11.08.2007

general strike

The October issue of Harper's has one the best ideas for activism in the US that I've heard in a long, long time. It's available online by subscription only, but it's something that should be circulated around the net as widely as possible. Garret Keizer calls for a general strike.
Of all the various depredations of the Bush regime, none has been so thorough as its plundering of hope. Iraq will recover sooner. What was supposed to have been the crux of our foreign policy—a shock-and-awe tutorial on the utter futility of any opposition to the whims of American power—has achieved its greatest and perhaps its only lasting success in the American soul. You will want to cite the exceptions, the lunch-hour protests against the war, the dinner-party ejaculations of dissent, though you might also want to ask what substantive difference they bear to grousing about the weather or even to raging against the dying of the light—that is, to any ritualized complaint against forces universally acknowledged as unalterable. Bush is no longer the name of a president so much as the abbreviation of a proverb, something between Murphy’s Law and tomorrow’s fatal inducement to drink and be merry today.

If someone were to suggest, for example, that we begin a general strike on Election Day, November 6, 2007, for the sole purpose of removing this regime from power, how readily and with what well-practiced assurance would you find yourself producing the words "It won’t do any good"? Plausible and even courageous in the mouth of a patient who knows he's going to die, the sentiment fits equally well in the heart of a citizenry that believes it is already dead.

Any strike, whether it happens in a factory, a nation, or a marriage, amounts to a reaffirmation of consent. The strikers remind their overlords — and, equally important, themselves — that the seemingly perpetual machinery of daily life has an off switch as well as an on. Camus said that the one serious question of philosophy is whether or not to commit suicide; the one serious question of political philosophy is whether or not to get out of bed. Silly as it may have seemed at the time, John and Yoko’s famous stunt was based on a profound observation. Instant karma is not so instant — we ratify it day by day.

The stream of commuters heading into the city, the caravan of tractor-trailers pulling out of the rest stop into the dawn’s early light, speak a deep-throated Yes to the sum total of what's going on in our collective life. The poet Richard Wilbur writes of the "ripped mouse" that "cries Concordance" in the talons of the owl; we too cry our daily assent in the grip of the prevailing order— except in those notable instances when, like a donkey or a Buddha, we refuse to budge.

The question we need to ask ourselves at this moment is what further provocations we require to justify digging in our heels. To put the question more pointedly: Are we willing to wait until the next presidential election, or for some interim congressional conversion experience, knowing that if we do wait, hundreds of our sons and daughters will be needlessly destroyed? Another poet, C├ęsar Vallejo, framed the question like this:

A man shivers with cold, coughs, spits up blood.
Will it ever be fitting to allude to my inner soul? . . .
A cripple sleeps with one foot on his shoulder.
Shall I later on talk about Picasso, of all people?

A young man goes to Walter Reed without a face. Shall I make an appointment with my barber? A female prisoner is sodomized at Abu Ghraib. Shall I send a check to the Clinton campaign?

There have been successful general strikes in the United States, most famously in Seattle in 1919. I found a terrific website from a group documenting and commemorating this seminal moment in labour history: The Seattle General Strike Project. That same year, a time when socialism was flourishing in North America, there was also a general strike in Winnipeg.

The city of San Francisco saw a general strike in 1934. In 1886 Chicago, workers were preparing for a general strike when the Haymarket Massacre took place. Alarmed by labor and class activism, frightened city officials likely planted the supposed "bomb-throwing anarchist" to provoke the rioting, which led to the deaths of both workers and police, then the convictions and show executions of more innocent people.

A call for a general strike also has roots in the concept of the Moratorium, which I've blogged about several times. The 1969 Moratorium to end the war in Vietnam is thought to be a key factor in preventing Richard Nixon from using nuclear weapons against Southeast Asia.
In 1985, former President Richard Nixon revealed that he had considered using nuclear weapons to end the war in Vietnam. Richard Nixon went beyond merely 'considering' the option, he actually decided to use nuclear weapons.

In August 1969, the United States began a sequence of threats against North Vietnam, beginning with an ultimatum personally delivered by Henry Kissinger, stating that if by 1 November 1969 there had been no ceasefire by the Vietnamese resistance, 'we will be compelled -with great reluctance - to take measures of the greatest consequences.' Two nuclear bombs would be dropped on North Vietnam.

To demonstrate the sincerity of his intentions, President Nixon ordered a full-scale nuclear alert, raising US nuclear forces to their highest level of alertness, DEF CON 1, for 29 days.

On 13 October 1969, one of Nixon's aides sent a Top Secret memorandum to Henry Kissinger warning that 'The nation could be thrown into internal physical turmoil', requiring the 'brutal' suppression of 'dissension'.

That month, the US anti-war movement was organising a massive wave of demonstrations and mobilisations culminating in the Vietnam Moratorium demonstration in Washington. President Nixon later wrote in his memoirs, 'A quarter of a million people came to Washington for the October 15 Moratorium... On the night of October 15, I thought about the irony of this protest for peace. It had, I believe, destroyed whatever small possibility there may have existed for ending the war in 1969'.

The key factor in his decision not to drop an atomic bomb on North Vietnam was that 'after all the protests and the Moratorium, American public opinion would be seriously divided by any military escalation of the war'. Mobilised public opinion averted the world's second nuclear war.

I could go on with this history all morning. Few things excite my mind more than discovering what the struggles of ordinary people, organized and committed, have been able to achieve.

Those achievements are present in our lives every single day, in paid time off, in workplace safety codes, in Social Security, in fire codes, in fair lending laws. In Canada, that list includes universal health care. Hell, every time you read an ingredient list on a label, you're using a resource brought to you by organized consumers.

In the US, every single one of these hard-won gains has been at least threatened, and many of them under serious attack, since the Reagan era. That is less so in Canada, but Canadians - like people everywhere - need to guard and protect their rights against forces that would just as soon revoke them, because it would increase their profits.

So. Back to the general strike from Harper's.
You will recall that a major theme of the Bush Administration’s response to September 11 was that life should go on as usual. We should keep saying that broad consensual Yes as loudly as we dared. We could best express our patriotism by hitting the malls, by booking a flight to Disney World. At the time, the advice seemed prudent enough: avoid hysteria; defy the intimidations of murderers and fanatics.

In hindsight it's hard not to see the roots of our predicament in the readiness with which we took that advice to heart. We did exactly as we were told, with a net result that is less an implicit defiance of terrorism than a tacit amen to the "war on terror," including the war in Iraq. Granted, many of us have come to find both those wars unacceptable. But do we find them intolerable? Can you sleep? Yes, doctor, I can sleep. Can you work? Yes, doctor, I can work. Do you get out to the movies, enjoy a good restaurant? Actually, I have a reservation for tonight. Then I'd say you were doing okay, wouldn't you? I’d say you were tolerating the treatment fairly well.

It is one thing to endure abuses and to carry on in spite of them. It is quite another thing to carry on to the point of abetting the abuse. We need to move the discussion of our nation’s health to the emergency room. We need to tell the doctors of the body politic that the treatment isn't working — and that until it changes radically for the better, neither are we.

No one person, least of all a freelance writer, has the prerogative to call or set the date for a general strike. What do you guys do for a strike, sit on your overdue library books? Still, what day more fitting for a strike than the first Tuesday of November, the Feast of the Hanging Chads? What other day on the national calendar cries so loudly for rededication?

The only date that comes close is September 11. You have to do a bit of soul-searching to see it, but one result of the Bush presidency has been a loss of connection to those who perished that day. Unless they were members of our families, unless we were involved in their rescue, do we think of them? It's too easy to say that time eases the grief — there's more to it than that, more even than the natural tendency to shy away from brooding on disasters that might happen again. We avoid thinking of the September 11 victims because to think of them we have to think also of what we have allowed to happen in their names. Or, if we object openly to what has happened, we have to parry the insinuation that we’re unmoved by their loss.

It is time for us to make a public profession of faith that the people who went to work that morning, who caught the cabs and rode the elevators and later jumped to their deaths, were not on the whole people who would sanction extraordinary rendition, preemptive war, and the suspension of habeas corpus; that in their heels and suits they were at least as decent as any sneaker-shod person standing vigil outside a post office with a stop the war sign. That the government workers who died in the Pentagon were not by some strange congenital fluke more obtuse than the high-ranking officers who thought the invasion of Iraq was a bad idea from the get-go. That the passengers who rushed the hijackers on Flight 93 were not repeating the mantra "It won't do any good" while scratching their heads and their asses in a happy-hour funk.

An Election Day general strike would set our remembrance of those people free from the sarcophagi of rhetoric and rationalization. It would be the political equivalent of raising them from the dead. It would be a clear if sadly delayed message of solidarity to those voters in Ohio and Florida who were pretty much told they could drop dead.

As an organizer, I find it very irritating when people make suggestions that they have no intentions of helping to implement. To the familiar refrain "You know what you guys should do...?", I took to saying, "That's an excellent idea. If you want to start organizing it, I'd be happy to help." Not being in the US, I'm not in a position to do any hands-on organizing for a 2008 general strike. So with that important caveat, I'll say I'd be very proud to see it happen, and I'd do anything I could from here to help.

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