believe. By outlining a three pronged attack on the system, by focusing not merely on the workplace (seizing the means of production) but also on neighborhoods, and households, it anticipates a recapturing of decision-making, that is, its relocation, out of state bureaucracies, parliaments, and corporate boards, and into our assemblies. It also emphasizes capturing the means of re-production (and not only of production) through household associations. Its guiding principle is free association. It focuses squarely on the necessity of building an opposition movement and culture, and of creating for ourselves new social relations. It also integrates the goal and the strategy for achieving the goal, suggesting very concrete steps that ordinary people can take to defeat capitalism and build a new world.
I have taken some ideas for granted, in addition to an anti-capitalist outlook, which the reader needs to be aware of in order to understand why I have written as I have. My sketch of a new social world and a strategy for achieving it is based on a firm commitment to direct democracy, not representative democracy or federation. I am aware that almost everyone now automatically dismisses direct democracy as being no longer possible in a “complex industrial society.” I have always disagreed with this view.
You will also not be able to understand my remarks unless you are aware that I think of capitalism as a worldwide system, which is approximately 500 years old. Capitalists started establishing their way of living in Europe, between 1450 and 1650 roughly, and then, over the next several centuries, carried their practices to every corner of the globe, destroying and displacing other traditions, usually through warfare. World history for the last 500 years is thus in the main the story of this assault capitalists have thrown against the world’s peoples, beginning with the peasants of Europe, in order to seize their lands and force them into wage-slavery (wealth making laborers), tenancy (rent paying residents), and citizenship (tax paying subjects). It is also the story of the worldwide resistance to this invasion. A good part of the story of course is taken up merely with the fights among capitalists themselves.
You should also be aware that, from this perspective, countries that came to be called communist were just capitalist states doing what capitalists always do, enslaving and exploiting their populations. There was always a radical tradition that perceived the Soviet experiment, and the colonial revolutions that aped it, in these terms (council communists, western marxists, anarchists, and anarcho-syndicalists). Now that the Soviet Union is gone, more people are realizing that communist countries were just capitalism in a different form, and had little to do with the struggle against capitalism.
A further assumption I make is that it is impossible to defeat our ruling class by force of arms. The level of firepower currently possessed by all major governments and most minor ones is simply overwhelming. It is bought with the expropriated wealth of billions of people. For any opposition movement to think that it can acquire, maintain, and deploy a similarly vast and sophisticated armament is ludicrous. I have nothing against armed struggle in principle (although of course I don't like it). I just don’t think it can work now. It would take an empire as enormous and rich as capitalism itself is to fight capitalists on their own terms. This is something the working classes of the world will never have, nor should we even want it.
This does not mean though that we should not think strategically, in order to win, and defeat our oppressors. It means that we have to learn how to destroy them without firing a single shot. It means that we have to look to, and invent if necessary, other weapons, other tactics. But we must be careful not to fall into the nonviolence/violence trap. Is tearing down a fence a violent act, or resistance to the violence of those who erected the fence in the first place? Is throwing a tear gas canister back at the police who fired it an act of violence, or resistance to an act of violence? Nonviolence is a main ideological weapon of a very violent ruling class. They use it to pacify us. They use their mass media to preach nonviolence incessantly. It's an effective weapon because we all (but they don't) want to live in a peaceful, nonviolent world. We would do well to chart a careful course through this swamp.
In this essay I have focused on the three strategic associations that are needed to defeat capitalists. I have not attempted to discuss also the numerous and varied cultural associations that will undoubtedly be created by free peoples, covering every conceivable interest.
As will become evident, I'm writing from the perspective of someone who lives in the United States of America. This is the only culture that I'm familiar with in any depth, although I have traveled abroad, lived two years in the Middle East, and have studied other cultures. My remarks are therefore most relevant to others living in this country, and to a lesser extent to persons living in other core capitalist countries, and to a still lesser extent to persons living in the rest of the world, although I hope everyone may find some value in it.
This essay has been written for those who already want to destroy capitalism. It is not intended to persuade anyone that it ought to be. That is a task of a different kind. What is self-evident to me, as it is to most radicals, is unfortunately not so self-evident to others, not even to the working class itself. Nevertheless, I have included a short initial section on how we do not want to live, in hopes of attracting a wider range of readers, readers who may be quite unhappy with their lives but who are far from attributing their misery to capitalists. I’ve also included a list of recommended readings for those who want to explore emancipatory social thought further.
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