What is to be done?

A friend sends an email:

Many of the kids I spoke to at the demonstration are well beyond extending forgiveness to the Democratic Party leadership or directing their protest to more receptive members of the ruling class. The more conscious and sophisticated among them are clearly intent on organizing wider groups of people. That being said, it’s clear that the method of operation in the park is strongly influenced not only by a commitment to participatory democracy, but also to other, more idealized and romanticized notions of what, for lack of a better word, amounts to anarchism. Yet I say this not having spent at any one time more than a couple of hours at the site. And while it is my impression from afar that the current, global wave of decentralized dissent has run up against serious limits in places like Spain, I don’t really have enough concrete information to argue that perspective with certainty.

the decision of the unions to get involved and the broad sympathy with which many ordinary working-class New Yorkers have greeted the protest is something we should keep our eye on. The Wednesday march was, in my opinion, much more energetic than labor movement rallies of recent years for two reasons (and surely others I’ve failed to see). First, it included a substantial number of physically and emotionally energetic young people, but second, it was visionary: numerous demands for reforms were voiced and written a wide variety of posters, but so, too, were calls for the radical transformation of American society — and that apparently stirs people who are now ready to move on the basis of that possibility. Yes, we certainly need broad, realistic demands and more focused, savvy leadership, but we also need the “vision thing,” as someone on the other side once called it.

A few semi-random thoughts in response.

Clearly OWS must avoid the horrible dynamics of front group/sectarian organization or vanguard/masses which dominated the 20th century on the left. More than anything I’ve always viewed that legacy as a reflection of a pretty good “scientific” understanding of revolutionary dynamics derived from the Jacobin experience: simplistically, as the legitimacy of the state erodes, it can get pretty chaotic and tight organization and discipline will win over time. And I suppose the level of participation and democracy that remains after the revolutionary ebbtide is a function of the underlying intellectual and technical development of the society, and since we are not going to be dominated by peasants from Texas, that in itself is a reason for optimism.

However, the right’s hysterical screams about this last week (see Anne Coulter’s rant) about the inevitable road to dictatorship was not as crazy as it seemed. (Though in their case it reflects a guilty conscience in a “Takes one to know one” kind of way, along with the worry that they’ll lose much of the Tea Party mass base and with it a democratic veneer and be forced to stand naked with their true stripes for all to see.) And it’s certainly unsurprising how everyone left of center is orienting to OWS due to the leadership vacuum that has existed for the last several years; this exchange between Yves Smith and Krugman yesterday about elite hijacking of OWS is interesting in this regard and worth a read. For instance Van Jones risks being an agent of the existing order given his contacts and network within the Washington crowd, whatever the source of his motivation to “lead”. We could ourselves be agents of old thinking and be sent off to rectification camps (albeit with fresh mint tea, an MP3 player and a packed vegan lunch)

While us greyhairs may have wisdom to impart, we also have to stay humble and open to the possibilities of new thinking: as the saying goes, “funeral by funeral, theory advances”

I have no doubt that twitter and mobile computing are as transformative of politics as the printing press. If there isn’t one already, there will soon be an app for getting resolutions vetted and submitted followed by instant votes by cellphones. At that point things could get pretty interesting at a General Assembly. These could turn into councils of significant influence. With some growth and evolution, not so crazy to imagine that the GA’s in every town became a competing source of political legitimacy and authority. Many issues to overcome, but direct participatory democracy would return to the front burner. Do we need delegation of authority and responsibility? the experience of a lifetime suggests we do, but…

It’s early stages. I daresay we are all being hopeful and cautious and excited at the same time, but mostly tempered by the disappointments of 40 years. Still, without serious credit writedowns and a rebalancing between labor and capital, there will be no democratic solution to the global economy anytime soon. So even if this movement fades with the bitter winter winds, remember 1905. I suspect that the average age of the revolutionaries in 1776, 1789 or 1917 was likely 24.

Perhaps foolishly, I expect that soon a staggering burst of human creativity will be stepping onto the historical stage. And perhaps out of that will come another cycle of political structures, social arrangements and productive technologies. Perhaps.

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