Photo – Jim Urquhart/NPR
Seattle activists have seized control of a neighborhood and declared an autonomous zone.
This is a novel development, perhaps not attempted since the 1960s. It’s hard not to feel some excitement.
Still, Seattleans, I had to wonder:
Are you trying to spark revolution across the continent and around the world?
Or is this one of those “society of the spectacle” things where you never expect to succeed – you’re trying to dramatize resistance without too much concern for how it might play out in the end?
If it’s the latter, best wishes. Hope you have good lawyers or fast feet when the time comes.
But if you think this is “the revolutionary moment,” and that your seizure of power is going to spark an uprising, well, I think you’ve jumped several steps ahead of concrete possibilities.
From a materialist perspective, that’s never a good idea.
Emergencies In Utopia
My gripe isn’t with vision or tactics – it’s with timing.
Before I tear down capitalist institutions serving primary needs, I’d like to see viable alternatives functioning on a scale bigger than a farmers’ market or a free clinic.
As practical strategy, it makes little sense to seize an autonomous zone when you have no way to feed or give medical care to any sizable number of people for any length of time.
Suppose capitalism takes you seriously and folds up shop. You get to sack the store one time – then no more groceries.
You can seize the hospital – but the technicians don’t come with it. Good luck running an emergency room.
Even in utopia, people have medical emergencies.
Minimal Requirements for Revolution
Here’s three minimal requirements I would like to see before we attempt a revolutionary seizure of power:
- creating open and democratic decision-making structures. If those exist among the radical left, someone forgot to mail me my ballot. Presently-existing processes are not open – we are presented with a fait accompli and expected to play along (or go home).
- creating broad progressive coalitions capable of organizing vital services such as health care and education, not simply for a short-lived spectacle, but for the open-ended future. This means organizing labor, not relying on volunteers, however talented and compassionate.
- creating food and supply networks capable of feeding and caring for thousands of people. This is currently a pipe dream on any scale larger than a farmers’ market.
All Love to Seattle
I love the spirit of Seattle activism, from the 1990s to this day. No compromise – justice now.
On the down side, last time I checked, Seattle is not exactly a demographic cross-section of America. And revolutionary communes don’t do so well when have to go it alone. They need allies.
Still, my bigger concern is for lack of viable alternative institutions.
I doubt that Seattle activists, for all their undeniable brilliance and dedication, have built post-capitalist alternatives on a scale to serve even a neighborhood, let alone a city or state. If they have, it’s a well-kept secret.
If not, is there an openly-agreed-upon plan for how and when to end this spectacle? Or do we leave that up to the police?
Don’t Mimic the Paris Commune
Back during Occupy Oakland days, a certain faction liked to refer to us as the “Oakland Commune,” a reference to the revolutionary seizure of Paris in 1871.
Like today’s communards, the Paris claque jumped far ahead of their material foundations, believing that good will and dedication would carry the day.
Never mind feeding thousands of people – the farmers will flock to our banner! Never mind that the military has cannon – we have heart!
It didn’t work. As the military recaptured the city, 20,000 people were slaughtered. Not a great inspirational model, in my book.
My fear is that instigators and many participants know this experiment will fail. It is intended as spectacle, not revolution.
A certain number are confident that their families will hire lawyers, or that pro bono attorneys will come to their rescue.
For the rest, don’t sleep too soundly. Don’t get trapped in a debacle unless getting beaten and going to prison is your chosen way of resisting.
Because for all the dedication, for all the courage and heart, there is no way that the foundations have been laid for this quixotic effort to succeed.
Blessings to all.
June 23 update – city govt has ordered people to leave the zone. So – you can stay and wage a hopeless fight – or you can do what the Zapatistas did in this situation. Ordered to disperse, they melted away overnight – to reappear when conditions were right.
July 21 update – and so the bullet was dodged, so to speak. Your allies breathe a bit easier. Congratulations to level heads who managed to defuse the situation without too much lasting damage to people’s lives.
After all, if people’s lives are negatively impacted, we know what color heads that comes down on first. And black lives matter. Even in Seattle.