Mike Davis : Ten Immodest Commandments

Following in Charlton Heston’s immodest footsteps.

Ten immodest commandments

What, indeed, have I learned from my fumbling-and-bungling lifetime of activism?

By Mike Davis / The Rag Blog / November 17, 2011

A friend in Canada recently asked me if the Sixties’ protests had any important lessons to pass on to the Occupy movement.

I told her that one of the few clear memories that I retain from 45 years ago was a fervent vow never to age into an old fart with lessons to pass on.

But she persisted and the question ultimately aroused my own curiosity. What, indeed, have I learned from my fumbling-and-bungling lifetime of activism?

Well, unequivocally I am a pro at coaxing 1,000 copies of a flyer from a delicate mimeograph stencil before it disintegrates. (I’ve promised my kids to take them to the Smithsonian someday to see one of these infernal devices that powered the civil rights and anti-war movements.)

Other than that, I mainly recall injunctions from older or more experienced comrades that I’ve put to memory as a personal Ten Commandments (like you might find in a diet book or inspirational tract). For what it’s worth:

First, the categorical imperative is to organize or rather to facilitate other peoples’ self-organization. Catalyst is good, but organization is better.

Second, leadership must be temporary and subject to recall. The job of a good organizer, as it was often said in the civil rights movement, is to organize herself out of a job, not to become indispensable.

Third, protesters must subvert the media’s constant tendency toward metonymy — the designation of the whole by a part, the group by an individual. (Consider how bizarre it is, for instance, that we have “Martin Luther King Day” rather than “Civil Rights Movement Day.”) Spokespeople should regularly be rotated and when necessary, shot.

Fourth, the same warning applies to the relationship between a movement and individuals who participate as an organized bloc. I very much believe in the necessity of an organic revolutionary left, but groups can only claim authenticity if they give priority to building the struggle and keep no secret agenda from other participants.

Fifth, as we learned the hard way in the 1960s, consensual democracy is not identical to participatory democracy. For affinity groups and communes, consensus decision-making may work admirably, but for any large or long-term protest, some form of representative democracy is essential to allow the broadest and most equal participation. The devil, as always, is in the details: ensuring that any delegate can be recalled, formalizing rights of political minorities, guaranteeing affirmative representation, and so on.

I know it’s heretical to say so but good anarchists, who believe in grassroots self-government and concerted action, will find much of value in Roberts’ Rules of Order (simply a useful technology for organized discussion and decision-making).

Sixth, an “organizing strategy” is not only a plan for enlarging participation in protest but also a concept for aligning protest with the constituencies that bear the brunt of exploitation and oppression.

For example, one of the most brilliant strategic moves of the Black liberation movement in the late 1960s was to take the struggle inside the auto plants in Detroit to form the League of Revolutionary Black Workers.

Today, “Occupying the Hood” is a similar challenge and opportunity. And the troops occupying the plutocrats’ front yard need to respond unequivocally to the human-rights crisis in working-class immigrant communities.

The immigrant rights protests five years ago were amongst the largest mass demonstrations in U.S. history. Perhaps next May Day we will see a convergence of all movements against inequality on a single day of action.

Seventh, building movements that are genuinely inclusive of unemployed and poor people requires infrastructures to provide for basic survival needs like food, shelter, and healthcare. To enable lives of struggle we must create sharing collectives and redistribute our own resources toward young frontline fighters.

Similarly we must renew the apparatus of movement-committed legal professionals (like the National Lawyers Guild) that played such a vital role in sustaining protest in face of mass repression in the 1960s.

Eighth, the future of the Occupy movement will be determined less by the numbers in Liberty Park (although its survival is a sine qua non of the future) than by the boots on the ground in Dayton, Cheyenne, Omaha, and El Paso. The geographical spread of the protests in many cases equals a diversifying involvement of people of color and trade unionists.

The advent of social media, of course, has created unprecedented opportunities for horizontal dialogue among non-elite activists all over the country and the world. But the Occupy Main Streets still need more support from the better resourced and mediagenic groups in the major urban and academic centers. A self-financed national speakers and performers bureau would be invaluable.

Conversely, it is essential to bring the stories from the heartlands and borders to national audiences. The narrative of protest needs to become a mural of what ordinary people are fighting for across the country, e.g., stopping strip-mining in West Virginia; reopening hospitals in Laredo; supporting dockworkers in Longview, Washington; fighting a fascist sheriffs’ department in Tucson; protesting death squads in Tijuana; or global warming in Saskatoon; and so on.

Ninth, the increasing participation of unions in Occupy protests — including the dramatic mobilization that forced the NYPD to temporarily back down from its attempt to evict OWC — is mutually transformative and raises the hope that the uprising can become a genuine class struggle.

Yet at the same time, we should remember that union leaderships, in their majority, remain hopelessly committed to a disastrous marriage with the Democratic Party, as well as to unprincipled inter-union wars that have squandered much of the promise of a new beginning for labor.

Anti-capitalist protesters thus need to more effectively hook up with rank-and-file opposition groups and progressive caucuses within the unions.

Tenth, one of the simplest but most abiding lessons from dissident generations past is the need to speak in the vernacular. The moral urgency of change acquires its greatest grandeur when expressed in a shared language.

Indeed the greatest radical voices — Tom Paine, Sojourner Truth, Frederick Douglas, Gene Debs, Upton Sinclair, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Mario Savio — have always known how to appeal to Americans in the powerful, familiar words of their major traditions of conscience.

One extraordinary example was Sinclair’s nearly successful campaign for Governor of California in 1934. His manifesto, “End Poverty in California Now,” was essentially the program of the Socialist Party translated in New Testament parables. It won millions of supporters.

Today, as the Occupy movements debate whether or not they need more concrete political definition, we need to understand what demands have the broadest appeal while remaining radical in an anti-systemic sense.

Some young activists might put their Bakunin, Lenin, or Slavoj Zizek temporarily aside and dust off a copy of FDR’s 1944 campaign platform: an Economic Bill of Rights.

It was a clarion call to social citizenship and a declaration of inalienable rights to employment, housing, healthcare, and a happy life — about as far away from the timid concessionary Please-Just-Kill-Half-the-Jews politics of the Obama administration as might be envisioned.

The fourth-term platform (whatever opportunistic motivations existed in the White House) used the language of Jefferson to advance the core demands of the CIO and the social-democratic wing of the New Deal.

It was not the maximum program of the Left (i.e., democratic social ownership of the banks and large corporations), but certainly the most advanced progressive position ever espoused by a major political party or U.S. president.

Today, of course, an Economic Bill of Rights is both an utterly utopian idea and a simple definition of what most Americans existentially need.

But the new movements, like the old, must at all cost occupy the terrain of fundamental needs, not of short-term political “realism.”

In doing so, why not accept the gift of FDR’s endorsement.

[Mike Davis is a Distinguished Professor in the Department of Creative Writing at the University of California, Riverside. An urban theorist, historian, and social activist, Davis is the author of City of Quartz: Excavating the Future in Los Angeles and In Praise of Barbarians: Essays against Empire. Read more articles by Mike Davis on The Rag Blog.]

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11 Responses to Mike Davis : Ten Immodest Commandments

  1. Thank you, Professor Davis! Especially appreciate your warning about remaining “hopelessly committed to a disastrous marriage with the Democratic Party.”

  2. Roan Carratu says:

    The situation in the world has fundamentally changed since the 60s. The goal is not to create a socialist paradise, or get into law some new bunch of words that will get ignored like all the other words of past generations, it is no less than the redesign of our culture in a totally new paradigm, using the scientific method applied to social concerns, and the end of coercion as the major force in human behavior.

    To accomplish that will not take a revolution, for history shows revolutions cause only minor changes in reality, with the only big change occurring in what words are used to hide the coercion applied, but a fundamental change in the paradigm of human thought, and that is a totally new goal for humanity. It’s no longer a goal of how people and their ‘government’ interact but more about how the human species will survive it’s own stupidity in destroying the ecology and creating a world that cannot sustain life. The only way that can happen is if the majority of the global population change the way they think and behave. If the way we think does not correspond with the requirements of nature, then nature dying will cause our species to die also. Only a good means can create a good result. cause/effect.

  3. There’s a few Biblical passages that state the opposite of Might Makes Right.

    Basic translation is that Righteousness gives you the strength to stand against legions. It’s “right makes might” and it cannot be forced. To challenge the basic structure of the universe, you cast the seeds of your own destruction.

    Every empire falls by the same self-inflicted sword wound.

  4. Ozzie Maland says:

    LEG up. The memes continue to occupy our minds — “the 99%,” “OWS” etc We have to think of those memes as being the way to rally a huge majority, if not 99%, in favor of some major changes. Voltaire said that things work out for the best in this best of all possible worlds. I hear the 99% suggesting that if this is the best of all possible worlds, then phooey, world suicide should be an option on the table. Of course, world suicide is probably the worst of all possible worlds, but if no changes are possible, then maybe that worst world is thinkable as an alternative, a choice, an exit where Sartre said there is none. To avoid world suicide as our choice I think we have to rein in excessive greed. Let people have private property, let them have obedience to law which makes it possible to enjoy private property, and let parents and teachers teach the young — but society has to put limits on excessive greed. Why should we get the Supreme Court to split up Standard Oil of NJ and NY, and let them reunite? Why repeal Glass-Steagall, the only limit on a bankster class that can now, after repeal, keep investment winnings and be made whole by taxpayers for losses, an undeserving class feeding at the public trough. As a minimum, the US needs an estate tax and a 100% rate of tax on all annual incomes to the extent of the portion exceeding one billion dollars, with so-called tax-exempt sources such as municipal bond interest being included in the taxable income. The hardest problem is getting people in office who will enforce laws, especially anti-trust, labor, and democratic voting and vote counting laws. The most eligible candidate for capital punishment in my mind is a vote tabulator who takes a bribe or promise of advancement in return for tampering with vote counting. At some point the deep corruption in our system has to be reined in, and excessive greed is the basic affliction of the corrupt vote counter. Another meme to help the possibility of change might well be “Limit Excessive Greed” and don’t let anyone pull your LEG.
    //Walnut Creek, CA

  5. Anonymous says:

    I share your concern that consensus methods can’t and won’t work in larger scale organising. I’m not sure that means leaping to representative democratic forms. I think you can create recallable delegates to larger organising platforms without pretending they are ‘representative’ of anyone. Perhaps we disagree on language not substance, but I think it is important to avoid the language of representation because it can only ever be dishonest. Representation does not represent. Full stop.

  6. Anonymous says:

    nice blog, good job done man! keep it up...

  7. Amen on the 1% keeping all winnings and charging all losses to the taxpayers.
    Being purely theft that is.

    We’ve a chain of newspapers and television/radio media locally, throughout the midwest and even in CA I believe called Freedom Corp. Kind of a mini-FOX. Our local daily snot-rag the Colorado Springs Gazette and KOAA News 5 have started in with “How Much The Occupy Movement Costs Taxpayers in the Springs”. Which here, is like usually 20 or 30 folks at the park. Considering how rigidly fascist this town is it’s a big turnout. And what they’re referencing is the amount of police and court money spent to suppress that “massive civil unrest”.

    So, I mean, even the most ardent fascist has free speech, right? I’m fully in favor of free speech because the douches can show everybody just how stupid their position actually is. Free Speech being a part of the law has kept me from being handcuffed and subsequently beaten more times than not, (but there were all those other times…) Free speech also enabled a couple of cartoon characters to be portrayed farting out the tune Duelling Banjoes. On TV.
    So why complain?
    Easy. the bastards have been in bankruptcy for the past three years, have been passing their huge losses on to the people of Colorado twice each time, once on the state income tax and once on the federal. We’re literally supporting these jackasses and they know it.

  8. Mariann Wizard says:

    Mike, these are an excellent 10 principles (let’s ditch the judeo-christian commandment crap, OK?)for activists, thanks for sharing — I plan to share with several folks active in Occupy and other movements here, etc.
    However, I would want to add one, maybe it could be part of the ‘anti-sermon on the mount’?? Something I learned a long time ago from George Vizard: “Your first responsibility is to your own head.”
    When big events are transpiring and folks look to you for leadership, it’s easy to get a swelled head, start thinking you’re all that, and easiest of all to forget to eat right, exercise, meditate, make love, laugh, and enjoy life. When that happens, yes indeed, any pretense at “representation” is out the window. No matter how brilliant, accomplished, dedicated, etc., an activist may be, s/he can never start thinking that s/he’s “better” than the most ignorant, obstinate, annoying volunteer in the mail room.
    (ha ha, this is funny, my secret word is “egad”!)

  9. Anonymous says:

    I’m sure it was just intended as a joke, but your sentence “Spokespeople should regularly be rotated and when necessary, shot” might give the wrong impression, especially since it comes right after a reference to Martin Luther King Day. As Harry Shearer always likes to point out, humor is often best left to the professionals!

  10. Anonymous says:

    To claim our only options are consensus or representative democracy is absurd. Direct democracy with mandated, recallabe delegates is NOT the same as representative democracy. It is important here to know history; do you really think people were twinkling during the Spanish civil war? Consensus is not an inherently anarchist practice. It comes from the Quakers. It may have it’s time and place but let’s not mistake it for something it’s not.

  11. Omara Little says:

    It works! Thank u mike Davis.. 4.. City of quartz. Any suggestions for the next best book by mr.davis…only having one read under belt from college?

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