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Dreaming that the Revolution Might Be Fun: An Interview with Stephen Duncombe

Sam Alcoff Sep 7

Stephen Duncombe’s academic pedigree may have landed him a professorship at NYU’s Gallatin school, but his activist credentials burn deep through several decades of hell-raising across the Lower East Side. His new book, Dream: Re-imagining Progressive Politics in an Age of Fantasy, taps both of those worlds to propose some new ways for today’s activists to win some old battles. Duncombe sat down with The Indypendent to talk about the make-believe aspects of building a new world in the shell of the old, the politics of flash and personality and why he likes Vegas.
DreamIllo

Sam Alcoff: The first thing you say in Dream is that politics can be fun.

Stephen Duncombe: If you want people to become activists, you have to give them something. You can give them a sense of purpose. You can give them a sense of being a better person. And those are important, but I also think that you can’t neglect fun. Our society is about pleasure; even if you look at counter culture, it’s about pleasure, and to separate politics out from that makes no sense. I’ve been an activist since I was 17 years old, and often what was expected of me was a sacrifice of my life – a sacrifice of fun. You know anybody who has done international activist work knows that they’re having lots of fun, even if there is starving and dying someplace else. For us to actually then back in the U.S. or Europe or these places with these dour leftist traditions, to then say “well, we can’t have fun” seems to me just shooting ourselves in the foot. We’re essentially just creating a culture of the left that is radically divergent from how most people want to spend their lives.

SA: In the book, you tie this to the idea of the spectacle.

SD: I think spectacles are about extravagant emotion, dreams on display or dreams performed, and that really is something we have to address and embrace, because spectacles are the lingua franca of our society today. It’s how we do entertainment, how we do religion and it’s how we do politics. On the left we look at these things as things to be condemned. But to condemn it or ignore it means deeding over powerful territory to the other side. What we have to do is take spectacle seriously, and then rethink it, re-imagine it and refigure it. The left has done this in different times. Look at the New Deal, the French Revolution, the civil rights movement: these are folks who took spectacle seriously, but they attempted to do it differently.

The four areas [of spectacle] that I looked at were architecture of Las Vegas, celebrity culture, advertising, and video games like Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. I picked these for two reasons. One, they are incredibly popular. Las Vegas, despite the fact that gambling has been de facto legalized throughout the United States, is more popular than it has ever been.

I also picked them because they pissed liberals off. It’s okay to hate these things. Grand Theft Auto is apocalyptically violent. It’s misogynistic. It is, you know, horrifying, yet it is also fun to play. So what I’m trying to figure out is that we can condemn these things, but we can also understand them, and ask what in them can be redeemed.

There is an essay that has stuck with me. I remember reading it when I was 18 and I went to a War Resisters meeting in San Franciso, we had herb tea and sat on the floor. It was William James’ “A Moral Equivalent to War.” James’s point was simple. Speaking to a group of pacifists, he said, “If we keep addressing pacifism by saying ‘war is bad, peace is good,’ we’re not going to get anyplace with any people except for people who already agree with us. What we have to figure out it is why people go to war.” And he says “look, whether we like it or not, war serves the purposes of honor, sacrifice. Of patriotism, and so on and these things are good qualities; what we have to do is figure out a pacifist equivalent that can actually allow people to feel honor, allow people to feel sacrifice about giving for the all, allow people to feel patriotism, but not in a way that kills other people or gets people killed.” And then says “Once you acknowledge that, then you can move the point towards your own politics.” And that stuck with me.

Instead of condemning popular culture, we have to ask what in it can we speak to? Those elements we can speak to, we need to acknowledge, and create the progressive political equivalent for what people are now finding pleasure in in mass culture. The Situationists…who [peaked] in the May 68 protests in Paris, they understood before pretty much anybody else that social values aren’t just articulated on the shop floor. Marx was absolutely right in 1848 about the way things were happening. But in the 1950s/ 1960s, they were being reinforced and articulated in a world of spectacle. This is the terrain that we have to be fighting on.

Instead of just condemning spectacles, [the Situationists] created moments in which people would enter into spectacles, yet shift the terrain, shift the point of view. For example, one of the classic things they did was detourn films. They’d show these western films, but put in different dialogue. And it made you look at the film differently, and say “Well, what is expected of me when I go to this film as it’s supposed to be seen in a movie theater and how do I think about it now. ” We should be creating these moments that get people to question the world as it is, but give them pleasure here and now. May 1968 was a critique of the French state, but it was also a lot of fun. I mean you can’t read those slogans without realizing that there was a lot of joking going on: “Beneath the Paving Stones, the Beach” and “All Power to the Imagination.”

SA: This sounds like what you describe as an ethical spectacle. What are examples specifically in the post 9/11 period of people making ethical spectacles?

SD: Before 9/11, I’d say that one of the greatest examples were the globalization protests. Think about normal protests. Now this is a spectacle of impotence. The police have essentially engineered everything for us; in fact, the protester’s job is to make it a safe environment worked out in advance with the police. The globalization protests were chaos. They were carnivals. They were street theater. They were planned by the participants, not with the police. And they were also highly effective. The shutting down of Seattle, what happened in Prague, what happened in London, and other cities around the world, were highly effective at getting attention drawn towards the World Trade Organization, GATT, NAFTA, and so on. 9/11 sort of put the kibosh on that and you saw the return of the repressed march-chant protest where we literally become spectators toward our own activity.

Now you’re starting to see a breakdown of that in groups on the margins. More street theater type folks. People like Reverend Billy: complete farce, but farce you can believe in. In other words, no one really believes that Reverend Billy is a reverend, so that it’s not fantasy, yet it’s also creating community that’s fun to be a part of. Billionaires for Bush: street theater that is both funny, and entertaining. It’s fun to play to a part, yet it doesn’t fool anyone. Looking at the Iraq Veterans Against the War, when they did their street performances on the streets of Washington, New York, and Chicago as well, interrogating civilians, getting under sniper fire, carrying one of their comrades out. It entered people into a landscape which our country has been so effective at blotting out. That is a way to actually talk to the American people: these are our heroes and look what we are forcing our heroes to do. I think that that is an ethical spectacle as well.

SA: You criticize prefigurative politics, but what is the relationship between ethical spectacle and political campaigns that are about more than bringing attention to something, that are about contesting for power.

SD: First, we should talk about this movement towards the march. That is a fetishization of spectacle. It was a good spectacle in 1963, 64, but it is a bad spectacle at this point. It’s part of the narrative of American democracy at this point, not a challenge to the system. It is the system. When George Bush was confronted with all the millions of the protesters, he went on TV and was like “Yes, of course! Now it’s really a war!” It didn’t shake up the consensus at all. What shook up the consensus was a lot of soldiers dying, a continued civil war in Iraq, and Cindy Sheehan. Also, the problem is that these people are activists, but they’re not organizers. Doug Henwood, Liza Featherstone, and Christian Parenti wrote this neat article talking about “activistism” or something like that, when you get so jonesed up about the moment that you forget that you’re supposed to be a part of a campaign. This isn’t in the place of the campaign. It is part of a campaign. Reclaim the streets, when we were at our best, in terms of our second or third protest, was when we ingraining ourselves into pre-existing campaigns and worked with them to figure out what was needed to get another day in the news cycle as part of a overall campaign. And that just can’t be stressed. I cannot stress that enough and nor can my friend, God. This is just been a part, a tactic of an overall campaign.

I have some problems with [prefigurative politics], mainly because I had to sit through those goddamn meetings that go on for hours. But I think they’re on the right track, which is that…you have to experiment with what this new world is going to be like. You’re going to fail, but it’s through those failures that you’re going to actually try and figure out what another world might be like.

The last part of my book is about understanding that these dreams are just dreams and that they’re going to fail. In the prefigurative politics, we’re not going to create new societies in the old, but what we are doing is creating a setting whereby we can get glimpses of what a different world might be like. Because part of the problem of why we actually produce those boring marches over and over, is that we can’t see outside of the world we’re in now. Then we’re stuck with two paths. One is critique, which is what Marx decided. He said, I can’t understand what socialism is going to be like, so I’m going to critique capitalism. The other is radical imagination, thinking irrationally about the future. This is what the Zapatistas do, this is what Reverend Billy does, also I think it’s probably what the Khmer Rouge did, so you gotta be a little careful. It’s the idea of moving to something where we don’t know where exactly we’re going to land. And that is what fantasy and spectacle do for us all the time. It’s no accident that many many science fiction writers are political, mostly left, but then you get Robert Heimlein, who’s libertarian. Most of them are left: H.G. Wells, Asimov, and all those folks. The first science fiction fanzines in the nineteen thirties were run off from the same mimeograph as the Young Communist Flatbush Yell Out in Brooklyn. We need a lot more “what ifs.” I don’t think it’s any accident that religion has created some of the great social movements, whether they’re right wing social movements, like the Islamic Jihad, or the social movements like the civil rights movement. Or even Ghandiism in India. Because those are moments you can say “what if.” My thing is that we always have to acknowledge that those are just dreams, we can’t pretend that it’s reality. Because that leads to totalitarianism, to delusion. We have to embrace the idea of the absolute fantasy so we can always stand back and say “You know, it’s not real. But it gives us a place to walk to.”

SA: Last weekend, I talked to this business major, his dad is a mechanic who has been laid off every year for six years, and he was very sympathetic very quickly to a leftist critique, but then he said something which I hear all the time: 21 year olds who say “but it’s just not possible.” The totality is so complete. His grandparents were probably alive during Jim Crow and before all the revolutions of the sixties. And then Nixon famously lost one of the presidential debates to Kennedy because he didn’t shave and he underestimated the effect his 5 0’clock shadow would have on TV. Yet today they own Fox News; the political operatives literally run the news. So I guess I’m asking for your thoughts on the totality and if the totality has somehow gotten fiercer?

SD: I think that the problem with the Democrats is that they don’t listen to the margins. The Republican Party learned to listen to the margins. You had these people, beginning with Barry Goldwater, who would now seem like a moderate, but really Ronald Reagan and the crew around Ronald Reagan, but that who were were staffers of Nixon and Ford, people like Cheney who were asking what would a world be like without a welfare state, with a pre-emptive military, all of these things were off the table for a hundred years. Yes, we had a pre-emptive military, but it was always done under the cloak of darkness. Yes, there was tinkering with the welfare state, but it was a given that it was going to exist. And these guys said “No, we’re going to do away with these things.” And of course, look what’s happened, their dreams have become our reality.

I think the left has to do that same sort of dreaming. I think our job on the far, far left is that we have to be the Karl Roves. Not too much in being corpulent and pig-like, but in dreaming unimaginable dreams and then convincing the center. The Republican Party learned to listen to the margins, they were so out of power. And their dreams have become our reality.

The problem with the Democrats is that they have no idea what they want to dream for. They are caught within a negation. “We want to hold on to what little we have.” The problem with the far left is that we’re either at that place, or we dream in a way that we’ve sort of permanently marginalized ourselves. When we start talking about “George Bush is a fascist and the police state is coming,” that’s our fantasy. It’s a fantasy that keeps us powerless. It’s kind of fun to think that we’re so important that sooner or later that the men with the black uniforms are going to come bashing through our door. You know what, they’re not. They’re going to ignore us. In fact, Bush is not a fascist, he’s not smart enough to be a fascist. Now Giuliani, if he becomes president, that could happen, but Bush is not. He’s just a good old boy from the south with right wing advisers who wants more political power. We have to free ourselves and to start imagining. When Reverend Billy says “stop shopping,” that’s stupid, you can’t stop shopping, but he gets us thinking. It opens up the door to a world that’s not predicated around consumption and I think we have to make more of those ridiculous demands.

SA: The Left that does get heard is just smeared. They went after the messenger when the messenger was someone like Martin Luther King. With people like Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, they go after the person and not after the politics.

SD: I think we have a personality driven society. You are going to get smeared as a personality. My question is, “Does it work?” Cindy Sheehan wasn’t careful about her public image, and that was problematic. But when they first went after her, it backfired because they went after the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. They couldn’t get around that one truth which is that her son was dead. And it made her into an unassailable character. As she distanced herself from that then she got assailed, but I don’t think it hurt her credibility, except among the punditocracy.

Actually, I think a similar thing is happening with Michael Moore. My guess is that, yes, The New Yorker just wrote a scathing review, and basically the New Yorker gave a scathing review of every single one of, my favorite is this, they hated every single film he’s ever done. Because why? Because he deals in emotion! Michael Moore puts himself across as a character who is not one of those high and mighty celebrities that people love to take down a notch or two. And so while the pundacracy, particularly the liberal pundacracy, hates him, he’s gotten creamed heavier by The New Yorker and CNN and the New York Times than by Fox.

SA: What we have in America between the Republican and Democratic party is a system that toggles, like most repressive systems, between repression and co-optation. Even when it’s co-optation you have this strong core in the DLC that says “we have to have the Audacity of Hope out there, we have to let Dean go, Kucinich and Sharpton should be at the debates, but Hell, no, we’re not going to let them near the control room.”

SD: I think we need the Democratic party because they’re the machinery of the Democratic party – not for any other reason. It’s important for the left to understand is that co-optation is inevitable – if you’re any good. If you’re not any good, they’re not even gonna bother. One of the things that I think is really interesting about [Sixties activists] Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman is that they understood that they were going to be co-opted. SDS did not. If you read Todd Gitlin’s first book, The Whole World is Watching, he talks about how when SDS became media stars it destroyed the organization. It never destroyed the Yippies because they understood from the get-go that they were going to use this and leverage this to whatever they could.The question is once we get co-opted by the Democratic Party, how do you leverage that into real power? I don’t think that we – little bands of left-wing activists with our internet pages and our little protests – are ever going to challenge the capitalist state. We need machinery. We need the machinery of labor unions, we need the machinery of the Democratic party. I’ve been an activist for more than 25 years, and I’m sick of being in a sub-culture. I’m sick of activism as a lifestyle. I want to win. I want to change the way the world operates. I want to make life better for myself, my family, and for everybody in this country and around the world. And it’s only going to happen if we acknowledge that we’ve gotta take power.

Let’s talk about what it means to create alliances with labor unions that have muscle and money. What does it mean to create alliances with the Democratic party, who I think are spineless idiots who have no idea of strategy and tactics? Look, if we want to win, we’ve gotta start having these discussions. If the Democrats want to win, they’ve gotta start having these discussions with us.

SA: It think that your critique of prefigurative politics [consensus, non-hierarchical organizing, etc] is right-on. But unions are largely absent from your book, which I think is interesting because I think the Left has largely written off unions. When I’ve seen prefigurative politics work in my own life it’s been watching workers engage in strikes win and organizing campaigns.

SD. Let me plead neglect and ignorance (laughter). My political background came through my dad who was a civil rights organizer, and not through unions. If my background had been unions, [Dream] would have been filled with those sort of things.

The organizing ranks of those unions have come through these social movements in the left. Andrew Boyd of Billionaires for Bush gets calls from unions asking him to engineer an ethical spectacle. The organizing ranks of those unions have come through these social movements in the left. With Reclaim the Streets Lower East Side collective – people always said you guys [RTS] are foolish, you guys are idiots, you guys are going to alienate the working people. And inevitably, when I give a talk on this, someone will raise their hand and say, “But will the spectacle work with people in the middle of the country?” And I’m like, “The only place the spectacle doesn’t work is the Upper West Side, as far as I can figure.”When RTS approached this union, we said…Are they going to let us run with our weird carnivalesque stuff? And they were great: “Let’s have a big wrestling match!” And it turned out that the main organizer from the Mexican-American workers’ organization, who was also the lead organizer in Unite 169, was a gymnast, and so he did these backflips into the ring!

There’s so much space within unions to do this sort of work. Because their rank and file are regular people. And regular people like watching wrestling. They like going to Las Vegas. They like watching TV. Just like we should learn how to do. And they also understand that just because you watch E! Entertainment network at night doesn’t mean you can’t also go on strike against a media conglomerate.

These things can happen simultaneously. I think the left has gotten into this mindset of, as you said, a purity test. How pure can you be? “Are you wearing any leather?” “I don’t know, comrade. You might not be able to talk in this meeting.” It’s about the left as a subculture as opposed to seeing the left as a viable political force that can actually wrest power.

Once you start talking about public image– that is, that going on strike at a plant in Mississippi doesn’t mean jack shit, but making an embarrassment for a corporate parent in New York City in front of their stockholders means a lot, that opens up the terrain for spectacle for sure.

SA: One of the things that makes me nervous is that the models you mention, the Situationists, the Yippies, all of these things have exploded. At the end of the day, what was attained and what have they changed?
SD: We might’ve lost the political war, but we won the cultural war, and if you see right wing talk shows and list servs, they understand how much we won. Yes, it was made into
profits, boutiques, the newest sitcoms, but we basically won in terms of personal expression, freedom of expression, partly because it was no challenge to capitalism. The second thing is that it exploded as a political movement, I would argue because they weren’t embedded within political movements. That what Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin should’ve done, is met with the folks from SDS and said, “okay, look, we’ve got the spectacle, you’ve got the organization. How would we want to work with these things together?” The Situationists split every five years, purging each other. They weren’t interested in building a movement.

I think we have to be smarter. The battle is to be fought on the terrain of the spectacle. There’s no doubt in my mind. But it has to also have its root in institutional structures, because the problem with the spectacle is that it disappears. We saw this in things like the globalization movement. We were very effective in actually pulling off demonstrations, but when we started saying, “Another world is possible,” we had no destination. We also had no machinery to get it going there. So we have to make peace with the Democratic party, and we’ve got to make real efforts with unions.

SA: It’s been eight years since Seattle, six years since 9/11, and we’re sort of coming out of that at some level. Very explicitly, what do you think people should be doing?

SD: They should be thinking about crafting a politics that appeals to desire and articulates dreams as much as speaks to the mind. I think that’s absolutely essential. I don’t think that these run counter to one another, you don’t have to just have fantasies and do away with reason and rationality. We really have to build a politics that speaks to the entirety of people’s experience: their fantasies, their passions, their desires. It should speak to today, and today is a society of the spectacle. Until we’re good at doing spectacle and we figure out how to make spectacle our own, we will continue to lose.

SD: Before 9/11, I'd say that one of the greatest examples were the globalization protests. Think about normal protests, which are a spectacle. The march on Washington: how does it work? We all get on a bus, we all go down to Washington, we get off the bus, we go on a route that has already been worked out with the police, we march literally around in a circle, then we listen to our leaders speak to us on bad sound systems, and then we march over to a designated civil disobedience area, sit down, and have the police arrest us. Now this is a spectacle of impotence. The police have essentially engineered everything for us; in fact, the protester's job is to make it a safe environment worked out in advance with the police. The globalization protests were chaos. They were carnivals. They were street theater. They were planned by the participants, not with the police. And they were also highly effective. The shutting down of Seattle, what happened in Prague, what happened in London, and other cities around the world, were highly effective at getting attention drawn towards the World Trade Organization, GATT, NAFTA, and so on. 9/11 sort of put the kibosh on that and you saw the return of the repressed march-chant protest where we literally become spectators toward our own activity. Now you're starting to see a breakdown of that in smaller places, in groups on the margins. More street theater type folks. People like Reverend Billy: complete farce, but farce you can believe in. In other words, no one really believes that Reverend Billy is a reverend, so that it's not fantasy, yet it's also creating community that's fun to be a part of. Billionaires for Bush: street theater that is both funny, and entertaining. It's fun to play to a part, yet it doesn't fool anyone. Looking at the Iraq Veterans Against the War, when they did their street performances on the streets of Washington, New York, and Chicago as well, interrogating civilians, getting under sniper fire, carrying one of their comrades out. It entered people into a landscape which our country has been so effective at blotting out. That is a way to actually talk to the American people: these are our heroes and look what we are forcing our heroes to do. I think that that is an ethical spectacle as well. SA: You criticize prefigurative politics, but what is the relationship between ethical spectacle and political campaigns that are about contesting for power. SD: First, we should talk about this movement towards the march. That is a fetishization of spectacle. It was a good spectacle in 1963, 64, but it is a bad spectacle at this point. It's part of the narrative of American democracy at this point, not a challenge to the system. It is the system. When George Bush was confronted with all the millions of the protesters, he went on TV and was like "Yes, of course! Now it's really a war!" It didn't shake up the consensus at all. What shook up the consensus was a lot of soldiers dying, a continued civil war in Iraq, and Cindy Sheehan. Also, the problem is that these people are activists, but they're not organizers. Doug Henwood, Liza Featherstone, and Christian Parenti wrote this neat article talking about "activistism" or something like that, when you get so jonesed up about the moment that you forget that you're supposed to be a part of a campaign. This isn't in the place of the campaign. It is part of a campaign. Reclaim the streets, when we were at our best, in terms of our second or third protest, was when we ingraining ourselves into pre-existing campaigns and worked with them to figure out what was needed to get another day in the news cycle as part of a overall campaign. And that just can't be stressed. I cannot stress that enough and nor can my friend, God. This is just been a part, a tactic of an overall campaign. I have some problems with [prefigurative politics], mainly because I had to sit through those goddamn meetings that go on for hours. But I think they're on the right track, which is that…you have to experiment with what this new world is going to be like. You're going to fail, but it's through those failures that you're going to actually try and figure out what another world might be like. The last part of my book is about understanding that these dreams are just dreams and that they're going to fail. In the prefigurative politics, we're not going to create new societies in the old, but what we are doing is creating a setting whereby we can get glimpses of what a different world might be like. Because part of the problem of why we actually produce those boring marches over and over, is that we can't see outside of the world we're in now. Then we're stuck with two paths. One is critique, which is what Marx decided. He said, I can't understand what socialism is going to be like, so I'm going to critique capitalism. The other is radical imagination, thinking irrationally about the future. This is what the Zapatistas do, this is what Reverend Billy does, also I think it's probably what the Khmer Rouge did, so you gotta be a little careful. It's the idea of moving to something where we don't know where exactly we're going to land. And that is what fantasy and spectacle do for us all the time. It's no accident that many many science fiction writers are political, mostly left, but then you get Robert Heimlein, who's libertarian. Most of them are left: H.G. Wells, Asimov, and all those folks. The first science fiction fanzines in the nineteen thirties were run off from the same mimeograph as the Young Communist Flatbush Yell Out in Brooklyn. We need a lot more "what ifs." I don't think it's any accident that religion has created some of the great social movements, whether they're right wing social movements, like the Islamic Jihad, or the social movements like the civil rights movement. Or even Ghandiism in India. Because those are moments you can say "what if." My thing is that we always have to acknowledge that those are just dreams, we can't pretend that it's reality. Because that leads to totalitarianism, to delusion. We have to embrace the idea of the absolute fantasy so we can always stand back and say "You know, it's not real. But it gives us a place to walk to." SA: Last weekend, I talked to this business major, his dad is a mechanic who has been laid off every year for six years, and he was very sympathetic very quickly to a leftist critique, but then he said something which I hear all the time: 21 year olds who say "but it's just not possible." The totality is so complete. His grandparents were probably alive during Jim Crow and before all the revolutions of the sixties. And then Nixon famously lost one of the presidential debates to Kennedy because he didn't shave and he underestimated the effect his 5 0'clock shadow would have on TV. Yet today they own Fox News; the political operatives literally run the news. So I guess I'm asking for your thoughts on the totality and if the totality has somehow gotten fiercer? SD: I think that the problem with the Democrats is that they don't listen to the margins. The Republican Party learned to listen to the margins. You had these people, beginning with Barry Goldwater, who would now seem like a moderate, but really Ronald Reagan and the crew around Ronald Reagan, but that who were were staffers of Nixon and Ford, people like Cheney who were asking what would a world be like without a welfare state, with a pre-emptive military, all of these things were off the table for a hundred years. Yes, we had a pre-emptive military, but it was always done under the cloak of darkness. Yes, there was tinkering with the welfare state, but it was a given that it was going to exist. And these guys said "No, we're going to do away with these things." And of course, look what's happened, their dreams have become our reality. I think the left has to do that same sort of dreaming. I think our job on the far, far left is that we have to be the Karl Roves. Not too much in being corpulent and pig-like, but in dreaming unimaginable dreams and then convincing the center. The Republican Party learned to listen to the margins, they were so out of power. And their dreams have become our reality. The problem with the Democrats is that they have no idea what they want to dream for. They are caught within a negation. "We want to hold on to what little we have." The problem with the far left is that we're either at that place, or we dream in a way that we've sort of permanently marginalized ourselves. When we start talking about "George Bush is a fascist and the police state is coming," that's our fantasy. It's a fantasy that keeps us powerless. It's kind of fun to think that we're so important that sooner or later that the men with the black uniforms are going to come bashing through our door. You know what, they're not. They're going to ignore us. In fact, Bush is not a fascist, he's not smart enough to be a fascist. Now Giuliani, if he becomes president, that could happen, but Bush is not. He's just a good old boy from the south with right wing advisers who wants more political power. We have to free ourselves and to start imagining. When Reverend Billy says "stop shopping," that's stupid, you can't stop shopping, but he gets us thinking. It opens up the door to a world that's not predicated around consumption and I think we have to make more of those ridiculous demands. SA: The Left that does get heard is just smeared. They went after the messenger when the messenger was someone like Martin Luther King. With people like Michael Moore and Cindy Sheehan, they go after the person and not after the politics. SD: I think we have a personality driven society. You are going to get smeared as a personality. My question is, "Does it work?" Cindy Sheehan wasn't careful about her public image, and that was problematic. But when they first went after her, it backfired because they went after the mother of a soldier who died in Iraq. They couldn't get around that one truth which is that her son was dead. And it made her into an unassailable character. As she distanced herself from that then she got assailed, but I don't think it hurt her credibility, except among the punditocracy. Actually, I think a similar thing is happening with Michael Moore. My guess is that, yes, The New Yorker just wrote a scathing review, and basically the New Yorker gave a scathing review of every single one of, my favorite is this, they hated every single film he's ever done. Because why? Because he deals in emotion! Michael Moore puts himself across as a character who is not one of those high and mighty celebrities that people love to take down a notch or two. And so while the pundacracy, particularly the liberal pundacracy, hates him, he's gotten creamed heavier by The New Yorker and CNN and the New York Times than by Fox, SA: What we have in America between the Republican and Democratic party is a system that toggles, like most repressive systems, between repression and co-optation. Even when it's co-optation you have this strong core in the DLC that says "we have to have the Audacity of Hope out there, we have to let Dean go, Kucinich and Sharpton should be at the debates, but Hell, no, we're not going to let them near the control room." SD: I think we need the Democratic party because they're the machinery of the Democratic party – not for any other reason. It's important for the left to understand is that co-optation is inevitable – if you're any good. If you're not any good, they're not even gonna bother. One of the things that I think is really interesting about [Sixties activists] Jerry Rubin and Abbie Hoffman is that they understood that they were going to be co-opted. SDS did not. If you read Todd Gitlin's first book, The Whole World is Watching, he talks about how when SDS became media stars it destroyed the organization. It never destroyed the Yippies because they understood from the get-go that they were going to use this and leverage this to whatever they could. The question is once we get co-opted by the Democratic Party, how do you leverage that into real power? I don't think that we – little bands of left-wing activists with our internet pages and our little protests--are ever going to challenge the capitalist state. We need machinery. We need the machinery of labor unions, we need the machinery of the Democratic party. I've been an activist for more than 25 years, and I'm sick of being in a sub-culture. I'm sick of activism as a lifestyle. I want to win. I want to change the way the world operates. I want to make life better for myself, my family, and for everybody in this country and around the world. And it's only going to happen if we acknowledge that we've gotta take power. Let's talk about what it means to create alliances with labor unions that have muscle and money. What does it mean to create alliances with the Democratic party, who I think are spineless idiots who have no idea of strategy and tactics? Look, if we want to win, we've gotta start having these discussions. If the Democrats want to win, they've gotta start having these discussions with us. SA: It think that your critique of prefigurative politics [consensus, non-hierarchical organizing, etc] is right-on. But unions are largely absent from your book, which I think is interesting because I think the Left has largely written off unions. When I've seen prefigurative politics work in my own life it's been watching workers engage in strikes win and organizing campaigns. SD. Andrew Boyd of Billionaires for Bush gets calls from unions asking him to engineer an ethical spectacle. The organizing ranks of those unions have come through these social movements in the left. With Reclaim the Streets Lower East Side collective – people always said you guys [RTS] are foolish, you guys are idiots, you guys are going to alienate the working people. And inevitably, when I give a talk on this, someone will raise their hand and say, "But will the spectacle work with people in the middle of the country?" And I'm like, "The only place the spectacle doesn't work is the UWS, as far as I can figure." When RTS approached this union, we said…Are they going to let us run with our weird carnivalesque stuff? And they were great: "Let's have a big wrestling match!" And it turned out that the main organizer from the Mexican-American workers' organization, who was also the lead organizer in Unite 169, was a gymnast, and so he did these backflips into the ring! There’s so much space within unions to do this sort of work. Because their rank and file are regular people. And regular people like watching wrestling. They like going to Las Vegas. They like watching TV. Just like we should learn how to do. And they also understand that just because you watch E! Entertainment network at night doesn't mean you can't also go on strike against a media conglomerate. Once you start talking about public image– that is, that going on strike at a plant in Mississippi doesn't mean jack shit, but making an embarrassment for a corporate parent in New York City in front of their stockholders means a lot, that opens up the terrain for spectacle for sure. SA: One of the things that makes me nervous is that the models you mention, the Situationists, the Yippies, all of these things have exploded. At the end of the day, what was attained and what have they changed? SD: We might've lost the political war, but we won the cultural war, and if you see right wing talk shows and list servs, they understand how much we won. Yes, it was made into profits, boutiques, the newest sitcoms, but we basically won in terms of personal expression, freedom of expression, partly because it was no challenge to capitalism. The second thing is that it exploded as a political movement, I would argue because they weren't embedded within political movements. That what Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin should've done, is met with the folks from SDS and said, "okay, look, we've got the spectacle, you've got the organization. How would we want to work with these things together?" The Situationists split every five years, purging each other. They weren't interested in building a movement. I think we have to be smarter. The battle is to be fought on the terrain of the spectacle. There's no doubt in my mind. But it has to also have its root in institutional structures, because the problem with the spectacle is that it disappears. We saw this in things like the globalization movement. We were very effective in actually pulling off demonstrations, but when we started saying, "Another world is possible," we had no destination. We also had no machinery to get it going there. So we have to make peace with the Democratic party, and we've got to make real efforts with unions. SA: It's been eight years since Seattle, six years since 9/11, and we're sort of coming out of that at some level. Very explicitly, what do you think people should be doing? SD: They should be thinking about crafting a politics that appeals to desire and articulates dreams as much as speaks to the mind. I think that's absolutely essential. I don't think that these run counter to one another, you don't have to just have fantasies and do away with reason and rationality. We really have to build a politics that speaks to the entirety of people's experience: their fantasies, their passions, their desires. It should speak to today, and today is a society of the spectacle. Until we're good at doing spectacle and we figure out how to make spectacle our own, we will continue to lose.

Illustration by Leo Garcia