Monday, December 11, 2006

The Infrastructure of Dissent

I will be using this phrase in the future, so I have decided that it may not hurt to actually say what I mean, thus sparing me the banal task of having to mean what I say...when it comes to that.

Much the way it sounds (or looks), when I write about the 'infrastructure of dissent', I am talking about the practical and ideological means of criticizing, resisting, and overcoming power--either that of the state or of an oppressive employer, for instance. This refers to the forms that communication, dissemination, and organization of ideas takes and, at the revolutionary stage, of the organization of resistance itself. But to stop there would be to deny history: the structures and organizations created to resist power foreshadow those that will succeed power if/when it has been overcome. The means and composition of resistance often have determined the makeup of their situation's future.

Each of the cases below is, and has been, the topic of hundreds of books and studies, but I will briefly highlight some distinctions to illustrate the point.

In the case of the French Revolution, the Jacobin "excesses" and Robespierre's reign of terror (followed by the reactionary White Terror) were presaged by the relative spontaneity of anti-monarchist protests brought on by crushing poverty and famine. The lack of civic organizations, the norm for the era, and the relative ambiguity of the structure of working class organization led quite quickly to the formation of a revolutionary elite and and an authoritarian post-revolutionary state and not long thereafter to a reactionary state with similar authoritarian leanings. Some evidence for this reality exists in the fact that the only resistance to this slide to "radicalism", which was in fact more of a statist government dominated by particularly violent and vengeful entities, was presented by the Girondins, who were mostly something of an agrarian middle class that had little to gain from a centralizing state, and was not actively opposed by the great masses of peasants, who had little means of coordination or communication at the time, as Kropotkin notes (linked above).

A similar turn of events took place during the Russian Revolution, though one must point out that there was something of a popular democracy in the form of the communal workers' soviets ("councils") that took care of local administration and the organization of resistance during the revolution but before the Bolshevik coup of September 1917. It is often forgotten that in the first months of the revolution in early 1917, when Aleksandr Kerensky of the bourgeois Constitutional Democrats took power, the leftist organization was far more decentralized and libertarian than anything Leninism called for (Lenin famously founded the notion of Democratic Centralism whereby criticism from within the ranks of the party is permitted before "the heat of battle", and intolerable during--but do they vote on when "the heat of battle" has begun? --They didn't in 1917, I'll tell you that much); it was more along the lines what Rosa Luxemburg and Anton Pannekoek called "council communism". Of course, this decentralization and accountability of the revolution to the unwashed masses was anathema to the Leninist notion of "democratic centralism" that led, in practical terms, to the domination of the revolutionary state not by localized, democratic councils but by a quite dictatorial and centralized vanguard party that knew what was best for the proletariat. Lenin's reservations against council communism and left libertarianism are recorded in "Left-wing Communism: an Infantile Disease"; long story short, these reservations caused him to quite rapidly subordinate the local soviets to the Supreme Soviet, which was in turn dominated by the Central Committee of the Bolshevik Party. In less than a year's time, the Russian Revolution turned from a somewhat decentralized mass movement to a dictatorship of the vanguard party. This took a concerted effort and some brutality on the part of Lenin and Trotsky, but, nonetheless, their infrastructure (democratic centralism) became that of the Soviet state, and the effects over the next few decades are well-recorded.

During the Spanish Revolution, the POUM, the anarchist and anarchosyndicalist movements and trade unions and peasants' federations that had been organizing and agitating for some seventy years and had made great gains in organization and dissemination of their ideas and the general sense that workers' and peasants' self-management was a useful and attainable goal. They were able to institute positive changes that led to gains in productivity despite the ongoing civil war, but like the less statist elements of the Russian Revolution, they too were crushed (by Communists and the Western-supported Republicans) and the society they had formed was quickly lain to waste.

The Iranian Revolution is an interesting case; in brief, the Shah's repressive secret police, the SAVAK, were quite successful in preventing the growth any pro-democratic organizations, and resistance to the monarchy took the form of armed guerrilla movements in the decade leading up to the revolution. These movements played quite an important role in the revolution, but by far the most important infrastructure of dissent lie in mosques and other existing religious institutions, which the Shah had been unable or unwilling to suppress. Mosques served as meeting points and sites for the dissemination of information for the resistance movement that developed from 1977 to 1979. Furthermore, a trade in smuggled cassette tapes featuring sermons of Imam Khomeini were quite popular in the decade preceding the revolution. The outcome of a revolution organized largely by religious institutions around a single charismatic leader was a religious state led by a single spiritual leader (though clearly there have been a number of gains for democratic rights and self-expression, whether fleeting or not). In the case of the Iranian Revolution, the infrastructure of dissent was manifested quite clearly in the state that it created.

Citizens' groups protesting the Vietnam War in the US in the 1960s and 70s gave way to an array of organizations in the environmental movement, the women's movement, and the third world solidarity movement that preceded today's global justice movement against neoliberalism. It's hard to believe from this vantage point, but their struggles did result in some concrete gains as well.

Further examples can be provided, but it is, in general, quite an elastic idea. Anarchist philosopher Mikhail Bakunin highlighted this concept when he called on workers to create "not only the ideas but also the facts of the future itself"; anarchosyndicalists called it "building the new society in the shell of the old". The driving point is that the organizations used for dissent today should be formulated in a thoughtful and participatory manner, because if they succeed in mounting a challenge to power, they will provide a basis for the organizations of the future.

In this light, the use of the internet vis-a-vis blogs, email, and "horizontal" organization can provide a truly positive foundation for resistance to the agenda of the Bush Administration and the reactionary and belligerent politics of empire and corporate welfare. More than at any time before in history, leadership is increasingly irrelevant to resistance; hence the ability of power to target or co-opt movements will weaken. Certainly a host of new problems will rear their heads. Perhaps the first of these problems is emerging now: working solely within the electoral system, as the vast majority of the progressive blogosphere attempts to do, will prove frustrating and ultimately self-defeating, as it was for Populists of the 1890s, progressives of the 1900s-1920s, labor unions throughout the 20th century, the civil rights movement, and a host of other grassroots organizations that worked for social justice and real systemic change, all of which were used by the Democratic Party for short-term electoral gain and then summarily silenced, without ever reaching their ultimate goals.

All the more reason to get a war profiteer boycott movement off the ground.

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