As natural resource limits and rising social movements incapacitate the once-invincible machine of global capitalism, the world of the future is not written; it will be made by the victory of one set of competing actors: either the frightened few desperate to maintain their privileges, or everyday people organizing in their communities for justice.
1) Militarized states and continued plunder
2) Sustainable networks rooted in freedom, justice, and democracy
We are living through one of the most transformative periods in history, and our actions will likely determine the outcome. Will the human spirit prevail?
Desperate Measures: Preserving the System through Violence
In a barely-noticed story published in the Army Times, the US Army announced that beginning October 1, 2008, an active-duty unit just back from 3 years fighting in Iraq – the 3rd Infantry Division’s 1st Brigade – has been deployed for the first time ever inside the United States. It was initially reported that their mission would include helping with “civil unrest and crowd control”. Unfortunately this militarization against dissent is a reflection of a larger trend within the “War on Terror” starting in 2001, to harass and disrupt free speech.
Breaking the Law
This frightening assault on civil liberties started shortly after September 11th with the USA PATRIOT Act, which was used by federal enforcement agencies to spy on average citizens speaking out against the Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As the generals invaded the oil-rich Middle East, killing thousands of civilians and torturing more from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib, the National Security Agency (NSA) was spying on millions of innocent Americans’ phone calls and emails. Many of these measures have been flatly unconstitutional, giving the government and military more power to police US citizens, including detentions without warrant or access to trial.
But the government’s callous disregard for human and civil rights displayed itself most disturbingly after Hurricane Katrina. When the levees broke and drowned the city of New Orleans, the mostly African American residents who were left behind languished for over a week in filth and squalor, as humanitarian aid was refused entry by the authorities. Food, water, and other necessities poured in to the Gulf coast before and after Katrina hit, from sources as diverse as the Red Cross, Venezuela, and Wal-Mart, and many more. All were prevented from reaching the desperate people in New Orleans. Nevertheless, the Army, National Guard, and a squadron of Blackwater mercenaries invaded the city to defend private property and shoot black people taking necessities from abandoned stores. White vigilantes even shot and killed numerous black neighbors trying to escape. What kind of government sits back and allows the death of hundreds of innocent citizens, and doesn’t even allow aid to reach the people who needed it?
Italian dictator Benito Mussolini, the father of modern fascism, is famously quoted as saying “Fascism should more properly be called corporatism because it is the merger of state and corporate power.” Another definition for fascism would be the militarization of society for the protection of property and the social privileges of the few.
Rooted in authoritarian patriarchy, the control of women’s bodies and sexuality, what distinguishes fascism from simple authoritarianism is its mass character. Drawing upon the fears of the upper and middle classes, whites, straights, and men, fascism promises security and the protection of property and conservative “family” ideals, and can receive widespread support and even fanaticism from large segments of the population.
Once in power, fascist regimes can be characterized by:
- glorification of patriarchal masculinity, aggression, violence, and militarism
- nationalism, xenophobia, and/or racism
- dictatorship and centralization of power
- appeal to a mythical higher power or cause, and often a cult of personality, drawing connections to religious or cultural conservatism
- elimination of democratic rule, civil liberties and freedom of expression
- terrorizing the public through surveillance, secret police and/or gangs of thugs, imprisonment and torture
- violent crackdown on organized labor and grassroots social movements
- state/corporate control over production, rapid plunder of natural resources through industrialization
- deflecting losses to the poor and vulnerable while protecting the wealth of the powerful
- social exclusion or even attempted elimination of racial, ethnic, sexual, gender, differently-abled, or political “undesirables”
Typically these regimes take power during times of economic crisis, and draw attention to a perceived threat of external or internal enemies as demonstrating the need for a powerful State and Leader to “save the Nation.” Usually they come to power through violence, but sometimes, as with Hitler, they are elected legally.
Could fascism manifest in the United States?
Fascism appeals to those who wish to maintain their privilege, wealth and power in times of crisis, by deflecting the costs of the deteriorating economy towards those on the bottom of the social pyramid. The corporate and financial bailouts illustrate this crisis-diversion perfectly: shifting risk from wealthy investors, whose irresponsible actions caused the chaos, to the taxpayers and home owners, who are being doomed to perpetual debt. Meanwhile, the media are raising the specter of the “enemy” (whether it be terrorists, protesters, immigrants, pro-choice Americans, or gay couples), to enlist the white working class into nationalistic defense of property, the military, and the border. In the United States these politics of fear build on the strength of the Christian Right, and in a time of economic and ecological chaos, the appeal and danger of apocalyptic religious fundamentalism could become fodder for fascist movement. Instead of swastikas, they will carry American flags and the Bible, but hatred will be their politics.
Is it that hard to imagine? Already we’ve witnessed the government’s absolute defiance of public opinion in refusing to end the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Terrorizing domestic dissent in order to secure the world’s largest oil fields for US corporations, and flagrantly violating international law, certainly foreshadows a twilight of democracy. At the same time, we’ve seen the racist demonization of people of color, particularly immigrant populations. In 2007 alone, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents arrested some 35,000 undocumented immigrants, more than double the number in 2006. The purpose of these raids, and the militarization of the Mexican border, is not to benefit average Americans, but to drive a racial wedge of fear into the public and co-opt the whites into supporting the militarization of society. Classic divide and conquer.
As the capitalist iron giant stumbles, the fearful will propose desperate solutions to keep the system running. There is no available replacement for oil, but some even more ecologically destructive fuels like tar sands, ethanol, and liquefied coal (used by the Nazis in WW2) are being substituted. These require mega-scale industrial projects, but because the fuels provide such low rates of return, there is little appeal for capital investment unless the government absorbs the risks. Such an arrangement is impossible in a strictly free-market capitalist economy but becomes eminently possible if corporate and state interests merge into an arrangement that could be called state capitalism, or fascism. Reviving the industrial Frankenstein’s monster in this way would be a disaster for the planet and humanity, but there are those who would rather cling to what was than face the future with humbleness and courage.
The good news is that this monstrous corporate resuscitation can be stopped. Fascism is not an inevitability, only a possibility which grows increasingly unlikely as we organize, demonstrate, and take direct action for sustainability, justice, freedom and democracy. We can do this by replacing fear with love.
Building the New World: Grassroots Movements for Progressive Change
All around the planet as the capitalist system breaks down, millions of everyday people are refusing to pay for the failures of those in power. In the wake of the economic crisis, as governments respond by favoring wealthy elites at the expense of their own populations, people are getting together to solve problems themselves, even if it means working outside the realm of established politics.
Organize to Win!
We witnessed an inspiring example of this defiance in the workers of the Republic Windows & Doors factory in Chicago. When their bosses suddenly announced their factory would be closing and everyone would be losing their jobs, as well as their promised severance pay, the workers didn’t back down. Instead, they took direct action, occupying their factory and promising not to leave until they were compensated for their severance pay and vacation time. Their occupation electrified the nation and received support from all walks of life, including an expression of solidarity from president-elect Obama. Most importantly, the workers won their struggle and gained their benefits, proving that even the poor and vulnerable can stand up to corporate power if they are organized.
New School University students and members of Students for a Democratic Society in New York demonstrated this power of organizing recently when they confronted their administration for its corrupt practices and lack of resources for students. While the Board of Trustees has connections to companies profiting from the war in Iraq, students lacked even basic study space during finals. The students therefore organized weeks of actions culminating in the occupation of their student center. Declaring themselves New School in Exile, they pressed for student involvement on the Board of Trustees (along with other demands). After 3 days of sitting in, they won when the President agreed to their meet many of their demands.
Philadelphia community members have waged a similar struggle after Mayor Nutter attempted to close 11 public libraries in response to the city’s budget crisis. The proposed budget cuts come at a time when unemployment, crime, violence and poverty are devastating the black-majority city, but the community responded to this new threat, rallying around their libraries so that children have a safe environment to go to after school. After almost daily protest and successful court cases, along with the threat of direct action, the mayor caved and withdrew his attempt, therefore keeping all libraries open, for now. And these kinds of victories will continue as long as the community is on the move.
These recent examples once again demonstrate that people of all walks of life can and do achieve change through organizing for empowerment in their communities and democracy in the institutions they inhabit, from companies to schools to local government and more.
Everyone Has a Role to Play in Social Change
Workers are organizing in their workplaces for better wages and benefits, students are organizing on campuses for more accessible and democratic education, community members are organizing in their neighborhoods to save their land, homes and communities, and women and queer- and trans-folks are organizing to reclaim their bodies and sexualities. Defeating fascism and reorganizing society around human and ecological needs will take all of us working together, each in our own way. For example, we need people willing to occupy buildings or streets, but we also need people willing to hold a banner, or organize a petition. We need people to lobby Congress, and people to meet with their neighbors. We can’t do it if we don’t have people who will be willing to go to prison, and we’re lost if we don’t have people who will send emails to their friends and family. In short, we need everyone to step up to the degree that they can, and contribute in the way they know best. This requires a holistic approach to social change.
Such a holistic strategy must have at least 3 arenas of resistance (in no particular order):
- We need people inside the system to work for reforms that dull its destructive elements and amplify the voices of those on the outside. These could be progressive politicians, lawyers, celebrities, or nonprofit workers.
- We need people working against the system by fighting to stop it from doing more damage. This includes organizers and activists like myself, striking workers, those working against sexual assault and abuse, and many others engaging in direct action.
- We need people creating alternative networks that will replace the old system. These are people planting community gardens, organizing bike co-ops, starting local businesses, or maintaining their communities in the face of cultural genocide.
Finally, a holistic strategy requires that we take leadership from those most directly affected. In other words, those on the front lines of every struggle should call the shots. When people’s homes are facing eviction, no outside group or organization should attempt to speak for them or make deals behind the scenes. The homeowners must decide. This principle applies to issues of social oppression, like racism, patriarchy, class, or heterosexism. Those in power will always try to extinguish grassroots movements by dividing people along racial, gender, class or sexuality lines. To avoid this, there must be a constant effort to squash oppressive forces within the movement, as well as in society. We must model the world we wish to see.
The answer to the question “What Can I Do?” is different for every person because everyone has something unique and important to contribute. First ask yourself, what am I good at? What do I need to learn? Who do I need to work with? Finally, what institutions am I strategically positioned to affect or subvert? Then, get your people together.
We each need to discover our own voices and power in the larger struggle to free our planet. This is a struggle we can win, as long as we believe in ourselves and trust in one another.
[Your feedback on these ideas is very welcome! Please share your thoughts by commenting on the Discussion page.]