Here is the opening monologue from last week's episode of Radical Democrats Radio, "Resistance Is Prior to Power." You can support the podcast and other projects at our Patreon.
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I want to open with a quote from Antonio Negri in Assembly: “Resistance is prior to power. . . . revolutionary movements and struggles are the source of political innovation.”
What that means, is that new approaches to how we can live together in communities, build links of mutual dependency and aid, always emerge from situations of people trying to create power for themselves.
Remember, when I talk about people creating their power, I’m not talking about taking control of the state here. This is one point where radical democracy departs from the revolutionary marxist tradition in which it began.
But that’s with good reason, because there’s something very important about revolutionary marxism’s beginning – you know, back when Karl Marx was actually alive – that has shifted radically. The West is not controlled by autocratic states anymore.
I make this statement with rhetorical reservations, of course.
Let’s be clear about our situation today, though. This show has gone live the week after, in the United States, the Democratic Party has taken over the federal government’s lower legislative chamber.
The leading activists and candidates in that election openly branded themselves as the capital R Resistance. Many were from marginalized communities and cultures who, as a whole, have suffered from state institutions dominated by social conservatives and oligarchs.
The state of which Donald Trump is President allowed them to organize, run, and take office. I’m serious about that term ‘allowed.’
Because the physical machinery of police, surveillance, and security services in the United States is more than capable of rounding up political agitators and opposition party members to disappear them into the prison system forever.
Marxist philosophy began in a population living under governments that arrested and executed people for organizing communities of marginalized people – the poor in Germany and Russia, the colonized in Britain, Belgium, and France, the enslaved in the United States. Their revolutions all turned out to be fairly successful over a century or more.
But those revolutions against autocracy, colonization, and dictatorship revealed more complex ways culture itself was a political force – a force that could liberate or oppress people.
Yes, state laws enforced socially conservative beliefs – Like when homosexual acts and divorce were illegal in Western countries. But the state had no power over a woman’s parents deciding to advocate for her husband in the breakup of a violent marriage. The state had no power in family and friends ostracizing a young person for their sexuality or gender.
Here’s where contemporary radical democracy departs clearly from that marxist tradition. Where there are vectors of oppression, there is politics. That includes, state, economics, morality, and culture. All of that is political.
Oppression is a simple activity, no matter how many big bureaucratic agencies a state might use to oppress people. That just complicates a simple act. The stomp of a boot into the ground.
The real nature of oppression is why Negri can write that political creativity comes from resistance to power instead of power itself.
In resistance, you act to escape control from some oppressive institution or cultural practice. Such an escape requires agility – Not just in organizing, but in life.
Of course, an oppressive practice, morality, or institution will react to people openly organizing against it. But the presence of oppressive networks and relationships also work in a more insidious, if equally simple, way. A pervasive morality or social practice will work to make any resistance appear futile.
Picture the residents of a community that’s been in economic depression for decades, who’ve been so dominated by the power of local oligarchs over their institutions that they see any resistance to this order as bound to fail. That’s how oppression encourages apathy.
Even worse is the oppression of morality – It’s how you convince a person to desire their own slavery, to see their oppression as good. They understand fundamental right and wrong in terms of a morality that justifies the power of oppressive institutions, classes, and people.
I’m talking about moralities that create figures like Uncle Tom, the Dutiful Wife, the Mimic Man. Such a system of beliefs defines what is morally right as to submit yourself utterly to some figure, institution, or state. You are raised to accept without question, as intuitively true, that you are subservient, that you do not deserve freedom.
All this reactionary activity seems very complex, since it flows across so many planes of human activity:
Moralities that shape subjectivities and social practices.Institutions that shape legal, administrative, and police bodies.Economic relationships that open opportunities for some and erase or block the formation of opportunities for many others.
But it all amounts to a simple movement – the block, the suffocating blanket that drains the energy of your own freedom.
Overcoming that movement requires complexity because of the many paths through which the suffocation of freedom moves. Overcoming moral suffocation requires different concepts and strategies than overcoming institutional suffocation.
Convincing a woman to understand her “good Christian” marriage as actually incredibly abusive takes utterly different strategies than ending city planning practices that segregate neighbourhoods ethnically to marginalize and impoverish minorities.
The tools of oppression change by context, but not its actions – suffocate freedom. Resisting and overcoming that suffocation requires actions that are utterly different in each context.
Unfortunately, that ends up interrupting unity among activists to transform the entire oppressive system on a global basis. People who learned how to resist in one or a few contexts will not understand intuitively what’s in common with resisters in other contexts.
Example: White union movement activists in Canada oppose environmental and Indigenous movements because they see these activists as roadblocks to their community’s prosperity.
The solution is unfortunately difficult – outreach and education. People who understand how all oppressions enforce each other have to teach fellow progressives who define their interests too narrowly.
That education also requires a lot of creativity – New kinds of intervention that can overcome people’s partial perspectives, prejudices, disgusts. Healing an Arab/Muslim activist’s anti-Semitism takes a different educational strategy than healing a Christian human rights activist’s homophobia, and a different strategy than healing a feminist activist’s Islamophobia.
“Resistance is prior to power.”