Jan 25 2010

Andrej Grubacic on Organizing in the Age of Obama

| the entire program

Andrej GrubacicA new poll by USA Today and Gallup found that a majority of Americans want President Obama and the Democrats to suspend their work on the healthcare bill and consider alternatives being suggested by the Republican Party. With the late Senator Kennedy’s seat being lost to Republican Scott Brown in Massachusetts this week, the political landscape is looking grim for Democrats who just a year ago felt victoriously invulnerable. The tide of support for President Obama seems to have been replaced by a new wave of reactionary rightwing populism that is palpably shifting the electoral dynamic. Some see it as a pattern similar to what is seen when any Democrat sweeps into office after a particularly game-changing Republican. Others feel vindicated in organizing outside of the electoral system. But how do progressives learn to effectively organize? How do people in other parts of the world organize? Joining us to help answer such questions is radical historian Andrej Grubacic, a lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute, the Z Media Institute and until recently a Professor at the University of San Francisco. He is also the co-author with legendary activist and historian Staughton Lynd of the book Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. He is well known as an anarchist theorist, and is also the co-founder of Global Balkans network of Balkan anti-capitalists in diaspora.

GUEST: Andrej Grubacic, lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute, co-author of Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History

L.A. Anarchist Bookfair: Actions + Conversations + Intersections 2010 is happening this Sunday January 24th : 11AM-7PM at the Barnsdall Art Park 4800 Hollywood Blvd, Los Angeles, CA 90027.

Andrej Grubacic will speak on the author’s panel which is from 1-2 pm.

Rough Transcript:

SK: So, first, how do you as a theorist but also an activist, as somebody who has lived in the United States but is from another part of the world – how do you analyze this reactionary right-wing populism that we’re seeing in the United States today, just within a year of President Obama being elected?

AG: Well, I’m not surprised. I mean, I’m a member of the Industrial Workers of the World or the Wobblies. From 1905 to 1917, there was a tremendous effort of the Wobblies and the Socialist Party to organize people in rural Oklahoma and it was incredibly successful efforts. What Wobblies did was to organize so-called evangelical encampments, which was taken from religious evangelists, and they organized these beautiful encampments where people could come and they could learn political economy of Marxism, people’s history, different things and thousands of people would come. Only 1915, I think, there were 252 separate encampments. The idea was to go to rural Oklahoma, to leave Chicago, to leave New York, to leave all of these places, to leave L.A., to go to places like rural Oklahoma and to organize with people there and it was so successful that in 1917 you had a wonderful rebellion called the Green Cone Rebellion which was an interracial rebellion of 1500 native Americans, white people and African-Americans which was absolutely fantastic in rural Oklahoma – first time in United States history that anything like this happened. The thing is you need to go where people are, you need to embrace a form of critical populism, you need to meet people, you need to, in the words of Staughton Lynd and myself, you need to accompany people and you need to leave universities, you need to leave big cities, you need to go to places like Oklahoma, you need to talk to people who are asking very reasonable questions and the only answers that these people are getting are from the right-wing. You have this whole AM radio phenomenon, you have many different right-wing extremely successful grassroots networks, right-wing mobilizations. They’re absolutely splendid in terms of how they’re organizing. They’re using Sol Lewinsky’s methods. I mean they’re superb. But they’re doing exactly the thing that the left-wing movement is not doing in the United States – they’re approaching people, they’re going where people are and they’re trying to answer very interesting and, I think, very intelligent questions that people are posing: Who is really ruling this country? Why? Where is our money going? And so on and so forth. The only people willing to give them any kind of response are right-wing lunatics. But this is not the fault of the people. We should stop blaming the people. This is the fault of the left movement that is practically non-existent in the United States, which is absolutely stunning if you think that we now live in the midst of the probably worst crisis in the history of Capitalist system in the last 500 years. So, in this particular moment we don’t have any functional fighting left in the United States and that’s absolutely embarrassing.

SK: How do you explain organizing in the United States today, modern contemporary organizing? And put it in the context of how people are organizing in other parts of the world. You’ve had a lot of experience with and organized with the World Social Forums over the years and you’ve been into, met with the way in which progressive movements in other countries organized. Is the U.S. unique, if you will?

AG: The U.S. is very different. The U.S. is very specific. The U.S. was designed to be very specific by the founding fathers. The year when the United States capitalist republic was formed it was to create such a big, huge, vast space that it would be extremely difficult for the meddlesome outsiders, as they were called, to organize. So, the U.S. is very specific. There are also differences in political culture in the United States because the working class, oppositional culture, has been completely demolished in a very long class war that has been waged against the working class in the United States. Beautiful book has just been re-released, Louie Adamic (sp.) who is from the same country I am, from Yugoslavia, book called Dynamite: History of Class Violence in the United States, which captures this moment of destroying the working class culture which was astonishing back in the 20s. So, United States is very specific and organizing in the United States is very different. That doesn’t mean that we should embrace some kind of United States exceptionalism in terms of building a strong movement. I think that we should look, for example, at the Zapatistas in Mexico who are absolutely useful as an example of how to organize. We have a group of students in Mexico City, Ulam, who are leaving the world, beginning a massive sect, who leaves the university, goes to Lacondonian Jungle in Mexico, in Chiapas, and spends ten years learning from the indigenous, learning from the Indians, learning from the Mayans and they emerge as protagonists of this major revolution from the below that sends shocks all over the world and becomes a truly global uprising, if you will. So, there are ways of thinking about and looking at other movements. For me, the most interesting movement right now is the movement of indigenous people in South America, the Andean Confederation of Struggles in Bolivia and in other countries of South America, which is absolutely brilliant. Basically, they are direct democracy, self-organization, self-government, communal democracy and decolonialization and I think we should do the same thing in the United States.

SK: What do things like participatory democracy, which you’ve talked a lot about, participatory education, what do those things mean in a U.S. context where, it seems as though we are very much stuck in a particular way of doing things and the American mainstream can be rigidly fundamentalist, if you will, about things like representative democracy, republic vs. real democracy and participatory democracy could be something that most Americans would just sort of frown and say well I don’t even know what that is?

AG: I don’t too. I actually don’t know what participatory democracy is. Democracy is either participatory or it’s not a democracy. That’s one of the tricks that came out after the American Revolution. The idea was to create something that was called a democracy but it actually is a republic. We don’t have democratic forms of government in the United States, we have republican forms of government. So, democracy’s either direct or, as you would say, participatory democracy, or it isn’t a democracy. And the United States definitely is not a democracy. Whenever you have a situation like this that we have in the United States, parliamentary democracy, whenever we have a situation where the complete economic and political system is being owned by people who call themselves managers, owners, whatever their name is, whenever we live in a situation like this, we are not free and that is not a democracy. What democracy is? We need to look at Bolivia, we need to look at Mayan assemblies in Chiapas, we need to look at the past of the United States – beautiful movements! Like Haymarket Movement, the movement of Chicago anarchists, Industrial Workers of the World – IWW – and other movements and we are going to discover amazing glimpses of what democracy is or should be in those movements.

SK: So, how to go from there – from the U.S.’s past or from examples in Bolivia and Chiapas to this place that we need real democracy? Is it going to take left movements doing what the right is doing right now?

AG: Absolutely…

SK: …reclaiming, if you will, their own history?

AG: Absolutely. We need to recover the amazing history of United States left. Not too many countries have IWW, not too many countries have movements like this. We need to recover the strength of what Lynd and myself call the “Haymarket synthesis” of this libertarian socialist alternative to both state socialism and state capitalism that we live in. We need to create a movement that’s going to be rooted in a very wide strata of society and it’s going to be against both private and state institutions, repressive institutions – a truly revolutionary libertarian socialist movement and we can do this only – and this is why I began by mentioning Oklahoma – only by actually through this process of accompaniment, of accompanying people, of fighting, of being with people who are not usually in Berkeley, New York and other places, going to this place in-between, to the real, to the so-called “real America” between the two coasts and creating a truly revolutionary movement by approaching people, learning how to swim in the sea of the people, as German socialists used to say back in the day, all of these skills that we have forgotten in United States and we need to recover this.

SK: I’m speaking with Andrej Grubacic, radical historian, co-author with Staughton Lynd of the book, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History. He’s going to be speaking at Sunday’s L.A. Anarchist Book Fair, happening from 11 a.m. to 7 p.m. at Barnsdall Art Park, 4800 Hollywood Blvd. in L.A. Andrej’s on the author’s panel from 1 to 2 p.m.

Now, you talked about libertarian socialism. In the United States, there’s one fairly leading form of libertarianism which is libertarian capitalism and you’ll find that strain of libertarianism in a lot of the conservative movements, the so-called “tea party movements”. Not too many Americans are familiar with libertarian socialism. How do you explain that?

AG: Well, we used to joke that in Soviet Union it was electricity plus socialism. Libertarian socialism is socialism plus freedom and it’s an interesting strain of socialism that developed out of anarchism and different radical trends in Marxism, left-wing Marxism of Athol Pentacoch, the so-called council communism but also Luxembourg and many other protagonists of this particular kind of thought and it was suppressed by the Soviet Union and of course in the United States. But it was a powerful movement and I see Haymarket anarchists as one of the prime protagonists of this kind of political orientation. The basic idea is to replace the state and to replace the other mechanisms of control and repression to truly democratic organization of the workplace, of the community, to organize the industrial society along democratic lines and this has been done in history – in Spain in 1936 in Catalonia and before that in Italy and in Germany and there were many glimpses of possible society organized along libertarian socialist lines. So, it is something that is completely feasible, something that is very efficient and something that is truly the only alternative to this contemporary barbarism we’re living in.

SK: You know, part of the reason why the right-wing in the United States does have success is because they rely on people’s ignorance of American history, right? They rely on people’s ignorance of even the word “socialism” which they have helped to conjure up all sorts of misinterpretations of history – socialism they have equated to facism, if you listen to what they say! So, tell me, how does one counter – you know, you’re an academic – how do you counter this type of ignorance with the real history of what happened and how does one bring history back to the people, if you will?

AG: By stop being an academic. First of all, academic is an awful thing to be…

SK: I didn’t mean to insult you…

AG: You have succeeded. (Laughs.)

SK: (Laughs.) I’m sorry.

AG: No, academic, to work in the university should only be a way that one should make his or her living. The real thing, the real political and educational work happens outside of the universities. There has been a most unfortunate retreat to the universities after 1968 and we need to break this. We need to get the left and the left today in the United States is either concentrated in these idiotic sects that we have all over the place…

SK: …sectarianism…

AG: like (unintelligible), different Trotskyists, crazy political groups or in the universities and we need to get the left outside of the universities, outside of these crazy political parties and get to the people by creating local institutions, by participating in creating different immigrant centers, workers centers, popular education centers, different kinds of things that have been done in the United States not so far ago. I mean, SDS – that was the beginning of Students for Democratic Society – they would go to places like Youngstown or Cleveland and they would build different (unintelligible), different economic action research programs and centers and they would bring people together. The only movement that we need to be thinking of creating in the United States is an interracial movement which is based on the working class and this kind of movement can be made only through active interaction with people. And these are the same people that people are accusing of being fascist. I was actually having a debate recently on KPFA with a well-known leftist figure who told me that older people who are the tea party people and all of those people – there was some march in Washington or something, a big right-wing mobilization – that they’re all fascist. And I was completely shocked! First of all, I’m coming from a country that was a victim of fascism for 5 years – my father was born in a concentration camp. I know what fascism is. This is not fascism. Secondly, these people are, again, asking really good questions and there is no left wing to answer those questions. Of course the right wing is going to be there! So, we need to stop doing this. We need to go there and we need to start talking to the people.

SK: Well, they may not be fascists but there are many dangerous strains of racism and other sorts of reactionary politics in those movements. Let me ask you what you make of the Obama phenomenon, where one year into this interesting person’s presidency – I mean, the most interesting thing about him is his background. The thing that distinguishes him most from other presidents is where he came from. But the tide of people that organized to elect him have been characterized as a movement. How do you respond to that?

AG: Well, they were a sort of a movement. I was very optimistic about Obama because as somebody who is not from the United States, who is learning American history, it’s a tremendous civilizational effect…

SK: …you mean somebody whose father was an immigrant. I mean he is from the United States, he was born here…

AG: Yeah! It’s interesting. But, to understand American history through Obama is very interesting. And I think it’s a great thing that he was elected and I think there was some kind of a movement behind him, right? The problem is that we should not expect too much from presidents and we should not expect too much from movements that are created only in order to elect somebody to the presidency. The thing is to create a serious grassroots movement which is going to be anti-capitalist and which is going to be not focused only on Obama, not only on presidents. So, I do think it was a movement, but I agree with Noam Chomsky, for example, who said that it became more of a brand than a movement and, again, this is where the left is not participating. What the left should have been doing – and I don’t think that it’s too late – is to go and talk to these people who are involved in the Obama campaign and try to reason with them and try to see what kind of conversation can emerge out of this.

SK: Let’s talk a little bit about capitalism. Given that we’re in this economic recession, it seems as though even if the right may be asking the right questions, their answers aren’t necessarily alternatives to capitalism. Their answers are going back to a certain form of capitalism that they see as purer, etc. But, it seems as though there is this big vacuum, this space for the left to fill in real alternatives to capitalism. How is it that Americans are buying the right-wing’s questioning on the crisis of capitalism because they’re answering the crisis of capitalism with more capitalism?

AG: Mm-mm. Well, it’s a good question and it’s probably impossible to answer why are Americans not socialists, as somebody asked in the beginning of the century. But the thing is capitalism in and of itself is a completely irrational system. Globally speaking, capitalism is a global system from its inception in the 15th or 16th century. Capitalism is a completely irrational system predicated on the endless accumulation of profits. What we have today is inability of capitalism and capitalists who accrue profit in this way. So, I think there’s going to be a huge reorganization of the system. I actually believe and I agree with Immanuel Wallerstein and other economists and sociologists who believe that this is the end of capitalism as we know it. This is the end of historical capitalism. A new system will emerge and what kind of system it’s going to be depends on us. I think the capitalist class, the ruling class has its own plans and they’re trying to develop a new kind of system. Could be some kind of corporate fascism, could be some kind of neo-feudal system, it could be something much worse than capitalism. Or it could be something far better but that really depends on us. I think that it’s really a crucial time right now because it is a time of crisis, time when we need to decide what kind of society we’re going to live in, either capitalist society that’s going to become increasingly worse and it’s going to become something else or a society built on leftist, democratic positive values which, I believe, can be only a libertarian, socialist society.

SK: Finally, Andrej Grubacic, do you see any glimmers of hope in American left movements, any emerging groups of young people organizing that you think are promising and that you think might be going in the right direction that could seize this moment?

AG: Absolutely. I see a group called SEASOL – Seattle Solidarity Network – an extremely interesting group. These are the people who organize and who defend people who lose their homes, who lose their jobs. I see Wobblie, IWW Starbucks campaign as an example of fantastic solidarity unionism that’s bringing a lot of people back to the union. I see anarchists in North Carolina doing excellent work with immigrants. There are many, many exciting examples. The thing is that these examples are mostly unknown and they’re uncoordinated so we need to find a way of making them visible, putting them in touch with each other, of networking them and, again, creating a movement. The thing that we need to do right now, the crucial, the most dominant questions and challenge before us is to create a serious, social movement in the United States that’s not going to be party-based, that’s not going to be dominated by NGOs, but it’s going to be controlled and led by working-class people.

SK: Andrej Grubacic, I want to thank you very much for joining us today.

AG: Thank you.

SK: Andrej Grubacic, radical historian and, until recently, a professor at the University of San Francisco. He’s currently a lecturer at the San Francisco Art Institute. He is the co-author with Staughton Lynd of the book, Wobblies and Zapatistas: Conversations on Anarchism, Marxism and Radical History.

Special Thanks to Julie Svendsen for transcribing this interview

4 responses so far

4 Responses to “Andrej Grubacic on Organizing in the Age of Obama”

  1. JustJackon 22 Jan 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Interesting segment. Lost a little credibility when he claimed the teabaggers weren’t fascist & that there is no Left talking to the very real questions populist working people are asking. Clearly he’s never been inside a teaparty group. Clearly he hasn’t been talking to folks in my working class neighborhood. People listen to our answers and CHOOSE not to believe our answers. They don’t WANT our answers. It IS a question of consciousness. And the fascism on the right has already been “academically” proven as on the whole minimally proto-fascist and mostly full-blown Fascist, per academic definitions. I always find myself shaking my head when I hear people “disappear” us working class and lower class lefties and when people claim there is honest questioning happening amongst the non-lefties of our lower classes. Come down off the privileged high horse and live among us. We’ll have some stories for ya. I’d go to the book fair, but like most working people, I’ll be working.

  2. Yea Thinkon 23 Jan 2010 at 4:00 pm

    I am always amused by the “progrssive” Left wanting to have a revolution against Capitalism. The Right and moderate members of the Left, as well as independents all support Capitalism, and this small band of Dinasours think they can sweet talk them into taking over the country and change our Economic system. Give me a break!

    Look at the size and diversity of the US. Look at how many peoples lives are dependent on Capitalism. Overtake the Right? You think you are going to small talk them into flipping to the a more socialistic Economic system? There will be blood in the streets, and guess who has most of the guns. If you want a revolution, go have one is a small Latin America or African country, where you have a better shot at winning, but not much.

  3. Hairy Carrionon 25 Jan 2010 at 9:45 am

    Show us where the left has effectively organized under the days of tivo it now, watch the revolution later. I agree that much of the anarchist movement is intellectual masturbation rather than action. However, I find that overall, the left is apathetic and unorganized. Unorganized in the sense that there are so many little groups all clamoring for “Look at Me!” instead of generating an actual people’s or for that matter, Labor movement. There is very little cohesion in the case of core values. This is where the right has it over the left, I think. And I’ll point to Zizek in agreement when he says that perhaps the Left needs to do something radical and reinvent what it means to be Left.

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