Fight the Power, Become the Power…or Build the Power?

I’ve been thinking about writing this post for awhile, because in my writing over the last couple of weeks (and, for me, especially brought home by the “ego-trip” post I wrote last night), I’ve noticed a seeming contradiction between my stated values and my choice of topics, and I want to address it here.

So, I’m an anarchist. What that means is that I believe in nice things like grassroots participatory/direct democracy, cooperation, freedom, social justice, community-based sustainable living, and equality. Being for these things means that I’m also against the different forms of injustice and oppression that exist in this society of ours…things like sexism, racism, homophobia/heterosexism, transphobia, ableism, imperialism, ageism/adultism, religious oppression, and certainly also authoritarianism and capitalism…because–for my family members out there who might be reading this–in my view capitalism isn’t just a benign, freedom-loving economic system, it is system that doesn’t work for the majority of people, it corrupts all of us with anti-social consumerist and competitive values, and it is a leading force in the dismantling of our planet. Bueno, so far so good. So, yeah, I’m an anarchist (which to me could also be considered a mixture of feminist, socialist, libertarian, radical democrat, anti-racist, environmentalist…what-have you)…

…yet, for all my supposed anarchism, and for how much I talk up grassroots social movements and communities organizing to change things from the bottom-up, I have noticed (as have many friends) that I spend an awful lot of time talking about, writing about, and paying attention to “revolutionary” governments, elections, politicians like Chavez, Morales, Correa, now Menchu, etc. and not a lot of time talking about more bottom-up movements and projects.

So, this seems to be a contradiction. Could it be a rekindling of my old teenage obsession with old radical “heroes” like Mao and Ho Chi Minh and Lenin? Is it just more ego stuff playing out across my blog?

That would be the simple answer. But I don’t think it’s the correct one, and I want to explain why.

I spend A LOT of time thinking about the idea of revolution. Like, a lot of time. Like morning, noon, and night. And for me, what revolution means is a massive reordering of things…of ideas, of attitudes, of relationships, of social structures, sometimes even of physical space. This is what I want for our society, because I think our society is due for a massive restructuring. The old structures suck.

That said, I spend a lot of time thinking about how revolutionary folks like us are actually going to make a revolution…and as I see it, we have three basic strategies:

1) We can fight the power. We can protest, organize, sabotage, confront, rebel against the existing system and do what we can to destabilize it so that it comes crumbling down and then…and then…and then this is where this strategy gets us in trouble. Because once a system, a way of life, a certain ordering of things has collapsed, what do people do then? Who’s to say that things will be better after the system falls? Sweet, the power is off, the sewers are backed up, there are people looting in the streets, rape is rampant…no thanks. There is clearly a limit to this strategy. Certainly, if the powers that be are too strong we can’t win anything, and so trying to weaken them through resistance (of different forms, and I really, really hope that those forms can be peaceful…) is important…but this strategy only takes us so far, which brings us to…

2) We can become the power. We can work to get elected or we could even work to gather strength and take over power forcefully. We would then have control of the existing infrastructure more-or-less intact, and then we could begin to dismantle or reconstruct it without the chaos and destruction and possible violence of strategy #1. That is, with this strategy, especially in electoral form, a slow, peaceful revolution is possible, and it could even be voted along, as is happening in Venezuela. The problem, of course, is that power corrupts. Even more, the system is designed to sustain itself, and that means the rules of the system are designed to make real, meaningful change almost impossible, and so trying to change things within the system almost never works…because the system changes you first. This has been shown to be true with coups just as much as elections. Good thing there is a third option:

3) We can build the power. That is, from the bottom-up, we can try to build an alternative structure of communities and relationships right alongside the old structures, and we can feed those structures and help them grow, hopefully to a point where they are so well-organized, lively, beautiful, and influential that the old ways just don’t make sense anymore, and people jump ship to the new system we built. An analogy would be the development of the internet, and how it has influenced more and more people to watch less tv and read less traditional corporate media in favor of blogs, etc…

As for me, I’m a gung-ho #3 guy. For me, #3 is the backbone of the revolution. Like I explained above, I believe that #1 is necessary to keep the system in check and to fight against injustices on a day to day basis, but #3 remains the prize that I want to keep my eye on.  My heart is in building new kinds of power and social relationships, it’s just so compelling to me as a process and a project.
However–and this is where I am different from many other anarchists–I know that within any process where significant numbers of people are doing #1 or doing #3, there will always emerge people who want to take a shot at #2, people who think there is a shortcut to power, either through direct force or through the electoral path. (Chavez is a great example of this. He is an ex military man. He became radicalized in the military, in a context in which he was fighting guerrillas, and working in rural communities…and over time he decided to organize to take power. First, in 1992, he tried the forceful route, with a failed coup that made him into a popular hero. Then, in 1998 he tried again through the electoral route…and he won an astounding victory. Now we get to watch his journey through strategy #2 unfold, and we get to see whether change really comes from it or not…) These #2 people are inevitable, and whereas most #1 and #3 people write them off as sell-outs or would-be tyrants, I think that since they are inevitable, we ought to look at them as a necessary part of any strategic equation and, on a case by case basis, see whether they can help us or not. I don’t think it’s totally black/white.

So, right now, what I see happening in Latin America these days is that #1 and #3 social movements have gotten to such positions of strength (and on the other side of equation, the existing power structures have lost so much credibility) that #2 people have managed to step up and actually win power…in Brazil, Ecuador, Argentina, Chile (kind of), Uruguay, Bolivia, Nicaragua…almost in Mexico, and possibly this year in Guatemala. Most of these #2’s are opportunists, some are more genuine than that. In all cases, their power is built on the legacies and sacrifices of decades of #1 and #3 people. I don’t deny this and I don’t lose sight of this, at least in my head, when I write about them…

But having both seen the utter shit situation of Guatemala, as well as the immense oil-wealth and power of Venezuela, I believe that there is something very unique about the role that #2 people who manage to win power can play. With traditional state power come tremendous political compromises and contradictions, but at the same time, there come massive budgets (compared to just the average social movement), there is infrastructure, there is the logistical power of the military and the civil services…These are nothing to sneeze at.

Let’s make up one example: access to reproductive health services for young women. #1 people would go a protest route, and maybe they’d win some more funding for some clinics or a change in consciousness about how intersecting oppressions are limiting access. #3 people might start a neighborhood group or a non-profit clinic and they can make a difference in scores of womens’ lives. But, and I saw evidence of this in Venezuela, if Chavez just reads a book about young womens’ lives and decides that something needs to be done, he can throw his oil money down…and in 6 months there could be 500 neighborhood clinics with creative programs all over Venezuela…the resources at the disposal of radical governments (especially those awash in oil money!) are exponentially greater than the resources of us #1 and #3 people…

And that is essentially why these #2 folks like Chavez and Morales and Correa intrigue me so…Because they are getting shit done SO FAST…stuff that my friends and I could write or dream about, and maybe do in our own communities, but nothing at the scale of a radicalized state.

Does this mean that I’m now a #2 person? Not a chance. I believe that, in the end, #3 is still the backbone, and that is why I’m intrigued that Chavez seems to recognize this with his communal council and socialist party strategies. He’s trying to build bottom-up power through a top-down process…and that woefully backwards, but it is riveting to me as an experiment.

Frankly, though, Chavez is still alive and in power precisely because he has the support of the #1 and #3 people of his country, and there are masses of them. They united to bring him to power, they united to get him back after the 2002 coup, and he owes them everything. That is why he is such a unique phenomenon.

As for me and us in the United States, I don’t think the lesson that Venezuela has for us is that we should go the #2 electoral route, too. No, I think our game is way too rigged for that. Rather, I think it is far more important to look at what Morales and Correa and Chavez are doing and see how we can convert those into #3 lessons and strategies here…slower, but still effective, and preserving their moral center.

This is also where the lessons of Mexico’s Zapatista and Oaxacan rebels, Brazil’s landless workers movement and Argentina’s horizontalist movements are so, so important. They have doggedly pursued #3 strategies, and their movements are going a whole lot slower, but they still have their souls almost fully intact, and they have loads of lessons for us.

So, this is where I’m at. I write so much about Venezuela and stuff, honestly, because they are doing so much…they have the resources to generate change so fast, and so that generates news really fast, too. The movements in South Africa, Oaxaca, Chiapas, San Francisco, Canada, Georgia, and Seattle don’t have those resources, so the news cycle is, frankly, much slower. And so I write less about them. But believe me, when something catches my eye, I’ll write about it.

Also, just to think about, the Christian Right has definitely been pursuing a strong #3 strategy as well (once again, watch Jesus Camp), and they are hoping that pays off (and it is) in #2 victories for them. So let’s watch them closely, because they know what they are doing.

Hope this post makes sense to you…just wanted to explain some things.

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-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi