Tuesday, May 17, 2011



Alternative Institutions or Dual Power

Today I want to talk about strategy for revolution. As Malcolm X said, I want to have a conversation between you and me, us. On my way here I picked up a copy of the Indypendent Reader, which on its masthead carries the slogan “toward building a new society on the vacant lots of the old…” The paper contains good articles, some written by people I know to be revolutionaries. But I want to focus on the slogan, to use it to talk about strategy.

It was obviously put forward with one eye on the old IWW slogan, Building the New Society within the Shell of the Old. The IWW sought to develop a counter-power. The Indy slogan means developing alternative institutions. The two are not the same.

What are alternative institutions? Infoshops, bookstores, free schools, coops, community gardens are all examples. These may be worthwhile projects, but they are not examples of counter-power because they do not represent a threat to capital. In fact, they are compatible with it.

Things are entirely different with counter-power.

One of the earliest expositions of its meaning, if not the earliest, was by Lenin when he returned to Russia in April 1917 shortly after the fall of the czar. I know many of you do not like to hear me quoting Lenin, but I urge you to pay attention. Whatever you think of the course Lenin followed once in power, you must admit he understood something about making a revolution, and therefore you can learn from him.

In “The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution,” Lenin wrote,
The main feature of our revolution, a feature that most imperatively demands thoughtful consideration, is the dual power which arose in the very first days after the triumph of the revolution.
This dual power is evident in the existence of two governments: one is the main, the real, the actual government of the bourgeoisie, the “Provisional Government” …; the other is a supplementary and parallel government… in the shape of the Petrograd Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies...
This remarkable feature… has led to the interlocking of two dictatorships: thedictatorship of the bourgeoisie… and the dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry (the Soviet of Workers’ and Soldiers’ Deputies).
There is not the slightest doubt that such an “interlocking” cannot last long. Two powerscannot exist in a state. One of them is bound to pass away…
In that situation Lenin put forward the slogan “No support to the provisional government. All Power to the Soviets.”

Lenin and the Bolsheviks did not invent the Soviets (councils). They were invented by the workers and soldiers. In periods of upsurge ordinary people (people who do not normally spend their time thinking about how to make a revolution) do very revolutionary things, far more revolutionary than any individual or party could imagine. But they think of them in old ways. Lenin and the Bolsheviks did what the workers could not do by themselves: recognize the Soviets as the germ of the new society and pose them consciously against the institutions that integrate the workers and all the oppressed into official society.

No revolution has ever taken place without a period of dual power. The masses of ordinary people will not transfer their allegiance from the dominant institutions, an allegiance based largely on habit, to a new society unless the institutions of the new society already exist in tangible form. At the same time, every popular upheaval gives rise to institutions that prefigure the new society. The contending powers may be separated geographically, as in the U.S. Civil War or the liberated zones in China, Vietnam, Cuba and perhaps Chiapas, or by sphere, as they were in Russia.

The above were situations of general crisis. Do conditions prevail at present in the U.S. such that dual power is a relevant notion? Well, certainly no one would claim that the U.S. today is in the grip of an immediate crisis comparable to what existed in Russia between February and October 1917.

But it may be tomorrow. Every modern society, the U.S. included, no matter how stable it appears, is but one step away from a general breakdown in which the existing institutions collapse and the issue of power is posed. Consider the following nightmare scenario: a decline in public revenues due to the deepening financial crisis, such that public authorities are unable to pay public workers or are forced to pay them in worthless scrip. Bridges, roads and rail-beds falling apart (that is already happening) so that the transport of food becomes unreliable, police and firemen on slowdown because they have not been paid, perhaps most important of all sanitation workers without wages. Under those circumstances is an outbreak of plague inconceivable? If things reached that point, would it not fall upon the general population to take into their hands the task of maintaining order, collecting the garbage, purifying the drinking supply, etc. That is the situation that prevailed in Germany at the end of World War II, and only the presence of the occupying armies prevented the German working people from taking power.

Every genuine struggle against entrenched power brings forward forms of dual power. Factory workers slowing down an assembly line by direct action, cubicle workers surfing the internet on company time or using the company’s equipment to communicate with their friends, fast-food or grocery workers deliberately undercharging customers—most of the examples in daily life are too fragile, small in scale and sporadic to take on political meaning, but all of them taken together represent the new society. At what point do revolutionaries transfer their attention from the institutions that represent the oppressed within the existing society to these admittedly weak and often barely visible elements of the new? I once asked a member of a socialist organization that claimed to uphold a strategy of dual power, at one point do we shift our attention from work within the unions and the various reform movements that seek to exert pressure on the government and give central place to the elements of the new society that spring up like mushrooms after a summer rain—drawing a line between them and the existing reform institutions, doing what we can to link them together, differentiate them from the old, and clarify their implications? Do we wait until they enjoy the support of fifty-one percent of the population? He was unable to answer.

For me, the answer is easy: the time is now. We revolutionaries are against representation and in favor of direct democracy. We are against the unions, which seek better terms in the sale of labor power, and in favor of abolishing the sale of labor power. Instead of reforming the economy we want to abolish the economy, and in its place put community. We are enemies of the nation-state, the family, the white race, and everything else that is respectable in the society. “We hate this rotten system more than any mortals do/Our aim is not to patch it but to build it all anew.” Our political intervention must reflect that sentiment, not leave it on the shelf to be hauled out for holiday speeches.

How to do that? I would be the first to admit that I am not flowing over with brilliant ideas. But for revolutionaries, it is the main question worth asking.

Can alternative institutions serve revolutionary strategy? In some ways and under certain circumstances, yes. They may provide valuable examples of what the new society might look like, and space for people to mobilize to achieve it. The aim is not a food coop, but the organization of the workers in agriculture and transport to convert the production of food into production for use instead of for profit. I doubt the Free School will ever replace Johns Hopkins or the public schools, but if it provides a space for students to organize to revolutionize the schools and the university, then it will have justified the sacrifices people are putting into it. I doubt that the Indypendent quarterly will ever replace the Baltimore Sun, but if it provides space and inspiration for workers at the Baltimore Sun to take over their place of employment and turn it into a public resource, then the Indypendent will have served a revolutionary function.

The preceding is a talk I gave last month at the Radical Book Pavilion at the Baltimore Book Fair, where I was honored to share a panel with Penelope Rosemont. A discussion followed.

Send comments to noelignatiev@gmail.com. Indicate if they are intended for publication.


Preventing the Innocent from Being Executed: More Than 130 Death Row Inmates Exonerated and Released


Contrary to popular belief, it is not always DNA evidence that leads to the freeing of the falsely convicted from prison. 'Often,' says veteran investigator Rosa Greenbaum, 'false convictions in cases lacking biological evidence can only be overturned through solid, traditional investigation.'
Television has always had a love affair with detective programs, dating back to the late 1940s and early 1950s when such shows as "Man Against Crime," "Martin Kane, Private Eye," and "The Adventures of Ellery Queen" featured the "hard boiled private eye," or "cerebral puzzle-solving" detective fighting crime, as an article on the website of The Museum of Broadcast Communications titled "Detective Programs" points out. As the decades passed, the genre changed significantly; the plots thickened, and the lives of the lead characters became more appealing as evidenced by anti-hero human/playfulness of James Garner in "The Rockford Files," or Peter Falk's endearing "Columbo." Later, "Hill Street Blues," NYPD Blue" and "Homicide" reached new heights with their excellent ensemble casts, deeper storytelling and cinematic achievements.
These days, however, the television crime solver is more likely to be a savvy criminalist or forensic detective who has access to all sorts of high-tech paraphernalia. When "CSI: Crime Scene Investigation," also known as "CSI: Las Vegas," premiered in October 2000, Juan Roberto Melendez had been in prison for sixteen years. The show became an instant hit, in part because of its distinctive use of science and technology and in part because of the grisly crime scenes it portrayed. Naturally enough, CSI's success not only eventually led to such in-house spin-offs as "CSI: Miami" and "CSI: New York," it has also led to the burgeoning of high-tech police procedurals. Over the years, on television and in real life, DNA (Deoxyribonucleic acid) has become a household word.
While the detective genre has changed markedly over the years, one thing hasn't changed, the crime is usually solved at the end of the program; by hook or by crook the "bad guys" get caught.
But as we've seen with greater frequency in real life over the years, the supposed "good guys" - the police, prosecutors, crime lab operators and judges -- are not always the "good guys," and the "bad guys" are not always guilty.
And while many of those convicted of crimes they did not commit have been released from prison - many after having served long prison stretches -- because of DNA evidence, it is also true that good old-fashioned leg work by resolute investigators has been critical to gaining the release of the wrongfully convicted.
It was that kind of intrepid legwork that led to the January 3, 2002, release of Juan Roberto Melendez from Florida's death row after having served nearly eighteen years for a crime he did not commit.
For more than ten years the legal team at the Tallahassee branch of Capital Collateral Representative, a Florida agency that provides attorneys and investigators for persons on death row, had been working on Melendez's case. The evidence that ultimately led to his release was uncovered through the extraordinary investigative work done by the office's Rosa Greenbaum, who began working the case in the summer of 2000, building upon the work done by previous investigators.
The Reuters report pointed out that "Greenbaum discovered transcripts of a confession [to the September 13, 1983, murder of Delbert Baker, who was found dead at his Auburndale, Florida beauty school] made by Vernon James, who died in 1986. James had admitted to state investigators that he killed Baker. Greenbaum re-interviewed witnesses who corroborated his confession."
She also developed numerous new exculpatory witnesses, including individuals no one had been able to find in the intervening 16 years.  (For more details on the case see "A dead man walking toward freedom? -- http://www.truthinjustice.org/melendez.htm.)
The fact of the matter, Rosa Greenbaum told me in an e-mail exchange, is that "DNA evidence is relatively rare, and false convictions in cases lacking biological evidence often can only be overturned through solid, traditional investigation." For Greenbaum, this entails requesting records and poring over documents with a thorough attention to detail in order to gain mastery of the facts and develop an investigation plan. With a list of potentially helpful witnesses in hand, she knocks on doors, "trying to gain trust and prays for luck."
Greenbaum pointed out that "The awesome power of the justice system is often terrifying to the very people who possess information that could free an innocent person. It's a delicate dance to get that testimony before a court for consideration. In Juan's case, the physical evidence that could have cleared him was not preserved; DNA was a non-factor. But he had some amazing luck -- the real culprit confessed profusely, and on tape." That confession, and Greenbaum's tenacity in talking to nearly every potential witness -- no matter how apparently remote to the case -- gave his lawyers what they needed to go to court and get Juan free.
(Full disclosure: I have known Rosa since her birth and she is a dear friend and the daughter of lifelong friends.)
"There's no question," she added, "More investigation-based innocence projects need to be established. Despite, or perhaps due to, the number of high-profile DNA exonerations we have seen in recent years, people seem to be unaware of the scope of this problem. Some believe that DNA will out the truth in all cases, and that false convictions are flukes. People need to know that this is not the case, especially young people contemplating careers in law, journalism, public policy and social science research. There is a saying that a Harvard Law graduate is more likely to become a criminal defendant than a criminal defense attorney. Gifted criminal defense investigators are even harder to find. This needs to change."
Last month, Melendez, Greenbaum, Adam Tebrugge, a highly respected criminal lawyer, veteran capital defense investigator Jeff Walsh, and James Bain, a client of the Innocence Project of Florida ( http://www.floridainnocence.org/) who was imprisoned for 35 years before DNA testing proved him innocent, appeared at a forum at New College of Florida in Sarasota.
Melendez, who has never received any compensation from the state and who since his release has become a worldwide speaker and human rights activist, spoke about how he endured the horrendous conditions in prison, and he pointed out that he "was not saved by the system. I was saved in spite of the system."
After the forum, Greenbaum, a graduate of New College, told a reporter for the Catalyst, the New College student newspaper, that, "Something very wrong is happening in our world. Innocent people's precious lives are being stolen and destroyed by our criminal justice system.
"These tragedies occur far more often than most people realize," Greenbaum pointed out. "Corruption, human error and bad practices all lend themselves to the phenomenon of wrongful conviction. Corruption and error are inherent; bad practices are not. We must demand the adoption of well-known but oft disregarded safeguards, such as double-blind line-up protocols. And when corruption is at fault, the responsible actors must be brought to account. Absent the aforementioned, cases like Juan's and Jamie's will continue to be routine. They spent a combined 53 years in prison for other men's crimes and only won their freedom through a combination of luck and dogged determination. Most wrongly convicted inmates are not so fortunate."
One purpose of the New College forum was to make students aware of the important work that innocence projects are doing across the country. Spearheading this work was The Innocence Project (http://www.innocenceproject.org/), which was created by Barry C. Scheck and Peter J. Neufeld as a non-profit legal clinic affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in 1992. On its website It has since become "a national litigation and public policy organization dedicated to exonerating wrongfully convicted individuals through DNA testing and reforming the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice."
Since the original Innocence Project was established nearly two decades ago, innocence projects have appeared all over the country, with the Innocence Network (http://www.innocencenetwork.org/) now including member organizations in 44 states and the District of Columbia.
In its 2010 Annual report, The Innocence Project's Scheck and Neufeld write that
"While we remain committed to the important work of using DNA evidence to clear those who have been wrongfully convicted, we believe we can do even more to leverage the power of these remarkable stories to bring about fundamental improvement in our deeply flawed criminal justice system." Establishing more non-DNA based innocence projects is one way to do that.
Rosa Greenbaum told the Catalyst that "Student investigators, working with innocence projects nationwide, have been instrumental in freeing the innocent for nearly two decades now. Lessons of that sort adhere and contribute mightily to a more just society. Students everywhere should be educated about this monstrous stain on our ideals, so that they might confront it as both scholars and citizens. Ending bias in the criminal justice system ... which often leads directly to the conviction of the factually innocent, is the civil rights fight of our time. As Juan said in his presentation, we would not stand for slavery or segregation; nor should we stand for their modern equivalent."
At the time of his release, Juan Roberto Melendez, who had spent nearly eighteen years of his life on death row for a crime he did not commit, was the 99th death row inmate to be exonerated in the U.S. in nearly thirty years.
Now, nearly ten years after Melendez's release, the number of death row inmates that have been exonerated has swelled to more than 130 in 26 different states since 1973, according to the Death Penalty Information Center (http://www.deathpenaltyinfo.org/).


What Poor White South Africans Can Teach Us About the White Conservative Soul in the Age of Obama

My grandmother would never give a homeless white man money. Why? Her logic was simple: Given all of the privileges of gender and skin color enjoyed by white men in America, he has no one to blame but himself for being on skid row. I am not as hard nosed on those matters as she. I have come to recognize how Capital is mobile and the myriad ways in which neo-liberalism has struck down so many in its scythe-like wake…across the colorline.
That qualifier now having been noted, I will freely admit that I have a hard time feeling any pity for the poor white folks of South Africa. As beneficiaries of Apartheid they must face their comeuppance for the arch of history is indeed long. Justice is not always easy. There is a tax to be paid and some redistribution to be done.
Race is America’s national obsession (where to varying degrees the house that race built has given us all a role to play, such that on occasion we get to be amateur biologists, crude historians, lay social scientists and jackbooted philosophers on the big question of the color line). However, this dynamic is not unique to the United States. Racism and white supremacy were concurrent with the rise of modernity, colonialism, and Empire. Thus, these ideologies were also centuries long global projects that left horrible marks which the coloured peoples of the world are struggling to this day to repair and remedy.
Comparative race studies offers a number of powerful frameworks for making sense of White anxiety in the Age of Obama. Here, the voices of white South Africans in post-Apartheid South Africa offer a penetrating insight into the racial id of the White neo-John Birch New Right and the Tea Party GOP. While some of the pundit classes deploy the sophisticated (and often overused) language and frameworks of Critical Whiteness Studies and “white privilege” to explain the racial demagoguery of the Birthers, Deathers, Tea Party, and anti-Obama conspiranoids, there are more basic impulses motivating white racial resentment that often remain under-discussed.
Whiteness is always afraid of losing. Whiteness is invisible except when it is threatened. And ultimately whiteness is the luxury of never having to think about one’s advantages except when they are in perceived as being imperiled….and then being justified in committing any deed (however unethical or immoral) to protect one’s advanced placement in the marathon of life.
Unearned privileges are by definition taken for granted. There is a natural order of things that must not be upended for the psychic pain is too great. It is only through an internalization of this almost pathologically narcissistic way of comprehending social reality that White folks can even utter the language of“white oppression.” When Beck talks about Obama hating white people, he signals to the sickness. When Buchanan talks about white men suffering under a 21st century Jim Crow in the Age of Obama he signals to the sickness. When Limbaugh, and the assorted cast-off waste water and human detritus that in total constitute contemporary Fox News Conservatism, talk about fictions of black superiority and white subordination–a world where Obama and his supporters will make whites shine black peoples’ shoes–they are deep in the sickness.
There is a poetic irony at work here. In the United States, black and brown folk have never sought revenge against White people. The Black Freedom Struggle resulted in no mass killings of white people by African Americans and their allies. Individual acts of politically motivated violence and score settling were even more uncommon. Even when justice should have been meted out at the end of the barrel of a gun, the appeals for black freedom and liberation were inclusive and humanistic:
The goal of the Black Freedom Struggle was broad: this country’s centuries long crusade for racial justice was in many ways an endeavor to save White America from the rotten core of its own bigotry.
In South Africa, black people and others suffered merciless violence at the hands of the White Afrikaners. After much struggle and hardship, they did not resort to pogroms or a culling of the heard as a means of working through their just rage against Whites. No, even in South Africa where the blood of liberation oftentimes flowed thick and deep in the streets, black South Africans are able to look at the white poor and have pity and empathy for them.
In both cases, White populists fear the universal laws of action and reaction. Historically, Whiteness offered so much ugliness that many White people fear an inevitable backlash–even while denying the historic and contemporary realities of white supremacy. This dynamic has always fascinated me because it is apparent that many White folks, and the Conservative White Soul in particular, fear getting their comeuppance for a set of ill deeds that they apparently do not want to admit even occurred. The twists and leaps of logic necessary to maintain one’s sanity in the face of such madness truly boggles the mind.
Perhaps that is one of the gifts of the Black Soul and its Blues Sensibility to the world? In the face of white suffering we are able to empathize, sympathize, and share with those who may not do so with us. Is this a blessing? Is it a curse? I remain both unsure and uncertain.
Editor and founder of the blog We Are Respectable Negroes which has been featured by the NY Times, the Utne Reader, and The Atlantic Monthly. Writing under a pseudonym, Chauncey DeVega's essays on race, popular culture, and politics have appeared in various books, as well as on such sites as the Washington Post's The Root and Popmatters.