Struggles of the Past
NC: It’s pretty routine. So for example in the ‘60s in the anti-war movement, every group, groups from all over the place had to learn some lessons. One lesson that they had to learn pretty quickly is that if there is somebody in the group who’s dressed like a Hollywood version of a hippy and who’s shouting you know, “Off the cops” or “let’s break some windows” or whatever, you’re very likely to see him in court testifying for the police, because that’s their job, you know, try to turn activism into something that’ll alienate the public and break the law and give your grounds for repression. So they [provocateurs] are all over.
I was involved with groups that were dealing with resistance, so you know, deserters and people like that but we quickly learned that if there’s something really sensitive we can’t do it in a group, we have to do an affinity group, if somebody’s life is at stake you know, because chances are there’s somebody around who’s an informant and you know that’s what police do.
You can tell by taking a looking at the FBI cases, they’ve just been coming up with terrorism cases. They’re almost all entrapment, somebody joins, gets in contact with a bunch of guys with kind of loose ends, they don’t know what they’re doing, they’re confused and suggest something to them or offer them some money and pretty soon they’re trying to stuff a fake bomb somewhere and you arrest them and send them off to jail. But that it’s so routine there’s not even any point giving examples. It’s just routine police behavior.
CS: In your latest release Occupy you describe the effect of theatre and art in Brazil, do you feel that music can provide people with a political vocabulary and political identity that’s otherwise not included in the media?
NC: Yeah, sure there’s lots of ways to do it, in fact 99% and 1% wasn’t in the media a year ago. Now it’s a routine discussion that people are thinking about things in a different way than they did before, just in the very few months of the Occupy movement. Actually there are some polls on it, which maybe you’ve seen there was a Pew poll which has been asking people at various times, “What do you think about inequality?” and concern about inequality shot up very fast after September just from the effect, I assume it’s the effect of the Occupy movement, which has just permeated a lot of mainstream discourse. Now that can be co-opting too, powerful systems will try to incorporate what they see is working and turn it to their own needs, whether it’s human rights or you name it, of course that’s what they’ll try to do. So for example, after the 2008 election, which generated a lot of enthusiasm, right after the election there was an annual conference of the advertiser’s association, whatever they call themselves, and every year they give a prize for the best marketing campaign of the year and that year they gave it to Obama, he beat out Apple Computers, and if you take a look at the business press right afterward which was interesting, they’re quoting executives, CEOs and so on, they’re very excited about it. They said this is a new model for how we can behave to the public and in the boardroom and so on and we can use this model that worked so well at diluting people in the 2008 election. They know he ran it but they learned lessons from it.
The use of human rights is quite an interesting case but it’s true, there was a huge anti-nuclear movement in the early 1980s, huge demonstrations, millions of people trying to get rid of nuclear weapons and the Reagan administration cleverly co-opted it. They came out and said “yeah great idea we’re all with you against nuclear weapons, let’s have star wars.” That’s how they got the star wars thing through and they diffused the movement, they made it sound as if it was opposed to nuclear weapons, of course you know what it was but of course they’re going to do that. And can you change the discourse? Sure.
I mentioned meeting with Lula [former president of Brazil]. So for example, this was before he was elected and he was quite popular, if you looked at opinion polls he was highest in the opinion polls but he never won an election. Mostly it was because of corruption, you know the election was bought off or last minute there’s a huge flood of propaganda advertising and so on. I asked him at one point, did he think he ever would be able to win an election if there wasn’t corruption and so on? And he said he didn’t think it would be possible and the reason was he said “I know the mentality of the peasants, that’s what I come from, and they go into the voting booth and they ask themselves, could somebody like me run a country? They’ll say no. It has to be one of those rich white guys. So even if they want me, they’re going to vote for those other people.” A couple years later he won, the mentality changed, and it has changed all over Latin America. Indigenous people, poor people, it’s just a radical change, so of course it can be done. And the kind of thing he took me to see in the suburb, which you mentioned is one of the ways in which it can be done, and there are plenty of others, I mean in Bolivia around the same time about ten years ago the mobilization on the effort to privatize water led to a real revolution in the country. The first time in hundreds of years that the indigenous population has been able to enter the political arena and take over political power, it’s kind of interesting the way the governments are reacting. The governments and the corporations still want to privatize water but they learned that the Bolivian method is dangerous because it led practically to a revolution, they threw out the big corporations and so on. I was in southern Columbia recently visiting the villages and what the government of Columbia is apparently trying to do is to pick the villages off or the regions off one at a time. So if you come into some poor, remote, endangered villages and you give them a line about how great the water will be if we just buy your land up there where the Virgin forest is, you can maybe get somebody to accept it. Although strikingly they’re organizing and resisting, but from the point of view of the rich and powerful, class war never stops, it’s permanent. They’re involved in a constant bitter class war, very self-conscious, they want everyone else not to participate but they’re always the people carrying it out. That’s why they’re rich and powerful.
CS: Do you see a correlation between the Paris Commune and the Occupy Wall Street movement?
NC: Well, all popular movements have something in common, but they are pretty different. The Paris Commune took over and ran the city. If you want to find to a parallel in American history it would be more like what happened in western Pennsylvania in the latter part of the nineteenth century in Homestead where the mills and the mines and so on had a very powerful worker’s movement at the time and they essentially took them over. These were worker run communities, in fact, the state had to call in the National Guard to destroy them and it wasn’t easy.
Another parallel for the Occupy movement, which I don’t know how well it’s known is Resurrection City. I don’t know if anyone talks about that but it’s quite significant. If you take the history of the Civil Rights movement in the United States, say Martin Luther King, great figure but look at what happened to King. If you listen to the speeches on Martin Luther King Day they typically end in enthusiastic rhetoric and his enthusiastic rhetoric ends in 1963 with his I Have a Dream speech.
Well he gave another I Have a Dream speech, a very eloquent one, it was the evening he was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support a sanitation worker strike and it was on his way to Washington to try to organize a poor people’s movement. The speech had biblical overtones, the kind he used. The theme was “I can see the promised land”, kind of like Moses “I can see the Promised Land, I know I’m not going to get there but you will get there”, and the Promised Land he was talking about was not the right not vote, it was rights for poor people. He was concerned about life in the slums, the repression of the poor generally, race class are kind of correlated so it’s very heavily black but not just black by any means. Then he was killed. There was supposed to be a march from Memphis to Washington [D.C.] and Coretta King, his wife, his widow, led the march and they went through all the embattled places in the south, Birmingham, Selma, and so on and they ended up in Washington. They set up a tent city in Washington, Resurrection City, where it was going to be the base for approaching congress to try to get some legislation, which would deal with the plight of poor people. Well congress, which was the most liberal congress in American history, had called the police who came in the middle of the night, smashed up the camp and drove them out of the city. That’s Resurrection City. As far as northern liberals were concerned if you wanted to denounce racist Alabama sheriffs that was fine but don’t come near us.
CS: What are some techniques for the population and especially young people to see the truth and wake up from the media’s false reality and false history?
NC: I think kids are ready for it, they just have to pay attention, most people just don’t pay attention. Because they think everything’s hopeless, I mean it’s kind of driven into your heads that everything is hopeless like, “there’s nothing you can do, the powers are too great.” In fact the sense of hopelessness in the country is astonishing, so for example you look at polls, over half the population thinks that congress should be totally thrown out and replaced by your neighbors, you know, “They’ll do a better job.” Approval of congress is in the single digits, nobody thinks “I can do anything about it”, it’s like these peasants in Brazil, “How can somebody like me do anything about it?” In fact you take a look at the 9/11 movement, which is kind of interesting, not the content but just the phenomenon. You know the “Bush blew up the World Trade Center”, that kind of thing. It has the sympathy at least, I forget the numbers, I think about a third of the population, a huge part of the population. That means that a large part of the population is willing to accept the possibility we’re run by a bunch of homicidal maniacs who are trying to murder us all, but they don’t think can do anything about it. So they don’t lift a finger to do anything, “Ok that’s the way it is, we’ll hide in the corner and wait till it happens.”
Some of the most effective kinds of propaganda are the kinds that allow you to see what’s going on, so you see 99% and 1% but you feel, “I can’t do anything about it, I’m isolated, alone, I don’t talk to anybody, people like me can’t do anything, we just have to suffer and bare it”, that’s really effective propaganda. That’s how slavery could last forever without many slave rebellions.
It’s how women were oppressed, so I take say my grandmother’s generation. If my grandmother had been asked if she’s oppressed, she wouldn’t of even known what you were talking about, “That’s life, women are doormats, that’s life.” You get to my mother’s generation, still plenty of oppression, and she was bitter about it, but didn’t think she could do anything about it, but by the time you get to today, it’s quite different. It’s very much like the peasants in Brazil or the indigenous people in Bolivia or the blacks in the south after the early days of the Civil Rights Movement. Yes we can do something about it even if it’s brutal and harsh and we might get killed but we can do something. When you get back to your question, for a lot of young people it’s called apathy but I suspect it’s more hopelessness, powerlessness and people can learn you’re not powerless. Just take a look at what’s been done. Take a look at what other people have done under much harsher conditions then you’ll ever face and what’s been done right here in your own country.
The sixties really did civilize the country, it’s a very different country from what it was in the 1960s. It’s mainly young people who just didn’t give up and didn’t feel okay we can’t do anything. Actually sometimes it’s kind of dramatic, like for years what’s called McCarthyism, which did intimidate people tremendously, I remember, I lived through it and people were just scared out of their wits, they couldn’t do anything. The house on Un-American Activities Committee, if people were called they just trembled in fear or what can you do? But In the 1960s people like Abbie Hoffman just started making fun of them and they collapsed. It’s a very thin structure of power, as soon as you submit it to ridicule or you dismiss it, it can collapse. This has been understood for centuries. So you go back to say David Hume, who was one of the great founders of classical liberalism and a great philosopher. He wrote a book called The Foundations of the Theory of Government or something like that and in it he poses a kind of a paradox, he says in every society whether it’s a feudal dictatorship, a military dictatorship or a semi-parliamentary system like England, whatever it is, he says power is always in the hands of the governed. Those who are being ruled, power is always in their hands. So how come they just don’t overthrow the rulers and take things for themselves? He says always every society is the control of opinions and attitudes. If you can convince people, if the powerful can convince people, “you have to stay in your slot, that’s where you belong, that’s your role in life, nothing can be changed”, then the rulers can control them.
Now you take a look at the history of revolutions, significant changes, it’s when people broke out of that. So not long before Hume and he may have had this in mind, in England a century before, there was a major conflict between parliament and the king. The parliament was basically the bourgeoisie and landowners and so on but it wasn’t the general population. And the question is, is the king above the law? King Charles insisted that he was above the law, the parliament led by jurists and others who were saying no to the Magna Carta determined that the king is subject to the law, at the time to the nobles and the parliament. There was a real major conflict about it, in fact it soon led to the brutal civil war but parliament stuck it out and compelled the king to sign something conceding that he was not above the law. At that time the king was regarded as a representative of God and you didn’t fiddle around with God, you know it’s serious business. It was essentially standing up against a kind of divine authority, not in our society, that meant something then and to break through that was very difficult but they did and that led to a constitutional parliament, a parliamentary monarchy which is different from a feudal monarchy.
CS: You talked about the secondary organizations that have been restored by Occupy Wall St., do you feel that creating these dialogues could help marry public policy and public opinion?
NC: It could, if you look at the Occupy movements, there are kind of two major streams that I think are both important. One is kind of policy oriented, so “we should do something about radical inequality”, you know “we should have a financial transaction tax” or take away corporate personhood or fix up campaign financing, there’s a lot of quite constructive sensible suggestions on the policy side. The other part, which I think may be more important, is just forming communities. I mean, this is a very atomized society. People really are alone. I think some of the attractiveness of the social media, you know Facebook, everybody has got to talk about themselves on Facebook, is just there aren’t any communities. You don’t talk to your friends or your neighbors or something like that. The internet kind of community is sort of anonymous, so you can kind of feel, “I am really alone, even if I am writing about my date last night.” You got a lot of exhibitionism in the Facebook culture that people wouldn’t do privately unless to a very intimate friend and it’s partly a reflection of the kind of alienation that’s imposed on society. People really are alone. This didn’t just happen, there are massive efforts to create this, the best way to control people is isolate them, atomize them and make them and try to drive them to be concerned just with themselves not anything else. The Occupy movements without planning to just kind of broke out of that. People naturally interact that way if they have an opportunity and when people converged in Zuccotti Park or Dewey Plaza down here or wherever it might be, they just quickly formed communities of mutual support and solidarity and helping one another.
It’s kind of striking, when Bloomberg sent the troops in to break it up, one of the first things they did is destroy the library. In fact they destroyed thousands of books and I think that is more than symbolic, they didn’t have to destroy the books. That’s essentially telling people you can’t do anything by yourself, if you want a library we’re going to run it for you. Same with the health services, community kitchens, and everything else, that’s really threatening because that does help people break out of isolation and recognize that you don’t have to accept subordination. Going back to the women’s movement again that’s pretty much the way it started. It started with very small consciousness raising groups, small groups of people who just talk to each other about oppression that everybody felt but they didn’t regard it as anything other than the normal life, you know, that’s what life is. When you can talk to other people and see that’s not the way things have to be, we can do something, pretty soon it can spread very quickly. The Civil Rights movement is kind of the same, of course it goes on back centuries, it has deep roots but in the really modern period, say since the 60s, it started with small individual acts. Like a couple of kids sitting at a lunch counter in Greensboro getting arrested and hauled off. Next day a larger group came in and pretty soon you had Freedom Riders and SNCC was formed and pretty soon you had a big popular movement.
CS: Where do you get your personal drive for your creativity, social justice, and to bring awareness?
NC: I don’t think that’s the right question, I think the question is why doesn’t everybody do it? Because I think people would just do it naturally, you look around you, you drive to work, there’s a homeless person asking for money. Somebody else, “This guy doesn’t have a job”, there’s poverty everywhere, you go past a hospital, people crowding to the emergency room because they can’t see a doctor. You look at the rest of the world, not just rich areas like us and it’s shocking. As soon as people are exposed to it, I think it’s just automatic. I happened to be exposed to it as a child, I grew up in the depression. You know, people knocking on the door, trying to sell rags and things like that.
CS: In your essay The Responsibility of Intellectuals, you posed the question “What can we do?”
NC: Well the fact of the matter is, we can do just about anything. People like us let’s say, we wouldn’t be here otherwise, are pretty privileged. We have the kind of privilege that few people have ever had in history or have now and if you have privilege you have opportunity and the opportunities are almost boundless. I mean thanks to the struggles of the past, it hasn’t always been like this, but thanks to the struggles in the past, there is a tremendous amount of freedom.
The state may try to repress you, but they can’t do a lot. They can pass the NDAA let’s say, but they can’t really implement it against the will of the population. I think there is a lot of excessive concern in activist groups about state repression. I mean it’s not that it’s not there, sure they’d like to do it. First of all, it’s always been there, it’s just kind of inherit that states know their power systems and it’s much weaker than it used to be. There’s paranoia about concentration camps, you know “They’re going to lock us up”, NDAA says they can detain us indefinitely. Concentration camps have been there since the 50s, back in the 1950s, the liberal democrats, Humphrey and Layman introduced legislation to set up internment camps in case people got out of control. I never followed to see what happened but I know the legislation was passed but they can’t do anything about it. Take say, the surveillance systems, they shouldn’t have systems, we shouldn’t tolerate systems where everything you say gets sent to a central computer massive super computer in Utah and they do this and that. But even if they have that, what are they going to do with it? Nothing, in fact there were experiences with the FBI from resistance days, they can’t do anything with it. And if they try, they’ll arouse a popular reaction, so power really is in the hands of the governed, if they’re willing to use it. So what can we do? Given that we’re people with privilege, we have an enormous number of things we can do. There may be efforts to shut you up or something but you’re not going to be sent to have your brains blown out, it’s not like El Salvador.
Chris Steele is a progressive politics journalist for The Examiner in Denver and a graduate student at Regis University.