Q. What cloaks the empire and turns a mighty movement into a mirage?
A. Narrow partisan politics.
When anti-war activism plays second-fiddle to “follow the leader” the chosen champion and the opposing villian loom so large that they become the main focus of attention obscuring the empire and dumbing the movement down.
But, build independent peace organizations — of any kind for any project — and we will put the movement on a firm foundation. If history is a guide, the most effective and committed voices for peace will come from an independent position largely outside of electoral activity. Applying stronger “outside” pressure on “inside” politicians and parties is the best recipe.
As Ajamu Baraka details in Black Agenda Report, anti-war activism driven by partisan loyalty is weak and limited. Partisan activism substitutes loyalty to a party for loyalty to our class interests and our political or environmental values — all of which demand peace and dismantling of empire. This is as true for the anti-interventionist conservatives that followed Trump to war as it is for the Democrats that only oppose Republican-led aggression.
Here is the essential history. The 2003 global demonstrations before the Gulf War were the largest peace demonstrations ever. But the size of the movement masked weakness: millions of those protesters lacked a truly political or anti-imperial opposition to war. The moderate tone of the protests failed to deliver either sustained disruption or systemic analysis. Going from weakness to weakness, the inability of even gigantic demonstrations to stop war further discouraged many. And, far too many protested only the outrages of Bush — a Republican President.
Obama, on the other hand, extended Bush’s wars and relied on drones, mercenaries and “moderate rebels” to lower US casualties and hide the war from the public. Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize and made everything seem cool again –including war. As the partisan protesters dropped out — comfortable with a Democrat in the White House — the real anti-war movement struggled just to survive.
Once again hopes ride high that politicians will save us but an anti-war movement with eyes on the prize must avoid a narrow partisan approach.
To state the obvious: the empire is not a mere policy choice of particular politicians or parties. Rather, it is a system of alliances and military bases that enforce a global order. The current US empire is an interlocking structure that merges the corporation and the state — the Military-Industrial-Complex being the prototype of that merger. Since WWII both Democrats and Republicans have supported the empire with few exceptions.
Even still, it’s kind of amazing that the leading Democrats — in the middle of impeachment proceedings — supported the 2020 NDAA giving Trump a green light for war. Huge war budgets, a new Space Force, the elimination of all restrictions on the power of presidential wars and the use of force against Iran and Venezuela handed Trump the keys.
This shallow partisan stance will not lead us to anti-imperialism but we can counter with messages that emphasize the cultural and systematic nature of war and empire. The deep culture of war is hate and fear of the “other” contrasted to our own exceptional innocent white morality. Whether you go around stirring up the hate and fear of immigrants, or women, or Blacks — or Iranians, Muslims, Russians, or Chinese — you are stirring the imperial pot.
If we are only against hate and fear when the Republicans do it we are not against war. The empire has deep roots far beyond the reach of electoral activity. Show me a single example in world history of an empire dismantled in an orderly fashion by an election.
What Are Our “Units of Power?”
Let’s help people make the transition beyond the pro-war, pro-corporate consensus that dominates US politics. That transition will be primarily based on personal experience in a poly-centered movement large enough, diverse enough and audacious enough to disrupt the existing order.
If there is a clear formula for scaling up from the hopeful but small movements of today to more massive movements — I do not know what it is. But for starters, it cannot hurt to connect empire abroad with empire at home, anti-austerity efforts with opposition to the poverty draft, and the peace movement with the environmental movement. That’s big synergy for sure.
But synergy needs structure. Pick any project you like, of course, but build organizations to seed a larger movement and to tide us over between dramatic moments of protest.
“Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations.”
“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is, as would be expected, also our most demanding, that is organization. To produce change people must be organized to work together in units of power” — Martin Luther King
There is widespread anti-war sentiment but without “units of power,” these attitudes will not become a mass movement.
The empire is a giant machine cranking out racism, misogyny, poverty and climate chaos. War is coming for your children and your planet. Make the connection between war and your community.
Units of power are best built along the paths to anti-imperialism. The Embassy Protectors; Women’s March on the Pentagon; the Black Alliance for Peace; National Network Opposing the Militarization of Youth; GI Rights Hotline; US Labor Against the War; Code Pink and the Poor Peoples Economic Human Rights Campaign are a few prime examples of how to connect communities to the peace movement.
Or maybe best of all go totally local. Local chapters of Veterans for Peace are working hard as are community-based groups like St. Pete for Peace, Chelsea Uniting Against the War, NJ Hands Off Venezuala or No F-35 Fighter Jets in Madison.
Sporadic waves of protest, party politics, and appeals to morality will not be enough to reach millions of people. It’s our job — if we truly oppose wars — to build units of power and prove that war and empire are against the economic and political interests of the vast majority of the American people.
Our narrative: the empire is the weapon of the 1%; the engine of austerity; the enforcer of hate and hierarchy; the cause of climate change and the enemy of freedom. Our countermove: organize the unorganized.
Also in Counterpunch.
The rapid response to US war moves against Iran has been an exciting start toward rebuilding the anti-war movement we so desperately need. Thousands took to the streets in more than 80 cities. It’s a great beginning. But, if we want a movement of millions we are going to have to reach everyday people outside of the existing movement, outside of partisan politics and outside of strictly moral appeals.
We start by waging peace because the anti-war movement is the main path to anti-imperialist action — or so the history of the Vietnam Era would suggest. If we want to grow from a radical movement of thousands to a disruptive movement of millions our job is to help people discover their own economic and political interests for opposing war and empire. In other words, we have to help people see war not simply as a morality play, or electoral politics, or as a separate “foreign policy” issue but as a power struggle — their struggle.
Ten anti-war messages in no special order:
- “We should never have been there in the first place.” By the end of the Vietnam War, this straightforward idea was popular anti-imperialism and it challenged the US role as cops of the world. It was stock wisdom among millions of everyday anti-war Americans. We should have never been in the Middle East, or anywhere else, in the first place.
- Empire abroad means empire at home. War and empire do not defend democracy but destroys it. It was the empire that undermined what little remained of representative democracy once the Executive Branch took over all war-making powers and everyone else fell into line. When the Military-Industrial-Complex and the secret police became major players in the government and media, democracy gave up its last ghost. Proof? We have not had a constitutional declaration of war since WWII. If the highest law of the land is routinely violated for 70 years — so much for the rule of law.
- Stop the Poverty Draft! The lack of decent wages, universal health care, and free higher education are the main recruiters for the poverty draft. The 1.2 trillion we spend annually for war enforces austerity at home by diverting funds and resources. Only the 1% get rich on war. The war machine thrives on and creates poverty.
- Hate and fear of the “other” is the culture of war. Hate and violence abroad and the culture of hate and violence at home exist in a vicious feedback loop. It’s not a coincidence that the hate demanded by the wars inflicted upon black and brown people abroad find a direct domestic parallel in the militarized penal system aimed at black, brown and poor and the attacks on immigrants of color.
- And make no mistakes, its war that drives climate change. Not only is the military the largest consumer of fossil fuels, its the enforcer of an oil empire. War captures resources and forces countries to submit to a global regime where the US dollar is the only acceptable currency for trading fossil fuels. Stand outside of the oil empire –refuse to pay imperial tribute — and its regime change time for you.
- Defend democracy and national sovereignty. Not only does the US routinely violate the national sovereignty of other countries but also attack legally elected governments. This is not debatable but plain fact — know the history.
- “We are sick of being lied to.” We have decades of proof that the war-makers lie — the Afghanistan Papers being the most recent. Every claim made by every political official should be judged in that light. The public record is clear — war is based on lies and deception. Remember: “In War Truth is the First Casualty.”
- Listen to anti-war soldiers and veterans. The greatest challenge to war is anti-war soldiers and veterans because they completely upset the empire’s narratives and are the most effective of all protestors. The peace movement from within the military’s ranks is a bridge between some hard-won, down and dirty knowledge about war and millions of people who do not currently define themselves as anti-war. Support About Face, Vets for Peace and Veteran’s Power.
- Empires rise and empires fall — without exception. American Exceptionalism has conditioned us to see the US as a moral force outside of history. Exceptionalism is a master narrative of war that blinds us to the dangers of an empire in decline. The liberal aspects of Exceptionalism are the hardest to see but they encourage us to understand war as a morality play with the US acting as a force for good in the world.
- Imperial wars are unwinnable wars. Eighteen years in Afghanistan and over 25 years of on-again-off-again war with Iraq prove that these wars are unwinnable. Unwinnable wars are just permanent military occupations — the hallmark of empire. Sooner or later the facts become obvious to the people under US control and they want their countries back.
What should be our most important anti-war narratives? Let’s start out right with the goal of bringing the US empire into view as a target for political action. We need stories that help reveal to millions of people the true nature of empire. We need stories that can help us organize actual constraints on the war machine. We need stories that help us to find the beginnings of freedom in the end of empire.