A Moment of Opportunity

Sometimes a series of accidents, seemingly unrelated events and mistakes by rulers come together to open up critical moments for radical change. Looking at the confluence of events over the past three months swirling around Iraq, global warming, rising gas prices, Hurricane Katrina and Bush’s general fumbling, we may be moving into such a period — if we can seize the moment.

Radicals need to shake ourselves out of the political paralysis we’ve been caught in since the beginning of the Iraq war and figure out what new alternatives, projects and modes of living are opening up because of the political and cultural shifts that are underway all around us. Right now there are rich opportunities to criticize the status quo but even more importantly to build parallel economic, social and political projects.

In the best case scenario, these projects will allow us to withhold our contribution — in terms of money, labor and time — to the mainstream consumer/industrial machine, and instead redistribute this energy locally. When we spend our days contributing to the system, we strengthen the hand of the rulers and become more dependent on and tied to their institutions. When we create our own counter-institutions for our own needs and those around us, the rulers are weakened.

Building for ourselves isn’t about taking on a new burden — a new clutter to our personal schedules — or about performing an act of charity. The key is transforming our day-to-day lives now — living life now consistent with ideals of cooperative local control and environmental sustainability — rather than hoping that we can live differently some day in the future.

Stopping the Iraq War and rejecting the US Empire

Something about the Iraq war shifted this summer. Cindy Sheehan’s protest over the tragic death of her son — the kind of thing America usually has an easy time ignoring — touched a nerve. People began wondering if a war costing so much blood and so much treasure was worth it in the face of consistently grim news. Iraq teeters on the brink of civil war with no US strategy other than “stay the course” — but for what?

Radicals have already been pushing back in modest ways such as by organizing protests at recruitment centers around the US or by dogging military recruiters at high school and college campuses. Right now there are huge opportunities to expand these initiatives and shift the tone of mainstream US debate about foreign military intervention.

One of the biggest threats to the struggle for liberation around the world is the always looming threat of US military invasion and occupation should local political movements threaten fundamental US corporate interests. For example, across Latin America, the political tide has been turning over the last few years against neoliberalism and colonization by multinational corporations — witness the recent general strike in Bolivia and events in Venezuela.

The last time so many people rejected capitalist inequality in Latin America, these movements were crushed by CIA sponsored coups or guerrilla campaigns from the 1950s to the 1980s. US activists working within the belly of the beast have a special role to prevent that sort of response this time by undermining public acceptance of US military intervention in “the US backyard.” When Pat Robertson recently suggested that someone should assassinate Hugo Chavez, the Bush administration had to backtrack.

Just a few months ago, it seemed like Bush wanted to lay the groundwork for a war on Syria or Iran — made possible by the permanent US military bases currently being constructed in Iraq. Now, Bush is on the defensive as more and more people call for an immediate pullout of US troops whether the Iraqi regime has “stabilized” or not.

Radicals need to take every opportunity we can to undermine US military legitimacy, frustrate recruitment efforts, and make connections with people in Iraq and around the world who have been exposed to US military brutality.

Beyond all the particulars, the floundering war effort fits in with a general loss of public confidence in business as usual and the status of the US as an invincible Superpower. Despite all the military’s fancy weapons, it is becoming increasingly obvious that the US is losing the war in Iraq — or at least that it can’t win.

Hurricane Katrina

Even more than the particulars of Bush’s mishandling of the Hurricane or the racism and classism it exposed, the legacy of the hurricane has been to further shake public confidence. Many have been linking the failures in Iraq to the failures in New Orleans: how is it that hundreds of billions of dollars can be spent in Iraq while the levees in New Orleans were allowed to crumble and poor people were left with no options?

The hurricane has made it is unusually obvious that while the government functions to take care of corporations — Halliburton has been getting Iraq-style no bid contracts to rebuild New Orleans — regular people are on their own. This sets up perfect conditions for radical self-organization. The elites are weakened and people are looking for alternatives that are human focused, locally controlled and economically just.

Global warming

The recent series of hurricanes have also underlined the key environmental dilemma of the fossil fueled industrial machine — global warming. There is now massive scientific evidence that global warming is underway and that it is being caused by human activity — mostly burning fossil fuels and modern agriculture. The recent hurricanes have demonstrated that global warming will increasingly have real world effects — not just to people in the third world, but to people in the USA who are disproportionately causing the problem.

Hurricanes are expected to increase in intensity as global water temperature — which fuels hurricane activity — rises. This is already underway. A Georgia Tech study found the number of hurricanes that reached categories 4 and 5, with winds of at least 131 miles per hour, have gone from comprising 20 percent of hurricanes in the 1970s to 35 percent today with only a half-degree centigrade rise in tropical surface water temperatures.

Simultaneously, the temporary disruptions to US gasoline supplies caused by the hurricane– and the spike in prices that have gone with these disruptions — have showed how fragile modern reality is and how vulnerable folks are to far away forces which are totally beyond their control.

All this creates exciting opportunities to promote alternatives to the fossil fueled, centrally organized, environmentally irresponsible world order. As fuel prices increase, people are re-exploring alternative fuels like wind and solar. Folks are even prying themselves out of their cars and getting on public transit or their bike. Radicals can make the links between environmental alternatives and new forms of social organization that empower individuals and local communities.

Participation in the fossil fuel system is perhaps the most centralizing, non-democratic, non-local aspect of most people’s daily lives — to say nothing of the environmental consequences. Every dollar spent on fuel strengthens the most powerful elites and flows out of the local community into a complex global system. Stepping even modestly away from fossil fuel participation is particularly difficult because our society is so thoroughly intertwined with these systems.

Thus, radical projects in this moment of opportunity are likely to emphasize a move away from fossil fuel dependence because such a move simultaneously addresses local control, power concentration and environmental sustainability while having the potential to dramatically change how we go about our daily lives.

During unstable political moments that open up new opportunities, it can be hard to seize the initiative and articulate alternative visions because these unstable moments create stresses and confusion within radical communities, as they do within the entirety of society. These moments of instability often are exploited by demagogues and authoritarians. If we stay focused on localism, participation and empowerment, we’ll be able to weather the storm.