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Local Resistance Can Overthrow Our Political Masters

Smoke and fumes from a 2012 fire at the Chevron refinery in Richmond, Calif., sent 15,000 residents to hospitals or medical offices. Richmond City Council member Gayle McLaughlin, interviewed in the article below, is a vocal critic of Chevron's effect on the environment and the corporation's longtime political power over the city. (Eric Risberg / AP)

SANTA ANA, Calif.—All resistance will be local. We will have to dismantle the corporate state, piece by piece, from the ground up. No leader or politician is going to do it for us. Every community that bans fracking, every university and institution that embraces the boycott, divest and sanctions (BDS) movement, every individual who becomes vegan to thwart the animal agriculture industry’s devastation of the planet and holocaust of animals, every effort to build self-sustaining food supplies, every protest to halt the use of lethal force by police against our citizens, especially poor people of color, every act of civil disobedience against corporate power and imperialism will slowly transform our society.

Those who rebel, once they rise up, will build alliances with other rebels. This will give birth to a new political expression, one that will be fiercely anti-capitalist and will seek to sustain rather than destroy life. Rebellion will come from the bottom. I do not know if we can succeed. The forces arrayed against us are monstrous and terrifying. The corporate state has no qualms about employing savage and violent repression, wholesale surveillance, the criminalizing of dissent, and its propaganda machine to demonize us all. But I know this: We are the only hope. We are the people we have been waiting for. And if we do not act to save ourselves, the climate crisis and the corporate state that caused it will continue to ravage the ecosystem and human societies until catastrophic collapse occurs. Indeed, we are already frighteningly far down that road.

I recently met here in Santa Ana with Gayle McLaughlin, who served two terms as mayor of Richmond, Calif., a city of 100,000, after being elected to that post as a Green Party candidate, and physician Jill Stein, a Massachusetts resident who was the Green Party presidential nominee in 2012 and now is a candidate for the party’s nomination in the 2016 presidential election.

McLaughlin spent a decade building the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a party that refuses corporate donations. The RPA formed coalitions with other groups and parties, including the Peace and Freedom Party, and by 2004 it was winning elections. Among the supporters it attracted were many disenchanted members of the Democratic Party.

McLaughlin was elected to the Richmond City Council as a Green Party candidate in 2004 and won a race for mayor in 2006. She served in that office until this year, when she termed out. She is back on the seven-member City Council—which includes two other RPA members—despite the efforts of Chevron, which has a huge refinery in the city and ran Richmond like a company town for decades (it used to keep a desk for a Chevron executive in the city manager’s office). The company poured $3 million into the 2014 City Council campaign in an unsuccessful bid to defeat McLaughlin and the other RPA candidates.

McLaughlin and the RPA have attempted to turn back the tide of corporate pillage in Richmond. They have doggedly fought Chevron, extracting an extra $114 million a year in taxes. They have stood up for the working poor and the homeless. They have pushed through a law requiring a minimum wage of $13 an hour by 2018. They have denounced the rampant militarism of American society.

McLaughlin and the party, in a program called Richmond CARES (Community Action to Restore Equity and Stability), advocate using eminent domain to purchase or seize homes whose value has fallen below the amount owed on the mortgage. The city would then renegotiate the mortgages with private financial firms to reflect the real value of the homes, reduce mortgage payments and avoid foreclosure. Implementation of the program has been blocked by bank lawsuits and other factors.

The example of Richmond, and cities such as Denton, Texas, where residents organized to ban fracking, illustrates that on the local level, where grass-roots organizing can counter corporate propaganda and money, it is possible to wrest power back.

“The Chevron Richmond refinery is the most productive refinery in the state of California,” McLaughlin said when I met with her and Stein in Santa Ana. “It is in our city’s boundaries. It makes billions of dollars in profits every year while our community suffers from poverty and health issues. We had a major fire [at the refinery] in 2012, and 15,000 [Richmond residents] were sent to local hospitals. We are suing Chevron as a result of that fire. Chevron wants candidates in office who will settle for pennies. It bought up every billboard in town. It spent a lot of money on social media. It sent out high-quality mailers. But the people saw through it. We went door to door [in the 2014 City Council election campaign]. We were at community events. We built on 10 years of hard work. And we defeated them, although we were outspent 20 to 1.”

Nationally, because the United States lacks powerful radical, grass-roots organizations, the hegemony of corporate power is largely unassailable. The Republicans and the Democrats, beholden to corporate money and subservient to corporate power, have effectively conspired to shut out the possibility of a viable third party. Any vote on a national level for third-party candidates—who are locked out of the debates and, because money rules politics, can get little airtime—is largely a protest vote against the system. And while that vote is important, if only to send the message that we will not cooperate, our energy should be spent mostly in pushing back locally against the intrusion of corporations.

“How do you get past the corporate leviathan?” Stein asked. “We’ve all become Richmond, Calif. A hostile corporate force occupies us all. Corporations are polluting our air and our water. They are degrading our jobs or exporting them. They have imposed a massive lockdown, a state of siege for an entire generation.

“But the leviathan is so over-zealous, so heavy-handed and so overfunded that it is beginning to self-destruct,” Stein went on. “We are seeing that in the American national political scene. The pompous buffoons in the Republican debates horrify people. People are clamoring for other options. A recent Wall Street Journal poll shows that 50 percent of Americans no longer identify as being either Democrat or Republican. The system is crumbling from its own internal decrepitude. Our push is to try and help that happen.”

But Stein and McLaughlin concede that the political, economic, environmental and cultural unraveling may also embolden powerful proto-fascist groups, often bankrolled by the most retrograde forces of corporate capitalism. These right-wing groups do what all fascists do—demonize and attack the vulnerable. Undocumented workers, Muslims, African-Americans, homosexuals, liberals, feminists, intellectuals, artists, dissidents and radicals are vilified as the cause of national decay. The Christian right, the tea party, nativists, white supremists, neo-Confederates and militias celebrating the sickness of gun culture call for internal purges in the name of vengeance, patriotism and moral renewal. Many in the police and other organs of internal security harbor similar sentiments. As those of us who seek the overthrow of the corporate state gain strength, these proto-fascist groups, tolerated or even blessed by the state, will along with the state employ violence against us. Corporate power will not give up its grip easily. “This is an existential moment we are in,” Stein said. “It is hard not to envision scenarios of self-destruction, including massive homicide and Gaiacide. We are being destroyed by a predatory, occupying corporate force and an economic elite.”

The commercialization and destruction of culture by corporations have, however, handed to dissidents a powerful weapon. No revolutionary movement succeeds until it harnesses the power of its disenfranchised artists and intellectuals and captures the public imagination. Theater, film, music, painting, poetry, fiction, dance and sculpture make ideas felt, as Emma Goldman pointed out. They allow us to reflect on our own reality. They expose systems and patterns of despotic power. They offer alternative visions. They inspire resistance. They hold up the possibility of transcendence. They allow us, in short, to know ourselves, to understand where we come from and where we should go. This dimension of artistic depth is fundamental to resistance. And this is why in all totalitarian states, including our corporate totalitarian state, independent artists are shut out. They are marginalized, silenced, repressed and censored or forced because of economic necessity to use their talents to work on behalf of corporate propaganda and the banal spectacles that dominate mass entertainment. All who deal in the realms of truth, beauty and justice are a threat, but none more so than artists.

“Vision is essential,” McLaughlin said. “We are not only in a political crisis because of the two-party system, because the Democratic Party leads movements into dead ends, but we are in a cultural crisis. We are dominated by corporate culture. We need our artists. They are not valued, especially our working-class artists. In all revolutionary moments there are collaborations between art and politics. There is an intersection of politics and culture, which addresses social ills and also inspires movements. Art can do what political ideologies often cannot.”

The state is acutely aware of our rights, needs, frustrations and aspirations. It manipulates them with appalling cynicism. This is how Barack Obama got elected. And it is why the Democratic Party—which has carried out an economic and political assault against workingmen and -women, obsequiously served the demands of the merchants of death that manage empire, assisted in the building of our vast system of mass incarceration, expanded the assault on the ecosystem by the fossil fuel industry and revoked most of our civil liberties—tolerates Bernie Sanders. It can force him, in the end, to play by its rules. It will demand that Sanders become its propagandist, which he has agreed to do if he is not the Democrats’ presidential nominee, in the battle with corporate Republicans to control the perks and financial rewards that come with political power.

“The enthusiasm around Bernie Sanders’ campaign is like the enthusiasm around Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign,” Stein said. “And in the Obama campaign, people were betrayed. We have to lift up an alternative, outside a corporate party, that will not be about betrayal.”

“On a national level it is certainly gamed,” Stein said of the presidential campaign. “But there are many purposes that the national race serves. One is to build a structure through which, eventually, circumstances may permit a victory [for progressive change]. This may not be now, but we have to build it. Social change happens because of social movements, but political and electoral movements can help amplify that. It can help fan the flames.”

“If you look at, for example, the labor movement in the U.S. in the early 1900s, there was a proliferation of small independent parties that applied a lot of pressure and gave rise to a national voice in the form of Eugene Debs’ presidential campaigns,” Stein said.

“When we run for higher office we have to stand outside the two-party system,” said McLaughlin, “but when we do this we have the situation Jill is facing [as a presidential candidate]. We are not getting heard enough. We are not getting into the debates.”

“We need a new third party,” she went on. “We need to connect Greens with other third parties and independently thinking people. We need a reciprocity relationship with movements such as Black Lives Matter.”

All those who stand outside the system to denounce and defy corporate power, marginalized although they are, give us hope. There are rumblings of rebellion that already frighten the corporate state. The corporate state will seek to use all of its resources to funnel us back into its embrace, to attempt to make us believe that the options it offers are the only options. It is time to break free. It is time to refuse to cooperate. It is time to do what is right. If we follow our consciences, if we dismantle corporate power in community after community, perhaps we have a chance.

Chris Hedges
Columnist
Chris Hedges is a Truthdig columnist, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, a New York Times best-selling author, a professor in the college degree program offered to New Jersey state prisoners by Rutgers…
Chris Hedges

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