Don Hamerquist has a piece up on Khukuri on these matters. Incidentally, there’s a lot up on Khukuri that looks good, I followed the site regularly for a while but haven’t been able to recently. I hope to catch up soon-ish.
Anyway I wrote a reply to Don’s post. The reply veers a bit back and forth between being a comment on Don’s post and between a blog post, a minor distinction I know but one that I can’t help making in my head. I kept going back and forth as I was writing it about where I was thinking I’d post it. I decided to post it over there as a comment and to paste a copy here for my own reference.

The comment on Don’s piece is below the asterisk below this. As long as I’m typing anyway, I want to put down some other stuff that’s been on my mind lateley, and some notes from some private correspondence. This was partly sparked by this post and the ensuing discussion on Gathering Forces about opposing the extension of racist anti-immigrant laws.

First, about issues raised in discussion on the GF post —

Don comments on the GF post that “demand for more military and police power on the border should not be confused with wanting to generally ‘extend and centralize the powers of the state’,”

That makes sense in one way, in that the specific extensions of state power called for are not motivated by an interest in just wanting a stronger state or a state stronger in any way at all. It seems to me that we can make a parallel to expansions of capitalism by particular capitalists and policymakers. These are not about expanding capitalism per se, and yet that’s what they do/did. More to the point, it simply is the case that the calls for greater enforcement and the policies being enacted are an extension of government power. This is heavily localized and highly constituency specific — we’re not seeign calls for everyone in the US everywhere to be presenting papers to cops — but there seems to me no way around the point that this really is a call for (and an actually existing) extension of state power of a repressive sort by a constituency who put forward rhetoric against government, many of whom are not cynical but really believe this rhetoric.

Don writes that the far right confronts versions of “some of the same reform/revolution dilemmas that we know too well” on the left. The more radical elements “want a recapture of the instrumentalities of government as a platform from which to oppose the hollowing out of the capacities of national and local governmental structures to defend their interests from the impact of global capitalism – with “illegal immigration” being seen as one such impact.”

I find that convincing. But on the other hand…

“It is easy to see the emergence of a radical faction from this milieu, a faction that casts their objective in more revolutionary terms, that of overthrowing the existing order and establishing a
centralized authoritarian new order.”

I think this is clearly possible but I don’t find this scenario likely and it’s not my chief concern about the present anti-immigrant stuff. I think it’s much more likely that we’ll the far right gradualists succeed than we’ll see the far right revolutionaries succeed. In that success we’ll see a further extension of policing of immigrants, with some nonstate support like the minute men patrols etc filling in some gaps and agitating for even more. For one thing, SB1070 was passed by the Arizona government. That seems to me like an example of some measure of recpapture of the instrumentalities of government. As does the intensifying enforcement of anti-immigrant law, funding for enforcement agencies, social security no match letters+law that make employers an arm of immigration enforcement, etc etc across the country. So it seems to me that the gradualist strategy is working — it’s certainly making a lot of people’s lives a lot worse than they would have been otherwise — and I think in that we’re already seeing a relatively new sort of authoritarian order emerging, though a different and less chilling one than what you reference about, the authoritarian order wanted by the revolutionary rightists.

I know that in specific locales clearly fascists are huge threat and a priority. Across the country though looking around and from the impressions I have about the antimmigrant I’m less nervous about those forces at a national level and am way way more nervous about the points at which the generally publicly illegitimized far right shade into the legitimized far right — for instance, according the SPL, the group FAIR that worked on SB1070 has some crossover with the illegetimized White Supremacist right (as opposed to those who are objectively white supremacist but not subjecively/self-identifiedly so). There’s also some interactions between the Arizona legislator who sponsored SB1070 and the nazis who are volunteering to patrol in the desert with guns. It seems to me that Jan Brewer is one such point of crossover, I think there are probably some similar elements with Sarah Palin.

Over all, as Krisna’s piece and Don’s reply both note there are several constituencies in the anti-immigrant movement. As I tried to talk about, one or more (but not all) of those constituencies is holding political office or is somewhat adequately represented by politicians. I think the relationship among these constituencies in the movement as they jockey for position, as well as the relationship with government at various levels is complicated and worth understanding. I’d be interested to hear if the reactions to the recent NAACP tea party statement has changed how open racists operate within those networks. On a related note, I can’t recall what magazine it was in but yesterday at a bookstore I read an article about the private prison industry and its support for SB1070 and similar initiatives, because there’s a ton of money to be made in running the private detention facilities where immigrants are held, particularly as the bar for being placed in detention gets lower and lower in part due to pirvate prison company lobbying.

Second, partly related to this and to the debate between Don Hamerquist and Joel and Geert on the Bring the Ruckus site… I have notes on this somewhere that I started, I read the piece and did handwritten notes, I think I started to type them up but I don’t remember and can’t find them just now. I’ll have to look again and if need be will start typing anew from the paper copy. Anyway, in that discussion the point gets made that the klan today is different from what it once was, among other points. That’s clearly important. On the other hand, it seems to me that at under Jim Crow at least in some locales there were forces who were loyal to the state at least in terms of state government or local government, because this government served their interests, and in some cases these forces overlapped with some of the personnel of the state. I tend to think of the klan in this way, but maybe that’s an error. In any case, these forces existed. I’m thinking mainly some stuff that Robert F. Williams described in his book Negroes With Guns. There seemed to me to be forces who were willing to supplement state power, so to speak – analogous to a more informal but functionally similar version of national guard reservists: ready to mobilize in certain circumstances. They did also have an important level of autonomy greater than the national guard, that’s an important distinction. My point is that it seems to me these were not rightwing revolutionaries but rather far right nonrevolutionaries who were willing to be quite militant. I also think that the divisions within political personnel at various levels are relevant — that it took a federal order and federal troops to get some state governments to enforce school desegration is instructive I think. I think the career of George Wallace would be instructive to look into further too. Anyway, my point is that I think that there are great many people who are analogous to these layers. I don’t think it’s particularly likely that they’re going to overthrow the existing order, I think it’s equally likely that they’ll rally around fractions of the powers that be, particularly if they manage to take over or shape some lower levels of government and push through policies and practices that broaden and deepen anti-immigrant and other racist structures. That’s not a threat of a revolutionary right, but it’s plenty threatening as it is.


Comment on Khukuri post –

I generally like Don’s writing very much and take his work seriously but this piece left me frustrated. I suspect I’m being unfair and setting the bar way to high here, but I’m going to lay this out anyway in the hope of sparking further debate.

Don criticizes various failings here, but his own views are hard to see here, so it’s hard to tell some of the time how much I agree or disagree. Anyway, among the big failings Don criticizes, one of the very big ones for him is the failure to assume that the masses are ready. I’m not totally sure about this, but I think there may be a distinction between actively thinking “the masses are not ready”, which Don talks about, and the absence of assuming “the masses are ready”, which appears to be Don’s counter assumption. I’m not at all sure what to do with either assumption; if pressed to pick I guess I’d pick “not ready”, based entirely on gut level intuitions and my own limited and decidedly mixed experience. I’d really prefer not to have to pick assumptions, though, and instead to hear some arguments either way, and to hear a lot more about which masses we’re talking about, where, and what their readiness or lack thereof consists in. As it stands in the piece, there are two contending assumptions and in my opinion Don comes close to suggesting that the bad assumption on many people’s part is more like a character flaw than anything else. (People holding “illusory notions”, “organizational caution and timidity and academic ambiguities”, “widespread fear,” “undeniable comfort factor”, “weakness and timidity”.)

I also don’t think the picture here is clear wth regard to concessions and legitimacy, which means the nature of the crisis is also muddy. Some of the time the obstacle to concessions seems to be a matter of will/hegemony (“there is little ruling class stomach”), other times a matter of institutional changes (decontrol and policy), and yet others a matter of some objective economic or other systemic limit of some sort (globalized economy or something, I’m not sure).

Don writes that “substantial material concessions (…) are not on the order of the day”, and without these we will not likely see “a stable base for popular legitimacy” and, at least as I read the piece, this is supposed to be a new condition. That doesn’t make sense to me. It seems to me that the material concessions that were/have been/are handed out have always been unevenly distributed, and often distributed in ways that deepened or maintained or created new divisions within the working class, in the US and globally. Home ownership in the US is one example of that. So, given that concessions aren’t required to the whole class, but only to enough of the class to create some legitimacy with some sectors and division among the parts of the class, I don’t see it as so to think that a new deal may get cut some place, a deal substantial enough to create legitimacy or what have you. Don’s piece also says that “capital’s difficulties may actually expand the potential for certain selected concessions and accommodations” which seems to me to make this same point, or at least be amenable to it.

I also don’t see the link between all this and volatility. I was born in the late 70s so all of this is way before my time, but from what I’ve read, there was increasing volatility across the US starting in the late 50s, which I believe was a pretty prosperous time for the US as a whole – and that “as a whole” is a misleading, perspective, which is sort of my point. I think the “we’re in for increased volatility” is not quite the same as “there’s a crisis on.” I don’t think I’m reading in too much here – to say that this is a major crisis of capitalism where the end of capitalism is seriously on the table (“this is capitalism’s end game”) is different from a prediction of volatility. I find the volatility prediction convincing. I’m agnostic on the end game prediction.

Don writes about the increased possibilities for particular reforms that “the ‘more’ that may appear to be possible in the emerging circumstances does not necessarily provide a basis for something categorically ‘different’ – for revolution – sometime in the future.” That seems to me to be one of the central in this piece. That seems basically right to me but here too I have an impression that the piece is suggesting some epochal shift and I’m not convinced of that. There has always been a difficult relationship between reform and revolution, as I’m sure Don and many Khukuri readers are more aware of than I am. I for one would be interested to hear if there was a prior time when Don or others think that fights for ‘more’ were better suited to fights for ‘different’ than they are now, and when and why that was.

As for base-building and so on, I really am trying to be charitable and look for an argument but I don’t see one. I see assertions. Base-building is not “capitulating to our own weakness and timidity” if the analysis that leads to “we need base-building” is correct. I know Don thinks that such analysis is wrong, because he thinks this is not the time for base-building. I’m willing to be convinced of that – my mind’s not made up, and I’m not totally sure I even know what Don means by base-building – but I need an argument in order to be convinced. Just saying “not base building” doesn’t do it for me. It’d be really helpful to have an example of a base-building perspective, because as it stands this is a bit vague who the base-builders are. I also don’t find the assertion convincing that “the more plausible precedent is that [base-building efforts would] end up contributing to the adaptive capacity of the system.” That too is, in this piece anyway, just at the level of assertion.

Another reason why it’d be good to see an actual pro-basebuilding perspective criticized here (one that’s worked out in writing, preferably, by a self-identified revolutionary) is that the distinction between “expediting the breakdown” and base building or “minimizing the pain” is a fine one in theoretical terms but … I suspect that if sketched out in more detail or in application this would be much messier when applied.

Setting all this aside, let’s say Don’s right across the board. Let’s say we’re in capitalism’s end game and we face a much greater volatility and that the very far right is at least as ready for this moment as the left both in ideas and organization. So, the stakes are tremendously high and the primary left analyses and even more so the left’s “what-is-to-be-done section[s]” are woefully inadequate. Accepting all that for the sake of argument, what next? I find the criticism here so total and the picture so bleak that if Don is right, then I for one am at a real loss. The major point underlying the implied alternative to all this is the masses are ready – which, as I alluded to above, is here no less an assumption than the mirror image assumption that Don criticizes, that the masses are not ready. Again, let’s assume Don is right about that: the masses are ready. I don’t really get what that means either. I need to see that operationalized for it to mean anything to me. What do revolutionary communists do different when we abandon base-building and reject the assumption that the masses are unready? Maybe that’s an unfairly huge question to ask. In that case, I think more detail on the perspective rejected and so on would be helpful, to start sketching out the positive practive in silhouette, by getting more detail on what the practice isn’t.

One other thing about base-building, part of why I’m confused is this – a close friend and comrade has recently written an essay calling for what he calls “intermediate level” organization. It’s up on his blog, I can’t speak for my friend, but we’re members of the same political organization and talk regularly about the activity we’re doing in our respective cities, and I’m not aware of any strong differences between us. I have some quibbles but they’re very minor as far as I can tell, primarily philosophical and stylistic differences for the most part, at least on anything relevant to this discussion.

Don and I both say we agree with this article. My understanding of the practice that follows out of the piece is that the groupings and people we have now start small fights by getting people who weren’t previously in motion to step into struggle. In the process we build strong relationships. The experiences of these struggles – the activity people do individually and together, the reactions of the powers that be against them, the relationships with us as revolutionaries and the conversations we have with them – has the potential to radicalize some of the people we work with and to have them gain greater abilities and confidence than they had before. Basically, this is a very schematic plan for existing cadre of whatever level they/we are to act in such ways that end up with more cadre. This pool of cadre will expand and shrink but tendentially the aim is both quantitative and qualitative growth – a wider pool and deeper pool, so to speak. (In all honesty, I’m not at all sure of this as a strategy for revolutionary communists. I do know that we’ve seen some satisfying and worthwhile results from this and it seems like the best we can do right now — I don’t have any better or clearer ideas or practices in mind, I haven’t run into any other arguments I find more convincing, so this is what we’re working on for the moment.)

To my mind, this activity will look a good deal similar to what I think of when I hear the phrase “base-building.” Maybe that’s not base-building and I’m using the term wrong. Either way, as I understand this proposal, it will be protracted. (That term could be unpacked too, I’m not sure how much time counts as protracted or not.) We’re not likely to grow in numbers and in quality rapidly and we’ll lose a lot. Often, the losses will be as educational as the wins, the key will be in lowering our rate of loss of cadre. I can’t tell here if I’m disagree with Don, or not. I’d like to know.

I’ve already gone on too long but I want to talk a moment about bits of Nick Paretsky;s comment. He writes that — “a crisis of the law of value, in which force increasingly substitutes for the autonomous operation of the law of value in regulating capitalist society.” I don’t know what this means. What was the autonomous operation of the law of value, prior to its substitution via force? When and where was that and how did it work, and for whom? I ask in part because I’m thinking of his comments about bourgeois democracy and exchange of equivalents, and there’s some connection here I think to the thing I mentioned above about the distribution of material concessions, though I’m not quite sure what the connection is yet. The constituency who was allowed to play the roles of free and equal agents acting out of self interest rather than force was very narrow for a very long time — formal equality for women, youth, racialized minorities, and migrants was slow in coming, and in some respects still hasn’t arrived. So I’m not convinced that we’re seeing coercion “becoming so widespread and woven into the daily experience of the relations of production” — for big chunks of the working population this widespreadness has always been the case or was long the case. As such, I think I probably have a much lower estimation of how much/what degree of “the appearance of free and equal exchange” is “a necessary aspect of capitalist production and exploitation.”

Likewise, I don’t see why having to put down some capitals (like the fossil fuel based industries he mentioned) poses such a huge problem or that this poses some threat of unleashing anti-capitalist potentials. This kind of thing has happened before. I realize the scope is significantly smaller, but it’s the only example I really know about – the introduction of workmen’s compensation took many years but once the dominos were lined up in about 12 years time the US went from no workers comp laws to 42 states having them. Before that transition there were dire predictions about class war breaking out, about depleting the national labor force, etc. The transition set smaller-scale capitalists way back compared to larger ones, and capitalists in relatively safer industries (which is part of why the associations of manufacturers backed the law). There were some arguments that this was an anti-capitalist proposal – not unlike the Glenn Beck types who see the Obama healthcare bill as the entering wedge for communism – but only from sectors of capital who saw their interests threatened (insurers, for one, who wanted to make sure they got a piece of newly created risk pools). As far as I know, there was zero popular unrest created as a result, and this in some pretty volatile times (1911-1923).

Again I know the scope is different and the parallel is questionable in all kinds of ways and I know that prior success is not a guarantee of future success (I think that’s the inductive fallacy but I’m not totally sure). I raise all this though because I think over all, maybe I’m misunderstanding, but there seems to me to be an optimistic counterpoint to the dire side of Nick and Don’s predictions – things will be bad and scary and volatile and fascists are a major threat, but at the same time capitalism especially vulnerable now. I’m not sold on that yet. More than anything else that seems to me like an interpretive stance, I’m not sure if there’s a ton of evidence either way.