An interview with Russell Maroon Shoats on Democracy, Matriarchy, Occupy Wall Street, and Food Security
Interviewer: How would you define democracy?
Maroon: In it’s broadest sense – to me – democracy is the ability of the individual to exercise self-determination in the core areas of economics, education, entertainment, labor, law, politics, religion, sex, war and peace; taking under consideration the need to both support and guide children until they can responsibly exercise those things on their own.
If one falls victim to believing what Marimba Ani calls “rhetorical ethics,” (the practice that has held sway surrounding the word democracy) then you would dismiss my definition as superfluous. Nowadays, however, more of the masses, globally, are accepting the fact that except for a small minority, democracy is something they do not exercise in any of those core areas.
So the question we must ask ourselves is “How do we construct societies where the individual is able to broadly exercise self-determination?
Interviewer: Do you find the concept of democracy to be useful to popular movements?
Maroon: For the already mentioned reasons, the exercise of democracy/self-determination is paramount at every stage of a popular movement, and for such an effort to remain true to the word “popular.” After all, individuals usually feel a need to look out for their own interest, and to promote and support democracy/self-determination goes hand in hand with that need. If a popular movement deviates from that, then it too will fall into the practice of utilizing rhetorical ethics if it continues to call itself popular.
Interviewer: What was the relationship between democracy and the Black Panther Party?
Maroon: Here I’ll have to step on a lot of toes.
The Black Panther Party (BPP) – of which the Philadelphia Black Unity Council (my parent group) merged with in 1969 – was never a democratically run organization. It too used rhetorical ethics to justify its methods, both internally and to the public at large. It championed the Leninist vanguard party concept that had been used during the Russian struggle against the czar. Subsequent to that, close copies of those practices have spread throughout the world before the BPP adopted it. And I’ve been researching and studying those instances for about 40 years, and have yet to find a single vanguard party that really exercised what I have defined as democracy/self-determination.
Such groups have and continue to champion the establishing of popular movements – as I’ve defined them – but their motives are to try to control such movements and use them as a battering ram to weaken or defeat the state in order to give the vanguard party a chance to try to “seize state power,” and then set themselves up as a new ruling elite. The histories of vanguard parties leaves no doubt about that.
The BPP, however, was a youthful formation that served a historical service of giving youth of color – and later youth in general – an introduction to a form of radical politics that was little known to them. Little did they know that the methods they chose to use were contradictory to the ends they sought. Thus early on they began to experience the friction developed from members believing the rhetorical ethics the leadership relied on, and the leadership’s failure to act towards the rank-and-file democratically, within the traditional vanguard party “democratic centralist” organizational rules.
That force the BPP leaders to resort to using naked terror and violence – both internally and within the communities (see what the womyn BPP head wrote in her book: “A Taste of Power,” by Elaine Brown). Eventually that and the struggle to keep the state from destroying them (see the FBI’s COINTELPRO program of unlawful actions against the BPP), along with their youthful inexperience caused the original BPP to disintegrate, leaving members in prison, exiled, disillusioned and with shattered lives. Only a fraction of those former BPP members remain active in ways that justify their earlier sacrifices and efforts.
Unfortunately, newer BPP formations have not been provided with enough insight into this subject to help them fully weigh both the strengths and weaknesses of the original BPP. Indeed, some of the newer formations are hostile to any real critiques of the original BPP, a practice held in common with most Leninist vanguard parties historically.
To the rescue has come the multiple popular movements that the Arab Spring has thrown up: the Wisconsin state workers, Georgia and California prisoners’ actions, and Occupy Wall Street. Here we’re witnessing a promising trend that contains the seeds that can develop into a much-needed popular movement, that can be democratic and self-determining, and capable of challenging the minority for control in the already mentioned core areas.
Interviewer: Would you say you are a latecomer to the feminist movement?
Maroon: Yes! In fact, although I’ve been a committed activist since before the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, it has only been in the last 6 years that I’ve been awakened to the best of what feminism is, and the history of that movement. Moreover, I’m ashamed to admit that in that area I too have long practices a rhetorical ethic in paying lip service to the idea that since before 1968 I was struggling fro the uplift and freedom of all, while never fully grasping that my entire worldview was steeped in, and rested on patriarchal/male supremacist ideas, notions and practices, feminism’s opposite and mortal enemy.
My New York based comrade Fred Ho is the first person to put it all together for me. In the transcript of a speech I read, he had made an excellent case of how the ancient practice of matriarchy was once a widespread and egalitarian phenomenon, and why today we must again study how we can utilize some of those principles in order to address the ills that humynkind face today.
Nonetheless, I was so stuck-on-stupid until I continued in my male supremacist ways, incorporating Fred Ho’s ideas in a rhetorical ethic to hide my psychological conditioning, which I’ll explain.
It took the writings of Stan Goff, a former career military man (Special Forces, Rangers, Delta Team; Vietnam, Grenada, Somalia and other operations veteran) who had rejected the oppressive policies that he had spent his life defending, and adopted a form of radical politics and activism to get my full attention: such machismo is venerated within the patriarchal/male supremacist worldview. He was “my kind of guy.”
In Goff’s third book, Sex and War, he really got my interest by offering long and insightful quotes to bolster the points he was making, quotes by radical and feminist writers and activists. Passages so full of meaning until they stimulated me to begin to research the full works of the wimmin mentioned. Powerful feminists like Maria Mies, Vandana Shiva and Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen; activists, scholars and grassroots organizers, with groundbreaking books like Ecofeminism (Mies and Shiva), Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale: Women and the International Division of Labor (Mies), and The Subsistence Perspective: Beyond the Globalised Economy (Veronika Bennholdt-Thomsen and Maria Mies). Critiques that I’ve learned more from than most of what I thought the previous 25 years of study and activism had taught me. More importantly, those works and further study, reflection and discussions caused me to radically alter my worldview and political views.
Thus, when comrade Fred Ho and I recently go together, I was finally ready to join his efforts, which you too can examine by e-mailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Interviewer: What were the primary obstacles – psychological, social, or otherwise – to your being receptive to the feminist movement?
Maroon: Psychologically and socially – like most males – from birth I was conditioned and socialized to accept and even seek violent solutions to most problems: the pirates, cowboys and Indians, war movies, James Bond, gangsters, boxing, football, martial arts, hunting, and on and on. . . . Little boys get toy guns, toy soldiers, football gear and then “graduate” to get (or want) real guns and to go to war – with “somebody!”
Fred Ho and Maria Mies point out that for thousands of years men first bamboozled wimmin out of acquiring and maintaining the knowledge and tools (weapons) of the martial arts, before going on to subsequently use that knowledge and those weapons to totally subjugate wimmin and nature – the foundations upon which patriarchy rest.
Unknowingly, I became a member of that patriarchal cabal almost from birth, and remained a loyal member even after I thought I was struggling in the Black Panthers and Black Liberation Army for egalitarian ends. An effort that was destined to leave patriarchy/male supremacy in place, even if we were otherwise successful.
It is depressing to know that it took me over 60 years to stumble upon a feminist who had the kind of “credentials” I could trust, in order to pay proper attention to: “macho” Stan Goff. Therefore, I believe that men – the more respected the better – were the best advocates to win other men over to feminist ideas and practices (Fred Ho and his comrades more correctly use the word matriarchy/matriarchal, but for this piece I’ll continue using feminist).
Finally, it’s my opinion that the leading feminist/matriarchy thinkers and activists are heads and shoulders above all others in offering up a worldview that we can utilize to help rescue ourselves and the environment from this worsening crisis we’ve allowed ourselves to be manipulated into. You too need to look into their ideas and programs.
Interviewer: What are the strengths and weaknesses of the Occupy Wall Street Movement?
Maroon: Occupy Wall Street (OWS) has brilliantly changed the narrative and relationships of opposing forces – not by the “occupations,” which by themselves could be equaled or even eclipsed by a number of other street demonstrations from the right and left (let’s not forget that Tea Party activists “occupied” venues for a while too). That’s not to belittle the beautiful and inspiring people of the OWS inspired occupations and related on-going actions.
OWS’s strategica strength and paradigm shifting breakthrough is encompassed in the awesome “We are the 99%” slogan. That alone instantly won to our side 99% of the inhabitants of the globe! A master stroke that forced the ruling minority into a defensive position that it will be extremely hard for them to get out of. Indeed, the ruling elites only responses have been to use police force, which leaves the OWS movement in control of the narrative, and those inspired by them are themselves thinking of ways that they too make their grievances known.
It’s like the rebellions (so-called “riots”) during “The long hot summers” of the 1960s: each rebellion fueled later rebellions, because the underlying conditions were so widespread until there was simply not enough police/national guards to fully repress them. The genie was only coaxed back into the bottle after billions of dollars were spent on social programs, with President Johnson’s “Great Society” being the best known.
Today, however, the ruling minority will be both unwilling and (finally) unable to fully co-opt the 99% financially, unless they commit “class suicide”; meaning, they would have to agree to reorder the system so radically, and give back so much of the wealth they’ve stolen until in the end they would have “killed the goose that laid the golden egg.”
The ruling minority won’t even accept the pleas of their more farsighted like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates, who see the handwriting on the wall, and are begging them to at least act like they care by paying their taxes . . . which is roundly ignored and ridiculed, the U.S.’s ruling elites equivalent to when Queen Marie Antoinette was told that the Paris masses ad no bread, responded “Then let them eat cake.” Or – nowadays – “Go to the mall and buy a flat-screen TV.”
Control of the narrative will continue to be the main strength of the OWS movement for the foreseeable future. But in order to effectively be more proactive OWS must address a glaring weakness. Namely the present physical disconnect between it’s activists and the exploited and super-exploited people of color – numbering in the tens of millions in the U.S. alone. A segment of this country that have always suffered more (per capita) than the rest of its 99%. I’ll not address how the global 99% breaks down in that regard, except to say that the global South has historically been at the bottom of the barrel in most respects. But I know the U.S. better, so I’ll address things here, and leave it to others to breakdown the situation elsewhere.
In the U.S. the people of color – except for a minority of rich and “middle class” individuals – are worse off than the rest of the 99% (per capita) in every category: homelessness, jobless, home foreclosures, lack of health insurance, newly diagnoses with HIV, deportations, immigrants homes broken up and separated, children in foster care, drug and crime ridden communities, imprisonment, probation or parolees, loss of voting rights and access to local, state and federal social welfare programs, horrible schools, forced to live in toxic communities, and the list goes on.
What’s important is OWS’s moral strength really rests on its avowed pledge to rescue this country’s vast “middle class” from further sliding backwards – into the poverty that the majority of the people of color find themselves in already. Yet, the middle class itself is not yet ready to take the steps that are necessary to pursue a protracted struggle to reach those ends. And the people of color have yet to see that it’s in their interests to hit the streets in mass in order to alter the class composition and goals of this movement. Most people of color view OWS as a “white thing,” or so I’ve been told, not recognizing that their mass participation is needed to help OWS mature into a true mass movement.
To complicate this lack of participation by the people of color is the failure of their traditional “leaders” to mobilize them behind OWS. A failure – I believe – is a product of these leaders’ egos: they feel a deep sense of jealousy and envy towards this young upstart movement, who have accomplished more in weeks than they have in the last three decades. And the hostility of OWS to the old charismatic leadership style – the “leaders” believe – threatens to make them useless; an extremely shortsighted calculation! In fact, their accumulated knowledge and experience could be invaluable if they would control their egos and begin to see themselves more as organic intellectuals than as the old style leaders that there was “some” justification for prior to the spread of modern communications, that the Arab Spring demonstrates makes that style superfluous, reactionary, and a drag on forward progress.
That said, it’s my belief that OWS and those traditional influential personalities within the people of color communities still desperately need each other!
In The Wretched of the Earth, Frantz Fanon tells us that during the Algerian independence struggle the forward elements of that effort initially believed they could bypass the traditional leaders amongst the oppressed and go directly to the masses with their compelling logic and arguments against the French colonial system. They failed, however, and were isolated, killed, exiled and imprisoned.
After studying things while in prison, they decided to seek the help of those leaders as a necessary compromise on their release; a position that later bore fruit, although both elements – the forward thinking fighters and the traditional leaders – continued to struggle to control the dynamics of the independence movement.
OWS – I believe – must pursue a similar strategy in order to acquire help in mobilizing the masses amongst the people of color in the United States. Simply because an influx (beyond the relatively small numbers we see) of people of color into the OWS movement will provide a bridge between the forward elements in OWS and that vast middle class that’s needed to be successful, but who have to be given time to realize they too must hit the streets. And the people of color will benefit by being in a position to educate OWS to the necessity of putting their needs and concerns “on the front burner” because they are the proverbial “canary in the coal mine”; meaning, whatever kills the canary will later kill the coal miners – if not attended to.
OWS must seek out not only the known influential individuals in the people of color communities, but also the smaller groups who are working for change. OWS can also launch their own initiatives in those communities – wherever that’s deemed possible and useful.
Interviewer: What are economic alternatives to the current domination of big banks, war profiteers, and the profit-drive system?
Maroon: On November 25,, 2011, on Democracy Now! “Occupy Everywhere: Michael Moore, Naomi Klein on the Next Steps for the Movement Against Corporate Power,” a similar question was raised: “How does the OWS movement move from the ‘outrage phase’ to ‘the hope phase,’ and imagine a new economic model?” Both Michael Moore and Naomi Klein addressed that, but I just want to comment on a few things Naomi Klein said. Namely, that after the Seattle protests and the later hysteria, war and repression following 9/11, many radical activists had to “put their heads down and started building the economic alternatives to that model we were protesting in Seattle, Washington, in Genoa and around the world. . . . Now we have 10 years of those experiences.” She goes on to tick off many of them that I would encourage you to read about at: http://www.democracynow.org/2011/11/25/occupy_everywhere_michael_moore_naomi_klein
One aspect of the prefigurative work that strikes me as the bedrock is working towards food security. There’s no need to detail how fragile most people’s food acquisition is, as that relates to healthy food and terrible eating habits and subsequent poor health in this country. Suffice it to state that the majority of the 99% are on shaky ground there. Primarily because we are prisoners of the large corporations that dominate everything we eat. And they actually mass produce, process and sell foods that have been proven – over and over – to be like slowly drinking poison – profitable (for them) poison.
Thus, food security is designed to lessen our dependency on those corporations, making us healthier and saving money and bringing us back to a respect for nature in the process. After all, we can’t struggle as much as is needed if we are as sick as most of us find ourselves to be. Such an effort is already being carried out by the parent group of the prefigurative initiative that Fred Ho is a part of: Scientific Soul Sessions (SSS); at www.scientificsoulsessions.com. On of their guides to food security rests on the practice of Mel Bartholomew’s “square foot gardening.” (www.squarefootgardening.com)
SSS writes, “According to Bartholomew, for urban settings, four square feet is all that is needed to grow vegetable gardens to feed two adults year-round. Rooftops, sidewalks, parks, front and backyards; common areas of buildings could all become food growing sources with minimal alteration and costs. Indeed, children and the elderly could be organized to tend to such gardens, and thus enhance the curriculum of math, science and other fields in the tasks of farming.”
It is imperative, however, that one does not start to believe that such prefigurative efforts, or others not mentioned here, are “the answer” to what all will be needed to bring about the deep and broad-based changes needed in the 21st century. Such mistakes were made after the high tide of the 1960s/1970s era. And those who made that mistake allowed the exploiting minority a chance to study how better to hold on to their ill-gotten power and wealth, and now we all face a much more ruthless and sophisticated foe.
Thus, prefiguration must work hand-in-hand with broad-based movements to bring about the changes needed, and OWS is on the cutting edge of that side of the equation.