Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn
On Civil Disobedience

Howard Zinn

To commemorate the eighth anniversary of the death of historian and activist Howard Zinn, we republish the interview we conducted with him in January 2007.

Howard Zinn
24 August, 1922-27 January, 2010

You once wrote that direct action ‘encompasses a great variety of methods, limited only by our imaginations’.  What methods do you find at our disposal today?  And what limits does your imagination impose upon them?

Howard Zinn: Direct action means acting directly on the object of your protest or the source of your grievance, as opposed to petitioning or lobbying for your elected representatives to act. We see it in strikes, both historically and today, which are a form of direct action against corporations that, for instance, exploit their employees, or manufacture war weapons. Another form of direct action is non-violent (that is, avoiding violence against human beings) action, including forms of sabotage.

Around 1980, ‘ploughshares’ groups (turn our swords into ploughshares) began invading companies that made weaponry, and committed minor acts of sabotage to protest the actions of these companies. Only recently, a group of religious pacifists calling themselves ‘The St. Patrick’s Four’ poured blood on a marine recruiting station to protest the war in Iraq. Boycotts are another form of direct action. The national boycott of grapes, carried on in the 1960s by the farm workers of California against the powerful growers, brought about better conditions for farm workers. The desertion of soldiers from immoral war, or the refusal of men to be drafted for war, are also forms of direct action.

You say that our problem is civil obedience, not civil disobedience.  ‘Both in war and in the law courts and everywhere else you must do whatever your city and your country command’, states Socrates; and these words, you claim, have been impressed on our minds.  You find in history many instances of submission to authority even in the face of terrible injustice, and very few of rebellion.  Why do people submit so readily to injustice? 

HZ: People submit to injustice for two reasons: one is that they do not recognize it as injustice. A young person submits to the exhortation to join the military without recognizing that he or she may go to a war which cannot be morally justified. The media and the educational system may not educate them about historical examples of resistance to injustice. Or people will submit to an injustice because they feel they have no alternative, that if they refuse they will be punished, perhaps by loss of a job, perhaps by being sent to prison. They may submit because people they have been taught to respect and trust – the President, their minister, even their family – may tell them they must submit to injustice because they owe something to their government, or their church or their family (as Plato had Socrates saying in The Crito, he couldn’t escape from his death sentence because he owed something to his government). READ MORE

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

One Question
Fascism (Part Two)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Is Fascism making a comeback?

The second set of responses is collected below. Click here for Part One.

Is Fascism making a comeback?

Laurence Davis

Seventy-two years after the end of World War II, the spectre of fascism is again haunting the globe. The important questions we should be asking are why, and what can be done about it.

The evidence of history suggests that fascism thrives in periods of severe capitalist crisis by redirecting fear and anxiety about socioeconomic dislocation onto easily scapegoated ‘outsider’ groups, who must be brutally repressed in order to reaffirm society’s ‘natural’ hierarchies and enable national rebirth. Just as Mussolini and Hitler capitalised on the economic and political crises of their time, so too contemporary fascists are endeavouring to tap into a deep and racialised popular anger that has emerged out of the crumbling ruins of neoliberalism and market globalisation.

Many commentators of a liberal democratic persuasion have dismissed such warnings as scare-mongering, and insisted that the most appropriate response to ‘populist politics’ is a renewed commitment to market globalisation with a ‘human face’. I maintain, to the contrary, that the only effective antidote to emerging forces of fear and hate is not less popular democracy but more.

Whereas contemporary fascists are giving voice to the ugly authoritarian and reactionary face of popular opposition to the political and economic establishment, an egalitarian and inclusive left popular radicalism can and must expose the real roots of festering social problems by speaking plainly and directly to ordinary people’s needs, without pandering to their worst prejudices and fears. In practical terms, this will require grassroots democratic organising of the sort exemplified by political forces currently leading the struggle against fascism and working to construct viable community-based post-capitalist alternatives, such as in Rojava and Greece.

At the level of ideas, it hinges on a reconnection with radical democratic revolutionary roots. Historically, the revolutionary ideas and social movements that are the very antithesis of fascism, and the only sure defence against it, have tended to emerge out of, and given ideological coherence to, popular democratic social forms. However, in our time once revolutionary ideologies and movements like socialism and anarchism have grown increasingly detached from their radical democratic roots, leaving a political vacuum that right-wing populists and demagogues have been quick to fill.

Walter Benjamin’s observation that every rise of fascism bears witness to a failed revolution speaks poignantly to our current condition. It may be interpreted not only as a warning, but as a grimly realistic utopian hope that we still have a fleeting historical opportunity to act before it is too late. READ MORE

One Question
Fascism (Part One)

One Question
Fascism (Part One)

One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.

This month, we ask:

Is Fascism making a comeback?

The first set of responses is collected below. Part Two will be published tomorrow.

Is Fascism making a comeback?

Chiara Bottici

In fact, fascism has never gone away. If by fascism, we mean the historical regime that created the name and embraced the ideology explicitly, then we have to conclude that the concept is only applicable to the political regime that reigned in Italy between 1922 and 1943. This, however, amounts to little more than a tautology: ‘the Italian fascist regime’ = ‘the Italian fascist regime’. History clearly never repeats itself, so any attempt to apply the category of fascism outside of that context would be doomed to fail. That may be a necessary cautionary remark for historians, but how about social and political theorists? Can fascism be a heuristic tool to think about and compare different forms of power?

If by fascism we mean a political model that was only epitomized and made visible by the Italian kingdom during 1922-43, then we arrive at a very different conclusion. Consider for a moment the features that characterize that form of power: hyper-nationalism, racism, machismo, the cult of the leader, the political myth of decline-rebirth in the new political regime, the more or less explicit endorsement of violence against political enemies, and the cult of the state. We can then certainly see how that form of power, after its formal fall in 1943, continued to exist in different forms and shapes not simply in Europe, but also elsewhere. We can see how fascist parties continued to survive, how fascist discourses proliferated and how different post-war regimes emerging world-wide exhibited fascist traits without formally embracing fascism.

Coming close to our times, we can see how Trumpism, as an ideology, embodies a neoliberal form of fascism that presents its own peculiar features, such as the respect of the formal features of representative democracy, the combination of free-market ideology and populist rhetoric, and the paradox of a critique of the state accompanied by the massive recourse to its institutions. But it also exhibits features, such as the extreme form of nationalism, the systematic racism, the macho-populism, and an implicit legitimation of violence, which are typical of fascism. In sum, we should consider fascism as a tendency of modern power and its logic of state sovereignty, a tendency that, like a Karstic river, flows underneath formal institutions but may always erupt in its most destructive form whenever there is an opening for it. READ MORE

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward Herman
The Media Image of Terrorism

Edward S HermanEdward S. Herman – 1925-2017

To mark the passing of leading media and political analyst Edward Herman, we republish our interview with him from our book Weapon of the Strong: Conversations on US State Terrorism. We were fortunate to have Ed’s thorough and enlightening contribution to our project. He will be missed.

 

Margaret Thatcher referred to publicity as the oxygen of terrorism, and this is quite a widely accepted idea; the implication being that terrorism requires mass media coverage to gain support, legitimacy and sympathy.  What would you make of this point in regards to state terrorism?

Edward Herman: First, I should note that Mrs. Thatcher’s point is very misleading.  For one thing it obscures the fact that terrorists often resort to violence, and seek publicity, in response to grievances of marginalized and weak people that cannot be addressed through the mainstream media or existing political or judicial processes.  So they may need that publicity “oxygen” to gain desperately needed attention and to breathe at all.  A second point that Mrs. Thatcher evades is that the state often uses the terrorism of the weak (which I have labeled “retail terrorism,” as opposed to “wholesale” – large-scale – terrorism, carried out by the state) in order to create fear, so as to divert the population from unpopular economic policies or to justify the abridgement of civil liberties and arms buildups and war.  The George W. Bush administration in the United States was notorious for regularly using terrorist scares for electoral advantage or to justify some military or political action, scares that were in virtually every case based on trivial, out-of-date, or manufactured incidents.  It is also not true that retail terrorist actions usually create support or legitimize those who engage in them – almost always the publicity given to the terrorists is negative and their cause is not advanced by these acts.[i]

State terrorism may be used either at home or to pacify people abroad, the latter often done indirectly through proxy forces.  If a state is using terror to crush its own people, it needs to make the threat known to the populace to make them acquiesce through fear.  So in this case a certain amount of publicity “oxygen” would serve state terror, although the state may deny and limit information on its terror in order to avoid damaging publicity abroad.  At home not much publicity may be required, given that policy actions, such as people being shot or dragged out of houses and “disappeared,” and word-of-mouth information flows, may suffice to alert and terrorize the populace.

Where state terrorism is carried out abroad, directly or through foreign proxies, publicity in the home country is of course undesirable.  Supporting state terrorism abroad, if described honestly, would be deemed immoral, so truthful publicity would be avoided by the state and discouraged for the media.  The publicity itself would be deemed “unpatriotic,” and in the case of the Reagan administration’s support of the terrorizing Guatemala government in the 1980s, human rights organizations like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch were harshly condemned by administration officials for alleged exaggeration, but also for providing aid to the enemy insurgents and populace under terrorist siege.[ii] READ MORE