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The Importance of Being Alienated (and Organized)
by Patrick Eytchison, Eureka Greens
Orthodox Marxism’s claim that the worker is the fundamental agent of change has received telling criticism in recent years. Not only has the modern worker as a class failed to live up to Marxist expectations but modern historical research demonstrates that pre-modern rebellions were generally led by merchants or by disaffected scholars. This was true even of the largest peasant uprisings and is not difficult to understand.
While those at the base of the system of production may suffer most and feel the most discontent, their very position in society robs them of the informational and organizing tools necessary to put that discontent into effective action. Merchants and intellectuals, on the other hand, by the nature of their place in society, possessed precisely the skills and knowledge needed for social change. With the modern era, merchants ceased to be a revolutionary class, but the class of scholars (intellectuals) was greatly enlarged. Marxism has been primarily a movement of intellectuals.
Voting and the regulation of modern intellectuals
Because intellectuals carry the potential for “disruption,” class societies always maintain as a part of their general system of regulation one or more sub-systems for the control and regulation of intellectuals. In imperial China, all intellectuals who were not religious intellectuals (another system of regulation) were meshed in a complex net of study, civil service examinations, ranking, and government service. As Kung-Chuan Hsiao has documented, Chinese intellectuals who joined with disaffected peasant groups were almost always intellectuals who had become alienated from the civil service system or, in some cases, orthodox religion.
…elections in modern democracies function primarily as a means for transforming radical or alienated dissent into manageable dialogue within a system of exploitation…
As Michael Parenti has convincingly argued, elections in modern democracies function primarily as a means for transforming radical or alienated dissent into manageable dialogue within a system of exploitation; dialogue which, by the nature of the transformation, works ultimately to reinforce rather than change the status quo. In Parenti’s words, “an election is more a surrender than an assertion of popular power.” This does not mean that popular suffrage was not gained without struggle, but simply that all struggles for inclusion end ultimately in co-optation.
Given the obvious divorce between ballot participation and significant change, workers in recent years have more and more opted not to participate. US voter participation in the general election in 1960 was 72.8% but only 59% in 2000. Furthermore, voting has tended to become an act of the educated middle class. In the United States, in the last general election, only 38% of citizens who had not completed high school voted, in comparison with 77% of Americans with a bachelors degree or higher. The modern electoral system in other words has more and more taken on the role of a system of regulation of the educated.
How this works, although complex in the details, is in essence simple. As long as a hard-won means for possible social change exists within the system, the privileged dissatisfied (the educated) will be reluctant to chance the uncomfortable and possibly dangerous path of alienated opposition outside the system. Making such a decision even more difficult is the fact that it can never be proven conclusively that electoral organizing will not someday result in a significant transformation of society, although to date it never has.
The original American Green program
No significant numbers from the intellectual class will take the path of alienation until a counterculture of alienation exists to receive them. Otherwise, the social and personal risks are simply too great. One of the most significant aspects of the American Green movement from its founding in 1984 until its adoption of an electoral strategy in 1990–1992 is the fact that many of the components for the creation of a counterculture of intellectual alienation were seriously being pursued by a majority faction.
Although such a program was never fully articulated before being displaced by electoralism, major tendencies in the original movement such as deep ecology, bioregionalism, libertarian municipalism, anarchism, and syndicalism all offered programmatic possibilities. These non-electoral positions were often in conflict with each other but despite this lack of unity the early movement took concrete steps towards the creation of an organized Green extra-electoral counterculture.
The major accomplishments of the original American Greens towards organized alienation can be listed as:
- Dues membership,
- Active locals defined by dues-paying members,
- Organization of the Green national movement by organization-defined regions, rather than by states (a partial adaptation of bioregionalism),
- A national clearinghouse,
- A list of Key Values including Decentralization and Grassroots Democracy,
- Several majority votes for indefinitely delaying involvement in state or national party building.
What the result of this strategy would have been if followed with increasing intensity, rather than growing opposition, is impossible to know because such was not the course of evolution of the movement. What can be speculated with some certainty is that the existence of an organized, growing, dues-membership structure of Green intellectual alienation within United States society would have had an impact of some noticeable sort. This, however, was a road not taken.
When the predecessor to the Green Party of the United States, the Association of State Green Parties, was formed, earlier Greens were criticized as utopian anarchists and a strategy of broad gradual reform through the growth of voter participation was espoused. This year as American Greens face participation in a third presidential election and a continued “de-greening” of society and the environment, it is not unfair to ask which program is really “utopian”.
Inclusion and alienation, however, do not mix. Each requires its own special organizing energy, psychology, and strategy; in a sense each defines its own reality. This is a reality American Greens have had real difficulty accepting. On the surface, at least, it has always seemed logical that “movement and party” can exist together. Yet it is just this reluctance to face the mutually exclusive nature of the two politics that has had a debilitating effect on the American Green movement over the years.
The original organizing pamphlet of the American Greens called for a “Founding Congress” only after active Green groups existed in “every neighborhood and town in the country.” This plan for organizing a radical Green counterculture from the grassroots up was discarded for an electoral approach long before sufficient time had passed to test its feasibility. It still exists, however, as an option today and could be implemented with a realism gained by time.
The first step would be for Greens to face the fact that in reality we simply have no power whatsoever, that whatever power we can gain will have to be built, systematically and outside the electoral process. The Green movement is a movement of intellectuals and this needs to be admitted openly. However, once a network of alienated intellectuals exists as a serious reality there is no reason to think that it will not, and as a natural course of things, begin to form alliances with various other social groups, perhaps first at the neighborhood level. The times are changing and perhaps, after following the electoral mirage for more than a decade, it is time for Greens to change, too.
…whatever power we can gain will have to be built, systematically and outside the electoral process.
I would, however, like to end this essay with one note of clarification so as not to leave any impression that, in outlining the direction I have above, I am in any way suggesting the positive organizational lessons learned over the past dozen years be ignored. There is no reason a non-electoral Green movement should not define itself as a “Party,” and in fact there are a number of good reasons that it should. Parties after all are social organizations for attaining social goals, nothing more. Electoral campaigns are a strategy parties may or may not choose to employ. All I am saying is that perhaps it is time for American Greens to consider a path of serious, alienated unemployment.
1. Stephen K. Sanderson, Social Transformations (Oxford UK & Cambridge USA: Blackwell, 1995). Sanderson presents a broad survey of contemporary theories of social change which in general supports this claim. See also Kung-Chung Hsiao, Rural China: Imperial Control in the Nineteenth Century (Seattle and London: University of Washington Press, 1967), pp. 466–486.
2. Michael Parenti, Power and the Powerless (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1978), p. 201.
3. Patrick Mazza, “Green parties met in Portland,” found at http://www.populist.com/5.97.greens.
4. “Building a Green Movement in America: An Introduction to the Green Committees of Correspondence,” (National Clearinghouse, Green Committees of Correspondence, Kansas City, MO, circa 1987–1988).
[5 apr 04]