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What-Really-Happened-to-the-1960sWhat Really Happened to the 1960s: How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy

Edward P. Morgan

2010, University of Kansas Press

 

Who controls the past, controls the future. Who controls the present, controls the past.

– George Orwell, 1984

 

As a young and politically naïve college student, I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to take several of Ted Morgan’s classes. His “Movements of the Sixties” course was hugely influential for me, primarily because exposure to the upheavals of that era taught me that the project of transforming our world towards a more democratic, just, and ecologically balanced future has deep roots. Standing confidently atop those long, sturdy roots transmits the possibility and hope that we can indeed change the world, because we already have. Indeed, the black freedom, anti-Vietnam War, women’s liberation, gay and lesbian liberation, welfare rights and other movements of the 60s era so successfully challenged the dominant capitalist institutions of the U.S. that those institutions have been scrambling for the last forty years to systematically minimize the possibility of future freedom struggles.

In this book, Ted Morgan documents a key component of that reaction: the two-pronged mass media campaign to denigrate and obscure the democratic promise that the movements of the sixties still hold, while at the same time co-opting the symbols and imagery of the sixties to make Corporate America “cool” and thereby sell more products. This media reaction has gone hand-in-hand with material forces, such as student debt, coercing the population into inactivity and obedience. In Morgan’s words, the result is a “depoliticized society,” with a “diminished ability to make history” (pg. 7). This book therefore becomes a weapon against rootlessness and despair, which I especially urge young people to read.

 

The Promise of Democracy

The 1960s are typically remembered as a time of turbulence and change. We all know the iconic images: assassinations, war, protests, urban riots, men on the moon, long hair, drugs, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, it’s a decade that Americans are still trying to make sense of, justifying an endless stream of retrospectives like CNN’s latest 10-part weekly series “The Sixties.”  Ted Morgan’s necessary book What Really Happened to the 1960s provides answers you won’t find on primetime TV. In his writing, the underlying story of that decade was a clash between capitalism and democracy, one in which perhaps millions of Americans participated in social movements and challenged the country to become more just and more democratic (8). In some ways they succeeded and in others they failed. But as the book’s subtitle, How Mass Media Culture Failed American Democracy suggests, the true history of that struggle has been consistently distorted and hidden from view. What the media still cannot comprehend, or perhaps would seemingly most like to forget, is the democratic promise that formed the basis of those sixties social movements.

“[L]argely disappeared from memory [is] the surge in democratic empowerment in which large numbers of Americans of all ages organized themselves to confront and transform a range of injustices rooted in American institutions” (6, emphasis added).

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

As a practice of democratic empowerment, students initiated the lunch counter sit-ins to challenge legal racial segregation in the South. (1961)

Morgan goes on to define the phrase “democratic empowerment.”

“[D]emocratic empowerment means one’s unfolding ‘freedom to,’ a lifelong discovery of one’s authentic self, the discovery of which progressively frees one from manipulation by others and potentially by the disabling scripts of the unconscious” (51).

In other words, the sixties’ social movements, at their best, were not just about stopping racism or war on a systemic scale, but also about the self-realization of the millions of individuals involved on a personal level. Forty years later, I experienced the same rush of democratic empowerment when I attended my first organizing meeting and realized for the first time that in working with others I had the power to impact the world around me for the better. The meaningfulness and self-confidence that comes from a politically active and engaged life contrasts dramatically from the dominant modes of apathy and self-loathing inoculated into us by capitalist society and its mass media appendages. The experience of activism allows people to see themselves differently and to grow into their full potential, gaining courage as they take on greater and greater challenges – from speaking at a meeting, to holding a picket sign, to risking arrest in direct action.

As civil rights organizer Jim Lawson is quoted, “ordinary people who acted on conscience and took terrible risks were no longer ordinary people. They were by their very actions transformed” (51). Read the rest of this entry »


This document should not be forgotten. Although the New SDS (Students for a Democratic Society) is no longer what it was when this statement was written, the vision expressed herein provides a powerful framework for understanding what it means to organize for social change. Written primarily by Madeline Gardner, Joshua Kahn Russell, Kelly Lenora Lee and Michael Gould-Wartofsky, “Who We Are, What We Are Building” was approved by the direct democratic process of the SDS National Convention in Detroit, July 27th – 30th, 2007. It was subsequently ratified by a vote of SDS chapters. Five years later, it is still worth (re)reading! [alex]

As Students for a Democratic Society, we want to remake a movement – a young left where our struggles can build and sustain a society of justice-making, solidarity, equality, peace and freedom. This demands a broad-based, deep-rooted, and revolutionary transformation of our society. It demands that we build on movements that have come before, and alongside other people’s struggles and movements for liberation.

Together, we affirm that another world is possible: A world beyond oppression, beyond domination, beyond war and empire. A world where people have power over their own lives. We believe we stand on the cusp of something new in our generation. We have the potential to take action, organize, and relate to other movements in ways that many of us have never seen before. Something new is also happening in our society: the organized Left, after decades of decline and crisis, is reinventing itself. People in many places and communities are building movements committed to long-haul, revolutionary change.

SDS can play a vital role by redefining the student and youth movement and how it relates to others. Yet we have a choice ahead of us: We can do what has been done before – reinvent the wheel with the same old cycles – or we can build something new together, something informed by our past and grounded in a vision of what the future might look like. We envision the new SDS in the light of the second alternative.

SDS will forge itself through its actions and speak for itself with its own collective voice. In this statement of organizational vision, we want to highlight the most hopeful ideas and practices in SDS, offering a sense of what our organization might be and what it can offer others. The concepts below are building blocks for our organization.

Here, we begin to evoke our visions for the movement we want to make, but that is not enough: As Students for a Democratic Society, we will work to actually bring it about.

2007 SDS National Convention.

Who We Are

We are here to win.

We really believe we can create a more just society. It is possible, and we can do it – therefore we have a responsibility to do it. Our activism is not simply a matter of “fighting the good fight,” or of insularity or purity, but instead is grounded in the day-to-day reality of what it takes to build a movement that can win concrete objectives and ultimately transform society.

We are in it for the long haul.

Realizing that we can win, we think about what it means to be involved in long-haul struggle, and what it really means to do this for life. We believe there is more to a movement than taking to the streets for a day. We are building our power over the long haul. This helps give perspective on our goals and how we achieve them. We think about how we want the movement – and SDS – to look in five years, in ten years, in twenty years. We think about what we need to do now to get there. We will keep our eyes on the prize.

We are organizers.

Read the rest of this entry »


This essay, written following a listening tour across the US, asks some of the most important questions facing social movements today, including “How Do We Build Intergenerational Movements?”, “What About Multiracial Movement Building?” and “How Do We Develop Strategy?”

I read this when it first came out in the summer of 2006 and it pretty much rocked my socks off and made me excited to get involved in the new SDS, so I figured I’d repost it for folks who never got to read it. [alex]

Ten Questions for Movement Building
by Dan Berger and Andy Cornell

Originally published by Monthly Review Zine.

For five weeks in the late spring of 2006, we toured the eastern half of the United States to promote two books — Letters From Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out (Nation Books, 2005) and Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (AK Press, 2006) — and to get at least a cursory impression of sectors of the movement in this country.  We viewed the twenty-eight events not only as book readings but as conscious political conversations about the state of the country, the world, and the movement.

Of course, such quick visits to different parts of the country can only yield so much information.  Because this was May and June, we did not speak on any school campuses and were unable to gather a strong sense of the state of campus-based activism.  Further, much of the tour came together through personal connections we’ve developed in anarchist, queer, punk, and white anti-racist communities, and, as with any organizing, the audience generally reflected who organized the event and how they went about it rather than the full array of organizing projects transpiring in each town.  Yet several crucial questions were raised routinely in big cities and small towns alike (or, alternately, were elided but lay just beneath the surface of the sometimes tense conversations we were party to).  Such commonality of concerns and difficulties demonstrates the need for ongoing discussion of these issues within and between local activist communities.  Thus, while we don’t pretend to have an authoritative analysis of the movement, we offer this report as part of a broader dialogue about building and strengthening modern revolutionary movements — an attempt to index some common debates and to offer challenges in the interests of pushing the struggle forward.

Challenges and Debates:

The audiences we spoke with tended to be predominantly white and comprised of people self-identified as being on the left, many of whom are active in one or more organizations locally or nationally.  We traveled through the Northeast (including a brief visit to Montreal), the rust belt, the Midwest, parts of the South, and the Mid-Atlantic.  Some events tended to draw mostly 60s-generation activists, others primarily people in their 20s, and more than a few were genuinely intergenerational.  Not surprisingly, events at community centers and libraries afforded more room for conversation than those at bookstores.  Crowds ranged anywhere from 10 to 100 people, although the average event had about 25 people.  Even where events were small gatherings of friends, they proved to be useful dialogues about pragmatic work.  Our goals for the tour were: establishing a sense of different organizing projects; pushing white people in an anti-racist and anti-imperialist direction while highlighting the interrelationship of issues; and grappling with the difficult issues of organizing, leadership, and intergenerational movement building.  The following ten questions emerge from our analysis of the political situation based on our travels and meetings with activists of a variety of ages and range of experiences.

1. What Is Organizing?

Every event we did focused on the need for organizing.  This call often fell upon sympathetic ears, but was frequently met with questions about how to actually organize and build lasting radical organizations, particularly in terms of maintaining radical politics while reaching beyond insular communities.  There are too few institutions training young or new activists in the praxis of organizing and anti-authoritarian leadership development. Read the rest of this entry »


Hi, I’m Alex Knight. I’m a teacher, writer, and activist. I manage endofcapitalism.com and I’m writing a book called The End of Capitalism.

strategy

I was born on July 4, 1983. I was raised an All-American boy in a working class family in a small town outside of Philadelphia. As a child, I excelled in sports (I was an all-star baseball player for 10 years), and in school (I was placed in the “gifted” class at the age of 7). Ambler, Pennsylvania was a wonderful place to grow up in. My neighborhood friends and I used to walk to elementary school in the morning and chase fireflies in the park at sunset. But my hometown was also burdened with a painful legacy from its industrial past, one which illustrates how capitalism’s obsession with profits far too often leads to environmental damage and human suffering.

The twin house I grew up in was originally home to Italian immigrants who worked in Ambler’s asbestos factory in the early 1900’s. Owned and operated by Keasbey and Mattison Corporation, this five-story factory made Ambler what it was – an industrial working class community and the “asbestos capital of the world[1]. Asbestos, a mineral known for its fire-resistant properties, was very popular at the time as a material used in everything from home insulation, roofing tiles, ship engines, brake pads, and shoes. Unfortunately, asbestos also has a nasty habit of giving people a form of lung cancer (mesothelioma) from breathing in its dust. Hundreds of the Italian-American workers and their family members contracted mesothelioma and suffered for years with breathing problems, or died[2]. When the factory was finally shut down in the 1970s, 3 million tons of asbestos waste had been piled into what are now known as the “White Mountains” – thinly-covered man-made hills of toxic waste.[3]

While I was growing up in the ’80s and ’90s, over 50,000 claims were brought against Keasbey and Mattison by former workers, residents and consumers who had been exposed to asbestos poisoning[4]. At the same time, the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was classifying the White Mountains a Superfund site, sealing it off from the public and cleaning up some of the carcinogenic mess[5]. Nevertheless asbestos pollution remains a persistent concern for Ambler residents[6], and according to a Montgomery County Health Department analysis mesothelioma rates in town continue to be significantly higher than normal[7], despite the factory closing over 30 years ago. One resident interviewed in 2008 stated, “Six households on one block report a family member dying from asbestos-related disease. I have lost 5 members to asbestos-related disease”[8].

Although the company almost certainly knew the dangers of asbestos and its connection to lung cancer as early as the 1930s, it kept the information secret, from the public, and from its workers, despite the growing cases of illness and death. The reason is obvious. If people knew that asbestos would give them cancer, they wouldn’t want it in their homes or their household products, and would stop purchasing it. And if workers could prove that the company was responsible for their health problems, they would sue and the company could go out of business. In other words, the corporation knew it was causing ecological and social harm, but lied about it to protect its profits.

Ambler’s story is not that exceptional. Every town in America, indeed across the globe, has its own story about how it’s been affected by capitalism.

Likewise my decision to devote my life to the cause of environmental and social justice is not that exceptional. People all around the world are making the same sorts of decisions about how to live their lives in harmony with nature and with their fellow human beings, every single day.

I attained a Bachelor’s degree in Electrical Engineering from Lehigh University in 2005, then went on to receive a Master’s in Political Science the next year. During college I got involved in activism and led a successful campaign pressuring my university to purchase wind energy to help supply the school’s electricity. Since then, I became an organizer with Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a national youth organization working for peace and democracy. Now I’ve begun working with other men to overcome sexism and male-dominance in our lives and in society. I currently reside in Philadelphia and work at a community college, where I teach English as a Second Language (ESL) and Computer Basics courses. Besides writing, I enjoy bike rides, music, food, and hanging out with friends.

My overriding inspiration is that the places where we live – where our children grow up – and the people in our lives – loved ones and strangers – don’t need to suffer the way Ambler and its inhabitants have. We don’t need to be slaves to a system that considers profits more important than human and ecological well-being. I think these priorities are skewed, and I think most people would agree with me. And just think, if everyone who feels this way were to work together, we could change the world. In fact, millions of people are already engaged in this work and through their efforts, the world is changing, slowly but surely. Healing doesn’t happen overnight. And we need to heal not just ourselves, but our communities, as well as our planet.

I believe in our capacity to heal. Even in an economic crisis, our spirits will never be silenced. When we let go of capitalism, we can embrace a better future – one where human life and environmental sustainability are more important than the profits of large corporations.

A new world is on its way. We are building it, one day at a time.

Alex Knight
activistalex@gmail.com
August 3, 2009


This story was also featured on today’s episode of Democracy Now!  Check it out for an interview with Brendan Dunn, member of Olympia Students for a Democratic Society (SDS).

Spy for the US Military Exposed: Spent Last Two Years Spying on Activists

Brendan Maslauskas Dunn

July 27, 2009

“John Jacob” was an activist well liked by many in Tacoma and Olympia, WA.
He was active in the anti-war and anarchist communities in both towns. He
did extensive work with the group Port Militarization Resistance (PMR)
which blocks military shipments to and from Iraq and Afghanistan through
Northwest ports. He went to numerous Students for a Democratic Society
(SDS) events and actions, was interested in starting a chapter or Movement
for a Democratic Society, worked closely with Iraq Veterans Against the
War, but spent most of his time with anarchists. Aside from attending
meetings, events and actions organized by activists, he spent much
personal and leisure time with other anarchists in the area.

But some recent records requests done through the City of Olympia, asking
the City for any information on anarchists/anarchism/anarchy, SDS and the
radical union Industrial Workers of the World, surfaced an email from a
John J Towery II from Fort Lewis Force Protection with a daily force
protection update for Fort Lewis. Interested in this email and the name
attached to it, several activists did some research that eventually
confirmed the identity of “John Jacob” as John J Towery II.

Two anarchists met with John Towery after this information was confirmed.
By his own admission, John Towery spent the past two years spying on
anarchists, Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans, SDSers and anti-war
activists in Tacoma, Olympia and the Pacific Northwest. He admitted that
he reported to an intelligence network that included county sheriffs from
Pierce, Thurston and other WA counties, municipal police agencies from
Tacoma, Olympia, Seattle and elsewhere, WA State Police, the US Army, FBI,
Homeland Security, Joint Terrorism Task Force, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) Agency among other agencies. Read the rest of this entry »


“The Tyranny of Oil: The World’s Most Powerful Industry and What We Must Do to Stop it”

by Antonia Juhasz

2008 HarperCollins

Ever wondered why the US government spends trillions of dollars to launch massive wars against Middle Eastern nations that have never attacked us, but refuses to do absolutely anything about the ongoing climate crisis?  This book is for you.

The Tyranny of Oil is an exposee of “Big Oil”, meaning Exxon-Mobil, Chevron, BP, ConocoPhillips, and Royal Dutch Shell, the largest oil corporations in the world (and some of THE largest corporations in the world).  The book exposes how these enormous oil octopi have gained virtually total control over the US government, and use their money and political power to make big profits at the expense of the public and the planet. (For example, Exxon Mobil in 2003 posted the largest profits of any corporation in history, then proceeded to beat that record each of the next 5 years).

It all starts with the origin of Big Oil, the mother, Standard Oil. Juhasz stresses the importance of monopolies and corporate mergers, in a sense missing the deeper analysis of capitalism, but nevertheless we come to understand how enormous companies wielding enormous profits can and do undermine democracy.

The book progresses to tell a story about Big Oil’s development and control over the government agencies that are supposed to be regulating it, and finally Big Oil’s plans for the future (War and Trashing the Planet, basically), before an inspirational chapter on What We Can Do. (There’s also a shoutout to SDS here and to our No War No Warming action in DC last year! Cool!)

This is essential reading for all US citizens, because if you aren’t familiar with the concepts she lays out, you frankly have no understanding of the country you live in.  Environmental racism, corporate lobbyists and corrupt government agencies, the criminal behavior of Cheney’s Energy Task Force, deregulation and Enron-style fraud, tar sands, and the list goes on.

My only major complaint of the book was the virtual silence on the looming and imminent reality of Peak Oil and how this will transform everything.  Juhasz does recognize the scarcity of oil and the likelihood of oil peaking, but chooses to essentially overlook its importance, instead blaming oil companies and speculators for driving up the cost of oil.

This is not just a minor quibble, because the BIG TRUTH is that we’re not just in a struggle against Big Oil, we’re in a struggle against capitalism, and it’s a fight that is reaching perhaps its final act.  Peak Oil will challenge the dominant for-profit institutions of power, and can create an opening for social justice activists and organizers to push for much more radical change than appears possible within the current system.  Nevertheless, this is probably a subject for another book (mine!), and Juhasz treads on steady ground by appealing to a more mainstream audience and demonizing the oil companies exclusively.  This is a very effective book, highly recommended!

Finally, my favorite quote (pg. 325):
“As Paul Wolfowitz said in 1991, ‘The combination of the enormous resources of the Persian Gulf, the power that those resources represent – it’s power. It’s not just that we need gas for our cars, it’s that anyone who controls those resources has enormous capability to build up military forces.'”


Two days before he published this article, David Graeber spoke at the People’s Forum in DC, which was organized by DC SDSers as part of Global Justice Action. The People’s Forum ran simultaneously while the G20 met in DC to save capitalism, because capitalism isn’t in crisiscapitalism is the crisis. The activities included a brainstorming session to explore “What Comes After Capitalism?” and a celebratory “Funeral for Capitalism” where the below pictures were taken. [alex]

At the "Funeral for Capitalism"

At the "Funeral for Capitalism" - photo by Jake Cunningham

Hope in Common
David Graeber
Originally published by InterActivist Info Exchange, November 17, 2008.

We seem to have reached an impasse. Capitalism as we know it appears to be coming apart. But as financial institutions stagger and crumble, there is no obvious alternative. Organized resistance appears scattered and incoherent; the global justice movement a shadow of its former self. There is good reason to believe that, in a generation or so, capitalism will no longer exist: for the simple reason that it’s impossible to maintain an engine of perpetual growth forever on a finite planet. Faced with the prospect, the knee-jerk reaction—even of “progressives”—is, often, fear, to cling to capitalism because they simply can’t imagine an alternative that wouldn’t be even worse.

The first question we should be asking is: How did this happen? Is it normal for human beings to be unable to imagine what a better world would even be like?

photo by Christa Hendrickson

photo by Christa H

Hopelessness isn’t natural. It needs to be produced. If we really want to understand this situation, we have to begin by understanding that the last thirty years have seen the construction of a vast bureaucratic apparatus for the creation and maintenance of hopelessness, a kind of giant machine that is designed, first and foremost, to destroy any sense of possible alternative futures. At root is a veritable obsession on the part of the rulers of the world with ensuring that social movements cannot be seen to grow, to flourish, to propose alternatives; that those who challenge existing power arrangements can never, under any circumstances, be perceived to win. To do so requires creating a vast apparatus of armies, prisons, police, various forms of private security firms and police and military intelligence apparatus, propaganda engines of every conceivable variety, most of which do not attack alternatives directly so much as they create a pervasive climate of fear, jingoistic conformity, and simple despair that renders any thought of changing the world seem an idle fantasy. Maintaining this apparatus seems even more important, to exponents of the “free market,” even than maintaining any sort of viable market economy. How else can one explain, for instance, what happened in the former Soviet Union, where one would have imagined the end of the Cold War would have led to the dismantling of the army and KGB and rebuilding the factories, but in fact what happened was precisely the other way around? This is just one extreme example of what has been happening everywhere. Economically, this apparatus is pure dead weight; all the guns, surveillance cameras, and propaganda engines are extraordinarily expensive and really produce nothing, and as a result, it’s dragging the entire capitalist system down with it, and possibly, the earth itself.

photo by Christa Hendrickson

photo by Christa H

The spirals of financialization and endless string of economic bubbles we’ve been experience are a direct result of this apparatus. It’s no coincidence that the United States has become both the world’s major military (”security”) power and the major promoter of bogus securities. This apparatus exists to shred and pulverize the human imagination, to destroy any possibility of envisioning alternative futures. As a result, the only thing left to imagine is more and more money, and debt spirals entirely out of control. What is debt, after all, but imaginary money whose value can only be realized in the future: future profits, the proceeds of the exploitation of workers not yet born. Read the rest of this entry »



Second in the holiday movie series, The Take journals the Argentinian workers who seized their factories after the economy collapsed in 2001, and the corporations fled the scene. The parallels between Argentina 2001 and the United States 2008 are incredible, first the financial system collapsed, and now in Chicago we see the workers occupying a factory their bosses tried to illegally close. Hopefully next we’ll see the delegitimization of the government and mass popular uprisings against capitalism.
(This is just the first segment of the movie, make sure to click the Up-Arrow button to watch the rest! And you might need to do some Spanish-to-English translating!)

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