Resolutions for Radicals in the New Millennium

Published as a ZNet Commentary, January 26, 2000

Usually I resist the temptation to make New Year’s resolutions, or even to use the new year as an excuse for significant reflection on the one just completed. But this year I’m making an exception. After all, we have (arguably, I realize) entered a new millennium: an event that seems to qualify as special. The end of a thousand-year period — particularly one as historically significant as this one — must surely be viewed as a moment of some historical importance. At the very least, it’s a good excuse for reflection on where we’ve been, where we find ourselves, and where we might be going.

The millennium just completed has brought forth the best and worst in human behavior. Nation-state empire, colonialism, and democracy all developed more fully during this period. Agrarian societies were transformed from feudal arrangements, to capitalist ones, rooted in industrial production, to, on occasion, systems based (in theory) on collective ownership. In the case of the latter, most of these systems have collapsed, while the market economies have held on and proliferated like kudzu.

Capitalism has developed from local to national, to international and now global proportions, generating in its wake much wealth for some, and great hardship and misery for others. Note, this is no mere Marxist cliche: it is, in fact, the inherent nature of such an economic order, one which capitalists themselves have acknowledged at least implicitly for years, while nonetheless seeking to justify the “collateral damage.”

In this new century the world will continue to shrink, in the sense that interaction between folks around the globe will proceed at breathtaking speed; and that shrinkage will, as has been the case with shrinkages past, generate much wealth for some, and great misery for more. This too will be no accident, but rather the logic of the system working as planned. Of course, there will be those who will raise our voices in opposition to much of what goes on in the name of this thing the winners call “progress,” and point out that such a world creates a surplus of “losers,” and that the “winners” are more than a little implicated in their suffering. So too, we know there will be, as always, those who reproach us for pointing this out, accuse us of fomenting something called “class struggle,” and attempt to convince all humanity that they have everyone’s interest at heart, and so we should trust them, while distrusting those who stand in their way.

I would suggest that it is at that point where our commitment will be — already is being — tested: the point at which those who labor for justice will be attacked, vilified, co-opted, and bought off. There we will have to define what it is we’re not willing to compromise; what it is we’re willing to fight for, no matter the cost. It is at that point and preferably before, that we’ll have to decide perhaps the most important thing any social being ever has to decide: whether or not we will collaborate with the injustices we see all around us, or whether we’ll actively resist them.

This choice, between collaboration and resistance is the essence, I think, of what it means to be human, or at least to become human. To become fully human — because to think one’s status as a member of Homo sapiens makes one automatically human is to make a category mistake — requires that we decide whether we will go along with the established order, or rebel against it.

None of us, of course, is capable of resisting perfectly. Human frailty being what it is, and the economic order being what it is — which is to say, a perfect system for preying upon those frailties — guarantee that at many times we will fall short, and end up collaborating with an injustice here and again. That such moments of failure are inevitable does not, however, make it any less important to choose resistance, and to offer alternative visions of how society might operate.

And it is especially important that we recognize what constitutes true resistance and what doesn’t: for despite the fact that we’ll all fall short sometimes, it is critical that we fall short (when we do) of a goal that is actually worth fighting for, and not some pale imitation of the genuine article. That’s why we must stake out a ground that is not some mere reflection of liberalism, which accepts so many of the key tenets of ruling class hegemony, because it is part of that hegemony.

This was never so obvious as in the last few weeks, when I have heard progressives praise Bill Clinton for “coming around” on international trade and the WTO (that’s right, Michael Moore really did say this); and claim that America “has respect for human life” presumably absent from those nasty foreign “terrorists” trying to smuggle dynamite into the Space Needle, or wherever (this gem from Paul Wellstone, the “leftist” who’s endorsed Wall Street Bill Bradley); or saying that they “love capitalism” (this from Ben, of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, who’s supposed to be a leftie because they named a flavor after Jerry Garcia, or something). In any event, these are just a few examples of what resistance isn’t. It isn’t about flacking for the President, or voting for the lesser of two evils again, or praising the profit system.

To be “radical” means to seek the roots of whatever problem one is hoping to address, and then, having found them, to focus attention there, and start digging until they are exposed and destroyed. Then, to be radical means to replace that which has been uprooted with something better, more humane, more equitable and just, where folks won’t be subordinated to illegitimate authority, be they politicians, or bosses.

Of course there will be those who deride such talk as mere utopianism. But remember, nothing ever came about that wasn’t first dreamt by someone; and none of the progress we’ve seen come about in the past few centuries was the result of the efforts of moderates, or even liberals really. Even when less militant types have accomplished something, it has often required radicals to keep the liberals honest (or at least on their toes).

It took radical abolitionists, like John Brown, to make the more “mainstream” opponents of slavery take a stronger stand. It took the more militant unions and champions of labor naming the system that everywhere disempowers working people, to push the more “mainstream” unionists, even for a short while, to a position of some strength earlier in this century, and to ultimately accomplish (however inadequate) the reforms of the New Deal. It took SNCC, with its more systemic analysis of the problem of white supremacy, to push SCLC and other “mainstream” civil rights groups, and the same could be said of the effect of even more militant groups like the Panthers or Nation of Islam, Brown Berets or AIM. So too will it take more than sea turtle lovers and AFL-CIO types to stop the WTO and the global misery that comes with the agenda of corporate elites.

Those who are radicals must be clear that the enemy is not the “far right,” but the system that has effectively limited our choices and the spectrum of thinkable thought on so many issues. Were it not for the weak-kneed advocacy of liberals, and the watered-down calls for social justice which are their hallmark, the right wouldn’t be anywhere near the threat it is today. Liberals and the Democrats have enabled the right by their tepid resistance to all but the most fascistic of reactionary plans. And “progressives” have enabled the Democrats to enable the right, by continuing to vote for lessers of two evils, no matter how evil the lessers may in fact be.

We who are radicals must disabuse ourselves of the notion that one more really well-written position paper can make most policy makers come around. Elites don’t do what elites do out of ignorance, or because they just haven’t read the latest from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They do what they do because it is in their interests and the interests of those they serve to do what they do: we are not, liberal protestations aside, “all in this together.” Elites respond to power. They respond to threats, if those threats can be backed up, and they respond to mass pressure. Liberals seek to educate elites away from their class interests: radicals seek to educate masses about theirs, figuring the rest will take care of itself.

So for the new millennium let’s make at least this one resolution: let’s resolve to make clear the difference between us and the liberals with whom we are so regularly lumped.

Here’s one way to think of it: Imagine a man standing over another with a boot pressed against the second man’s throat. Along comes a conservative who blames the man on the ground for his position, assuming he must have done something to deserve being there. When the man under foot asks for help, the conservative insists the man help himself, as such a thing builds character. And then the conservative goes on his way. A liberal, having seen this, rushes up, appalled at the condition of the man on the ground and the mean-spiritedness of the conservative. So he offers the man on the ground a pillow for under his head, so as to alleviate the pain a bit. He even offers to get him a glass of water. And he puts a bumper sticker on his car that reads: “Stomping People Under Foot Is Not a Family Value.” And then the liberal moves on. As our resolution, as radicals, let us resolve that from now on, whenever we come across a scene like this, we’ll focus our attention on the guy whose foot is in the boot, and that we won’t rest until the boot is removed. That’s the difference. And it matters.

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