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Wednesday, October 22 2014 @ 05:20 PM CDT

Review: The Beginning of the American Fall

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Stephanie McMillan, an interior and cover designer at PM Press, is probably best known for As the World Burns (also Seven Stories Press), her collaborative graphic novel with Derrick Jensen meant as deep political satire, but which came across as naive Sierra Club-worthy pabulum. The Beginning of the American Fall -- is there a double entendre in there? -- is a combination comic book and political manifesto, which is really nothing much more than an amalgam of feel-good liberalism (hence the 2012 RFK Center for Human Rights Journalism Award) and Stalinist Popular Frontism.

The Beginning of the American Fall: A Comics Journalist Inside the Occupy Wall Street Movement

by Stephanie McMillan (Seven Stories Press, 2012)
144 pages, paper. $16.95

Stephanie McMillan, an interior and cover designer at PM Press, is probably best known for As the World Burns (also Seven Stories Press), her collaborative graphic novel with Derrick Jensen meant as deep political satire, but which came across as naive Sierra Club-worthy pabulum. The Beginning of the American Fall -- is there a double entendre in there? -- is a combination comic book and political manifesto, which is really nothing much more than an amalgam of feel-good liberalism (hence the 2012 RFK Center for Human Rights Journalism Award) and Stalinist Popular Frontism.

A fledgling environmentalist from Florida, McMillan's first exposure to leftist politics beyond polite lobbying came in the form of a zombie from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA (RCP) hawking their weekly paper, the Revolutionary Worker (2-3).1 For those who don't already know, the RCP is a hard-line Maoist gang that has a history of ridiculous ideological positions and disreputable practices; their condemnation of homosexuality as a characteristic of capitalist decadence,2 their cult of personality around the uneditable windbag Chairman Bob Avakian, and their manipulative engineering and control of various front groups (No Business as Usual; Refuse and Resist; the October 22 Coalition to Stop Police Brutality, Repression, and the Criminalization of a Generation [with which McMillan worked while she lived in NYC as a member of the Revolutionary Communist Youth Brigade]; Not in Our Name; The World Can't Wait3) have made them plenty of enemies among radicals.

If she had ever become disillusioned by her experiences among the Stalinist bureaucrats-in-training in the RCYB, which she "had split off from" in the '90s, she doesn't say. She only mentions "Whatever critiques I might have had of them, being lazy wasn't one of them" (72). This is in reference to meeting up with "Permadasi, at the time the main national organizer for Deep Green Resistance" whose work of creating "13 chapters so far since the book came out" McMillan calls "amazing." "I hadn't seen that kind of persistence and determination since I'd worked with the RCYB... in New York." Of course the two of them were in the Brigade together all those years ago. Their celebration of the mind-bogglingly doltish strategies of DGR dovetail almost seamlessly.4 Careful readers can pull some strings together to find a larger thread, however. Pages prior to this, McMillan inexplicably (since previous to this she comes off as a generic anti-capitalist) has a friend looking at his smart phone saying "Elderly Maoists in China -- supporting us!" (46) and then in response to her icon saying "Are you crying?" he says "I can't help it" (47). I had to look back at the previous two or three pages to see if there was an Old-New Left segue I had missed. Not really; there was some nebulous mention of international solidarity for Occupy. So I turned back to the "elderly Maoist" reference, and it got me thinking about McMillan the author, and her political agenda -- which would only become more clear much later in the book. Was she nostalgically referencing the same elderly Maoists who, during the Great Leap Forward of Stalinized hyper-industrialization (1958-61), built some of the most devastating dam projects the world has ever seen?5 Is McMillan the environmental activist really that ignorant of such anti-ecological policies? Are these the same Maoists who, in 1989, ordered the lethal militarized clearing of the occupation of Tienanmen Square? The same Maoists who, from September through December of 2011 (during the height of Occupy Wall Street), were laying siege to the village of Wukan? Doesn't this bother McMillan the supporter of Occupy? The opportunism and myopia of ideologues in general, and Maoist ideologues in particular, is quite shameless.

A bunch of more or less famous people litter the pages of this comics journal in a nauseating display of name-dropping: satirical political cartoonist Ted Rall; professional progressive pediatrician Margaret Flowers; frenetic anti-Black Bloc slanderer Chris Hedges; Starhawk; elderly Maoists; another RCYB comrade of McMillan's and member of the Kasama Project Jed Brandt; the general staff of Deep Green Resistance; Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund attorney Thomas Linzey; Maoist fellow-traveler Arundhati Roy; the aforementioned RCYB veteran Permadasi; Kasama Project6 leader Mike Ely; ISO off-Broadway actor Brian Jones. The dominant trend here is obvious. Liberals and leftists ripe for hooking into a Maoist-organized colonization of the more radical (outside of Oakland7) Occupy activists.

While McMillan acknowledges the Occupy phenomenon is "heavily influenced by anarchism," it's clear she isn't one, and indeed has no real sympathy for our ideas. When she states "Leaders always emerge organically from collective activities, whether that fact is acknowledged or not. The way to avoid a problematic concentration of power or bureaucratization is to make sure each person is encouraged to participate to her or his fullest ability, and to stretch this to the maximum," she's not saying anything groundbreaking, but it is a little odd for a Maoist -- unless that Maoist's agenda is primarily geared toward the creation of an Intermediate Organization (see footnote 4). Then her continuation of that thought starts to make more sense: "it requires a friendly atmosphere where ideas are not shot down through sectarian labeling... or competition between people who value their own prestige and being right over the development of the collective" (14). Maoist agendas are fundamentally different from those of anarchists and other authentic radicals; they do not make trustworthy allies. So if we already know that, the statement about how to avoid bureaucratization rings hollow, if it's not completely unbelievable.

Perhaps the clearest example of this difference is her analysis of the state. It comes in the midst of her analysis of global capitalism that she presented at an all-day ecological conference, where Jensen would interview six people (three of whom are part of DGR -- nothing like a little in-house captive audience self-promotion). In the introduction to the text of her presentation McMillan states:

My desire during the last few years has been to build the "red-green bridge" -- to bring class consciousness into the environmental movement, and eco-consciousness (biocentrism) to socialists, communists, and others on the left. Earth at Risk would likely be a great chance to reach many radical environmentalists, so I decided that my talk would focus on making these links. For the first part, I described how capitalism works as a system, intertwining the exploitation of labor and extraction of resources in an omnicidal process that can't stop growing. In the second part, I focused on the importance of making strategic alliances between various struggles, in order to destroy capitalism.

Her analysis of capitalism is old-school Marxist-Leninism (that is, Stalinism), right down to the backwards understanding of imperialism. McMillan: "[The capitalists] must force open and seize control of more markets. This is one of the driving forces for imperialism. When more than one country does this, major inter-imperialist conflicts ensue" (61). Typical for Leninists, McMillan elides the role of the state in creating such conflicts, as if capitalists have military forces capable of creating the conditions for imperialism at their disposal. Readers have to wait until the next page to get any idea that there are states at all! "The sole purpose of the state is to keep the flow of capital running smoothly. It administers and regulates the process with its government and legal system. It enforces it with its military, police, prison complex, and security apparatus" (62). That's all she has to say about the state; it exists solely to facilitate the legal flow of resources and profits to capitalists. Wow. Is it any wonder that anarchists and Leninists don't get along? Is it any wonder that Leninists (and most other Marxists) have allowed Engels' absurd idea of the withering away of the state to continue to hold ideological -- not to mention tactical and strategic -- traction over their practice? Once the Revolutionary Organization captures state power and dismantles the flow of resources and profit (we can leave the question of the Party becoming the new capitalist class to another time/place), the brutal functions of the state are supposed to become obsolete. For Engels again, this would be the replacement of the state being rule over people into the state as the administration of things (by which he clearly meant an economy, but a socialist one).

The notion that state bureaucrats might engineer imperialist adventures either as distractions from domestic turmoil or merely to extend and consolidate a security apparatus -- all in the name of patriotism, the first refuse of the scoundrel, escapes those who remain loyal to statist ideologies. The lack of any analysis of the function of the state beyond being the facilitator of capitalism showcases one of the many limitations of Marxism. It used to be that almost every honest Marxist (if one was lucky enough to encounter one!) would say that their ultimate goal was a classless, stateless society. With the bureaucratic innovations of Stalinism (of which Maoism is a subheading), the goal became merely the expropriation (not quite the abolition) of private property. All the varieties of Stalinism in power maintain(ed) the other defining aspects of capitalism: wage labor; the production, circulation, and consumption of commodities; an enforced medium of exchange; and markets (both domestic and foreign).

McMillan is a straight-up Maoist. I do not say this merely as a facile insult -- although it certainly is -- but more as a descriptive warning. However, in writing this annoying little book, she has inadvertently performed quite a useful service to anyone who hasn't encountered this particularly nasty brand of Marxism before and who is therefore unfamiliar with the various strategies and tactics they use when trying to attain positions of influence within activist groups they start or those they wish to control. She outlines (and at time is quite explicit about) what they want and how they plan to reach their various goals, especially in the appendices. She shows how little Marxist-Leninists have in common with anti-state radicals, and how little they actually promote what is recognizable as anything anarchists and other authentic revolutionaries would find interesting and appealing.

1 In 2005, the paper's name was changed to Revolution; the Party website states: "[W]e believe that the new name more fully reflects our revolutionary communist ideology and politics, and the enriched vision of a tribune of the people that has been pioneered by RCP Chairman Bob Avakian." Less unintentionally funny, and more obviously, it more fully reflects an implicit acknowledgement of the complete failure of the Party cadre to have any noticeable (positive) impact among actual working people, despite forty years of being sent into the industrial workforce to bring the Good Word of Chairman Bob to the benighted and ignorant proles.

2 The Party's official position was altered in the early 2000s; re-education camps are no longer invoked as a part of the solution to the homosexual problem, and the defense of LGBTQ people against right-wing attack is now promoted. But 25 years of homophobic indoctrination doesn't disappear just because the hierarchs in the Party decree a change in policy. An authoritarian condescension -- and not just toward queers -- still operates at all levels of the Party, from the paper-sellers to the upper cadre. Toleration is not the same as acceptance, and has precious little in common with questioning sexual preference or gender as a location of (static) Identity. In this way, the RCP is much closer to the fundamentalist Christians it pretends to oppose: "hate the sin, not the sinner."

3 At the same time they create resentment and enmity among more democratically minded activists who at least pay lip service to some form of decision-making transparency, RCP front group organizers (like the best missionaries) have managed to hoodwink plenty of idiot activists who cannot see how they are being manipulated because of the overriding importance of the Good Work they believe they're involved in.

4 Deep Green Resistance is an explicitly hierarchical, triple-tiered organization with plans for a clandestine paramilitary wing, based on the organizational models of the IRA and the ANC -- and we've seen what stellar policies those outfits have implemented once in power (to say nothing of how they've dealt with internal dissent all along). The similarities of the DGR model to that promoted by McMillan's One Struggle as reflected in their document "Toward an Anti-Capitalist/Anti-Imperialist Mass Movement: Organizing at the Intermediate Level" are obvious. One Struggle promotes a tripartite structure as well: there's the Revolutionary Organization, which is characterized by "A high level of theoretical, ideological, and political unity" -- what we might call The Party; the Mass Organization, which maintains "Unity based on common interests to achieve a specific goal (such as a union fighting for higher wages, or a coalition to stop a war)" -- which we could call The Coalition; and the Intermediate Organization, where there's "A level of unity that defines and opposes the system as a whole, yet refrains from defining a specific strategy for eliminating it (thus is able to embrace members with various theories)" -- what we might call the Popular Front (131), which must incorporate segments of an allegedly progressive middle class! In any case, what DGR and One Struggle most notably share is a structure based on ideological conformity and organizational discipline, with distinct initiatory levels and a strict division of labor.

The attraction DGR holds among animal and earth liberation types is based on a similar organizational fetishism that neo-Platformists have among anarchists. DGR's leaders decry the "ineffectiveness" of the decentralized and self-organized ALF and ELF; this "ineffectiveness" frightened non-human animal exploiters (primarily in the pharmaceutical and biomedical industries) so much that they pressed Congress to pass the Animal Enterprise Terrorist Act (2006) to augment the Animal Enterprise Protection Act (1992). The two more famous of the DGR troika, the political chameleon Derrick Jensen (who voluntarily contacted the FBI after he received an alleged death threat from an alleged radical) and the militantly transphobic anti-vegetarian Lierre Keith (who voluntarily called the cops after she was pied by some outraged vegans at the SF Anarchist Book Fair a few years back -- and no, it was not laced with pepper spray, hot sauce, cayenne powder, or any other chemical agent), have flirted with radicals for years: Jensen by his previous association with Green Anarchy; Keith by her association with PM Press -- do we detect a pattern there? Even without their independent running to the cops, neither of them should be confused with any recognizable type of anti-authoritarian.

5 "Big dams built hastily during the Leap included the Banqiao and Shinmantan in Henan province at Zhumadian, which broke catastrophically in August 1975, resulting in the deaths of 86,000 people according to the government, to 230,000 (an estimate by Chinese opponents of big dams)." (Mao's War Against Nature: Politics and the Environment in Revolutionary China by Judith Shapiro, p. 63).

6 The Maoist Kasama Project, formed in 2007 as a minority split from the faltering RCP, and is primarily made up of those who were unhappy with Avakian's "New Theoretical Synthesis" and his increased [!?] dogmatism. Their aim is a "reconception" of revolutionary theory and the role of the revolutionary organization (see footnote 4 for McMillan's description), and in doing so they pretend to be non-dogmatic, saying they are open to listening to people from other political traditions. Their support for the electoralist anti-Indian nationalists (disguised as a struggle against Indian capital) of the Communist Part of Nepal-Maoist should automatically remove them from being considered radical.

7 Occupy Oakland, while tolerant of the presence of individual members of the RCP and the ISO as well as the occasional Uhuru House homophobe or ANSWER shill, did not accept any official organizational presence of any of the usual leftist alphabet soup outfits. On May Day, the RCP tried to involuntarily enlist marchers in their pageant of Maoist nonsense; in a spontaneous extension of the welcome a few of us gave them at an earlier SF Anarchist Bookfair, some anarchists (deniers of free speech, unlike the elderly Maoists who constantly shut down the interwebz in China) decided to soak a few of them with beer and water.

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Review: The Beginning of the American Fall | 2 comments | Create New Account
The following comments are owned by whomever posted them. This site is not responsible for what they say.
Manarchist alert!
Authored by: climbxam on Sunday, March 31 2013 @ 10:57 PM CDT

Wow, this review made me lol. What a joke! Manarchy at it's worst. Stop bashing on others and get to work!

Manarchist alert!
Authored by: lawrence on Monday, April 01 2013 @ 01:24 PM CDT

 What the hell are you talking about?

PS, please learn the difference between its and it's before you presume to lecture someone.