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Resisting the System or a Symptom: Movement building over electoral politics

March 10, 2017

It has been a few months now since the November election and we have witnessed a tremendous amount of activity centered around opposing the person of Donald Trump.

The opposition to the new president is refreshing in some ways, but this is a pattern amongst liberal and progressive circles. Liberals and progressives tend to get activated when their party is not in power.

We are seeing this same dynamic in West Michigan with lots of marches and increased attendance at public meetings held by local members of Congress. Again, seeing people become more engaged is refreshing, but to what end? What does all this activism mean and what will it do to dismantled systems of power?

Tomorrow, there will be an event entitled Surviving the Trump Apocalypse, hosted by One Michigan Alliance and David LaGrand. One Michigan Alliance is a Democratic Party front group and David LaGrand is a Democratic politician. The agenda for the day, and the strategy of the organizers, is as follows: 

  • Canvassing Door-to-Door and Volunteering for Campaigns
  • Indivisible Resistance Tactics
  • How to Become a Candidate Yourself (or help a friend)
  • Legislative Update and the Year Ahead with Representative David LaGrand and others

The strategy, as evidenced by the agenda, is purely centered around electoral politics or what Noam Chomsky refers to as the quadrennial strategy. Every four year (or two if you prefer) a tremendous amount of energy and money is expended on trying to get politicians and political parties elected. So lets look at how the electoral system works and if that has really furthered our ability to resist systems of oppression.

Elections have always been influenced by centers of power and money. As the first Chief Justice of the United States, John Jay always said, “those who own the country, ought to govern it.”

More specifically, we know that billions of dollars are spent every four years on elections, which is itself a system that has been designed to keep power in the hands of those who own the country. It’s not that the electoral college is flawed or the delegate system is flawed or even the how Presidential debates are flawed. But the fact is, they are not flawed, because the electoral system was designed this way.

Look at the trajectory of partisan politics since the last great American period of revolutionary movements, between the 1950s and the mid-1970s. Since then all politics has shifted further to the right, regards of what political party we are talking about. The reason why it has shift is because there has not been enough popular resistance to this shift, especially since most of our energy has been spent on getting “our people” elected.

This is a failed strategy, a losing strategy and a strategy that will not promote an end to systems of oppression or create collective liberation.

The way we resist, the way we build grassroots power, the way we practice liberation is not by appealing to politicians or those in power. We create power and practice liberation when we practice collective. autonomous movements for radical social change. This has always been the case. The abolitionist movement was not about appealing to politicians, it was a movement of slaves engaging in self-emancipation. The resistance to slavery and white supremacy took on the form of people who were enslaved killing their masters, revolting, uprising and creating the underground railroad because those enslaved were not going to wait for politicians to decide their fate.

The labor movement, especially from the 1870s through the 1940s, was a movement that sought to democratize the workplace, by giving workers power to determine the conditions of which they wanted to work in. Some of these unions, not all, also believed that capitalism needed to be overthrown and replaced with a different kind of economic system.

The same can be said about so many other movements throughout US history. They didn’t bother to appeal to those in power, they took matters into their own hands. These movements made demands of those in power and made damn well sure their were consequences.

If we are serious about resistance, why would we want to keep perpetuating the same kind of systems that we know do not lead to greater freedom, equality and justice? Look at the difference between those who fight systems of oppression compared to those who put their energy into electoral politics.

Resisting Systems of Oppression:

  • Black people resistance police brutality, the prison industrial complex and neo-liberal capitalism = Black Lives Matter
  • Communities of Color fighting the arrest, detention and deportation of immigrants and white supremacy = Immigrant Justice Movement
  • Indigenous people fighting against pipelines and fracking are fighting for environmental justice and climate justice = Standing Rock and Idol No More
  • Communities in resistance around the world fighting US imperialism and war = The Zapatistas, Palestinians, the Arab Spring, the Landless People’s Movement in Brazil and Via Campesina – just to name a few.

We are in desperate need of having a political vision that thinks way beyond electoral politics. We need to develop strategies from liberation movements from around the world and within the US, like the ones we just mentioned. We need to stopped settling for the lesser of evils or as political writer Paul Street names it, the more effective evil. We need to stop thinking about trying so damn hard to be pragmatic and start practicing liberation collectively.

Lets us listen to the words of the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass, someone who knew a few things about collective liberation and direct action:

Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reform. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of earnest struggle. The conflict has been exciting, agitating, all-absorbing, and for the time being, putting all other tumults to silence. It must do this or it does nothing. If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation are men who want crops without plowing up the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters.

This struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, and it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.

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