Brian Holmes on Tue, 15 Feb 2011 04:20:40 +0100 (CET)

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Re: <nettime> The second American revolution?

Keith Hart wrote:

"After the watershed of the 1970s, we went through three decades of what 
came to be known as neoliberal globalization in which the power of big 
money to organize the world for its own benefit was unfettered. The end 
of the Cold War, the rise of China, India and Brazil as economic powers 
and the digital revolution in communications speeded up the formation of 
world society under American hegemony, even as these developments 
undermined it. This ended with the financial crisis of 2008 and we are 
now in the uncharted waters of the third period which might take in a 
full-scale depression, world war, a global democratic revolution, the 
end of life on earth, who knows?"

All that is so astonishing, daunting, frightful and fascinating about 
political life today is summed up in those two words: *world society.* 
It exists, it's potentially accessible to everyone, it's damnably 
complex, it has not eliminated nation-states or any other power 
formation and mostly it seems to follow inherent laws based on the blind 
interaction of separated spheres -- corporations, militaries, government 
bureaucracies, financial markets etc. -- whose cumulative effects appear 
increasingly predictable and decreasingly controllable by anyone. 
Nonetheless, there it is. A decade ago, some millions of us earthlings 
on scattered continents had a try at starting a global social movement. 
I've been hooked on world society ever since.

World society is in many ways a dialectical consequence of liberal 
empire. The latter refers to the military-backed free trade regime 
installed by the United States and its allies at the close of WWII, as a 
reaction against the break-up of the world economy into competing 
trade-and-currency blocs during the 1930s. To absorb the momentous 
productivity of its war-charged industrial output, the Council of 
Foreign Affairs claimed during the war that the USA needed a "Grand 
Area" comprising the entire Western Hemisphere, Western Europe, the 
former British Commonwealth and East Asia. To achieve this in practice 
the postwar superpower had to organize the reconstruction of Germany and 
Japan and to rebuild their currencies which, along with the dollar and 
sterling, came to form the basis of a new global monetary system. A few 
states in Western Europe and East Asia became the key US allies, 
monetary backers and military-base hosts during the Cold War. Outside 
this partnership structure it would all be about exports, raw materials 
extraction, democratic promises and power politics as usual. Of course, 
Britain had run a similar free trade regime under the navy tricolor and 
the gold standard, and I totally agree with you, Keith, in the parallels 
you draw and the distinctions you make between these two regimes. 
Drawing on democratic ideals and the use of those ideals to articulate a 
profoundly capitalist society at home, the US elites set up all kinds of 
egalitarian internationalist institutions after the war, institutions of 
which the British would never have dreamed. They then proceeded to 
flaunt them systematically in obedience to the bottom line of national 
interest, and against the wishes of much of the citizenry. It was 
national capitalism expanded to a world scale. However, by the 1960s US 
investments in fixed industrial capital and its willingness to import 
cheap manufactured goods had already externalized part of its power, and 
that helped Western Europe and Japan grow into relatively sovereign 
spheres. Meanwhile the spread of media, technology and education, 
favored equally by the Soviet Union, set the conditions for the world 
revolution of 1968 and the tumultuous decade of the 1970s, when 
so-called Third World countries made a bid to start a New International 
Economic Order (NIEO).

Because of the blockages that capital formation had encountered within 
the US democracy itself, because of the emergence of a tripolar order 
(remember the Trilateral commision, founded in 1972 as an expansion of 
the Council on Foreign Relations) and because of the worldwide character 
of 68 and the self-asssertion of the Third World states, the neoliberal 
hegemony that beat down the NEIO, outspent the USSR, choked back the 
Japanese competition and eventually set the rules for a new integration 
of the world-system had to be transnational in its very essence. 
Transnationalism meant the abandonment of quotas and tariff barriers, 
the loss of much capacity for censorship, the decline of territorial 
sovereignty and along with it, of many welfare systems, the rise of 
global oligopolies and the promotion of fractions of the former national 
middle classes to the new inglorious role of functionaries, free agents, 
advertisers and gadflies of the World Corporation. But all that also 
meant the kaleidoscopic multiplication of forms of partial sovereignty, 
some traditional and some entirely new. This was a dramatic change, 
something huge, unprecedented. Toni Negri and Michael Hardt called it 
Empire. It is exactly that, but there is no use blurring the immensities 
of its intricacies under some vague mythic narrative based on the 
Romans. Crucial forces within the fully transnational liberal-economic 
system are: global financial markets, continental blocs, regional and 
global criminal networks, nuclear proliferation, the new transnational 
relevance of ancient religions, the rise of the VLCs (Very Large 
Countries: China, India, Russia, Brazil), the Internet, world-wide 
social movements including terrorist ones, and last but not least, the 
persistence of the old, lumbering, super-weaponized, highly educated, 
obsessively consumerist, compulsively interventionist, media-mesmerized 
globosaurus known as the USA, whose rearguard holding actions and failed 
containment strategies dominated world headlines until the crash of 2008.

Keith draws the idea (hope? fantasy? urgent necessity?) of a second 
American revolution from the Trinidadian cricketer and communist 
internationalist CLR James, whose work on American Civilization he 
edited and whom he knew well, so if you get the chance let him regale 
you with stories. By developing a concept of empire based on the analogy 
with Britain, Keith gives a unique interpretation of what just happened 
(and is still happening) in Egypt: he starts extending the hoped-for 2nd 
American revolution to those Middle Eastern regions which have been 
under direct American imperial control. That means boots on the ground, 
bombs from the air and streams of finance that dwarf the imagination, 
but that can be cashed in for just one thing: American guns to be used 
by local troops to keep American gas-pumps flowing. How could such 
places be the site of a second American revolution? The paradox to which 
Keith points, if I can reformulate it in his spirit, is that GW Bush 
claimed to be invading Iraq in order to create the conditions for a 
flourishing middle class all over the Arab world; while the Egyptians, 
by deposing an American-backed dictator, are actually doing that. This 
interpretation puts the accent on the liberal-democratic character of 
the movements and their economic aspirations. KH: "The first American 
revolution provides the rhetoric and even the substance of the second." 
Now, there is something to that, because the American hegemony in its 
transnationalist phase has permeated the entire world-system down to the 
level of individual subjectivities, and the Holy Triny of Google, 
Facebook, Twitter is just the symbol, or the metonym, of that vast 
transfer of subjective capital. Yet I wouldn't go too far in that 
direction, because after all, Hardt and Negri's big mistake was to 
conflate the atemporal concept of constituent power with the historical 
form of American constitutionalism (which they moreover conceived as 
having a network-like character). I guess the political and social 
formations on the ground are more subtle, less technological and more 
philosophically and ideologically complex than abstractions like 
liberalism or constitutionalism would lead you to believe. Maybe the 
most important thing the US state has done to facilitate this revolution 
has been to get itself involved in two damaging quagmires which not only 
interdict further involvements or outlays of (other people's) money, but 
which have also destroyed the idea that an imported solution of 
ready-made American capitalist democracy is worth waiting around for, 
while your American-backed dictator claims legitimacy by his opposition 
to an increasingly unlikely terrorist-islamist coup. Let's admit that's 
a pretty slim contribution.

Here's how I understand it, very partially. The urban movement in Egypt 
over the last three weeks has been intergenerational, interfaith and 
interclass, something you can see in the photos and on which there is 
much direct commentary from the participants. That kind of thing can 
completely change who you are and may become. The movement in the cities 
has been joined by great factory strikes, close to a general strike in 
the industrial sector, still ongoing. I am unaware what's happening in 
the countryside (let's hear from those of you who know). The Cairoti and 
Alexandrian middle classes who are said to have "led" the movement 
appear very much aware that almost half their fellow citizens live in 
deep poverty, and they must surely have also seen that Western 
corporations mainly want to extract their money and resources in 
whatever way possible; while the European humanist promise of 
co-development and shared civilizations remains hollow, fallacious and 
increasingly takes on the features of a border guard with a gun. The 
burning question of the Middle East, a regional question, is how to 
distribute the oil money in such a way that the productive ambitions of 
the middle classes can translate into constructive programs that begin 
to allieviate the poverty and subservience of all those left excluded 
from the US-backed regimes -- not through aid programs but through rural 
development, useful industry, education and other attributes of true 
popular sovereignty which cannot be beamed in over the Internet or 
purchased with an oil-price windfall. Al Jazeera has just posted an 
article by Lamis Adoni that says this: "Events in Egypt and Tunisia have 
revealed that Arab unity against internal repression is stronger than 
that against a foreign threat... Unlike the pan-Arabism of the past, the 
new movement represents an intrinsic belief that it is freedom from fear 
and human dignity that enables people to build better societies and to 
create a future of hope and prosperity" (

I can't read into the hearts and minds of anyone, but it seems to me 
that there, in a new and far more pragmatic version of Arab unity, lies 
at least part of the hope of the Egyptian activists in the January 25 
movement, and also of people like the Al Jazeera journalists who have 
just carried out the most impressive venture in independent journalism I 
have witnessed in my lifetime (and by the way, kudos to Karin Spaink for 
saying exactly that on this list). What could finally be invented in the 
Middle East is a way to have fruitfall cross-border discussion and set 
up regional dynamics of socially managed economic growth, as Latin 
Americans have been doing with some success over this decade. All this 
points to the need for a singularizing process leading outside the 
normative binaries of liberal empire (globalization/underdevelopment, 
democracy/terrorism). And so the global media pundits (including 
ourselves) are definitely too quick to proclaim the "victory" of a 
revolution that has only started. In recent days Al Jazeera has pubished 
multiple testimonies from Eastern Europeans and Iranians explaining that 
the difficult part comes after the revolution; and to think our Egyptian 
friends are not aware of these historical precedents and not deeply 
preoccupied with finding the true organic bases and dynamics of a long 
transition toward an egalitarian society would be to deny them the 
intelligence that they have shown over these past weeks - and months, 
and years, before we could even see it. I reckon Keith agrees with all 
this and probably has a good deal to add concerning the human economy of 
a transition to substantial democracy.

But finally, the question of the second revolution in the belly of the 
beast is the one that I find most compelling. At the end of the Bush 
regime, I came back to America from a long exile because I knew 
something was going to happen. Voila, Act I immediately came in all its 
welcome tawdry glory with the popping of the housing bubble and the 
intense corruption it revealed in the motherland of liberal empire. The 
Arab Spring could be Act II, let's hope, let's support the process in 
whatever small way, let's ask real questions about the changes this 
requires in the current version of neoliberal globalization. But what's 
gonna be Act III? When are we gonna produce something of our own will, 
and not a catastrophe or a gift that falls down out of the heavens? CLR 
James talked about the absorption of American intellectuals into the 
bureaucracy (truly, the fate of most professors and cultural producers), 
into the labyrinths of self-fulfillment (psycho-analysis in his time, 31 
flavors of social-media in our day). I would add two other things. 
First, outright corruption for large numbers of artists and thinkers 
simply *bought off* by their privileges. And then, for many productive 
disbelievers like our own John Young, the dark black self-protective 
cynicism that comes from the detailed knowledge of oppressive state and 
corporate machinery. How to overcome all that? Where would this second 
revolution come from?

You have to look far and wide to find Americans who have even heard of 
James, or Raya Dunayevskaya, or the Johnson-Forrester tendency which 
developed a concept of world revolution in the mid-twentieth century 
( But you can go to Detroit and 
listen to a 94-year-old woman in a wheelchair who has far more vitality 
than any of the airbrushed zombies nervously adjusting their suits in 
the faculty clubs where they discuss networked Marxism and many other 
urgent subjects reduced to pale careerism. An entire generation of young 
and not-so-young American activists made the journey to Detroit last 
summer on the occasion of the US Social Forum. The woman they heard 
speak is Grace Lee Boggs, she's a Chinese-American and she worked with 
CLR James and Raya Dunayevskaya before deciding she had to go deeper 
into the black community struggles of the late 50s-early 60s. Grace Lee 
Boggs is a quintesential expression of the proliferating 
black-brown-yellow-red-white grassroots reality of dissent and 
alternative organizing in the United States, which the crisis has pushed 
into a higher gear. After the awesome 1967 Detroit rebellion and the 
cascade of government programs that followed, Grace Lee and her husband 
the radical black unionist Jimmy Boggs decided that the Black Power 
movement had now beeen coopted and reduced to just another interest 
group, so they started NOAR, the National Organization for an American 
Revolution. They produced no revolution, but some of the deepest 
homegrown reflection that we have on such things. Grace is all about 
revolution-evolution. She stresses the histories of struggling 
communities, the relation between the base and the leadership, the 
existential character of participation in a movement, the unfinished and 
provisional nature of all theory - things which you could use as a guide 
in perceiving what the Egyptian movement is, and even more, what the 
American movements are and could become. You listen to this woman and 
you want to build something now, with no fear and no foot on the brakes 
and no limits on the intelligence, except for that practical demand to 
walk the walk and make it real. But what does that mean, concretely, for 
us in the near future?

I guess there will be no American revolution without a deeper crisis, 
but I also guess it will come. The geopolitical transformations, the 
resource crunch, the climate chaos, the monetary instability driven by 
unreformed financial markets, the narco chaos in Mexico due to decades 
of bad neoliberal policies on both sides of the border, the chasms of 
inequality, the racism and fascism all that gives rise to inside our 
country, all that is part, not of the expansion of America into empire, 
but of the implosion of empire into America. That's how we are now going 
to experience world society -- and also the fascism that seeks to escape 
from it, build a wall against it. In the face of that we need to 
reconstruct critical thought as practice. In my opinion, the grassroots 
movements of which I am a part are too naive about the complexity of the 
imperial implosion. We don't realize how closely everything that is 
happening to us is connected to everything that the corporate elites and 
the military are doing out in the world, and we don't have enough ways 
-- some, but not enough -- of connecting with people who are also trying 
to break out of liberal empire. I think that as intellectuals we need to 
give street cred to an analysis of global capital and its possible 
alternatives. And in the same movement, we have to convince parts of the 
former middle classes (that's ourselves) to start thinking and living 
differently. There is much to build on as the public university 
collapses and a national network of autonomist activist-intellectuals 
begins to look like a vitally interesting place to invest one's life 
energies. How to proliferate the models of grassroots theory & practice, 
how to push real political discussions into the public sphere without 
reducing them to the existing alternatives (repubdem), how to overcome 
the media drumbeat of the war machine that drowns out everything else in 
this country, except maybe the big sporting events and consumer fests 
that are another side of the same coin?

The questions are complex, to answer them needs real study and precise 
information of the kind that is usually found in universities. But you 
can't play on their table and expect the house not to win. Intellectuals 
and cultural producers are mostly trapped within the corruption of the 
existing institutions. Even at home, the second American revolution has 
to come at the price of some kind of exit from liberal empire. I call on 
those who conceive themselves as intellectuals to do this, at all levels 
of activity, as many have already done since the turn of the millennium. 
Let's show our colors and find out what they are and how to wear them. 
Let's get together and do some serious intellectual projects. Serious 
means the idea is not just to analyze but to change something.

Grace Lee Boggs says: "I think too many radicals use events to 
demonstrate the validity of their ideas, rather than as challenges to 
further our thinking" ( Thanks, 
Keith, for opening up the question of the second American revolution.

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