Methods of Dis-Organization

Faluja. Najaf. The shattered bodies continue to fall. American imperialism faces a minor public relations nightmare at home with torture and the persecution of civilians bringing home a little more concretely the core truth of occupation that mainstream America seems incapable of understanding. It also races towards imposing a "civilian Iraqi authority" in place that will ensure the future of the American neo-liberal expansion. The anti-war movement in the US has held on — it struggles to stay poised at the threshold of a new mobilization. The World Tribunal on Iraq – New York (WTI-NYC) hearings unfolded on May 8th, 2004. The illegality of the war on Iraq, the crimes of war and the crimes of occupation were all documented with a systematicity that we had not seen in the US before. The first signs of the US anti-war movement coming into a close alliance with the global anti-war movement came into place with the WTI-NYC hearings. February 15th, 2003 was a sign of hope that we could build an anti-war movement that spans the globe. May 8th has done much to hold that hope in place and even advance it.

And yet, the question that bothers me is: Where have the South Asians gone? Has not the South Asian participation in the anti-war efforts in the US dwindled?

I acknowledge that this question has the potential to be self-righteous. I also acknowledge that there are South Asian Americans who continue to be involved (notably in BTN). And I ask the question only out of anguish because I feel that we cannot abandon the responsibility of being inside the US and not being part of anti-war efforts in some serious and significant ways. If SAMAR readers point to an error in my reading of the situation then I will only be glad — happy to be wrong. I will happily acknowledge that I am wrong and that my question is based on some kind of reading of what is happening in NYC at best. However, the question of desi involvement with the anti-war effort is something that I found myself thinking about after the last editorial on questions of solidarity. Are there ways in which we can think of solidarity more concretely if we were to frame the anti-war movement as a significant priority in our lives?

The primary strategy to build solidarity, I had argued, was to locate ourselves historically and theoretically rather than experientially. The ability to rise above our own experiences and the emotional excess of something so personal is through placing that experience within the realm of history and theory. I would argue that this is the only mode to make a personal experience both empowering and viable within politics. I am delighted that there are so many out there who have responded. There is nothing as wonderful as an honest conversation. For the sake of brevity I will ignore all the agreements outlined in the responses and focus solely on the critiques that my position drew: 1. The so-called left (read Marxist) also peddles a specific and closed version of truth (read Stalinist). 2. To demand that we rise above our personal experience is to fail to understand the deep impact of North American racism on people of color who grew up and came to politics in contexts that are almost entirely white.

As descriptions of what exists out there and what had indeed happened to many of us, I could only agree with both positions. However, I also do think that in both responses, there is a complex kernel that needs some decoding.

Here is a hypothesis: Politics can only be enabled through organization. To be political outside of organization, at best serves to marginally strengthening movements and at worst deals with a personal desire to political correctness. I centralize this as a principle of political action because of what I see as a strong anti-organizational sentiment within the American new left of which we are all a part. Many progressives, and surely a large segment of desi-progressive friends seem to view organizations inherently with suspicion. If there are two modes of political action: the first, where you deploy yourself as a political agent and participate in organizations at your will, determining the extent and kind of participation solely by your specific level of desire to get involved — a kind of voluntarism that leaves control with you; and the second: where you broadly identify with a political organization and enter it with a commitment to serve within it for a long stretch and negotiate the politics that you disagree with from within the body of the organization — again, a voluntarist project but one where you have far lesser control. If these are two models of political action, then much of the new left, those of us who came to politics over the last decade or a little more, prefer the former model, where we keep control and we never fully commit to any specific organization voluntarily (this of course does not include where we work as employees because there is nothing particularly voluntary about a job).

I would argue that this suspicion of organizations and the inability to subject oneself to an organization is deeply rooted in a complex of discourses that even American progressives are not free of: subservience to an organization becomes easily equated with Stalinism, and if organizations seek to be broader than one's own identity, they are incapable of being responsive to one's specific needs and desires. There are other discourses and trajectories that strengthen this anti-organizational sentiment: an unbridled individualism, which we must understand as part of American nationalism that we are all subject to, undermines any idea of organization because it is after all the individual who succeeds or fails, an individual who makes a difference or not. To this fetishized individualism that we may carry unconsciously, add strains of left ideology — Trotskyism and Anarchism, both of which profess a certain politics of purity in political principles and finally the theoretical justification that feminism has given us (however misunderstood) that the personal is political. Then we have all the ingredients to dismiss "organization" under whichever guise that sounds the worst — "Stalinist" if that has currency or "insensitive to specific identities" if that is what will work.

Coalitions are by definition weak organizations. Again and again in the anti-war movement in New York City I have seen these two accusations flying about — that one coalition or the other is Stalinist or that one or other organization is insensitive to the specifics of racial struggles and identities. I do not for even a moment suggest that the anti-war coalitions in NYC have no internal problems, but these are struggles that one carries on from the inside. To stay out is itself a privilege. And the only thing that builds our capacity to struggle inside organizations is our capacity to leave some part of ourselves at the door with our shoes as we step into the spaces of coalition. If we cannot leave some part of ourselves at the door before we step into spaces of negotiation then is not 'self-absorbed' an apt description for us?

Comments

Thank you, thank you, thank you, for breaking down so cogently the limitations of identity politics and the inherent failure of 'activism' outside organizations. I've been struggling with this conversation in various forms over the last 3 years with many righteously angry Asians, queers, people of color, across a broad spectrum of issues. Now, I'll just forward them this article! Shailja Patel www.daniland.com/talent/talent.php?var=shailja_patel
As for the question: where have the South Asians gone?? Many are worried by this pious multi-culti stuff put out by US based academics who don't have to LIVE in India and have no clue what's really going on there unless the old stuff about the RSS and Ekal Vidyalayas is involved. And people DO feel there's a certain blindness when it comes to minority religious lunacy - no matter how many lives are lost. Whatever issues one may have with that tired old line - you will lose people, and sympathy - unless you get off the same old line of the Hindu right xyz. Things are MUCH more complicated than that now.
"There are two points made by Shemon I want to take up: (a) The Left's need to be a player in bourgeois politics (b) The Left's shallow secularism which is a religion of its own I'm coming more from the desi side - seeing the issues on the ground in India and then here and what desi Americans choose to focus on. OK guys - we know Modi needs a life sentence and Hindutva sucks. This has been a major academic, activist and filmmaking cottage industry since the 80s. For two decades we have gotten self righteous over the rights of ""our"" minorities, gotten our good radical name around the issue of fascism, the horros of Ekal Vidyalayas etc. Now I want to introduce you to a strange beast. Its called the Christian Right in America. The Evangelicals and the Fundamentalists. They've been running the show in the US since Reagan and look where THAT's got the world. (More about this in a bit). And now, my friends, they want to run the show everywhere. The brand of Christianity Evangelicals espouse (and the Fundamentalists even more so) is Christian Nationalism. Check out Evangelical websites. Dedicated to creating a NATION for Christ. Where? Maybe in the US, and at some point in the future, the entuire world - an imperial project. But right now, along the borders and in the crevices of a whole bunch of third world countries that might be tempted to go socialist. Evangelicals insist on the born-again experience, which has the same effect as hashish on the brain - a belief that one is a unique agent of God, fighting principalities and powers of darkness. CAG's wonderful stunt of running to the Christian Right and playing the Christian persecution card has just made about 20 million mission dollars pour into some of the most dangerous Christian fundamentalists in America. Let me tell you about these folks. You remember every time a Latin American country or any country anywhere went socialist or was close to it, suddenly a fiercely armed band of Christians would come out of nowhere and wage war against the communist suppression of ""freedom of religion""? I wonder who was behind that. There's a place called NAGALAND in India. A group full of end-of-the-world beliefs called the American Baptist Church set up there - nicely between Communist China and almost Communist West Bengal. As article after article poured out on the Ekal Vidyalayas and the spread of Hindutva among the adivasis of India, the adivasis around Nagaland were facing entirely another problem. A band of Nagas crazed by the God drug, in that strange way people can be when located next to communist countries, was armed to the teeth, flush with funds from a mysterious source, killing communists left right and center, forcing non-Christian adivasis to convert at gunpoint, demanding an exclusive Christian State of Nagaland whose territorial compass is growing larger by the day. Alas, it was difficult for the Indian left to speak about this because pious multiculturalism - of much the same kind that allowed the VHP to sink its greasy fingers into desi-American pockets - made speaking out against any kind of missionary a saffron, bigoted thing to do for over a decade. And now, after CAG's stunt with the Christian persecution card, Jyoti Basu the Marxist (hope you won't call him saffron) has come out in opposition to missionaries, mentioning the havoc caused by the Naga Baptists. They've even reached Ranchi. Of course the Evangelical websites are screaming Christian persecution and will probably be even more emboldened now knowing good Indians are soft touches on this issue. But the fact is - like the Taliban in Afghanistan, like the Deobandis in Saudi Arabia - Christian Nationalists are the products of a particularly vicious American policy that causes God-crazed, well-armed, well-funded religious militias to pop up mysteriously next to nations that have eluded its imperial grasp. The USSR then, China and India now. The wishy-washy multicultural-liberal stand of desi activists in the US particularly is a serious problem here. How do you speak of Christian nationalism with its eschatological brain-damaging effects, its curious connection to violence of many kinds, its manifest Destiny overtones, and its way of popping up next to places that aren't controlled by US corporations or Churches - when you've already branded ANY anti-missionary stance ""saffron"", ""fascist"" and so on???? Could you follow up on the IDRF and do some solid work on the connections betwen the cutbacks on welfare, the rush of cash to Evangelicals in the US, the explosion of US missionary work abroad (check Africa, Latin America, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nagaland - any troubled border and ""rogue states"" anywhere) - and the violence that INEVITABLY follows even where Christians of every other sect have coexisted with Buddhists, Muslims and aboriginals of every other sect more or less without trouble for centuries?? Do you know the DALAI LAMA has made a statement against conversions? And yes, we know the Indian state has ""failed"" to ""develop"" the North East but the same could be said of large areas of ANY third world country. It does not erase the fact that Christian Nationalism - the same virulent thing that allowed Reagan and the two Bushes to happen - that's caused millions of lives to be lost in countless military actions, that's caused the US to become close to a police state - is doing something to these places that no Christian missionary has ever done before. Instead of sicking Empire's armies onto lesser rogues, can we look at what US Evangelicals are DOING? Can we stop this pious, uninformed and ultimately disrespectful habit of hugging all missionaries to our bosoms just because the RSS doesn't like them either? Could our reasons conceivably be different from those of the RSS is wanting US Evangelicals to stay in a small hole in Texas as far as possible? Can someone speak some sense to John Dayal, who doesn't see what's happening and is crying persecution over the possibility of ANY missionary is denied entry??"
"An Angled Respone to Biju Mathew's Where have the South Asian's Gone? Biju Mathew posed an interesting question that is on the minds of many S. Asian radicals. Many have found themselves to be squirming over moralisms and the typical self-righteousness found in the American Left. I propose that the inactivity of Desis to an extent is largely the failings of the Left being mired in electoral politics (the most recent blunder), its inability to understand communities of color and white communities that are not born in the US, and religions outside the Judeo-Christian duopoly. When I speak of the Left, I mean the broad American Left in general. In the last year we have seen the Left spend more time on the elections than almost any other issue. From my perspective, I do not think any American who does not categorize themselves a part of the Left cares if Chomsky, Albert, or Benjamin believes in the anybody but Bush line. I do not think these Americans care if other Leftists believe that Bush is a fascist. In general I think people did not follow the Left into the anti-war movement, they followed their conscious and their belief that protests alone could stop an imperialist war. And I do not think that most Americans will follow the Left in its ultra-sectarian and bourgeoisie wanna-be crusade to purge the American ruling classes through electoral politics. Most Americans have wisely reached the conclusion that American politics are corrupt--at least the ones I come across to in my organizing in Detroit. In general I think the elections is the Left's infatuation with itself and its need to be a player in bourgeois politics. Meanwhile, everyday folks are involved in their own struggles in their neighborhoods, schools, and workplaces. Take for example what is happening in Hamtramck. Middle schoolers went on strike for a day on their own initiative because staff that they liked was being fired due to budget cuts. The presence of the Left was nowhere to be seen which I would also argue is one of the reasons that this was a successful action. Yes people can organize without the nerdy Trotskyites, dirty anarchists, and weird RCPers. My second point is the Left's inability and frankly shallow interest in communities of color. Let me also frame community of color for this argument. I am going to exclude black people because everyone chases after them because it gives Leftists groups the aura of authenticity, because according to Leftism all black people are revolutionary and once you have oppressed black people in your organization you are truly representing the people and the vanguard of the oncoming revolution. When I talk of people of color, I mean everybody in this country that is lost in the black and white dichotomy such as S. Asians, Latinos, Chinese, Korean, Japanese, African immigrantsóthe list is long. Lot of white folks say they are in solidarity with people of color, but that solidarity ends at their lips. The feeling of solidarity begins with human compassion which is why it is so important--it hinges on humanities best quality. But if that is where it ends, it is politically toothless which will lead to a myriad of problems. Solidarity needs to be followed through not only by actually interacting with people of color, but also taking the time to read their history and hear their voices. It means not only appropriating their revolutionary traditions, but also knowing their revolutionary pasts. It is not easy and that is why there is such a shallow level of solidarity between the Left and people of color in the US. There is no genuine effort by most Leftists to sit down and listen to people of color besides the inflammatory speeches that pocs are asked to make so Leftists can claim provide oppressed people the space to voice their grievances against the ruling classes. My third point crosses over with the general idea of the second one. I have seen Leftists walk out of a room full of Muslims and instead hanging out with them. I will admit I have yet to ask these Leftists why they do such a thing, especially since they were the ones that organized the event. After all, when I organize events, one of the rewards of the event is meeting the people that participate in it and exchanging ideas and having a good time in general. For all the coverage that Muslims receive in this country (even though it is largely negative), imagine communities such as the Jain, untouchables, and Indian-Christains etc etc; what kind of reception would they get? I could only imagine a reception of silence. The Left also purports a vicious secularism which is a religion of its own with its own prophets such as Chomsky and Marx. Until the Left recognizes that traditional religions have much to add to religious secularism, people are only going to see us as a bunch of proselytizing ranters and ravers. It would be unfair for me to leave the Left ""hanging"" without any solutions. I will be honest, the solutions I have to offer are not easy and require a lot of work, but a better world will not come about through lazy days. The first step toward mobilizing communities of color is to read about them; who they are in the US, their history, their struggles; their past in general. The next step, which is crucial, is to engage that community and it to apply the traditions of radicalism that existed or exist in the community. Take the case of the Desi community; there is a rich history of revolutionary struggles which is never brought up by mainstream Desis and rarely by radical Desis., which allows Desis to be offered as a monolithic doctor-engineer producing species. I believe that introducing the culture and legacy of radicalism will shift the debate in a direction that we have not yet seen in the United States. Thirdly, we should engage in the touchable struggles that young pocs and old pocs can see and feel before their eyes. It is hard to hold a corporation or a war, but it is much easier for young women to understand patriarchy and to learn how to fight it in their personal lives. The trick for Leftists is not to leave just at that. We need to politicize it so eventually, when people are comfortable they will be willing to engage in broader struggles that tackle more ""abstract"" issues such as imperialism and globalization. This is a strategy, one that I do not know the outcome to either, but one by looking at the current landscape of the American Left I am willing to bet my political future on. It is a gamble and it is time the Left stops playing cards with the ruling classes via the stomach-ache over Kerry and Bush and puts its whole future with everyday people."

Add comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
  • Allowed HTML tags: <a> <em> <strong> <cite> <code> <ul> <ol> <li> <dl> <dt> <dd> <i> <b> <blockquote>

More information about formatting options

CAPTCHA
This question is for testing whether you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.
4 + 9 =
Solve this simple math problem and enter the result. E.g. for 1+3, enter 4.
By submitting this form, you accept the Mollom privacy policy.