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Cutting the Gordian knot

By Michael J. Smith on Thursday August 10, 2006 07:20 PM

scarletwoman writes, in a comment Too Good To Be A Comment:
I've been (happily) reading here for a couple months or so -- I found my way here via the comments section of some progressive blog or another. (Berube?) Anyway, this is my first shot at commenting here.

What's a poor lefty to do?

My personal position -- arrived at after spending several years of plunging full bore into local electoral politics in my home state -- is that electoral politics is of limited utility as far as changing the social/political landscape goes.

This poor lefty (old acid-dropping hippie war protester born in 1949) has arrived at the conclusion that the urgency of our current circumstances requires a MOVEMENT, not the convoluted arcana of electoral politics.

Participation in electoral politics is first and foremost an act of consenting to the approved official frame for political action -- it is an act of assent to the preservation of the status quo.

Change at the level of electoral politics always happens AFTER societal changes are achieved by bottom-up movements. (Look to the Woman's Suffrage and Civil Rights movements for two very stark examples) Participation in electoral politics in its present U.S. incarnation ultimately perpetuates and preserves hierarchical/plutocratic frames. We look for "heroes" to ride in and save the system, instead of doing the really dirty work of evolving the system altogether.

It took me a long time to come to this viewpoint. I've been a lifelong Democratic voter, I never missed an election from the time I was old enough to vote. (I couldn't vote for McCarthy in '68 because they hadn't changed the voting age to 18 yet, but I got to vote for McGovern in '72)

There is SO much more wrong with this country than can be changed by electoral politics absent a highly focused, well-organized movement dedicated to smashing conventional wisdom and the Official Approved Narrative of the corporate media and the militarized Security State.

It's inefficient and ineffective to split your focus. Define the goal and work relentlessly toward it -- don't get distracted by the kubuki theater of electoral politics. Electoral politics, after all, operates strictly in the realm of elite-approved activity.

Comments (20)

J. Alva Scruggs:

Social movements themselves coalesce around a purpose, which is limited in comparison to what follows. The donk head of the corporate media and the militarized Security State is the more vulnerable of the two. Hence the Stop Me effort, no?




J. Alva Scruggs: "Hence the Stop Me effort, no?"

Yeah, NO! -- or uh, YES! -- or whatever... (Dinsdale, is that YOU? Please! Not the dreaded litotes!)

Anyway, kinda why I felt free to say what I had to say here in particular.


J. Alva Scruggs:

For most of my voting life, I've participated on and off with the conviction that participation was perpuating and legitimizing a very bad thing. The moral and emotional blackmail of party boosters were insult to injury. This is the first sustained attempt I've seen to convert a social weakness into a valuable tool. It's like wildcat strikes, job actions, good Wobbly stuff. It's fun, too, like interpreting rules so literally that you get to create a godawful mess -- for people who really need to be stuck in one for once.

Somebody sign Scarlet up and give her a glove. We got a big hole in the outfield.


we got movements ...we always got movements

no question thats where society's
mo jo comes from

party work however..even if its just to discredit a party
ie anti party work
should never be confused with movement work

nor posed as either or

should i eat or shit ????

partying is shitting of course

i'm happy the poster has discovered
the means of all social change
is social change itself
in otherwords movements
in the properly general sense

movements that generate
both conflict and counter movements
like movements that challenge the state
or any institution
are not privileged in any way above say
duck's ass hair cut waves
eating sushi
talking more and more like valley girls do
or diving into
like blog sites
that are for star trek fans
or to be a citizen of sim city

seems to me there are more then enough idle heads
to go around

and all these appointable
chores of social progress
will find souls to man and unman them
the watch towers
gun pits and first aid stations
will all bristle with cogent beings

at least so long as there's movement enough
there in the first place
a tautology no doubt


Spartacus -- I got Scarlet's contract right here on my big managerial desk, anytime she wants to drop in and sign on the dotted.

Tim D:

It's a good question really. I mean to be honest the manipulation and brainwashing is so effective that it has almost completely discouraged me from arguing with Democrats anymore. At the end of the day, I still go out and vote for whatever Greens are on the ballot, since they are the closest thing to progressive possible and it gives me the chance to deny the all too complacent and confident Democrats a victory they don't deserve. Also, that way no one can ever claim that I didn't use the system approved method for changing the status quo (of course, we know that that method is intentionally contrived in such a manner to maintain the status quo).

Full confession: the system, in my opinion, is teetering on collapse (financially if nothing else) and can't possibly continue on much longer on its current course. At that point, we might have a chance for real change, but it will probably come at a steep price. Sorry to be pessimistic, but I don't see any popular revolution in the offing...Democrats are just too hopeless and craven to break out of the cage.

By the way MJS, I don't really see the Lobby's hand here. Lieberhosen is of course a long time ally of the Zionists, but I think they'll consider him expendable given Lamont's proven obsequiousness. I could be wrong though???


Tim D --

The Lobby is in there, but how big a factor is it? Your guess is as good as mine. Undoubtedly there are plenty of other factors too.

Lamont may well be as obsequious as the Lieb, but I'm starting to wonder whether the owners and operators of the Democratic Party -- including, but not confined to, the Lobby -- may be thinking that they need to prove a point in Connecticut.

Lieberman's own personal importance is negligible, but he was the bosses' choice. Is it conceivable that the bosses may want to underscore the principle that their choices are not to be interfered with by the "base", whose job it is to vote for whatever sorry-ass Democrat they're given, not come up with another one.

Ask anyone who spent the last sixty years in Eastern Europe or Palestine about how long a morally and economically bankrupt state can continue. As the Bosnian author Mesa Selimovic put it, "Denial is convincing; it sets neither boundaries nor goals."

jesus reyes:

This has been around the net and it is piece of advertising that is apparently going to be run by the Jewish Republican Coalition pointing out that Joe Lieberman was a voice of support for Israel and that voice has been silenced by the democratic party.


It's an incredible piece of work where the forces of light are allied with Roosevelt, Truman and "Scoop" Jackson against the netwing and Dean, Sheehan, Carter and Sharpton.

Among other things, they say, "What was once the radical left - with its antipathy toward Israel, its indifference to anti-Semitism, and its desire to appease terrorists intead of fighting them - is now emerging as part of the mainstream in the Democratic Party."

It is getting crazy.

js paine:

party bosses' choices lose

musk ox the hump
both felled by "big change nation"

but can insurgents win
thru to the end ???

rev duffie
-- backed by the clinton kids right there in the constitution state in 70 -- didn't win

nor of course in the feature event two years later
former bomber pilot
and henry wallace progresive party delegate
senator "come home america " McGeorge

nor did dimes difference george wallace

nor jesse jackson ...

the bosses real deal:


the lesson incarnated by talk radio--

a high 60's insurgency of loons

led directly to a cover story
for vicious corporate finkery


the rebound was


in this case Ned's bona fides from our POV
is secondary

he's "bad news" to the big boys no matter what

"not our guy "

hey the insurgents
can even capture moscow
look they
held the national party for .....

well till george got creamed by
america's decoy meter maid
dick nixon

by the way

"the movement "
was never lit up by george he was way too
little too late
for us woodstock cultural revolutionaries
but the other george w really did set some fires
he was the white working creep's
bobby kennedy

but damned if
a nutball's bullet didn't end that tale too


Well, you're spot-on about the limited utility of electoral politics. I live in New York, and everything is just ossified. Four incumbents got defeated last year in a state legislature of 200-odd people, and it was considered an earthshaking year. And in New York, the Democrats are completely controlled by the downstate party establishment, and they don't do much for the party upstate except enable the numbnut, no-talent sloppy seconds who have become Democratic mayors and the odd county executive, who keep presiding passively over the area's economic decline. If you want a good look at how Democrats hover around the fire of the status quo while pretending they are progressives who care about all Americans, look no further than New York City. They have no desire to lead, just to wallow in their own little lucrative world. They can't even lead their own state out of the abyss. I was reasonably enthusiastic about Spitzer being a bit of a rebel but my enthusiasm is starting to fade. He's coasting.

You do need movements focused on concrete embodiments of the issues, but those are hard to come by. People would rather flee than fight. We have an interesting (to say the least) situation in upstate New York with opposition to the New York Regional Interconnect (NYRI) project, a monstrous 200-mile power line that's going to kill about 40 small communities. The Greens are pretty vocal about it (and Maurice Hinchey), but interestingly so are the traditional anti-downstate Republican/independents. So there are some odd bedfellows. Democrats (including Spitzer) are reluctant to
take too strong a stance against it. After all, those 40 communities are in line to be economically exterminated in order to make New York City bigger and shinier, and the Democrats are all creatures of the City. You cannot expect too much from the Democrats. In the end, they will give in (the power company has run crying to the federal government to have 200 miles of upstate NY taken by eminent domain as a "National Energy Corridor"). Schumer, Hillary, all of them. They will gladly sell some of their constituents' homes out from under them (or stand by while it happens) if it means they can continue in their hegemony.

In any case, I'm not really explaining the NYRI situation that well. The company that is pushing this is shadowy, arrogant and has an Enron-like whiff coming off it. It's just foul, and the Bush Administration is behind it.
The larger issues lying behind the fight have to do with the decay of social contracts, the question of sustainable energy generation and transmission, sustainable growth, etc.

It's very specific, even geographically centered, issues like these that are prime coalescing points for greater movements. Indeed, no one can remember such a wide coalition of upstaters - not just from rural towns; there is at least one city, Utica, involved -- trying to form a collective defense movement for their communities over 200 miles of space. But do people want to pay attention if the movement-creators are "the little guys"? I'm not sure. There is still a self-flattering that goes on among alleged progressives that says they're doing OK if they vote for the "right party." They are unable to see what's happening in their own back yard.

But if the people who are forming real, on-the-ground movements -- without permission from the Democratic Party, or the blogeoisie -- endure and find ways to meet up with each other (for instance, as someone interested in anti-NYRI efforts, I have been in touch with other folks in Appalachia who are fighting similar battles to come against the federal government)... then new, actual networks of actual action can form pretty much under the radar of the parties. Then, election politics becomes just one tool in the toolbag. But first I think a lot of actual movement work needs to be done.

American conservatism has been breathing its own exhaust for two generations, so they can be excused for imbecility, but repeating their absurdities in order to mock or refute them is counterproductive. If we wish to induce constructive thought in our target audience, we need to provide consistent ideology, coherent analysis, and sober reflection for them to consider.

We need our message to be discussed, not our enemy's.

Tommy S:

150 years of history underlines what you say. Except for the very active, but weak, left socialist and anarchist groups/activists in the USA, most people in the USA stand history on its head. that demonstrations create movements, and that demonstrations cause politicians to act in the peoples favor. I was hoping after Zinns book was read by a million people ten years ago, this indoctrinated fallacy would disappear from progressive 'circles'. Ironically, the success of Seattle actually underscored this fallacy.
Take the civil rights movement for an example. Most progressives seem to think they 'know' about it, but continously portray it as a movement started and led by a small group of leaders. Who then appealed to the humanity of the democrats by acceptable non violent occasional demonstrations.(actually portrayed as ghandian pacisfism which is not true really either). This is absurd, and really a result of university and media brainwashing. The 'rights' won were the culmination of 150 years of direct action, and bottom up organizing. CORE was working 1945 to early 1960's before the group was even recognized by our corporate media and democrats. CORE is conviently left out of the history, though arguably that group laid most of the foundation for everything 'good' that happened after.
The very violent 60 year fight for 10 hour then to 8 hour workdays, was never ever tied to 'one party'. It was mostly led by people completely outside any such hierarchy. And so, effective...considering the times, and the state apparatus against it..including much collusion by the racist AFL with the govt to help divide to rule.
And the bottom up social movements in latin america, though portrayed here as 'work of left party activists' , are part of a social movement simply. 'They' will not quit, just cuz Evo won or Orbredor gets recount.They will not quit, if Evo or Lula become a bill clinton.
My favorite topics when feeling down and lonely is to read about
CNT organizing in Spain 1900 to 1936, Core and Sncc (Free at Last? is my favorite book), the IWW, Zapatistas, ....
Or just to get good people together and start organizing 'councils' to create a mass movement via direct democracy outside of the ballot box. People's eyes get wide open when 'demanding the impossible' seems possible cuz we will ALL do it together. For a lifetime.
Hell, we can vote, we can work on one issue great orgs...housing rights etc..that is all good and is being done. And everyone should do 'it' even more. But to really stop the juggernaught, we need to see we have to be (nonviolently) militant and strong enough to shut the machine down. If only for a few days even. All through history these mass bottom up actions have spurred people to more mutual aid, more intense truly democratic all encompassing organizing. And almost always in democracies, the 'leaders' have to give some leeway, for fear of what 'really might happen' if they don't. FDR is a great example. He was a trickle down economist until 34, and then changed to a keynesian ............realized there may be a revolution coming.
I am always confused when bright 'organizers' tell me people don't have the capacity to put all issues into one basket..'Leaders' always tell me people need to 'focus'. Or they 'wont step up to the plate'.
It seems to me 'management' speak has invaded progressive circles to a debilitating degree. I think most people are tired of being treated like sheep, by progressive 'leaders', and being told, 'this is the issue now'. It's demeaning to all our creative urges and desires for real community (!) and capacity for critical thinking, and this ultimately disillusions the 'masses' and leads to small cabals doing all the work.
A self fullfilling prophecy.
Voting takes only 15 minutes a year. Lets all do it. But doesn't it seem absurd that this act ever gives you anything but powerlessness, if that is what you position the progress of the human race on?
Hey I buy organic when I can afford it. But does that put even a dent in global warming? Of course not. And really a third party getting that valued 5% will not stop our govt from killing millions of more people.
People stop the machine. Not machined people.
"General, you have one problem, human beings still drive those tanks and fly your planes.'



I agree with both Spartacus and NYCO. We need to work on "consistent ideology, coherent analysis and sober reflection. . ." We need a message, with values that communicate and appeal. We have to get beyond words like "sustainable" and find ones that communicate simply what we'/re talking about.

NYCO is right in saying that movements begin with specific, local grievances. No one responds to generalized demands for justice, equality, etc. As long as the demands are general, listeners rightly suspect hypocrisy. Movements start in specific places, with specific grievances, like renters being screwed, or factories closing, or zoning ordinances being changed for developers, etc.

Moral outrage doesnt cut it anymore, if it ever did. Talking with your fellow citizens, about issues that matter to them, and finding effective pressure points in the structures of power, is where it's at.

I beg to differ on the power of moral sanction; it's an essential weapon in our meager arsenal. Without it, neither Gandhi nor King nor Mandela would have prevailed.

I cannot believe that the Catholic Workers, Unitarians, and Quakers are the only ones sufficiently morally outraged to organize and tithe in order to fight for such needs as universal healthcare now denied us by endless warfare.

Tommy S:

with respect....to me this is the same top down 'lead and herd the masses' as the democratic party does...and as the leninists do ...and as.....well..........you know what I mean...
a poster said....
"We need to work on "consistent ideology, coherent analysis and sober reflection. . ." We need a message, with values that communicate and appeal. We have to get beyond words like "sustainable" and find ones that communicate simply what we'/re talking about."

Instead. why not work on organizing bottom up truly democratic social justice and economic justice movements, and THEN let the people tell you what words to use, what 'focus' you need, what attack you will take this month, and what you must do in the long run.
Seems to me a lotta people on the blabosphere pontificate on what to tell people what to do, how to 'focus' , how to talk, how to stand in line, when intelligent ethical progressives should just be organizing WITH their neighbors, and listen to WHAT they demand.
that is bottom up organizing.
that is what shakes the world.
btw. 60% of the americans don't bother to vote. And 40% don't bother with the internet. Fact.

I'm one of those weirdos who feels no compulsion to choose between public action and the electoral process. Even in situations where we don't agree on which tack is best, that's no reason to believe that our actions can never be useful to one another.

While the electoral process exasperates me to tears, I doubt that Paine's/Smith's Two-Headed Beast would be working so zealously to keep that process its exclusive right if voting meant literally nothing at all.

And I saw too many anti-war marchers throw their lot in with Kerry to believe that marches alone provide a path to constructive enlightenment.

Marches and ballots alike are only tools. How they're used is my main interest. Choosing only one seems short-sighted.

js paine:

ms x gets the drift as usual

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