Resolutions for Radicals
I don't normally make New Year's resolutions, or use the new year as an excuse for significant reflection on the one just ended. But this year, I'm making an exception. After all, we have (arguably, I know) entered a new millennium: and the end of a thousand-year period-- particularly one as historically significant as this--should be seen as a moment of some importance. If nothing else, it's a good reason to examine 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 empires, colonialism, and "democracy" all developed more fully in this period. Agrarian societies evolved from feudal arrangements, to capitalist ones, rooted in industrial production, to, occasionally, systems based (in theory) on collective ownership. In the case of the latter, most of these have collapsed, while "the market" has held on and proliferated like kudzu. Capitalism has developed from local to national, to international, to global proportions, generating much wealth for some, and great hardship for others. And this is no mere Marxist cliche: it is the inherent nature of such an order, one which capitalists themselves have acknowledged at least implicitly for years, while nonetheless seeking to justify the "collateral damage."
And 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 with shrinkages past-generate much wealth for some, and great misery for more. And this too will be no accident, but rather, the logic of the system working as planned.
And there will be those who raise our voices in opposition to much of what goes on in the name of this thing the winners call "progress," and who note that such a world creates a surplus of "losers," and that the "winners" are more than a little implicated in their suffering. And there will be those who reproach us for pointing this out, accuse us of fomenting something called "class struggle," and attempt to convince all humanity they have everyone's interests at heart, and so we should trust them, while distrusting those who stand in their way.
And it is at that point where our commitment will be (is being) tested: the point at which those who labor for justice will be attacked, vilified, and even co-opted. There we'll 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-preferably before-that we'll have to decide perhaps the most important thing anyone ever has to decide: whether or not we will collaborate with the injustices 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 as Baldwin put it, to "become human." To become fully human-because to think being a member of homo sapiens makes one automatically human is to make a category mistake-requires that we decide whether we'll 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 often we'll 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's important to recognize what constitutes true resistance and what doesn't: for despite the fact that we'll all fall short sometimes, it's 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 ground that is not some mere reflection of liberalism, which accepts so many of the tenets of ruling class hegemony-indeed 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 the WTO (that's right, Michael Moore really said this); and claim that America "has respect for human life" presumably absent from those foreign "terrorists" trying to smuggle dynamite into the Space Needle, or wherever (this from Paul Wellstone-the "leftist" who endorsed Wall Street Bill Bradley); or saying that they "love capitalism" (this in a USA Today letter from "Ben," of Ben and Jerry's ice cream, who's supposed to be a lefty because they named a flavor after Jerry Garcia, or something). In any event, these are 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 a problem, and then, having found them, to focus attention there, and dig until they're exposed and destroyed. Then, to be radical means to replace that which has been uprooted with something better, more equitable and just, where folks aren't subordinated to illegitimate authority-be they politicians, or bosses.
Sure, many deride such talk as utopianism. But remember, nothing ever came about that wasn't first dreamt by someone; and none of the contemporary progress we've seen in terms of justice was due to the efforts of moderates, or even liberals really. Even when less militant types have accomplished something positive, 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 which disempowers working people, to push more "mainstream" unionists-even for a short while-to a position of strength earlier in this century, and to 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 "mainstream" civil rights groups, and the same could be said of the effect of even more militant groups like the Panthers, the Nation of Islam, Brown Berets or AIM.
Likewise, it will take more than mere lovers of sea turtles and AFL-CIO types to stop the WTO and the global immiseration that comes with the agenda of corporate elites.
Those who call ourselves radicals must be clear: the enemy is not the "far right," but the system that limits our choices and the spectrum of thought on so many issues. Were it not for the weak-kneed advocacy of liberals, and the watered-down calls for justice which are their hallmark, the right wouldn't be 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 lesser may be.
We radicals must disabuse ourselves of the notion that one more really well-written position paper will make policy makers come around. Elites don't do what they do out of ignorance, or because they haven't read the latest from the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. They do what they do because it's 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; threats-if they can be backed up-and 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 millenium let's make this resolution: let's resolve to clarify the difference between us and liberals with whom we're often 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, since surely he must have done something to deserve being there. When the man under foot asks for help, the conservative says the man must help himself, as such a thing builds character. And then the conservative walks away.
A liberal, seeing 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, and offers him a cool glass of water. He even 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 whenever we come across this kind of scene, we'll focus attention on the guy whose foot is in the damned boot, and that we won't rest until the boot is removed. That's the difference. And it matters.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based activist, writer, and antiracism educator. He can be reached at email@example.com.