Beyond the Politics of Protest, Beyond the Lesser of Evils

Michael Goldstein

Michael Goldstein
October 07
Michael Goldstein is the author of the book, Return of the Light: A Political Fable in Which the American People Retake Their Country, which sets out a detailed scenario for how we might reverse our course. He blogs occasionally here and in the Huffington Post and works as a mediator and death-penalty appeals lawyer in Northern California. Write Michael at or

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FEBRUARY 3, 2012 2:53PM

#1: What We Need Now

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December 13 — Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson announces he is running for President as candidate of the yet-to-be-formed Justice Party "because the entire system is so corrupt."

January 21 — A San Francisco-area conference of Occupy activists on "Five Ideas for the Spring" establishes groups to organize block parties, share skills, and support or organize three one-day events but shows little interest in setting up structures to discuss long-term strategy.

January 24 — Barack Obama delivers what some consider a stirring State of the Union speech addressing all the themes that matter to the 99%, but, as Ralph Nader cogently explains, "He says one thing and does another."

Each of these events had its upside, but none made me happy. 

Corporate-funded Presidents — and Barack Obama is one,* — cannot and do not make fundamental changes in policies that serve corporate wealth.  Third-party candidates who surface in times of dissatisfaction (think John Anderson, Jesse Jackson, and Ralph Nader) do not win elections and rarely can even get their message reported in the major media. Powerful movements do win concessions, the importance and permanence of which depend on the strength and duration of the movement. They do not, however, change the underlying dynamics that make movements necessary for rolling back just the worst excesses of what most of the wealthy class considers to be in its interests.

So what is to be done, by those who want peace, social justice, economic and health security, environmental sustainability, and a society that overall is hospitable to the human spirit?

The answer flows from a strategic assessment of the sources of power of two groups:  the corporate class and the rest of us. The former has tremendous power and exercises it every minute of every day. The power of the latter is actually far greater, but it is unmanifest.

Corporate Power

Even before the Supreme Court removed the boulders around which the river of money to politicians had to flow, no one could win and hold state or federal office without pursuing policies that made them acceptable to wealthy backers and without avoiding policies that would make them appear dangerous to the 1%. Populist rhetoric is okay;  congruent action is not.

So the super-rich control government, moderated only by whatever are the current limits on what the rest of us will stand for. They also control the dominant media, which are mostly responsible for creating the public's understanding of what is happening in public life and what is possible. And their legislatures have seen to it that alternative parties, if they can get on the ballot at all, can only siphon off protest votes from one of the major parties. Finally, of course, they run the corporations that run our economy.

This is a what we are up against, and it is a lot.

Our Power

Our potential power lies in the fact that we do the work, pay the taxes, fight the wars, and — to a lesser but still decisive extent — buy the goods and services that keep the whole society running. Any day that we collectively stopped doing any of those things, those in charge would find themselves holding on to the levers of power, but nothing would happen when they moved them. We could stop any war, compel changes to any law or the resources devoted to its enforcement, force policies that redirected health-care resources, employ everyone capable of working, and take care of every person without that capacity.

Strategy: Conscious Choice or Old Habits?

Given the disasters into which corporate-class rule takes us in every area, and the balance of forces just outlined, there are two related choices facing us. Strangely, they are rarely discussed. The first is whether to just do protest after protest, hoping that such actions will take us where we need to go.  (A variant: participate in election after election, whether from the outside [Justice Party, Green Party, Rainbow Coalition] or inside [let's get it up one more time for the lesser of evils].)  Or whether we stop, take a sober look at our situation, and consciously and intentionally choose a strategy.

If we do, there is only one conclusion:  that to move significantly closer to the society we want to have, we need to build a sustained, massive, and united popular movement, one that at first recalls the Civil Rights and Anti-Vietnam-War Movements but ends up dwarfing both in its size and its longevity. Barack Obama's election was a stark reminder that there is nothing in our history to support the prevailing myth of getting our needs met by electing better people within the system.  And fragmented, relatively spontaneous protest actions without a movement-building strategy are no match for the forces arrayed against us.

We can, however, build and sustain the movement that can create fundamental change.  Doing so will require a vision and levels of strategy and organization far beyond what people are currently talking about.  My next post will explain what I mean.

The Goal: Endless Struggle, or Peaceful Revolution?

The second choice  we need to make more consciously is between two possible strategic goals of that massive, sustained movement. Our nearly-blind habit is to pressure the system for needed changes. Movements for reform have an impact, but, as the Labor, Civil Rights, Anti-War, Women's, Environmental, and Occupational-Safety Movements demonstrated, ground is lost as soon as the pressure is off. Moreover, there are so many policy areas that need attention, and we have yet to find a way to unify those who focus on each.

We cannot avoid the need to organize for defensive, rear-guard actions, but it should not be our fundamental strategy. Rather than merely pressuring the system, our ultmate goal should be to take it over — to nonviolently use our collective power to make the government our own. That is, to move towards the day when we need protest neither to stop wars or bailouts nor to start truly taking care of our citizens and the planet. The government will have become our instrument for organizing ourselves and pooling our collective resources for the things that we hold dear.

This, too, can happen. Ask the people of Eastern Europe, Tunisia, or Egypt whether seemingly immovable bastions of power can crumble. And the sooner we raise our sights to that higher level, instead of consigning ourselves to decade after decade of limp, rear-guard reactions that can do no more than take the edge off the worst extremes that we face, the sooner we will develop the enthusiasm, energy, and power to create the change that the first Obama candidacy seemed to promise.

The next election cycle is scary. (We can talk about the Republican Right another time.) The need to protest and expose the greed of the 1% is real. But let's also take a longer view and begin to look at how to build a movement that cannot be stopped, and that will not stop until we truly have government of the people, by the people and for the people.

More to come.



*For information on Barack Obama's record corporate fundraising in 2008, while cultivating the opposite image, scroll down to the headline, "But He Needs to Get Elected" in this post, as well as the hyperlinked sources in endnote 10 at the bottom.

For information on his early corporate bonanza for 2012, see this February 2 Globe and Mail story, which details, how, "[w]hile the Obama campaign touts its reliance on small donors, . . . the really serious money is brought in by the President's army of über-connected bundlers."  More analysis, based on federal data posted by The Center for Responsive politics, is in this Huffington Post piece.  This one reports Obama's attending fundraisers with $35,800 price tags for attendees the night of the Florida Republican primary.

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