Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Start Your Own Revolution, Cut Out The Middleman: Boycott, Isolate, Sabotage.

In the more rarified corners of the interminable debates about Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria, Darfur, and on and on, the best conversations rarely bog down in antiquated drivel about imperialism or oil, but they do tend to get a bit hung up by routine invocations of the "responsibility to protect doctrine," the limited possibilities of "liberal interventionism," and on and on. To intervene or not to intervene? For any principled democrat of internationalist leanings, this is the wrong question. Every despotism is different, but in every case the proper question should never be about whether to come to the aid of slaves who rise against their masters, but how to do so most effectively.

In today's Guardian, Jonathan Freedland, who is a good egg, raises some interesting (and too rarely considered) questions in a preview of a new book by Carne Ross, an only slightly eccentric former British diplomat who has lately found himself interested in "alternate systems of organising our affairs, in particular anarchism." The book's title explains its content well enough: The Leaderless Revolution: How Ordinary People Will Take Power and Change Politics in the 21st Century. The way Freedland summarizes its contribution to the current debates about despot-defenestration: "Rather than waiting for an uprising to begin, says Ross, outsiders could embark on any combination of these three steps, depending on the circumstances: Boycott, Isolate, Sabotage."

The proposition is that we don't need to wait around for our governments to "do something," we could all put our shoulders to the anti-totalitarian wheel and make some revolutionary use of ourselves without doing things that involve unnecessarily loud noises. All well and good. I'm for it. But then things get a bit fuzzy, because in its broad outlines, it is not a new idea. Five years ago I wrote about this when it was called, alternatively, the new diplomacy, the new internationalism, the new institutionalism, and cooperative multilateralism. At the time, it was an almost distinctly Canadian idea.

It would be wrong to say it all went nowhere - some of those ideas did go places, although not in any especially effective direction, revolution-wise. But the academicians among the idea's proponents squandered its potential by reverting to sophomoric stoppist politics, in the case of Afghanistan, just for starters. And it all ended up getting thoroughly bogged down in the fashionably antiquated drivel about imperialism that usually masquerades as the left-wing perspective on these questions in Canada.

The always-reliable Norm Geras assesses the implications of the circumvent-the-state methods Carne Ross proposes in the cause of overthrowing tyrannical regimes, and in a nutshell, Norm concludes: "Action by governments, including military action on occasion, is also necessary. It is necessary for the same kind of reason that charity is not by itself an adequate way of dealing with poverty and other major social problems; of dealing with natural disasters; or epidemics; or major threats to national security."

More to the point is a question Ross himself raises about the state of internationalist activism in the world's democracies. On the point that we shouldn't wait for our governments to act, but organize actions on our own, as citizens, Freedland notes: "Such talk sounds fanciful until [Ross] recalls the example of the Spanish civil war, when 30,000 foreign volunteers went to fight for the republic. Ross asks the question: 'Why do people not do that anymore?'"

Well, there it is, why indeed. Where is the internationalist cadre that Ross foresees engaging in anti-fascist crowd-sourcing, organizing boycotts of companies that trade with Syria's Baathists, accumulating bandwidth for proxy clouds so that our Syrian comrades can access blocked websites, and mobilizing teams of hackers to mess with the tyranny's servers?

In the United States, as likely as not, it will be found organizing Dennis Kucinich for President clubs, while Kucinich can be found in just-exposed Libyan intelligence files providing public-relations and lobbying advice to Gaddafist blackshirts. In the Canadian case, our friend Michael Petrou of Macleans magazine, author of the absolutely must-read Renegades: Canadians in the Spanish Civil War, answers Ross's question this way: "There was a time, in the 1930s, when the NDP’s forefathers in the CCF took a stand against fascism in Spain. That the NDP has abandoned its heritage and now seeks accommodation with those they once fought is its own shame."

I have a go at these questions at some length in my own forthcoming effort: Come From the Shadows: The Long and Lonely Road to Peace in Afghanistan. My own answer to the question Ross raises shows up in the epilogue, like this: "By September 11, in what had become of “the left” in Canada, that gut instinct just wasn’t there anymore. It’s not fair to generalize, but it’s fair to say you’d be waiting a long time if you were expecting the West Point Grey Bolivarian study club and aromatherapy men’s group to put its back into the fight."

Fair play to Carne Ross, and the best of luck to all those who follow the course he counsels. But there comes a point when one gets a bit tired of waiting for the great leap forward, and thus it came to pass that on the Afghan front, so many of Canada's anti-totalitarian internationalists threw in their lot with the Princess Patricia's Canadian Light Infantry, the Royal 22nd Regiment, the Rocky Mountain Rangers and the rest. Up and onwards. Boycott, isolate, sabotage, oh ma corazón.


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