- Category: Kasama
- Created on Friday, 23 March 2012 09:27
- Written by Mike Ely
I appreciate Red Fly's thoughtful comments on this question of anger among the oppressed. And have a few things to add.
Scareface has an intense popularity among youth in oppressed communities. And there is a sense of "clawing your way to the top" with utter ruthlessness.
It is (as RF writes) a "fantasy of upward mobility."
It is a celebration of truly grisly "dog eat dog" -- as Tony Montana butchers and dominates anyone who stands in his way. Even at the expense of his own heart (his soul or his humanity, however you want to put it). He is victorious for a time, but increasingly hollow and alone, to the point where he almost seems to welcome death.
I think there is (in gang culture) symbolism, ritual, "belonging," and elaborate social organizations. It is an example of what humans create in every enterprise and undertaking -- for that undertaking to grip people deeply and bind them.
I would be wary of seeking to "appropriate" the particular symbols, rituals and belonging of other projects. (I.e. from churches, the army, gangs, corporate life, sports teams). They all have such features. And we can learn from that.
And we can even, perhaps, discover elements in various places we can adapt. But mainly we face a creative process (together with the advanced among the people) of forging such things for our movement, for our very distinctive goals.
First, gangs have hazings. they often "beat in" new members. Fraternities have hazings too. The army has the deliberately intense and brutal hazing of boot camps. All of these things are designed to build "esprit de corps." Once you are "in" you feel like you have passed through a difficult gate, into an exclusive "brotherhood." But (as i'm sure Red Fly agrees) we revolutionaries would have to be careful about adopting or adapting such a hazing mechanism -- which is designed to create an elitist feeling toward insiders and an us vs them feeling toward outsiders.
Second, much of the previous hard-left movement -- that made it through the 1980s and 1990s -- had (inevitably) their own symbols, rituals and belonging. The various dwindling post-60s groups often developed distinctive group language. and a strong sense of identity (including a familiar hostility toward everyone else, including left groups who startlingly similar). But these were symbols, rituals and belonging that ultimately served the survival of a small political group/sect, and often were not an embodiment of a movement that represented a process of fusion of sophisticated revolutionary ideas with networks among the people.
Aiming our spears at the middle class radicals and intellectuals?
Red fly writes:
In general, I don't like argument by loose class characterization -- where "proletarian" somehow means us, and anything we believe. And "petty bourgeois" becomes a loose label attached to anyone who disagrees with us. What's the point of that.
It isn't a particularly materialist or communist method.
The middle classes are (in fact) very complex, stratified and diverse (both economically and politically). I don't think they are characterized by any single ideals. And (frankly) there are political left movements with middle class features that are quite willing to adopt violence. I think of Weatherman as a leftist example. Or come to any suburban gun range for a non-leftist example of middle class attitudes toward violence. Or visit a suburban women's shelter to see how violence lives in the middle classes. Or come to West Point and Annapolis (for a more "serve the empire" example).
And further: I think that ideas and class are relatively autonomous of each other -- so that we should discuss ideas without pretending to trace each wrong idea back to some imagined class root.
For example, there is quite a sensitivity toward violence among the oppressed. Some people (largely women) in the housing projects are just numb with the killings. Many people can't stand to go to another funeral of another Black teenager. (Can you blame them?) And so people get involved in "keep the peace" and even have a tendency to support police-enforced gun laws, etc. What class origin and what class experience are those ideas coming from? Isn't that a complicated answer?
The idea that they are just "petty bourgeois ideas" would imply a view of ideas in which they are mechanically imported (or imprinted) in people's heads from without. Reality is more complex and dynamic. The ideas arise (from reality) and they are also shaped from without. (I.e. there are police campaigns and NGOs funded to win sections of the oppressed to "stop the violence" efforts that generally end up strengthening the authorities and targeting the youth.)
Red Fly writes: "The petty bourgeois radical will never, ever understand the beauty something like this. [video by Tupac Shakur inserted] The petty bourgeois radical can only react with a combination of horror and absurd literal-mindedness to the militancy expressed here by the great and legendary Tupac Amaru Shakur, son of a street hustler and a Panther." In a friendly, comradely way, I have to say there is nothing that I agree with here.
First of all, is there such a creature as "the petty bourgeois radical"? Who is this? Where is this archetype found?
Second, is it true that radicals from the middle classes don't appreciate Tupac? Obviously not. His main audience was white, suburban and middle class -- demographically (and this was true about gangster rap generally with all the contradictions that implies).
It is as if we are supposed to mock and denounced this imagined abstraction "'the petty bourgeois radical" but not connect it to actual radicals emerging among the middle classes.
Don't we mainly welcome the emergence of radical left forces in the middle classes? Don't we choose to love and nurture them?
The pessimism of saying never
Third, the idea that someone will "never, ever understand" something is wrong.
How do you know? Is class such a determinant thing that there are whole clusters of ideas that people of certain class origin will "never ever understand"? I don't believe it.
"The petty bourgeois radical can only react with a combination of horror and absurd literal-mindedness to the militancy expressed here."
Really? I don't believe it.
Again: Who is this monolithic figure of "the petty bourgeois radical"? Why are they such a fixed entity that they are incapable of understanding Tupac Shakur?
This way of speaking about people (with broad brush and hostile dismissiveness and pessimistic claims of permanent nature) is just not helpful to our work -- and it is deeply contrary to reality.
It embodies two errors:
First is an assumption that people don't change.
Second is the view that class nature has a rigid, iron-like grip on ideas and potential. This kind of pessimism and determinist view of relative privilege is "in the air" these days -- and it is rather destructive.
Let me put it sharply: A dismissive hatred of the relatively privilege and the conviction that they can never, ever, oppose oppression is very different from a communist class analysis and from communist strategic thinking.
Such verdicts are endemic today within many activist circles -- but these assumptions are mistakenly pessimistic -- imagining fixed backwardness where there are in fact cracks and openings, and imagining present backwardness is permanent.
People are, in fact, open to transformation (through experience and creative political persuasion). And we should be generous and patient with people who don't agree with us -- including in the middle classes.
In the essay "Radiating: How revolutionary movements represent" I wrote:
At the end, i understand what Red Fly is saying here.
Personally, I would not state things that way -- and would attempt to view these things as contradictions.
The "anger of the oppressed" is not some wonderful thing that simply has to be channeled. There is anger among the oppressed that is wrong (anger towards self, anger toward family partners, anger toward competitors in life, anger towards immigrants) -- and there is anger that has the potential to target oppression and oppressors. There are capitalist ideas (and anger arising from internalizing capitalist dynamics), and there are liberating ideas (and the spontaneous ideas and emotions that lean that way).
Let me say something else that I think Red Fly is missing:
The problem with presenting a movement defined by anger is not what the ruling classes (or the middle classes) think about it. I understand that the ruling class is for keeping the oppressed passive. (And in some ways, they are quite willing to let the poor "hate and kill each other" in a Tony Montana way.)
My thought is about "the intermediate."
The advanced forces are animated (and even identified) by deep indignation toward oppression, and by their working on ways to end it.
But the intermediate (who we need to function, survive and win) are not going to embrace a cause that looks like it will initiate an endless process of payback and revenge.
If we forge the advanced into a movement that tails their spontaneous sentiments (and revenge is among those sentiments!) -- it will tend to be a protest movement, not a movement for power.
The problem with a movement of revenge is rightism and a general tailing of spontaneity (not of being "too extreme").
Richard Wright on the visual language of the Comintern
The very radical African American novelist Richard Wright wrote an essay of his experiences in the CPUSA in the 1930s. It is included in the fascinating anthology of ex-commmunists called "The God that Failed" -- a book promoted by anti-communists, but with sophisticated accounts that we can learn from.
In it he describes showing his mother (an elderly somewhat religious Black woman) the literature of the CP, which portrayed the faces of furious people in crowds shouting, with their fists shaking in anger. "Is that how they see us?" she asked. Or "Is that how they want us to be?" And Wright responded (something to the effect of) "I don't think they know how to express what they want very well."
Richard Wright's point is my point here. It is not a matter of whether we embrace the righteous anger of the oppressed -- of course we do. It is a matter of how we choose to present our movement (and through such portrayal, choose to express our goals).
yes around the murder of Trayvon Martin there is great justified anger. What a horrible thing it would be if there was not! Yes we share that anger.
But if a revolutionary movement is seen to be defined by anger, if we tail and concentrate the spontaneous impulses toward revenge (and a generalized hatred of the middle classes, or the backward, or the passive) -- we will be making important right errors. And we will never succeed in being seen as a liberating solution. And we will fail.