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More Radical, Less Extreme: Serve the people, don’t fight them

Jed Brandt Mar 4, 2010

Over the last few years, dozens of attacks claimed by the Earth Liberation Front have burned a lot of cars, a few construction sites on the West Coast, and earned a 23-year prison sentence for Jeffrey “Free” Leurs, a young anarchist who never hurt a fly. The ELF is more logo than organization, a mantle individuals can claim without the security risk – or accountability – of a collective process. Yet, despite their claims to “direct action,” it’s a lot more “propaganda of the deed” than a storming of the Bastille. It makes a big splash, but changes nothing. The system is unaffected.

It’s not the first time people who want to change the world settled for tantrums. In the late 1060s, the Weather Underground despised the common people of this country with a spirit more aristocratic than proletarian. In opposition to the Black Panther-inspired slogan “Serve the People,” Weather argued that radicals needed to “Fight the People,” meaning white people, for their supposed complicity in the system. Weather was, of course, all white.

The ELF, less theoretical in their approach, paints slogans like “Fat Lazy Americans” on the side of SUVs before they torch them. What they both miss is that it is people themselves and not self-appointed bands of the disaffected who actually make revolution. People aren’t just fat, lazy and stupid. And quite a few have a good idea what’s wrong, not that you’d ever know it from the narrow worldview of these self-appointed saviors. Hating people for the miserable conditions we find ourselves in is corrosive – and a sure sign that “radicals” are isolated and out of touch.

Extremism is taking reformist politics to the level of violence. Radicalism is getting to the source of the problem and organizing broadly to build people’s power. It’s a lot easier to talk to your neighbor than it is to light his car on fire. Weatherman developed out a maelstrom not unlike today’s global justice movement.

Predominantly white, middle class and young, today’s protest radicals often rebel against their own culture instead of fighting for a new one. In the 1960s, they used “participatory democracy.” Today, the talk at least is of “consensus.” Weather was an all-white group packed with upper-class dropouts that guilt-tripped about “white privilege.” The ELF just ignores it. Weatherman thought they were revolutionaries, while the ELF seems to have no vision of the future whatsoever. Both are responses to a rapid growth in disorganized radicalism without much connection to people in everyday life, or even radical groups with more than a couple of years experience. The frustration and alienation remain the same, but the times are different. Very different.

Responding to this desperation with some Todd Gitlin mantra about becoming a young loyal opposition isn’t an option. When the cold truth is confronted – that we don’t live in some wondrous democratic experiment and that the state will guarantee the power of unaccountable elites through the most vicious wars and repression – activists face a choice: Are we to remain content as a permanent opposition, waving placards, or burning SUVs, while holing up in college towns or any one of a dozen Lower East Sides? Or will those who believe another world is possible work to make it happen?

Direct action is about taking resistance beyond slogans and symbolism. Somewhere along the way, this got lost to the Black Bloc fetishists and the grant-written glitterati of the acceptable-enough opposition.

All across America, millions have had their illusions ripped away in the last two years. The ugly empire is on full display. The Democratic Party, and the leftish intelligentsia, have proven themselves complicit in not just the bloodlettings abroad, but the ongoing internment of Muslims and repression at home. Something needs to be done. But turning to vandalism and symbolic violence isn’t all that different from the “activism” of the legal left. In a strange way, it isn’t even that different from voting. It is all a politics of representation – and not actuality. We need to be more radical, less extreme.

For the first time in a generation, the radical left has an opening, what some have called a “teachable moment.” But too many activists confuse extremism and alienation with a healthy, robust insurgency that speaks in plain English to everyday people at work, on the train and in the neighborhood. If radicals are angry enough to fight, the question then stands: Do they have enough love to win?

Another world isn’t just possible, it’s inevitable. How it goes is up to us.

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