The Fetishization of Expression

Paul Street Feb 14, 2012

A handwritten note stuck on the message board of an old Occupy site I know reads as follows: “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

The message is clear: plans are for chumps.

How sad. That message is part of how the 1% rules.

From “Strategicism” to “Expressivism”

The New Left of the early 1960s was informed by the American Civil Rights Movement (CRM) and sought to build on its experiences. And the early CRM was highly strategic, particularly during the time when it was led by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). It picked concrete material targets and worked with masses of black southerners through black churches to carefully choose those targets and plan a broader campaign to bring about a definite outcome – the end of legal segregation in the South. The result was a significant improvement in the lives of southern blacks and the soul of the nation.

A generation before, American working class organizers did something similar. They worked carefully and patiently through existing labor, neighborhood, ethnic, and workplace structures and networks to develop operational tactics and strategies – shop-steward systems, coordinated work stoppages in key industrial departments (ie, packinghouse kill floors, auto plant foundries), sit-down strikes, community campaigns and more – to bring about the emergence of a durable union presence and collective bargaining to the American industrial sector. The labor militants of the 1930s and 1940s knew what they wanted and how to get it. The result was a significant improvement in living standard and political power of the American working class.

This legacy of rational, planned, deliberate and strategic progressive left activism was largely blown up in the late 1960s. In his 2003 book The Postmodern Prince, the left philosopher John Sanbonmatsu describes the rise of a not particularly effective “politics of expression” that was more about giving voice to one’s anger, alienation, and identity than about achieving any specific ends or changing mass consciousness. Here is how he describes this unfortunate development in an interview conducted in 2010 by the left writer and radio broadcaster Sasha Lilley:

“In my book I describe ….a tension in the praxis of the New Left from strategicism, which is grounded in a reasoned approach to thinking about social change, and expressivism, in which the need or even compulsion to express one’s rebellion against established values… trump[s] longer-term planning and the careful articulation of tactics to strategy….with the New Left we see a key transition from a more strategic politics to a more expressivist one, i.e., a politics in which concrete thinking about how to achieve a desired objective was not considered  as important as that primordial moment of giving expression to speech – ‘letting speech run wild in the streets.’ While there were intimations of this shift in the early 1960s, for example, in the Free Speech Movement in Berkeley, the expressivist impulse only came to full flower in 1968. In a famous interview with the French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre, Daneil Cohn-Bendit – or Danny the Red, one of the leaders of May ’68 – said, to paraphrase, ‘people say now that the speech is running wild in the streets, and you, know, people say crazy things, but that’s necessary.’ What I argue in my book is that while this was a very important moment in our political practice, there’s no reason to fetishize expression today. And in fact, perhaps it’s gotten in the way of efficacious politics.”

“The Right to Express Ourselves”

The problem is still with us. Case in point: the torching of the American flag by a masked Occupy protestor on the steps of Oakland’s City Hall on Saturday, January 28, 2011. One protestor and eyewitness, Troy Johnson, an Occupy Oakland member, told an Associated Press (AP) reporter that he arrived just in time see a friend of his emerge from the building with City Hall with a U.S. flag in his hands. “He asked the crowd, ‘What do you want us to do with the flag?’” Johnson recalled. “They said, ‘Burn it! Burn it! Burn it!’” Lighters were passed around. The incident was hardly a new development in Occupy Oakland: “A well-known Bay Area activist burned three during protests that temporarily shut down the Port of Oakland in November.”

The justifications I have heard of the latest “left” flag burning from self-described radicals reeks of “expressivism” over “strategicism.” I am told that that the flag-burners have been deeply alienated by the American capitalist and imperial state and that for them the flag is a symbol of war, racism, indefinite detention, the unelected rule of the 1%, and the ravages of the mass incarceration-ist police state. The flag burners are justifiably angry, the defense continues: their rage comes from their lived experience and it needs and deserves to be given public expression. It’s not their fault that the corporate media chooses to focus on the destruction of a piece of cloth instead on the destruction of real lives by American empire and inequality at home and abroad. And of course the state has initiated violence in connection with Occupy, in a most particularly brutal and provocative way in Oakland going back to last October.

I don’t need the lecture. I get all that and more, as my publishing and speaking record shows. Personally, I’ve never been comfortable with the symbols of nationalism. (I wasn’t raised to value any reference group smaller than, at the risk of sounding grandiose, the human race). I am particularly ill-at-ease with the national symbols of the world’s most powerful and rapacious military empire, the United States, accurately described by Dr. Martin Luther King in April of 1967 as “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.” King’s description was penned at the height of the United States’ one-sided  “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Noam Chomsky) – the so-called Vietnam War – but it still holds today, five U.S. imperial wars later, and that is part of why I have never in my adult years been comfortable with the ritual of standing for the National Anthem before sporting events.

Still, I would never personally sanction, much less participate in the burning of an American flag. This is for a very simple reason: that action makes no strategic sense and is in fact quite strategically stupid for a movement that claims to be serious about real and lasting connections with a working class majority of Americans. Whether some radicals like it or not, the national flag really does hold positive meaning – connoting such ideas as freedom, democracy, justice, and equality – for the preponderant majority of everyday American people, who share Occupy’s sense of enmity towards the excessive wealth and power of the super-rich and the rule of Wall Street and its corporations. Predictably enough, the Occupy Movement’s public support (as measured in polling data) plummeted once the flag burning went viral on television and the Web. What is the strategic point, exactly of deeply alienating those with whom you need to connect to build a true popular movement for justice, equality, and democracy – a movement that can and has in fact used the flag as a symbol to turn (on behalf of the 99% of the Americans) against the highly globalist wealthy few who wrap their narcissism, authoritarianism and indifference to most of their “fellow Americans” in, yes, a star-spangled banner of lies?

There’s no strategic point, of course, because the flag-flamers are all about expressivism, not strategicism. Troy Johnson told the AP that his friend the City Hall flag burner was “not an anarchist, but a typical member of Occupy Oakland who feels the system has failed them. I would describe him as someone who loves his country, but also disappointed in the system that’s running this country.” A military veteran, Johnson said he wouldn’t stop the flag-burning because the United States is supposed to be based on freedom of speech and expression: “To the veterans who fought for this country, I wholeheartedly apologize, because when they took the oath to join the military, they fought for the flag. But they also fought for the right to express ourselves.”

Johnson pulled out his cell phone to show his video of the flag-burning.Perhaps he will post his recording to Facebook, where dozens of bitter and hyper-alienated “radicals” I “know” love to express themselves in bitter terms seemingly around the clock

Yes, it’s sad (but predictable and nothing new) that the media focuses on the burning of a small cloth symbol while it ignores the destruction of villages in Afghanistan and Pakistan by drones, bombers, and missiles that carry that symbol. It’s terrible. Makes you want to scream. But is it not also sad that some “activists” value the public expression and self-display of their anger and alienation over and above the hard and difficult task of building a movement of and for “the 99%?” It’s fun to run and yell wildly in the streets. The thrill of transgression is real. But what price are we willing to pay to “get off” like that?   

Violating Boundaries for the Sake of Violating Boundaries

The “hyper-masculinist” attitude behind the flag-burning and the defense of it was recently pilloried in a critique of “The Cancer in Occupy” by the prolific left author and activist Chris Hedges. Writing not merely about the flag incident but about broader Occupy-related violence (resulting in significant damage to Oakland’s City Hall) and the spontaneity- and expression-worshipping “anarchist” ideas behind that violence within and beyond Oakland, Hedges notes the hyper-angry, property-destroying “Black Bloc” activists are for all intents and purposes de facto agents of the corporate police state. He observes that that state “can use the Black Bloc’s confrontational tactics and destruction of property to justify draconian forms of control and frighten the wider population away from supporting the Occupy movement. Once the Occupy movement is painted as a flag-burning, rock-throwing, angry mob,” Hedges adds, “we are finished.” Further:

“If we become isolated we can be crushed. The arrests last weekend in Oakland of more than 400 protesters, some of whom had thrown rocks, carried homemade shields and rolled barricades, are an indication of the scale of escalating repression and a failure to remain a unified, nonviolent opposition…. The state could not be happier. It is a safe bet that among Black Bloc groups in cities such as Oakland are agents provocateurs spurring them on to more mayhem. But with or without police infiltration the Black Bloc is serving the interests of the 1 percent.”

Hedges should have said something about who really started the Occupy-related violence in Oakland – the city and its cops on October 25th, 2011 – but I’m afraid he’s got a point. A KPIX-TV CBS 5 poll released on January 31st showed that support for the Occupy Movement in the Bay Area went into a “downward spiral after recent violent demonstrations in Oakland that resulted in over 400 arrests and significant damage to City Hall.” The survey determined that 26 percent of Bay Area residents who said that they used to support the Occupy Movement had now changed their minds.

The most interesting aspect of Hedges’ essay for me is the commentary he got from the noted anarcho-environmentalist author and activist Derek Johnson – a man who is no slouch when it comes to direct and militant action. Johnson is not opposed to extreme tactics per se but he cannot sanction the destructive and (I would argue) expressivist hostility some radical “anarchists” of the Black Bloc strain hold for the very notions of organization, strategic thinking, and appropriate conduct geared to the struggle for public support: 

“I don’t have a problem with escalating tactics to some sort of militant resistance if it is appropriate morally, strategically and tactically. This is true if one is going to pick up a sign, a rock or a gun. But you need to have thought it through. The Black Bloc spends more time attempting to destroy movements than they do attacking those in power. They hate the left more than they hate capitalists…Their thinking is not only nonstrategic, but actively opposed to strategy [emphasis added]. They are unwilling to think critically about whether one is acting appropriately in the moment. I have no problem with someone violating boundaries [when] that violation is the smart, appropriate thing to do. I have a huge problem with people violating boundaries for the sake of violating boundaries. It is a lot easier to pick up a rock and throw it through the nearest window than it is to organize, or at least figure out which window you.”


Let Us Not Yawn Over Medicare for All

I am aware, of course, that most Occupy Movement participants are NOT exhibitionistic “flag burners.” The American flag has been proudly displayed at Occupy sites across the country and most Oakland Occupy members opposed the predictably over-hyped flag burn. Hedges’ hated Black Bloc is not even remotely representative of the Occupy Movement as a whole.

At the same time, I think that Occupy has struggled at a less provocative level with problems related to the tension between “expressivism” and “strategicism.” Last winter I was told by one neo-Yippie Occupier that all serious locals wanting to move forward in progressive change should come and express their alienation by living full time with him and his dwindling number of comrades at an Occupy site in a cold and dirty city park. When I objected that everyday working people had jobs and rents and mortgages and food bills and more to pay he informed me that people only work in order “to pay taxes to support the imperial war machine!”

I have repeatedly beheld the spectacle of a supposedly Marxist-Lenninist union and Occupy activist who shows up at local and regional left meetings and demonstrations with no other apparent purpose other than to express his venomous hatred of “labor bosses” and Democrats. He takes his opportunity to utter contempt and call for a new revolutionary labor politics and then splits, feeling purged. It’s all basically therapy for him as far I can tell.

And I have seen working class people become visibly and vocally turned off by Occupy General Assemblies that seemed dedicated more than anything else to letting young white middle class adults express themselves for an exhausting length of time around arcane matters and through a cumbersome process while the problem of what “the movement” was for in social policy terms was ignored and relegated to some mysterious “demands” committee scheduled to meet during a future working day.

Which brings me to an important essay by the left-Marxist activist Shamus Cooke that ZNet published nearly three months ago. Let me take the liberty of pasting in an extended quotation from this essay, which observed the curious coldness of some Occupy activists towards the advocacy of policy changes that would significantly improve the lives of millions of American working and poor people:

“Many Occupiers have expressed a valid concern over the Obama campaign attempting to hijack the Occupy movement. To avoid this pitfall some Occupiers advocate more radical methods, ideas and strategies. But sometimes these tactics create new problems. While swerving safely left of the Democrats’ grasp, some Occupiers have overreached and exited the orbit of most working people, who would otherwise naturally gravitate to the Occupy movement. Some Occupiers dismiss this new worry, viewing the Occupy movement as an unstoppable social movement.”  

”This raises the question: is Occupy a real social movement or one still struggling to be born? The answer to this question helps determine what strategy the Occupy movement should take, what demands it should fight for and the level of confrontation of its actions. If you believe that the Occupy movement is still struggling for a mass base, as this writer does, then you'll likely agree that Occupy needs to immediately focus on broadening its base and wage militant struggles for demands that will bring in the wider working class community.”  

”Such a campaign may not at first appear as radical as some Occupy actions, and will likely draw accusations of ‘reformism.’ Some ‘reformist’ demands might include: a massive public Jobs program, Save Social Security and Medicare, End the Wars, Tax the Rich and Corporations, Medicare for All, etc….…these demands are more radical than the Democrats can stomach, but make some Occupiers yawn. The irony is that only a truly mass movement of working people has the potential to achieve the various demands of the Occupy movement. And only a militant campaign fighting for these immediate demands has the real mass, revolutionary potential of organizing working people into a cohesive unit. But an Occupy movement that ignores these popular demands and fails to unite the vast majority — and instead fights for more radical demands that are now only embraced by a relative few — has no real revolutionary potential, since it ignores the basic needs of the majority of working people.”


Here Cooke was talking not so much about expressivism as about the related problem of hyper- and infantile-radicalism – the desire of some Occupy activists to magically leap across immediate demands and go straight to such things as workers’ control and direct democracy in politics and society…to a world turned upside down. Clearly though, Cooke was (I think correctly) criticizing the absence of common-sense strategicism on the part of those activists – their unfortunate indifference (“these demands make some Occupiers yawn”) to the question of how to form lasting connections with working class people around specific demands that would matter a great deal for – and find widespread support from – real working and lower-class Americans: single payer health insurance (real national health reform), proper and sound funding of the federal public pension and old age insurance system, a real peace dividend, true progressive taxation, and a major public jobs program, and (Cooke might have added  the re-legalization of union organizing [through the Employee Free Choice Act], a massive public housing and housing assistance program. significantly increased funding of education, family cash public assistance, real world job training, serious environmental programs and…the list goes on). Serious radicals start with everyday people where they really are, in their real situations, not from some elevated know-it-all position of supposed superiority to ordinary folks’ actual experience and needs in the present moment. After all, most people confront capitalism, sexism, racism, and imperialism not as abstract formulations in an academic seminar but through concrete and immediate daily manifestations and experiences– the abusive supervisor, the speeded-up assembly line, the closed-down assembly-line, exposure to toxic chemicals in workplace or neighborhood, the turned-down request for a desperately needed raise, the unaffordable mortgage payment, the extreme health insurance cost,  overly long working hours, exaggerated credit card late-payment fees, oppressive student loan, the realization that one cannot afford college, the college degree that brings no job offer,  the layoff notice, the inability to pay for the fixing of one’s furnace or car or roof (or….) , the call up notice for the third tour of “duty” in Afghanistan, the prosthetic fitting to replace the leg lost to an Iraqi IED, the car insurance that can’t be paid, the police who swamp your neighborhood looking for drug convictions, the federal agents who sweep your workplace to monitor citizenship, the employment application that asks if you have a felony record, the boss who calls you “sweetie,” the choice between working and taking care of your young children, the under-qualified male who gets unfairly promoted before you, etc. (the list goes on). Most people would welcome policy changes and fighting organization designed to alleviate their difficulties endured through these and other sorts of unpleasant experiences rooted in systemic oppression.


Some modern-day “radicals” could take a lesson from Depression-era Communist union organizers, who knew to dwell on specific issues and grievances rather than ideology and expression. As one brilliant Left sparkplug militant from that period recalled in an oral history interview, more experienced Communists “referred to how the Russians did it. First you fight for the hot water for tea, then you right for the tea for hot water, then you fight for sugar for the tea….”

Ultimately, of course, the fight is, yes, for a new and different kind of genuinely democratic and participatory society. That fight requires a mass base won through dedicated work on issues and needs that matter to millions of everyday people, needs that ultimately cannot be meaningfully addressed or reliably and durably met under the rule of the profits system.

God knows we need to turn the world upside down – to take our society, government, politics, land, space, cities and culture back from the wealthy 1% masters. We need to do it as soon as possible, while there’s a still a livable planet worth inhabiting and inheriting. We do need to make a revolution. But there’s no revolutionary movement without wide popular support base and we will not cultivate that support by engaging in (or apologizing for) juvenile exhibitionist confrontational-ism, transgressive expressivism, and pseudo-radical hyper-radicalism. And we cannot mobilize masses of workers and citizens with excessively abstract demands that do not connect with the real needs and lived experience of working class Americans. That’s the way it is and it’s not my fault.

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