Of Shibboleth and Power

Sometimes, when a comrade intentionally ignores relevant facts in the discussion of an issue, it may indicate that the comrade is


by an unexamined shibboleth. If I remember my Bible, the word shibboleth was used as a kind of military password, because enemy intruders couldn’t pronounce it.  Those who approached Hebrew positions at night and couldn’t say it were likely to be slain.  Wikipedia defines today’s use of shibboleth as “words and phrases that can be used in a similar way — to distinguish members of a group from outsiders.”

During the run-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the United Nations became a central battlefield between pro-war and anti-war forces. People’s oppositions to the war at home and abroad, as well as inter-imperial rivalry, obliged the George W. Bush administration to have Colin Powell perform his perfidious sideshow before the General Assembly in attempts to create a veneer of legitimacy and buy domestic acquiescence, creating the conditions for the subsequent showdown in the Security Council.

The whole process of diplomatic struggle inside and outside the Security Council delayed the ground offensive for weeks.  It also influenced the narrow decision taken by the Turkish parliament to deny the United States Army’s 4th infantry Division its northern “anvil.”  These developments weakened the Americans’ tactical disposition in Iraq after the invasion, protected and strengthened significant sections of both the political and armed resistance, and advanced the degradation of U.S. forces by years.

Yet many on the left were altogether dismissive of the drama of resistance in the Security Council — which actually diminished Washington’s ability to wage war when, where, and how it pleased — just because the U.N. is at bottom an “agency of imperialism.” Such categorical dismissals are symptomatic of a kind of leftist idealism. Another face of the same idealism is the tendency to promote maximalist programs that are currently endorsed by only a tiny handful of socialists at every mass manifestation of resistance to any aspect of the ruling-class agenda.

Underlying both unfailingly categorical dismissals and untimely maximalist programs is a notion that (“correct”) ideas will create their own reflection in the material world.  That reversal of Marx’s materialism is combined with an absolute failure to grasp the actually-existing ideological cosmos of the masses which is structured to blockade the very analysis we have . . . not by some generic false consciousness, but by an elaborate, emotionally-resonant belief system that “might be visualized as a closed set of concentric circles stacked one on top of the other and ascending heavenward: God, property, womb, family, church, free market, nation, global mission, God.”1

The same goes for how the left relates to the Democratic Party and electoral politics.  Neither Democrats nor elections can be accurately represented as undifferentiated phenomena — except as shibboleths, as the running passwords of ideological purity posing as ideological clarity.

The problem manifests itself — during the latest downturn in anti-war activity — as an inability to resist the temptation to gloat, “I told you so,” to all who have voted for John Kerry, nicknamed “ABB” (anybody but Bush). Sanctimony, however, is not helpful if we have any intention of trying to work with them in the future (given that they constitute the overwhelming majority of those opposed to the war, and that there was an unacknowledged diversity of reasons people felt obliged to get behind the Democratic Party yet again). 

Neither John Kerry nor the high rollers at the top of the Democratic Party hierarchy are synonymous with the people who belong to or support the party.  The general election is not the same as local and state elections either.  Yes, the parties are both bourgeois; and yes, elections serve to legitimize the system.  So what!

If African Americans in Eastern North Carolina abandon the Democratic Party right now, they will be thrown back thirty years within six months, because this imperfect vehicle is the only effective defense against the Republican Party of Jesse Helms. And they don’t need any white leftist to explain to them about Democratic betrayal.

Anti-abortion zealots prevailed on the Bush administration to cut funding to the United Nations Population Fund, resulting in 2 million unwanted pregnancies around the world, and 77,000 infant and child deaths.2 

Rattling off an unrelated list of Democrat Party offenses in the face of such facts does not remove a stubborn wrinkle in the argument that there is no difference between the parties.  There is a difference, and it is the base.

What, then, should be our approach? Adopt the principles of direct action organizing, as described by Kim Moody and others: win something you can see, give people a sense of their power, and alter the relations of power.

As we prepare to be dutifully ignored by the press and the administration at yet another national demonstration on the Mall in Washington DC,  counter-recruiters all over the country are magnifying the military’s current recruitment and retention crisis.  These efforts are not sexy, and they are not garnering big media, but they are doable, locally sustainable, and having more of a material impact against imperialism than anyone’s speeches.

I’m not dissing speeches or demos (I’ll go in September), but they should encourage people to get involved in similar “break-the-machine” direct action.

I argued against supporting John Kerry, and actually argued that the left should bloc to intentionally defeat Kerry and take credit for it. But I also know that Democratic Party dependence is not the disease.  It is the symptom of a left and a mass movement that doesn’t know what else to do. And all we have given as a concrete alternative to elections is a series of peaceful mass demonstrations. They are important and valuable, but what’s next? At this point in time, direct escalation beyond civil disobedience will be met with brutal repression, which most of the masses will ignore and many of them will support.

A friend recently asked rhetorically:

What if instead of DC we took the actions to Northern Virginia?  If the peace movement understood the centrality of NoVa, protests would be planned for Reston, Arlington, and Herndon instead of the Mall. In NoVa, protests would really be a threat.  My adventure in the techie world of military retirees and defense contractors has been enlightening.  No wonder the bulk of the war budget is being spent here in the DC metro area; it is not necessary to be in Iraq to do the analysis, or build databases and models.  The anti-war movement punts it by focusing on symbolic targets rather than actually interfering with the war.  A weekend protest in Arlington would disrupt operations, increase logistical issues, and create security concerns for at least a week or two.  A convergence with a week of small protests, teach-ins, and outreach to local groups and constituencies leading to a big march, connecting the global to the local would be productive.  The “Big March” syndrome (BM) prioritizes Congress, not the powers behind the throne. . . . A 20-30K demo is meaningless on the mall.  Building a movement here would help to put pressure on the institutions of militarism, directly on the circuits of power.

That’s my two cents, too.  Do the demo, but make sure it inaugurates a period where we build locally, and interfere with the war.  This is the exercise of real, not merely symbolic, power.  And it can be used to overcome the impasse that continually drives people back into the arms of the Democratic Party.


1. Linda Kintz, Between Jesus and the Market: The Emotions that Matter in Right-Wing America (Duke University Press, 1997). See especially the Introduction.

2. Center for Reproductive Rights, “International Family Planning and Reproductive Health,” Item F048 (June 2003).

Stan Goff, a former US Army Special Forces Master Sergeant, is the author of Hideous Dream: A Soldier’s Memoir of the US Invasion of Haiti (Soft Skull Press, 2000), Full Spectrum Disorder (Soft Skull Press, 2003), and Sex & War (forthcoming, December 2005). Read his blog Feral Scholar at <stangoff.com>.