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Of radicals and mass movements

This essay was prompted by two recent pieces. Perhaps this essay would be better off if it were published in some of the places where the pieces were published: ZNet, or Jacobin. I’m more used to working here, and at

The first piece is Paul Street’s “Because We Let Them,” which critiques a famous George Carlin routine — you know the one, the one about the “big club” which controls America. Here’s the routine, for your reference:

As Street suggests, the working class does not revolt because, among other reasons, there is a general defeatism of politics in America and elsewhere. Here Street makes the common radical suggestion that a mass movement against the “big club” will be necessary if the human race is to solve its problems. To quote Street:

As the radical philosopher Istvan Meszaros noted in early 2001, “Many of the problems we have to confront – from chronic structural unemployment to major political/military conflicts…as well as the ever more widespread ecological destruction in evidence everywhere – required concerted action in the very near future…The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that if there is no future for a radical mass movement in our time, there can be no future for humanity itself.”

It seems fair to assume, here, that radicals would be smart to estimate that their chances of achieving radical change would be highest in the context of a mass movement. What I’d like to suggest, in this regard, is that not all mass movements are radical, and that mass movements often have the potential to be a number of different things. We’ll really just have to use our best judgment as regards which movements merit our participation (and active attempts at change), and which ones don’t. No mass movement is going to grant us a readymade radicalism.

Occupy, for instance, was a mass movement which was fundamentally premised upon the idea of holding the banks accountable, with a consciousness-raising goal of promoting the interests of the “99%” — that vast majority which lost ground in the so-called “recovery” of 2009-2011. The actual political focus of Occupy, however, was reflected in its membership — a mish-mash of liberals, Democrats, Rainbow Family members, radicals of various stripes, single-interest activists, and so on. There were, in retrospect, hundreds of different Occupies, with varying degrees of mastery of consensus process, and varying political opinions. Overall, and here I argue as a radical, public opinion was improved by Occupy. It’s important, at least, for people to know that mass movements are possible in 21st-century America.

Mass movements are, then, potential vehicles of radical change, just as political parties are potential vehicles for radical change. There can be mass movements which are not yet radical but which radicals can join in hopes of radicalizing them.

The other piece which attracted my attention was Sam Gindin’s review of Naomi Klein’s new book, “This Changes Everything.,” which is dated New Year’s Eve. Klein’s book suggests, as I do, that capitalism is the main problem with climate change. But Klein assumes that the primary hope for “saving the climate,” as she calls it, is in actually existing movements. These movements, as Klein points out well in her book, have a great variety of different causes and motivations.

At any rate, here is Gindin’s criticism:

Klein deserves enormous credit for putting capitalism in the dock. Yet she leaves too much wiggle room for capitalism to escape a definitive condemnation. There is already great confusion and division among social activists over what “anti-capitalism” means. For many if not most, it is not the capitalist system that is at issue but particular sub-categories of villains: big business, banks, foreign companies, multinationals.

Klein is contradictory on this score. She seems clear enough in the analysis that pervades the book that it is capitalism, yet she repeatedly qualifies this position by decrying “the kind of capitalism we now have,” “neoliberal” capitalism, “deregulated” capitalism, “unfettered” capitalism, “predatory” capitalism, “extractive” capitalism, and so on. These adjectives undermine the powerful logic of Klein’s more convincing arguments elsewhere that the issue isn’t creating a better capitalism but confronting capitalism as a social system.

So, according to Gindin, Klein “leaves too much wiggle room” for the critics of “some” capitalism. Here radicals would do well to remember that the critics of “some” capitalism are the folks we’ll need to persuade once they, and we, are part of a genuine movement to “save the climate” by building an alternative to capitalism.

As for her book, I’m not sure Naomi Klein sees herself as the sort of radical who is out there to persuade everyone that we need to take a hard line against capitalism. I think her book was intended to put out some basic guidelines as regards what sort of movement could “save the climate” without being co-opted by the powerful forces within capitalist society that have turned “environmentalism” as a dependency upon foundation grants and as a public-relations support for “moderate” politicians.

In this regard, I think it’s reasonable to assume that radicals should be picky, but not too picky, about what sort of movements and organizations they’d be willing to work within. Postcapitalism makes a good consensus prerequisite in this regard. As for the radical potential of political parties with long histories as vehicles for co-optation, I’ll let you decide.

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Ph.D., Communication, The Ohio State University, 1998
M.A., English, Sonoma State University, 1992
B.A., Literature, University of California, Santa Cruz, 1984