history of the present

I really like the history of the present.  I like talking about the historical events of 2008, 2011, the weird lulls in between like 09/2010 and 12/13.

I like thinking about the 90s and the 2000s and how they became today.  When I reach back for further causality, I really only go as far back as the last great period of rebellion (1960s) and possibly to explain how that one played out, the one before that (1930s).  I look at how the 70s was a period of weak leftism descending, and how the 90s was a sort of mirror image, with anti-capitalist ideas beginning to return but in an extremely cultural, disorganized fashion.  And of course the bitter conservative winter of the 1980s.

But this is a vital and neglected area of history, useful because we’re living in it and can act on it, and forbidden because its very nature requires biased, controversial interpretation.

Estranged Labour, by Marx

Estranged Labour, by Marx

First, the fact that labor is external to the worker, i.e., it does not belong to his intrinsic nature; that in his work, therefore, he does not affirm himself but denies himself, does not feel content but unhappy, does not develop freely his physical and mental energy but mortifies his body and ruins his mind. The worker therefore only feels himself outside his work, and in his work feels outside himself. He feels at home when he is not working, and when he is working he does not feel at home. His labor is therefore not voluntary, but coerced; it is forced labor.


“I see in fight club the strongest and smartest men who’ve ever lived. I see all this potential, and I see it squandered. God damn it, an entire generation pumping gas, waiting tables; slaves with white collars. Advertising has us chasing cars and clothes, working jobs we hate so we can buy shit we don’t need. We’re the middle children of history, man. No purpose or place. We have no Great War. No Great Depression. Our Great War’s a spiritual war… our Great Depression is our lives. We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, and movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” — Tyler Durden, Fight Club

coming out of the woodwork

Leftist organizing seems to me a continual process of familiarizing yourself with an ever-broadening network of people.  This must be done at the informal, personal, street level, the ground level, or it is false.  It almost seems as if the closer you get to established organizations with name brands, the further you get from any actual self-organized or radical activity.

It no longer makes sense to claim lineage anymore – that we are The Descendants of the Bolsheviks, or Lenin or Trotsky or “anti-revisionism” or the Russian Revolution or the n-th International, the Unbroken Thread of Marxist Orthodoxy.  These days it’s almost an embarrassment to even call yourself an Occupy Working Group – shouldn’t you be dead by now?

None of that matters because these things that maybe once carried some weight with large numbers of people are now just historical echoes.  People are no longer attracted to them because they are no longer living forces.

We will always be in the process of establishing ourselves; we will always appear not-yet-established.  Our strength should not be that we are The Authority because we are a Pre-Existing Organization with an Already-Established Mass Membership.

Our appeal should be that we need a resistance movement, and that we are trying to be one, and we are a good spot to get together for anyone else who is thinking the same thing.

We will always be up against the stigma of being small, and therefore appearing hopeless and ridiculous.  Against that, however, we should simply insist that social change is simply necessary, and that every linking-up of individuals creates one more increment of strength for our side, so there’s no point in worrying about scale just yet.  The point is to get started organizing, even if it’s just you and me.

It’s easy to gain an entrenched view of the Left, a view that the existing structures are lasting and unchanging.  This perspective may have made sense in the 40-year dead zone of political history following the 1960s, but it doesn’t make sense anymore.  History is moving again.  People’s ideas are subject to shifting and change.  Organizations that have traditions which seem unlikely to ever change just may break their own rules and decide to do something new.

The rather arbitrary lines which demarcate various factions of radicals from each other may just melt away, or at least soften.

Instead leftist organizing should be a continual adventure.  It should be an RPG-like wander of exploring your city, stumbling upon others who share your goal and team up with you.  You should meander into all of the existing resistance groups, not with a mind of the critique you have of each of them, but as someone hoping to shake up their old narrowness and separation from each other (or maybe, God forbid, to actually learn something yourself).  Maybe it takes a fresh face to call the old tribal grudges into question.

As with progressive religion, the intellectual coherence of the project is beside the point.  The point is that it is a living force that can agree on a baseline and create change.

Obviously “unity” as a buzzword has its limits.  What we have to do is not just simply mash everyone together.  What we have to do is find the real commonalities between groups, which may indeed involve a process of debate.  When it seems that it’s only a language barrier or prejudice or semantics getting in the way of anarchist platformists and libertarian bolsheviks being on the same page, we may have to argue that out with people – they may not believe it, or have some kind of psychological investment in being-better-by-being-different-from-them.

In situations where these different groups are already in the same space, such as the Occupy moment, the emphasis may shift from getting everyone together to sharply standing up for a way of doing things that will actually keep everyone together, or at least the best elements.

When groups insist that they are better alone, better off in their own corner doing their own thing, maybe that’s something we should actually argue with them about.  The difference here, though, is that we are not trying to tear down one radical faction in the name of building up another one.  We have no organization, no factional identity over which we are asking people to swallow their pride and give up their old labels.  We just want a level of political collaboration (not just movement collaboration) which is for the benefit of all.

So let us wander through the infoshops, through the socialist meetings, through the feminist clubs, through the queer organizations, through what union events open their doors to us, let us wander through coalitions we previously wrote off as useless, let us familiarize ourselves with every squirm of movement under the sun.  Let us journey into the land of strange groups we never thought we’d find ourselves amongst – the Maoists, the Black Nationalists, the Zeitgeisters.  Let us learn about issues that may have been off the map of our old crew’s focus – legalizing weed, direct democracy, whatever.

Let us forget our histories, and become people who actually represent the potential of forward motion, instead of the naysayers who know all the answers but implement none of them because “it’s not time yet” despite the fire everywhere.

Ye must be born again.