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In Praise of Riotous Assembly

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

The sixties are back – or so one might think, looking at electoral politics in the United States today.

The November election is shaping up to be a replay of the election of 1964 – with Donald Trump standing in for Barry Goldwater, and Hillary Clinton in the role of LBJ.

Hillary will trounce bogeyman Donald, just as surely as Johnson trounced Goldwater, the bogeyman of his day, and will then, like Johnson, go on to pour oil onto the flames of pointless wars already in progress. Before long, she will be as reviled as Johnson became a year or two after his landslide victory.

The difference is that Hillary won’t also have accomplishments like Johnson’s that might someday cause people to judge her less harshly. To the contrary, like her husband, she will do her best to undo much of what LBJ’s Great Society – and the New and Fair Deals – achieved; and she will be reviled for that too.

This will therefore be one time where Marx got it wrong: history is repeating itself, but not first as tragedy, then as farce.   Under the next President Clinton, the second time will be a tragedy as well – this time, unalloyed.

Meanwhile, in Cleveland and Philadelphia, expect a replay of Chicago, summer of 68. Those days of riotous assembly, with “the whole world … watching,” are back.

Civil liberties have eroded a lot in the past half-century, especially after 9/11. The authorities now have quasi-legal ways of placing entire cities in lockdown.

With the Republican convention only days away, we will know soon enough what hell the feds, and the Forces of Order in “the rock and roll capital of the world,” will impose upon demonstrators and ordinary Clevelanders.

Whatever they do, Hispanic protesters and Black Lives Matter militants will be hit the hardest – on general principles, and because the police have them in their sights.

But the authorities will not prevail; not entirely. They may turn large swathes of Cleveland into occupied territory, but they will not be able to pacify all the demonstrators in the streets.   Neither will they be able to force all the so-called conservatives inside the (aptly named) Quicken Loans Arena to get along.

Smashing black and brown heads is one thing, but delegates to Republican conventions are protected by white skin privilege, and also by the deference that police customarily accord to the rich and heinous.

The party’s libertarians and theocrats and, of course, the well-heeled, upstanding country club set that used to call the shots in the GOP will be up in arms – figuratively, of course. Or literally, if Second Amendment absolutists get their way.

It is, after all, their party that Trump is trashing, and they hate him for it – even if, beneath his “populist” exterior, he is their ideological soul mate and class brother.

The riotous assembly about to take place by the shores of Lake Erie will therefore be wondrous to behold – as the Forces of Light outside the arena and the Forces of Darkness within dish out the Grand Old Party’s due.

Corporate media will do its part too – anomalously. Normally, when there are demonstrations for peace or justice or ecological sanity, they favor the wrong side, ignoring the demonstrators as best they can and maligning them whenever they cannot. Working journalists who know better have no choice but to opt out or play along; institutional factors force even the most enlightened among them to defer to power and support the status quo.

In this case, though, media bosses hate Trump as much as anyone. His campaign has upped their ratings and therefore their revenues, but the last thing they want is for him to become President of the United States. Expect them, therefore to have their minions plead piously for civility and order, while surreptitiously, but effectively, encouraging the havoc underway.

As long as all, or nearly all, the bad that happens is perceived to be the fault of pro-Trump hooligans, it will all work out; and, for once, the tactics of the good guys will not become the issue. The last thing media moguls and those who work for them want is deflect attention away from the anti-Trump message they will be promoting.

It could all turn ugly, of course, if anti-Trump demonstrators sink to the level of their opponents. Then they could blow the good press that would otherwise come their way. But if they maintain the high ground, they will find themselves supported to the hilt, no matter how implacably militant and principled they may be.

The lesson is therefore clear: let Trump’s backers be the ones to do Trump in. Don’t get in their way!

As their loathsomeness registers in America’s collective consciousness, it will become plain, even to doubters, that the billionaire buffoon has no chance whatsoever of winning in November; that he is too sleazy and divisive and that, for a President, he is, like his delegates in Cleveland, too over-the-top uncouth.

To the extent this reduces anti-Trump hysteria, it will be a welcome development — not so much for diminishing the likelihood of a Trump victory, there is no chance of that, but for making it easier psychologically for liberal worrywarts to free themselves from the disabling thought that they need to rally around the lesser evil.

***

To those worrywarts and many others as well, it seems obvious that Hillary is the lesser evil. Perhaps she is, but in view of her ineptitude, her fondness for all things military, her recklessness, and the fact that Trump outflanks her from the left on many issues, this is far from obvious. What is obvious is that both she and Trump are patently unacceptable choices.

Of the two, though, she is the more dangerous – because she is bound to win, while he is bound to suffer an even more ignominious defeat than Barry Goldwater did fifty-two years ago.

This is why what happens at the Democratic convention is more important than anything that is likely to take place in Cleveland.

Implacable militance and principled dignity will count for something in Philadelphia too. But if ever there was a time to err on the side of riotous assembly, this is it.

Nearly half of the pledged delegates coming to the convention will be there because of Sanders’ successes in the primaries and caucuses. Like the people who elected them, they loathe Clinton. Her dedication to neoliberal economic policies is high on the list of reasons why.

It also doesn’t help her standing with Sanders’ supporters that Clinton is a diehard neocon-inflected “humanitarian” intervener, and an inveterate warmonger. Sanders, to his shame, hardly touched on these matters in his campaign, but his supporters, most of them anyway, are and always have been way ahead of him.

Even so, and even if the Bernie delegates do the right thing, Hillary will win; and the consequences will indeed be tragic. In a different way, though, had Sanders somehow come out on top, we would be looking at a tragedy too.

Were he the nominee, he would go on to defeat Trump more handily than Hillary will; all the polls agree on that. But then the entire ruling class would close ranks against him. Who knows what harm would then ensue.

Barack Obama has had to put up with a lot of obstructionism, but nothing like what Sanders would face.

For the most part, economic elites have actually supported Obama — as well they should, given their interests and his politics. Vehement opposition has come only from contemporary versions of the “economic royalists” that Franklin Roosevelt inveighed against.

But even this was enough to render governance in the Age of Obama all but impossible.

And that was with a mainstream, rather milquetoast, Clinton Democrat at the helm. Imagine what a “democratic socialist” – or rather a twenty-first century version of a New Deal liberal — would be up against!

This is why, if Bernie’s delegates in Philadelphia would stand united against the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee, they could change the world for the better more assuredly than Sanders could have, had he trounced Hillary in the primaries and therefore Trump in the general election.

Unlike a Sanders presidency in the conditions that now obtain, the movement that the Sanders’ campaign initiated could change the world. Conditions are right now, in ways that they have not been for many years; and Hillary’s lethal fumbling, once she moves back into the White House, will make them righter still.

Of course, it would help in the short run if Bernie were to lead the way. But although he sends out mixed signals from time to time, this has always been unlikely; it is more unlikely than ever now. Even in the short run, though, his delegates and the millions of people who voted for him in the primaries and caucuses can make due without him. In the long run, he hardly matters at all.

On the other hand, what happens later this month in Philadelphia could matter a lot.

Sanders’ delegates inside the Convention Hall, and the demonstrators cordoned off outside, must make it as clear as they can that policies that diminish democracy and increase inequality, and that encourage environmental degradation and war, are no longer acceptable.

And they must tell the world that, like war (and for much the same reasons), Hillary is not the answer.

Riotous assembly can help with that. Civility be damned; and party loyalty be damned twice over!

Of course, in this case too, there is a chance that if events were to take a violent turn, it could all backfire.

Beware, therefore, of provacateurs; Crooked Hillary and her people are not beyond resorting to them.

How ironic, that Crooked Donald – a crony capitalist with well-documented mob connections, who got where he is through political juice — would invent that name for her. But also how spot on the designation is.

It’s a risky business, but the need is plain: lesser evilists need to be made to understand that Clintonism shall not pass. And the faux progressives currently jumping aboard the Hillary bandwagon need to be taught a lesson.

Word now is that early next week Bernie Sanders will be joining their ranks, lowering himself to the level of the likes of Bill de Blasio, Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, and Jerry Brown, along with other, less prominent, Progressive, African American, and Hispanic Caucus members in Congress, and their counterparts in state and local governments.   If there were a God in heaven, they would all rot in hell.

Well, maybe not Bernie. After all, he did demonstrate that you don’t need billionaire backing and corporate media support to run a presidential campaign, and that you can utter the s-word, “socialism,” and still be taken seriously.

He also deserves a get-out-of-hell free card just for getting this latest phase of resistance going. He did other good things too; for instance, he didn’t, like Hillary, obsequiously kowtow to the Israel lobby when AIPAC came calling.

Screen Shot 2016-03-17 at 5.07.13 PM

God works in mysterious ways, but, for these reasons and others like them, He (or She) should just let future historians, not Saint Peter, decide Bernie’s fate. If he does indeed acquiesce, the fact that he could have become a true American hero, but chose instead to endorse Hillary Clinton, will be punishment enough.

No doubt, many, maybe most, liberals – and “democratic socialists” – who end up backing the Queen of Chaos and Empress of Ineptitude mean well. But they should nevertheless be held to account. The world doesn’t need “progressives” like them. What it needs is a genuine left revival – a new, new left. Unless Hillary is dumped or otherwise stymied, that need will become even more acute over the next four or eight years.

The original “new left” emerged in the sixties too – largely in reaction to political conditions that no longer exist. But the ideological, cultural and organizational need for a genuine alternative to the capitalist order – for a theory and practice dedicated to advancing real liberty, equality, and fraternity (social solidarity) – is, if anything, even more urgent now than it was then.

The final decades of the twentieth century were not kind to left political formations – new, old, or otherwise. This was perhaps the greatest tragedy of all. If and when a new new left emerges, in response to the god-awful politics of our time, it must not end in yet more tragedy or, worse still, in farce. The stakes are too high.

A new new left and today’s Clintonized Democratic Party have nothing in common. The Democratic Party of the Kennedy-Johnson era, though wedded to America’s imperial project and to the Cold War, was not nearly as bad.

That it was not beyond redemption became clear in 1972, when the Democrats nominated George McGovern for President.

That all went south as the seventies wore on, partly thanks to Richard Nixon’s dirty tricks, and partly because the anti-war movement went missing after Nixon ended the draft and effectively turned the ground war in Southeast Asia over to Vietnamese proxies.

American politicians learned a lesson from Tricky Dicky’s machinations; Barack Obama most of all. His way of waging wars throughout the Muslim world is essentially the Nixon way, applied more lightly (with drones partly replacing bombs), but more broadly – not just in and around Vietnam, but over large swathes of Africa and Asia and in Muslim regions of Europe too.

The Democratic Party was also affected by the ways that capitalism was changing, some thirty years after the end of World War II. For reasons that were at least partly political, it was entering a phase that, by the end of the seventies, made the work of neoliberal political entrepreneurs, like Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, easier; and social progress harder than it had been since the end of the Second World War.

Even so, the flame that the McGovern campaign ignited continued to smolder for another decade or so – before the Clintons and other “New Democrats” killed it off.

Thanks to them, today’s Democratic Party is a lost cause. If all the people feeling the Bern couldn’t save it, nothing can.

But although it cannot be redeemed, it can be pillaged; and its parts put to use.

Riotous assembly in Philadelphia later this month could advance that project – especially if it leads large numbers of unhappy Democrats to break free from the duopolistic political culture that America has been suffering under for so long.

With Republicans hell bent on destroying themselves, there is no need, even for ardent lesser evilists in so-called battleground states, to pile on votes for Hillary. It is only Electoral College votes that matter; and, with Trump heading the Republican ticket, Hillary has nearly all of them already sewn up.

There is, however, an urgent need to defeat what she stands for. Clintonism — neoliberalism, liberal imperialism, militarism — is the menace of our time.

Rightwing “populism” is a menace too, of course; along with nationalism, proto-fascism and religious zealotry.

But, to save their own sorry behinds, neoliberal politicians and the talking heads that function as their epigones have lately been doing all they can to exaggerate the likelihood that these menaces, and others like them, will come to fruition if voters stray from the established practices of the old regime. The anti-Trump hysteria that Hillary’s people are currently stirring up is a case in point.

They have even managed to enlist the Brexit vote in the UK as an argument for rallying around the Queen of Chaos – as if that were all about nativism, racism and Islamophobia, and not about the democracy-stifling institutions that Europe’s economic and political elites, encouraged by the stewards of the American empire, have concocted to benefit themselves.

An unruly convention this month in Philadelphia, coming on the heels of the impending maelstrom in Cleveland, will provide opportunities for advancing the struggle against Clintonism, and for showing what will need to be done in the months and years ahead.

To that end, unruliness would be good, riotous assembly (so long as it does not become self-defeating) would be better, and exit would be best of all.

Bernie’s delegates have a choice: they can make history or they can give in to everything they justifiably oppose. This is a no-brainer, and in a better possible world that would suffice. But in American politics these days, obviousness guarantees nothing.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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