photo by SG

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Context and Internationalism

So, on a personal note, I should say that I am now in Mexico City, where I will be situated for the next four months, studying at the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico. With that in mind, I figured I'd drop a note about something that I've been considering since I arrived last week.

As revolutionaries, we're often pegged as defining ourselves negatively, against the forces that currently control social life. We're anti-capitalist, anti-sexist, anti-racist, etc etc. Some PR-savvy radicals attempt to turn that language backwards and use phrases like pro-feminist (or pro-woman, in a particularly post-feminist articulation) or queer-positive. Despite the twisting of the language, these phrases still boil down to the same idea, that being that we're against a specific kind of social oppression, and that we're pro-whoever is being oppressed and ending that oppression against them. And that's fine. There's nothing wrong with being focused on negation. After all, there's a lot to fight. Obviously we also have to articulate alternatives and other models, which is something that we do quite well but doesn't make the 5 o'clock news as well as "Anarchists make total destroy" does. We do both, to a greater or lesser degree, and I could make critiques about the levels that we're engaging with, but that's not what I want to write about here.

What has been making me think a lot this week has been about how the situation wherein one is placed has a lot to do with how this negative articulation gets expressed. In the United States, we often define ourselves, in an anti-statist context, as being against police brutality and was, but also against cooptation by the government utilizing more "soft power." The actions of radicals in movements for welfare rights and ACORN are examples of fighting this soft power that exerts itself through social services and government bureaucracy.

But the state doesn't use the same play book in every situation. Obviously, there are a lot of shared tricks, but the varying levels, balances, and relationships of soft and hard power vary not only horizontally from nation-state to nation-state (here in Mexico the government will kill you a lot faster than it will in the U.S.) but also vertically, from nation-state (or even higher, if one brings in international governmental organizations) to microstates at the smallest levels. Some parents keep their kids in line through hitting them, some through psychological control, and some through a combination of the two. Each different division of power brings in varieties of different tactics to keep us under control.

We can expand this beyond simply the lens of the state to consider a variety of different styles of oppression and domination. The way that people of color are oppressed in the U.S. is different from that of Europe, but also within the U.S.'s various divisions, conditions vary. Workplaces can have friendly bosses who pay next to nothing but have their workers love getting screwed or have tyrannical Carnegies who use fear to make the employees toe the line.

Obviously, I'm not making a particularly novel claim here. Actually, it's an observation basically stemming from Machiavelli, and to an extent, Sun Tsu. But thinking about this has led me to reexamine the values and importance not only of the old strategy/tactics model, but also what internationalism means. Internationalism is an old buzzword, but many of us still hold on to it as an ideal. In order to produce more effective movement(s), perhaps we should analyze more the context under which power, hard and soft, exists across boundaries, but in a vertical way.

That is to say, we should consider not only the well-worn common sense about the struggles in various states (ex: the State in Western Europe will buy off natives with welfare to pit them against immigrants but rarely uses physical violence, the State in Latin America will use patronage and corruption to keep the working class in line, but will repress anyone who steps out of the box) but also the articulation of power up and down the various levels of state and non-state power. This could lead to a more profound understanding of struggles, both at home and abroad, and how to be usefully in solidarity with them. A ton of examples jump to mind, particularly in states that bring up strong controversies on the left. How, on a micro level, does the state in Cuba express itself? How do the improved racial conditions after of the Revolution affect local power? How does the regional conditions of industry affect the local centralization of power by elites? Does the state deploy soft power at the nation-state level and soft power and the local level? Is race soft or hard? Is gender soft or hard? At what levels? In what ways does power-from-above have a vacuum, which is to ask, in what locations, physical or social, is struggle being won? This list could go on and on. Venezuela, Palestine, etc.

Ultimately, I think that an investigation of international struggles from a vertical perspectives as well as a horizontal one can be expressed as looking at struggles through the lens of anthropological investigation as well as a political one. Context, an important tool that often gets left out of political science, is a key part of the radical investigative toolbox. If we do engage in negatively defined struggles, we must be sure to understand what the balance of forces in the enemy camp is.


Nate said...

hi Brendan,
Interesting stuff here. I have to say, some of this makes me uncomfortable, because it touches on issues I'm really unsure about and which I have a hunch there's a lot riding on. What I mean is, your basic point is, I think, at least in part that we should think about state power (and non-state power, but that's not the bit that troubles me) as being more complex we often think about it. Not in the "it's all really complicated" sense of complex but rather in the "it's all very particular" sort of sense - as in, we often use too broad of brush strokes. I think that's very reasonable. But this is where I get nervous - how far does our attention to detail go? Does it include differences within the state?

Just one example: there's this great book, The Lost Promise of Civil Rights, which focuses largely on lawyers working in the NAACP and lawyers in the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Section. The latter did some really interesting stuff, and took on much more economic issues, like debt peonage in the US South. On the one hand, it's great stuff. On the other, it sits really uncomfortably with my anarchist intuitions. In short, I think the call to think of the state as more complex, if taken so far as to include contradictions and conflicts between some elements of the state, can lead to things like 'the state is a terrain of struggle' (a comrade from BTR said that to me a while back, an anarchist comrade), or perhaps miniature versions of seizing state power: seizing bits of the state to work with. The part that makes me most uncomfortable is that I really don't like that (anarchist intuitions) but I think the logic behind a lot of it is eminently reasonable, along the lines of what you argue here.
take care,

Setanta said...


Hm, I guess where I'm coming from, anarchism is an a priori assumption. It's also where I come back to, time and time again, in analyzing these kind of issues. So I'm not that worried about losing those theoretical/political commitments by doing a more careful analysis of complex issues.

That said, I think that I agree with your comrade, in that I think the state is a site of struggle. That is to say, struggles can be waged from within the state, at varying levels, both against it (CUAPB in Minneapolis) and within it (like the lawyers' stuff you mention). But just because we recognize that there forces with differing interests within the state, or within any "master" group for that matter, doesn't mean that we immediately must support one faction or another. Actually, I think by not recognizing that there are forces struggling within institutions, we run the risk of supporting things we shouldn't. One reason I'm not terribly excited about the whole growing Israeli boycott movement is because I'm not terribly supportive of the forces that control the semi-state in Palestine.

Am I making sense? I guess what I'm trying to get at is that struggle within or against institutions that we see as ultimately not useful for a post-revolutionary society (like the state or the bourgeoisie) is useful to understand. By recognizing where there are crucial weak points, we can mobilize our efforts to attack. If, say, the Republicans and Democrats moved themselves back to a Gilded Age model, where their squabbles over patronage occasionally (but briefly) became more important to them than their role as politico-juridical controllers of the state, I would suggest that we engage in an attack against the parliamentary system, perhaps by encouraging Zapatista-like local governing councils. Obviously, I don't envision that happening, but I think that's an example of how struggles from within the state could potentially destabilize it.

I think that analysis should be used to lead to strategy. Taking the state as the enemy means finding out how to destroy it. And to do that, I think we need to examine the forces within it that are clearly harmful and those that, at first glance, look more appealing. But, again, anarchism is an assumption to my argument, so I remain critical of everything going on in all institutions, even ours. Hence my continuing dislike of the GEB :)

Alderson Warm-Fork said...

Does it make any sense to say that (some oppressive institution or structure) can be a terrain of struggle against other oppressive institutions or structures? For example, people can use positions as state lawyers to fight debt peonage, or a rape crisis centre can struggle to get the government to fund it, so it can fight against patriarchy or whatnot (and conversely, in a society where the state is causing destruction through its looting and corruption, networks of small entrepreneurs providing vital services seem like something worth working with).

The important thing would just be to retain that instrumental relationship - using the oppressive instrument only for our purposes, rather than letting it use us for its. Which is obviously tricky.

Nate said...

hi Brendan,

I hope stuff's good down south. Stuff's good up north, but really fucking cold.

This is interesting and clarificatory stuff. I think there's two sort of moments here, an analytical/descriptive one and a project/prescriptive one. In terms of analysis, we absolutely should try to understand conflicts and disagreements and differences within forces we'd oppose. As just one example, even though I don't really follow any of this I think it's worth knowing about divisions between folk on the right - like factions among organized fascists groups, or different perspectives in the republican partly like the straight up 'free market' folk vs fundamentalists vs oil-and-defense oligarchs etc. All of that's relevant and none of it is what troubles me.

What troubles me is the prescriptive part, along the lines of what Anderson said.

Gotta run, take care,