Collective Action Over Cancelling: Why We Must Look to One Another and Not Politicians
Hot takes aren’t my thing. I understand why they are A thing, though. We’ve had several decades now with a 24-hour news cycle — and we’ve also assimilated the always-on outrage machine that is social media. As a result, for a political writer, it takes restraint and the ability to ignore a persistent, but false feeling of missed opportunity to hold back and spend some time thinking before penning a reaction to the day’s events. I try to consider it as a music lover. I’ve learned over time that when you get an artist’s latest release, you’ll do yourself and the music enormous disservice by deciding what you think about it on first listen. You’ve got to let it sink in over many listens before coming to any conclusions about its quality.
But now it’s been a good week or more since some things went down in the world of empire-driven politics and I think we should talk about them. A lot of progressives were agitated when, in the midst of the current U.S. attempt to topple yet another foreign government, this time in Venezuela, two high-profile left-leaning politicians issued statements via social media that seemed to echo and accept disingenuous establishment framing of the situation there.
Of course, I’m talking about Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders.
On the part of Ocasio-Cortez, she decided to use her popular Instagram cooking time to offer the following obfuscation about the manufactured Venezuelan crisis:
And presidential hopeful and social democratic scion Bernie Sanders issued this double-speaking statement via Twitter, implying that Maduro isn’t letting aid into the country (untrue) while also omitting that the crisis has been purposefully created by the U.S., Canada and the UK:
Progressive social media denizens were predictably pissed off. In a certain respect, this is encouraging. It tells me that at least some folks have ditched corporate media and have been following the on-the-ground work of Abby Martin on The Empire Files, Rania Khalek at In the Now, Max Blumenthal and crew from The Grayzone, and the work at Venezuela Analysis — perhaps even some of the stuff at The Ghion Journal.
There are an increasing number of people who are aware that, whatever the shortcomings of the Maduro administration (of which most Americans know next to nothing), it was elected in a fair-and-square election and is no more or less authoritarian than many governments in South America. With that as a backdrop, there was much talk of disappointment and that ever-so-cute Twitter kiss-off, “cancelling” of AOC and Bernie because of their perceived capitulations to establishment empire framing.
Now that some time has passed and I’ve given it real thought, I’m neither surprised nor disappointed at either of them. And this is where my piece really begins. Let’s talk about why, with three main points.
The U.S. has spent the majority of its short 243-year existence building itself into not just a world power, but an empire. First it took most of the North American continent, then the hemisphere and, after WWII, a good portion of the world. And that empire didn’t construct itself through the agency of the U.S. government alone. It happened with the partnership of an increasingly international assortment of private corporations and wealthy individuals.
Slow down for just a minute and really consider all of the interlocking forces that make the post-WWII U.S. empire function.
You’ve got the Pentagon (plus its surveillance apparatus, the NSA) and all of the corporations that siphon money from it across the technology, real estate, electronics, armaments, aviation, university, construction, energy and agricultural industries. You’ve got the CIA and its supporting institutions that include think tanks, media organizations, USAID, consulting firms, law firms and beyond. You’ve got the U.S. State Department, with its various aid and “democracy promotion” organizations.
You’ve got global financial institutions such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund. Then there are the powerful international corporations that operate in finance, mining, oil and manufacturing. Add the wealthy donors, both national and international (including foreign countries), who sit atop these industries and fund major foundations, human rights groups, Congress, and even work inside the U.S. government. And don’t forget the important storytellers who rely on government and corporate funding for their existence. Here, we’re talking about large media organizations, publishing houses and Hollywood. Their narratives help keep the system lubricated and the general population either distracted or supportive of whatever atrocities the empire deems necessary.
Taken together, all of these groups flow into one another in near inextricable symbiotic relationships. If you’re a fan of the old Star Trek: The Next Generation show from the 80s and 90s, what I’ve just described is the Borg. Some call it the Blob. It is not individual. It is an it. And it is, like Sauron’s eye, always conscious and always watching. It is much more powerful than any handful of progressive politicians could ever hope to be.
Empires that are driven by the desire for both power and profit can never rest. They must always be expanding. In fact, most of the capital that feeds the system comes from outside the empire’s host country, whose resources are already in full use. Constant expansion requires that the empire refuse to respect the sovereignty of any other nation, so their resources can be appropriated and fed to the Blob. This ability to take from other cultures is, in fact, absolutely necessary for the health of the empire and all who benefit from it.
With that in mind, let me ask you this. How many truly anti-empire politicians at the federal level can you name? Start from the 80s and go up to the present. Who have you got? Don’t worry, I’ll wait.
Whatever list you come up with will be very short, if not blank. Because any little politician who stands in the way of what the empire wants will quickly have Sauron’s unsleeping eye upon them — and even a small portion of the empire’s power can be used to destroy a politician who persists in obstructing its unceasing objectives. At The Ghion Journal, where I often publish, co-founder Teodrose Fikre has written at length about how, during the Bush years, the anti-empire member of Congress, Cynthia McKinney was easily drummed out of that body — first, through media blackouts and attacks, then a primary challenge and later through the chicanery of redistricting.
Politicians like Bernie Sanders are acutely aware of this fact. Even novice politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez get it. So they make a bargain with the empire:
“Let me try to fight the oligarchy domestically and I’ll pay the proper fealty to what the empire does elsewhere. Once I have more power, maybe I can pull back the Blob. But right now, if I want to hold my corner, I have to kiss the ring.”
Due to her ambitions, it will likely be the same for Ocasio-Cortez. And let us watch what befalls politicians like Ilhan Omar and Tulsi Gabbard, who have yet to yield fully to the empire’s priorities. Don’t misunderstand me. I’m not mad at Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez. I don’t want to cancel them. Generally speaking, politicians are not, and never have been, courageous people. I don’t expect them to be. They are not designed to be. So, where does change come from, then?
Here’s three, my last point and a happier one:
Politicians like Bernie Sanders, who, based on his pre-Senate work, well understands the pitiless, murderous, self-destructive nature of empire, misunderstand where their true power lies. It doesn’t sit with them in the halls of Congress.
Real transformative power has always flowed through the citizenry, when they unify and act collectively. When people get together across ideological, cultural, geographical, class and racial lines, even if the powers that be beat them and starve them and kill them and try to set them against one another, they are maddeningly effective.
Writers like Chris Hedges and the late Howard Zinn have done excellent work in excavating buried histories that reveal how the pressure from popular movements pushed reluctant politicians to stop child labor, create the New Deal and end the Vietnam War (or, the American War as the Vietnamese rightly call it). Within a powerful empire, the populace is the perennial wild card, the ever-present potential spanner in the works. Even during the 1980s, which many consider to be the true arrival of our atomization and isolation as citizens, as this Counterpunch piece details, collective action on a limited scale was sufficient to:
· End U.S. support for South African apartheid
· Push Reagan to nuclear rapprochement with the Soviet Union
· Force Congress to defund the empire’s attacks on Central American countries
These accomplishments are not insignificant and they occurred while Congress was populated, as it is now, by members who are deeply and happily embedded within the empire’s system of indoctrination, bribery and coercion. Just eight years ago, Occupy Wall Street demonstrated, with all of its flaws admitted and the ease of its dismantling recognized, the power of even limited collective action to change empire narratives.
All of the things I’ve just quickly described are our responsibility. There is no democracy without them. We cannot expect politicians to be courageous, though we can support them when they are. Our job, in essence, is to maintain a dual consciousness. One: support and elect politicians who are most likely to respond to popular movements. Two: scare the living daylights out of them once they’re in office. Scare them worse than the Pentagon, the NSA, the CIA and the media. That’s what movements — true non-sectional, unified movements — do.
What I’m saying here is don’t waste your time and energy getting mad and cancelling Bernie or Ocasio-Cortez. They are not the real problem and they are not the real solution. It’s always been us. It will always be us. Many, not one. It is the only way. Until we re-remember this truth, until we become courageous again, until we love each other again fiercely, the empire will continue to do what every empire has always done — push and push and push. Take and take and take. Kill and kill and kill and kill. Until it collapses under its own weight.
Mario Savio, the great free speech activist, already had it figured out in the 60s. Listen:
As always, thanks for reading.