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(en) US, Philadelphia, defenestrator* # 31 - On the Relevance of Critical Thinking to Creating Cultural Resistance to Capitalism and the State

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Wed, 22 Dec 2004 10:56:06 +0100 (CET)

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The U.S. has this unfortunate strain or tendency
towards anti-intellectualism and away from
analysis and critical consciousness, and the dam-
age is visible everywhere: fear, passivity, com-
plicity, ignorance, cowardice, loss of political
freedom and control over one's life. Cultural
resistance, challenges to the dominant system,
or the creation of what some in the anti-capital-
ist movement call dual power, requires the
ongoing and active use of the brain, the heart
and body, in balance. We live in desperate and
despairing times and the current state of this
country and the world cries out for more tangi-
ble resistance. We have a particular responsibili-
ty here as this hegemonic beast we call home
has such a huge impact on how others on the
planet live and die. So I begin this discussion
with the above from Antonio Gramsci (the
small but vocal leader of the Italian communist
party in the 20's who was imprisoned for years
after a fascist prosecutor demanded at his trial
"We must stop this brain from working...!") as a
starting point, a prodding question for the read-
er: is it better to ask "what does it mean to be a
human being alive in a world with other human
beings?" - it's a huge question that requires rig-
orous self-interrogation, the decentering of
authority as well as a sense of collective respon-
sibility - or should we just accept, go along with,
the program set forth for us by others? Here in
Philadelphia, where a palpable hatred for the
Bush administration as well as a hopeful energy
for change was felt in the streets in the weeks
leading up to the election, a demoralized pall
has set over the city with the realization that we
will have no say. But maybe this should be a
wake-up call that getting briefly energized over
electoral politics every four years is not going to
fix the mess we're in.

We live under the umbrella - or shadow - of
corporate capitalism and neo-liberalism. We can
try to escape into "scenes" or counter-cultures
of existence, but capitalism permeates; it's
inescapable; it's in the clothes we wear, the food
we eat, the computer I write on. As a micro-
example, let's just look at this paper - we try to
write and gather articles from an anti-capital-
ist/anti-authoritarian perspective (and there's
much internal friction/debate about what this
means and how to go about it) but inevitably we
still have to raise money to go to the printers,
we have to get gas to drive there, we rely on the
internet to get info about the world; as much as
maybe we'd prefer not to be we are still inside
the beast.

But that doesn't mean this is it, that there's no
point resisting; humans create history, and histo-
ry is change, not inevitability, and, as the
Zapatistas recognized (and why so many res-
onated with their calls), to accept the framework
of neo-liberalism is to buy into thanatos / the
death instinct, repressing the equally powerful
human tendency towards eros / desire - towards
life. If we choose to subordinate our human
powers to some false sense of peace and securi-
ty (as so many apparently did in the presidential
election), we are choosing death and the annihi-
lation of others (look at how quickly Bush man-
dated the slaughter of more people in Iraq in a
sick/twisted victory celebration just days after
too many states turned blood red). We must
imagine and insist upon the recovery of free-
dom and life itself in opposition to this interna-
tional system of control where whoever has the
most guns, money and ideological power wins.
But where to begin (or what frameworks do we
already have that we can build on) and what to
do, especially here in the U.S. where con-
sumerism, education, politics, organized religion
and the mainstream media have done so well at
stifling the imagination (lefty writer Alexander
Cockburn calls this phenomenon "surrendering
quietly") that too many of us on the left saw,
over the past year, our only hope in voting for
the Senator who said of the War on Iraq and its
over 100, 000 dead later merely that he would
have "done it differently."

Freedom cannot be recovered without the intel-
lect, without rigorous critical thinking, and so
we need to get over this tendency here in the
States to denigrate the mind, to emphasize
action over thought, doing over knowing and
understanding. Gramsci believed "the job of the
revolutionary is to discover the progressive
potentialities that reside within popular con-
sciousness and from this material fashion a cul-
ture of resistance" (Duncombe 58-9). "The
starting-point of critical elaboration," wrote
Gramsci "is the consciousness of what one
really is, and is `knowing thyself ' as a product of
the historical process to date which has deposit-
ed in you an infinity of traces, without leaving
an inventory." We have to distinguish between
the academic and our incredibly flawed educa-
tional institutions (though even in such worlds
there exist emergent moments and possibilities
that are critically expansive and empowering)
and the intellectual/philosophical capacities of
all human beings. Too many times have I heard
activists working against capitalism and the state
blindly reject a talk, or a conference, or a politi-
cal discussion as too intellectual/academic,
going along with the "just do it" sentiment of a
consumerist society, dumbing down our own
political philosophies to make them more acces-
sible to the "masses" as if the masses aren't
capable of their own cultural critiques (almost
always, and especially just in the past few weeks,
the most intellectual conversations I heard or
took part in about the state of the world were
on subways, in the streets or the halls of
work/schools or in bars).

"It is essential to destroy the widespread prejudice that
philosophy is a strange and difficult thing just because it is
the specific intellectual activity of a particular category of
specialists or of professional and systematic philoso-
phers...is it better to work out consciously and critically
one's own conception of the world and thus, in connection
with the labours of one's own brain choose one's sphere of
activity, take an active part in the creation of the history
of the world, be one's own guide, refusing to accept pas-
sively and supinely from outside the moulding of one's
-Antonio Gramsci, The Prison Note-books

There are some frightening parallels between
the oppressive power of religion (the Catholic
Church) and the rise of fascism in Italy during
Gramsci's life and what we are currently experi-
encing in the U.S. Why else would the state
have wanted to lock up and silence such a ques-
tioning and therefore dangerous mind. I attend-
ed a post-election talk by Chris Hedges (former
war correspondent and author of War is a Force
that Gives Us Meaning) where he emphasized the
need to recognize and confront the rise in
power of the Christian Fundamentalist Right
and its fascist tendencies of hatred and intoler-
ance in the U.S. before it's too late - he has
experienced and documented wars all over the
world and witnessed first-hand the dangers of
such ideologies. Such philosophies of power
work on fear and passivity, a lack of thinking:
the will of God in the hands of the State (anti-
gay, anti-woman, anti-city, anti-minority, anti-sci-
ence, anti-thought, anti-environment; pro-war,
pro-money) our "leaders" God's emissaries,
those who will protect us from the evils of "the
other." Mussolini drafted a treaty in the late
1920's so that the State walked hand-in-hand
with the Church - no dummy, he knew that the ideology of religion, alon
with a strong military and police force, was necessary for the maintenanc
of control. Primo Levi, another Italian communist who was put in a con
centration camp during the Second World War, wrote also how "the pres-
sure that a modern totalitarian state can exercise over the individual is
frightful. Its weapons are ... direct propaganda or propaganda camou-
flaged as upbringing, instr uction and popular culture, the barrier erected
against pluralism of infor mation [the monopolizing of mainstream media
and terror." Sound familiar?

Capitalism, an essentially immoral and unethical economic system (it seek
only the expansion of markets and profits) that is by its nature always in
conflict with and in opposition to directly democratic values (which
require constant dialogue, prefiguring and refiguring, together) with their
sug gestions of justice and equality for all, is a system of dominance that
ignores and rejects every freedom but the market. Capitalism cares not a
sot for political freedom. So key questions to ask ourselves and seriously
discuss with others now in order to expand and create meaningful cultura
resistance might be: How and why did we buy into such a system (histo-
ry)? What do we get, that keeps us engaged in it instead of actively resist-
ing (privilege)? What are the possibilities for resistance in a culture/syste
that commodifies life itself (the present)? And what, if anything, in a cap
italist system do we have to look forward to besides ongoing war, oppres-
sion, and further loss of control of our own lives (the elimination of free
dom - the future)? And if, after thinking it through, capitalism and state
power are emphatically not what we want, because they're simply not
worth it, what then do we want and how do we get there?

I participated in the "Life After Capitalism" conference in NYC in Augus
(planned intentionally to take place just before the Republican National
Convention to open space for theorizing before taking to the streets -
praxis) and though I heard some of the usual "it's too academic" cri-
tiques, it seemed to me a hopeful recognition that we need to think, listen
talk and strategize more, to create our own politics instead of always
reacting to or being controlled and affected by them. The conference,
which took close to a year for a group of mostly NYC activists to organ-
ize was convened to encourage the "reframing [of] the political dialogue
around the RNC convention, beyond the `anyone but Bush' mantra..."
and emphasized how "it is important for us as activists to constantly
sharpen our institutional critiques and continue to articulate our visions
for a world without exploitation or oppression as we prefigure the future
in our present."

There has been a lot of activity against Global Capitalism, Neo-
Liberalism and U.S. power in the U.S. and elsewhere since the WTO
protests in Seattle (which were called for by those outside the U.S. -
People's Global Action). Millions marched against the War on Iraq.
WTO/IMF/G8 meetings have all met with massive street resistance.
Such resistance is undoubtedly important, but anti-systemic movements
have come up against walls and critiques, both internal and external and
at the conference I experienced a healthy sense of humility and thought-
fulness about where we have been and where we are or need to go. For
those active in the movement a big question has been: "If all we do is
summit-hop and protest power, how are we actively creating alternatives
to it?" We have gotten really good at feeding and housing each other and
setting up indymedia centers and training ourselves to be medical and
legal observers at big demos, but how to take such practices outside the
movement and into our daily lives obviously requires more thought. Too
often people go back to their sub-cultural pockets of existence or travel
from scene to scene, instead of stepping outside that safety zone so that
in the end such insularity turns in on itself - we need to transform exis-
tence, not just transgress or react to it.

An oft-heard external critique is "We know what you're against, but what
are you for?" In some ways the answer's easy. As long-time San Francisco
activist/organizer David Solnit comments in the intro to Globalize
Liberation: How to Uproot the System and Build a Better World: "All we have to
do is change everything," but he also posits that "Unless positive new
ideas and methods are more clearly articulated and widely explored, peo-
ple and movements striving for a better world will remain trapped in the
failed models of the past."

In the conflicted anti-war movement in the U.S., for example, there was-
n't nearly enough discussion or critique of the relationship between war
and the globalization of capital, and thus the push, after the
war went ahead as planned, for electoral politics without
enough questioning of the failures of the Republicans and the
Democrats to address human needs at home and abroad, or the crisis of
our absolute lack of tr uly democratic possibilities. Big ger anti-war groups
like ANSWER and United for Peace and Justice were at times opportunis-
tic and muddled in their messages in attempts to get big turnouts and a
spread of dissatisfied people on board. Too much walking/marching
without asking questions.

Many of these issues were addressed at the conference, where plenaries,
workshops and break-out sessions focused on defining Capitalism - its
history, myths and problems - Looking closely at what's happening with
Capitalism/Neo-Liberalism in the present, defining power, both positive
and negative/state and people, building alternative powers, examining new
strains of nationalism and militarism, looking at electoral politics and at
longstanding and new social movements. The term "New Radicalism" was
thrown around a lot in looking at new, less authoritarian strains of left
and radical activism, representatives from indigenous movements empha-
sized the importance of their struggles in maintaining a healthy planet,
Argentinean horizontalism - deciding together as equals - was explained
and discussed and the amazing and vital work being done by women and
people of color was well-represented.

For me, and others too, I think, the conference served as a kind of call
out, to go beyond reacting, and opposing and countering (all of which are
important) to actually creating the political, through interrogating and
challenging ourselves, through critical reading and listening and asking and
learning in and from the greater world. "Many people around the world
are waiting for the people of the United States to join them in serious
rebellion against the empire," writes Solnit. We need to get ready. During
one of the plenaries she participated in, Canadian activist and author of
the anti-corporate No Logo, Naomi Klein, who had recently spent time in
Iraq and witnessed the devastation, said that we can not be satisfied with
where we're at 5 years after Seattle, especially with what's happening in
Iraq; we need to ask ourselves tough questions and think about and focus
on strategies that work. As the Coalition of Imokalee Workers, immigrant
laborers in the fields of South Florida, who through popular education
and direct action have won dignity and tangible improvements say:
Concienca + Compromiso = Cambio (Consciousness + Commitment =
Change). Only through the rigorous pursuit of such possibilities will we
take power back into our own hands and create the world we want.
* [Ed. note: The defenestrator is of an
Anarchist/antiauthoritarian perspective]

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