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The Logic of Torture--
impunity, democracy, and the State Power

by Marc Sapir

The premise of this paper is that torture--like Mr. Rove--is a simulacrum for a growing state of impunity in the U.S. today; and that this impunity implies the decline and fall of our democracy. If the United States has become one of the least democratic of the world's nations espousing "democracy", the impunity that torture represents will not be stopped without adapting new analyses and methods that can challenge the State's (Federal Government's) predations and usurpation of public rights and the popular will. This discussion is not fundamentally about torture but about the nature of democracy and the State power. It culminates with a synopsis of vibrant new models of democratic revival in the Americas.

The playing field in the U.S.A. today

The current cabal that controls the U.S. government has perfected self-contradiction as an ideology. They repudiate "big bureaucratic government" which they claim interferes in our personal lives and destroys our moral fiber. Yet they enact laws to ensure that the State--in particular the government military-security enforcement apparatus--grows at the greatest pace in history, imprisons ever more people under questionable circumstances, puts 100,000 on a terrorist watch list, takes over control of the most personal individual decisions such as those pertaining to reproduction, and has every intention of interfering more in our personal lives through the imposition of fundamentalist religious and cultural standards that repudiate scientific fact. They claim they are against deficit spending while they assure war, war crimes and a homeland security budget that drives the Federal deficit to outer limits. This in turn guarantees vast profits to their friends and an artificial temporary respite from the economic crisis of the distorted and overdeveloped world Capitalist productive machine.

They argue that they are defenders of democracy while instituting and supporting terrorist dictatorships (such as that in Haiti), imposing their will on other democracies (such as El Salvador which was threatened with economic destruction had it elected Shafik Mandel President), and attempting to kill and overthrow elected and popular leaders (such as Venezuela's Hugo Chavez and Cuba's Fidel Castro). When such leaders do not accept their interventionism and economic and political domination they simply put them on a hit list. They say they believe in the will of the American people while snidely snubbing their noses at the will of the people on every important matter from war to social security retirement rights; from torture to workers rights to employment protection; from the right to health care, housing and safety, to protection of the North American and global environment.

They also claim to honor the U.S. Constitution and the rights it guarantees us. Yet they promulgate laws (such as the USA Patriot Act) that remove many of those rights. They conspire among themselves to steal elections and violate laws that get in the way of their various and vast nefarious projects. These bizarre contradictions are particularly glaring with regard to torture. The Bush men claim to oppose torture and to adhere to the Geneva conventions on war and torture while, without blinking an eye, they proclaim the legal right to, and do, violate the 1994 Convention on Torture. They have implemented a worldwide apparatus to seize and torture people who they suspect of wrong doing-with or without any evidence. And by the end of July they were working hard against a Republican sponsored bill that would require adherence to the Geneva Torture Convention. In a word, they make life painful not only by physically killing, torturing, intimidating and dominating people, but also by torturing the logic of language and the precepts of law, and then, having laid logic to rest--often with the assistance of the corporate media--they govern with total impunity, answerable to no one. They are the father who, when asked by his child why he can smoke or drink though he tells his children not to, responds, "because I can."

Though some of us might like to see Mr. Bush and his cohort sent to the Bar of Justice to stand trial for war crimes, that is not about to happen soon. Zogby International reported on July 6 that 42 percent of the public believes that if the evidence shows Bush lied to take us to war he should be impeached. However, there seems limited public awareness that the U.S. is becoming a nation whose laws are being changed to allow for lawlessness and impunity. Though citizens are in general distressed and fearful, most go on about their lives as best they can. People sit on juries, work--if they have jobs--get and pay parking and speeding tickets, live in doorways, apartments or mansions, pay taxes, get screwed by Enron and other corporate rip-off artists given unrestrained powers under "deregulation". Most citizens, residents and undocumented people still follow the basic rules set down by State legislatures and Congress, the Courts, the President and the TV because the appearance of an intact system of intractable, even semi-fair laws is sustained by 200 plus years of belief and history. That is the strength of Capitalist democracy, yet Mr. Bush's minions seem unconcerned about protecting that appearance.

Indeed, the necessary order of the most successful Capitalist power in history is under attack not mainly by terrorists but by the most craven of capitalist punk criminals who hold power. Yet the market itself, and the State (which is different from the particular individuals in power), collaborate and in many, though not all, circumstances assure that the rules are changed to abrogate the historically successful corrective mechanisms such as those elaborated under Keynesian economics. Only a few under the capitalist tent--whisle blowers and suddenly turned "outsiders"--feel responsible for righting this ship. This was similarly the case in Germany as Hitler rose. And this again reveals that when a Capitalist State turns to fascism the economic interests and powers that pay for and buy most politicians exhibit a strange state of detachment from the surrogates they have let loose. This reveals that under no circumstances are moral principles to guide political-economic policies. To the political-economic elite, fascism is better than a class war and loss of power.

"Checks and Balances" reflects the potential for largesse within a growing Imperialist State.

The Capitalist democracy under which we live has always rendered unto Caesar while at the very same time providing, as only imperialism is able, the general schema of a social contract under which the law shall assure to the common man "equal and fair" treatment. Of course Indians and Blacks (and even women) received no such guarantee under the U.S. Constitution; but rectification projects appeared historically under the law in the form of the 13th, 14th, 15th, 19th, 24th and 26th Amendments. And only in the case of slavery was a civil war required to make the necessary changes. These are certainly not trivial accomplishments even if separate but equal survived until 1954, immigrants suffered the Palmer Raids, the CIO suffered the McCarthy raids, and today 1 in 3 African American males is under some control of the criminal justice system. There were still the checks and balances. To some extent the presumptive checks and balances were God's gift to the new Capitalist era and this behemoth democracy to be. Yet now Capitalism-the system of asymmetric money replication and power by divine (in God we trust) right--is putting up a rather meek effort to defend its democratic history and institutions.

A story I recently heard on public radio may help clarify how the sense of American fairness is collapsing around us and how that crashing (like the $60 dollar barrel of oil) may well affect not only people's views of Mssrs. Bush, Chaney and friends, but public perception of the entire political class and order itself. A young man who was heavily recruited by the military while in high school decided not to enlist, but instead enrolled in community college in the Seattle area. However, with so many young Americans voting against the current war with their feet the local marine recruiters were becoming desperate. They badgered the young man at school and at home several times and then showed up at the family's home one night when his mother was out and cajoled the young fellow into going downtown to the recruiting office in the dead of night. In fact, they told him he had to come and he believed them. Once there they subjected him to intense pressure, perhaps resembling, in form, a terrorism or Patriot Act interrogation. They allowed him no food for many hours and when his mother figured out where he had been taken at 3 a.m. they refused to let her into the building to see him. She got a lawyer and eventually broke the siege.

Suffice it to say this family is seeking some justice and the young man is not joining the marines. This story represents a serious change in the quality of U.S. democracy and how the value of individual life is assessed. Certainly even relatively benign kidnapping of young Americans to bolster the Iraq war effort is likely to have a different affect upon public perceptions of U. S. democracy than Mr. Rumsfeld's helpmates would imagine. But this is also an example that the behaviors of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and the kidnapping and renditions for torture are certainly not merely aberrancies, but grow out a qualitative change in the way force and power are exercised and the way the value of our lives is measured by those in power. And on June 23 that was corroborated by the announcement in the newspapers that the Pentagon has secretly and privately contracted out a list--a project to assemble the names, demographics, views, grades and other details of hundreds of thousands of high school and college age American youths to help them with their manpower shortage.

Torture and Democracy: where does the U.S. public stand?

Turning specifically to the issue of torture: Where does the public stand on the issue of torture in their name? Beginning in October of 2003, Retro Poll (, a small volunteer public opinion research organization I lead asked a random sample of 150 Americans whether they support or oppose torture as U.S. policy. Eighty five percent said they oppose it. The same question was repeated in polls taken in April and October of 2004 and May of 2005 (with 205, 155, and 513 participants). The results were 88 percent, 71 percent and 80 percent opposing torture as U.S. policy. Although these are small samples, the consistency of opposition (as well as the summary data of over 80 percent opposition) suggests that overwhelmingly Americans are opposed to what the government is doing in their name when it tortures. The trick of the game however, is our finding that a clear majority do not know, or believe, that the U.S. is systematically torturing people. Many have received just enough mixed media-government messages to believe that the torture problem is just a "few bad apples" despite the incredibly strong exposés by Seymour Hirsh, Mark Danner and others.

In February of this year as torture exposés intensified, UC Berkeley Associate Professor of Asian-American studies Ling-chi Wang and myself formed a committee and convened a teach-in on torture (April 28). The Teach-In on Torture was sponsored by UC Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Department, International and Area Studies Department, and Program on Peace and Social Conflict Studies (see and endorsed by over 100 University of California faculty. We sought not only to expose that the government was violating U.S. and international laws and committing acts that it vociferously condemns when committed by others, but also we were attempting to expose how far the government's behavior and policies had strayed from the beliefs of the American people. Or to put it another way, that the U.S. might now find it difficult to lay claim to being the leading democracy on the planet. For both in actual content and in defiance of social norms, laws and treaties, and the will of its citizens, the U.S. government's capture and torture policies repudiate the principles of democracy, fairness and law.

Mr. Henry Kissinger, one of the founding fathers of the era of impunity, would likely be arrested and face prosecution for his direct role furthering war crimes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people should he show up in certain European and Latin American countries. This pertains to U.S. involvement in South East Asia and Latin America during the 1960s and 1970s. While the Bush cabal does not yet face this concern, that is not because the prima facie case is less compelling. Instead, the current power of the U.S. and the ease with which it can bully almost any nation on earth protect those in power. In this context, if U.S. citizens advocate universal principles of laws and democratic values toward other nations, we appear absurd, even if we oppose the current government. We are now forced to live as in an insulated refrigerator with very thick walls, isolated from both the necessarily responsive legal apparatus and the justifiable anger of much of the world as well. No one outside is in a position to catch these war criminal, but neither are we. This is, for the moment, the conundrum: Justice seems unattainable. Yet, imagine it we must. For it is by imagining that the means will come into being.

Torture is derivative of impunity.
Impunity is the dictum of every Fascist State

To try to challenge torture requires a broader discussion of the State, the Nation State. The idea, structure and function of the "State" is often perceived to be in some contradiction with pure individual rights (as espoused by Libertarians and laissez faire Capitalists) but is nevertheless fundamental to Class rule and specifically Capitalism. An important feature of the State is that the exercise of the State power is necessarily in direct contradiction with democratic process governance in general terms. That is to say, it is not just the individual whose rights the State often overwhelms but the collective populace. The State exists as a pre-emption of ongoing day to day authoritative participatory processes for the common citizens as a class. Most Americans have been taught to believe that the individual right to vote for members of Congress, the President and so forth are fundamental democratic rights, but these were neither rights placed in the Constitution nor are they valuable rights when they replace the right of the people to themselves participate in governance, substituting "representative democracy." Representative democracy could work in theory given a nation in which each person was equal in influence (i.e. there were no classes or hierarchies to heavily influence the selection of candidates or the behavior of officials in office). But that is not the case and thus the State is in essence an apparatus of force, compulsion and control, creating laws and enforcing order for those with most influence and power and other classes of people who may temporarily develop such power. The notion that this process involves the "will of the governed" through national elections is not an actuality. Only under local government in small areas can a purely electoral system provide any assurance, or even consistent high likelihood, that replacing one political party or one politician with another will lead to a more responsive or democratic State, even if changing parties causes policy changes. That is why Mr. Bush could make the preposterous claim that in his second term he had "earned political capital" to do whatever he damn well wanted. He understands the disconnect between elections and policy better than most. Elections provide little more than the appearance of effective public power within class society.

The State, of course, does have necessary functions independent of class society. We may not need drug laws and vast prisons from coast to coast to hold millions of citizens; we may not need hundreds of thousands of armed law enforcement agents, spies, and infiltrators, to criminalize those who oppose the State or those the State peripheralizes; but we do need to regulate commerce between and within countries. We may not need the government to do the bidding of wealthy contributors or to privatize all the public wealth and resources, but we do need to assure the safety of drugs sold or even given free to the public. The government needs to be responsible for there being enough housing for everyone and free quality health care and public education. There is a need for local courts to help people who can not work out their disputes through mediation and to remove people judged a danger to the community and so on. And even in the best of circumstances one can conceive of the need for either a national defense or an international State to assure peace. These are a few important state functions. But the propensity of the State to embody the class interests of the rich and powerful is historically demonstrated. So what would true democracy look like?


In 1848 Karl Marx postulated that, as the State in the Capitalist era was the instrument of capitalist class interests--even when those interests sometimes overlapped with the common people's--then the only way to proceed to a just classless society in which all would be treated fairly without domination was to destroy the Capitalist state structurally. Marx then made an intuitive leap of faith that plagued humanity for a long while afterwards. Since Capitalist ideas (the ideology protecting the rights of few to become and remain rich and powerful at the expense of everyone else) would still exist even after a social revolution, Marx argued, the majority class--the workers-- would have to wield state power to forcefully block the resurgence of capitalist political and economic domination. In the Communist Manifesto, Marx wrote that such a State (by inhibiting capitalist relations of dominance and selfishness and replacing them with cooperation) would eventually "wither away" as people adapted to an egalitarian culture. Marx did not foresee that this particular formulation might require the coalescence and empowerment of a new, elite political strata. In fact he did oppose the idea of a political class. He saw in the Paris Commune of 1872 the embodiment of his vision, governance by public assemblies and citizen legislators. The Commune outlawed the political class itself. Nevertheless, Marx lamented that the Commune did not seize the banks and march on the Versailles Palace and crush the remnants of the monarchy and its rising bourgeois ruling class. As a result of these two failures, Marx wrote, the Commune was crushed with tens of thousands of Parisians murdered when Germany invaded at the behest of Versailles.

But what if the Commune had captured Versailles and seized the banks and the money? The developed political economic realities of the 1870s in France, Europe and the developing Capitalist world system would still have been what they were. Could the Commune have gone on to flourish without a permanent State, without a professional federal government or Army? Had it not been attacked by Germany would it not have been attacked by England, or Holland, or Spain or other major powers as the young Soviet Union was less than 50 years later at Archangel?

Marx and later his most astute student, Lenin, focused attention on the issue of seizing and dismantling the Capitalist State apparatus of coercion. But while that had always seemed the most difficult of tasks, it is apparently part of a larger challenge--assuming power and facing the re-emergence of a new political strata which will wield the State's power in its own unique interests even if qualitatively different from the previous political elite which governed solely at the behest of money and the market. This is, in essence, what happened in the Soviet Union and later in China. And today, even among those who believe that classes might be formally eliminated by humankind, few hold out hopes for a Stateless society. There is just too much economic activity requiring regulation, and people seeking personal power and advantage are likely to arise even in the most benign of cultures. And if the deregulation of the Market since the Reagan revolution showed anything, it was that without State regulation of the political economy, modern societies will crash and burn even from the selfishness of a few.

The emergence of the Zapatistas
and the theoretical dialogue on State Power1

In the period between the Second World War and the collapse of Soviet Socialism there grew up within the internationalist left movement a broad revulsion of the Soviet State (even among people who supported Soviet Socialism) because of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union's self-serving behaviors. It was not hard to see that the interests of the Russian Party leaders often defined the behavior of the State as much as the interests of the Soviet people or the world's working class. As a result Communist Parties that obediently followed "orders" from Moscow such as the CP in the U.S. lost large blocks of members repeatedly. These desertions represented, among other things, a movement away from the way the Russian party exercised State power. However, most of these splits in the CP in the United States led to attempts to re-form communist parties (some of which were called Maoist, Leninist, Trotskyist, and Stalinist) that nevertheless still adhered to the basic Marxist Leninist model of the State-i.e. replacing the Capitalist state with the "dictatorship of the proletariat", a single party highly centralized State apparatus, as quickly as possible. By the end of the Vietnam war as the anti-CP "new left" in the U.S. lost coherence some groups of American activists turned their energy and attention to "single issue" activism viewing such theoretical questions as the State and State Power as not relevant to the moment, level and type of political struggles going on in the U.S. at the time (1975-88). By the mid 1980s both of these trends (the new communist party formers and the single issue and international solidarity groups) had lost any measurable role or influence within the U.S. working class. Where the now moribund Communist Party had had a million members at the start of World War II these many and various groups had each dwindled to hundreds of activists (at most a hundred thousand added all together).

However, on January 1, 1994 an unknown movement of Mayan peasants calling itself the Zapatista Army of National Liberation (EZLN, named for the Mexican peasant and revolutionary hero Emiliano Zapata) seized several major cities and towns throughout the State of Chiapas, Mexico issuing demands for indigenous rights and declaring their autonomy from the Mexican federal government. Where such cataclysmic events as the fall of the Soviet Union and of the Apartheid state of South Africa had failed to engender significant public debate on the issue of State Power in the U.S., the EZLN's Subcomandante Marcos, in explaining through internet communiqués at every juncture the relationship between EZLN practice and theory in a most amusing literary genre and by projecting the EZLN as an internationalist voice, opened a new era of theoretical debate on how to oppose (and potentially democratize) the modern State. As a result, today there are now several important Latin American movements engaging in this discussion as a practical necessity. Among them are the Zapatistas, the Bolivarian movement of Venezuela, the revolutionary peasant movement of Bolivia, and the factory seizure movement of Argentina. Others are or have already joined the discussion. Unique to these movements is the realization that they can not advance without tackling and solving the thorny question of "what to do (both in the present and in the future) with the State".

The dialogue began in the 90s when the EZLN conducted two plebiscites, called Consultas, (1995, 1999) in Mexico gathering millions of indigenous and supporter's votes. The first Consulta focused on whether the EZLN should help form a national political force of some type-- electoral or otherwise--or continue to fight mainly to build their autonomous communities and self-governance apparatus from below with its focus on indigenous rights, education, democracy, self-organization. The Zapatista local community practices conformed to many of the age old practices of the Maya of governance by community assembly. The national vote went narrowly against forming a broader national political movement or party. And as a result, this decision, democratically made, played a key role in focusing the future debate onto the problem and alternative approaches to creating a new State power. The second Consulta called on the Mexican public to ratify the San Andres Accords for Indigenous Rights and Autonomy that had been negotiated, approved (but then repudiated) by the Mexican Government. Not surprisingly, the EZLN won overwhelming support for indigenous autonomy rights in the vote.

The dialogue on the State grows throughout the Americas

I will use two examples to explain how the dialogue is developing. Bolivia, a nation with an overwhelmingly indigenous population, like so many impoverished nations worldwide, has been writhing under the ruthless privatization and austerity measures imposed upon it by the International capitalists through the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. (Decimate your public sector role and programs or you get no loans to sustain your government). In September of 2001, under a new Bolivian Constitution approved by the government in 1994 and following the advice of the World Bank, the government declared all the fresh water of Bolivia to be corporate property. Riots ensued and the new law was withdrawn, but the effort to privatize the nation's wealth accelerated and the struggle boiled over when the peasants of the City of Chochabamba arose in response to the privatization of their public water supply company which the government handed over to Bechtel corporation. The peasants were able to force the annulment of the agreement and the water system was reclaimed. But in October of 2003, 80 demonstrators were killed by the Army in related protests and President Sanchez de Lozada was forced to resign. His then Vice President, Carlos Mesa, assumed the presidency but now he too has been driven out by the peasant movement this past June because of his failure to defend the rights and resources of the Bolivian people. As the momentum and organization of the peasant movement grew, Bolivians, divided among a number of left groups and parties, became aware that the indigenous peasants (80 percent) might be able to control the central government electorally. But at the same time there evolved an interesting competing awareness that whatever party controlled the government, even if it were led by leftist peasants, would soon find itself largely under the control, not of the electorate, but of the International creditors. (The same realization has caused the EZLN of Mexico to recently declare there opposition to participation in the national presidential election although the "left-center" PRD candidate, Manuel Sanchez-Obrador, is very likely to win the election and become the first President from this young party).

The parameters of the dialogue on the State

This actuality of being unable to control the State even upon winning an election, precisely defines the parameters of the debate over State Power that is going on. And this year when the Bolivian peasants moved to topple Carlos Mesa they were not in a mood to take over the existing government, but to more thoroughly compromise the power of both the international money brokers and investors and their own national capitalists working in league with the former. Their demands were only two: nationalize the major natural resources (natural gas in particular), using the national wealth to develop the social infrastructure of Bolivia, and create a Constituent Assembly which would write a new political constitution that will assure power derives from the indigenous majority, and can not be controlled through money and other leverage. The 2005 peasant insurrection in Bolivia has been, in fact, so unsettling to the ruling political elites that at least up until this writing they have backed down from the civil war against the peasants that they had threatened. This was achieved in part because the peasants elected to disempower the State power through a progressive chain of self-empowerment actions. They chose to operate within the existing legal framework to just a sufficient extent that they were in a position to bring the nation to a halt and the State to its knees. They did this without threatening a destructive rampage, without spilling a drop of blood, and without being co-opted into accepting the carrot of electoral democracy within the existing framework. The potential for collapse of the State was implicit in their actions, but they left both sides room to maneuver by not making military confrontation an explicit goal.

One can surmise that the idea here is to seize control of the entire State by ultimately paralyzing it and replacing it with grass roots structures; which is to say they will try to step by step remove the power of the powerful to dominate until the content of State power has been overthrown. By that time most of the peasant population will, at least in theory, have been organized into the State power itself and there should be no need for an elite political professional class to keep down the "bourgeoisie". Though this be pure speculation, perhaps by avoiding a premature insurrection the peasants might be able to formalize-as the Zapatistas have in the 38 counties (including over 1000 rural communities) under their control--popular democratic assemblies like those of the Paris Commune and the early Soviet period.

Argentina: industrial society, same dialogue

Simultaneously a similar discussion had been developing within a different type of culture and movement. Argentina is the most Europeanized and economically developed Latin American nation. It became a magnet for European expatriation before, during and after World War II. In an historical irony, Argentina accepted large numbers of Jews escaping the Nazis (before and while the U.S. locked Jews out) and then allowed entrance to Nazis escaping the Allies who fled to Buenos Aires, the flourishing metropolis. But the strong nationalist movement engendered by the legendary populist to be President General Juan Peron offered no protection to the Argentinean working class from the tortures and murders of tens of thousands in the "dirty war" that followed the U.S. backed coup in Brazil in 1964 (see declassified documents at National Security Archives) and Chile in 1973.

The appearance of a democratic renaissance in Argentina over the past 15 years was more form than substance. True enough, the days of that terror are gone and electoral processes are well ensconced but the changes occurred under the watchful eye and political-economic dominance of the international financial class and their banks. The compliance with the financial elite by Argentina's elected governments drove the Argentinean economy and working class to the brink of catastrophe. At that moment in 2001 seeing that they had sucked the well dry, the international bankers in a move reminiscent of Enron and World Com robbing our country blind, removed all their money from the major Argentine banks taking it out of the country in the dead of one dark night, plunging the economy into collapse. Factories closed by the dozens. Citizens were not allowed to withdraw any money from bank accounts. Unemployment skyrocketed to record levels. Local movements of factory workers arose to try to reopen closed factories. The workers succeeded in taking over (now over 60) many plants in various economic sectors (this story is portrayed in the film The Take, by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein).

The factory owners and other capitalist sectors resisted these efforts legally, trying to force the government to evict workers. However, the workers defended their actions legally before courts and the City Legislature which was largely favorable to their argument. It could not be denied that they were creating jobs and economic activity, using only idle closed factories, in the midst of a vast economic depression. Even if the law granted that the property was owned privately the workers were, if anything, preventing the properties from decaying into ruins. The argument of eminent domain for idle plants could also be made. Courts and the legislature consistently--though not always--ruled in favor of the workers even though their victories were punctuated by State action such as police invasions, arrests, evictions and mass public protests against the reactionary State interference. (This intra-state conflict is somewhat reminiscent of the current battle over medically legalized marijuana in the U.S. where several states legalized the practice and license clinics while the Federal Governments keeps raiding, shutting down, and destroying such facilities and arresting those who work in them).

As this Argentinean movement grew and coalesced into a political force that has become more coordinated and mutually assistive, the inevitable question of State power again arose, particularly in the midst of the recent Argentinean presidential election. Although there was clearly a better and a worse candidate from the workers' standpoint, as is usually the case in Bourgeois capitalist democracies, it was impossible that any candidate assuming power would wield the Presidency in opposition to the interests of transnational finance capital. Money would always trump the popular will to assure that the State guaranteed its (money's) vast replication unhindered by concerns for the public's or the nation's well-being. The ebb and flow of the Take Over movement seems to have led the Argentineans to a similar conclusion reached earlier by the Zapatistas and the Bolivian peasants: the working class needs to compromise the power of the State by processes that allow it to accumulate sufficient collective unity and locally based organizational strength that it can supplant that power politically throughout the nation.

This is far from a simple process. For example, the Argentinean Take Over movement has faced significant challenges from within its working class ranks. In some cases workers who occupied plants have voted to reinstate hierarchies of authority, control and differential salary within their re-opened industry in defiance of the principles of collectivity and governance by mass worker meetings that have been accepted by most. In one or more settings different factions of workers have vied for control of a particular factory. But overall, the movement has transitioned from an effort to respond to local economic necessity (these takeovers were never initiated for ideological reasons but to try and get people working and restore their own dignity) to one with sophistication in vying for power with the Capitalist State and the owning class. Despite all the arms and troops available to the government, the workers' movement, as in Bolivia, has been able to keep the State off-balance and sufficiently isolated that a broad attack on the workers might lead to anarchy or a bloody insurrection.

This discussion is only beginning

The discussion above suggests that there is arising a new working class theoretical maturity which, though it sees the State as a dangerous force and a fundamental problem, seeks mechanisms to direct the behavior of the State from without (as opposed to from within or through simple mass insurrection) by accruing oppositional organizational strength and unity and the ability to threaten regular and ongoing intervention in the State's rule to force it to respond to majority interests. This understanding of the State recognizes the dangers of State Power itself to always operate--and use police/military forces--against the interests of a majority class when that class is not organized to isolate and neutralize potential attacks. It involves a process of simultaneously weakening, destroying and reconstructing the State Power in a classless format. Ultimately this process requires new techniques to politically neutralize the military and the police and that is where the Venezuelans may be able to contribute productively to the discussion because of the struggle that has gone on within their military.

What lessons do these approaches hold for North Americans, both leftists and common people subject to an environment of ruthless State impunity, war, torture and loss of rights? First, that working to elect "good guys" to Congress or the Presidency probably holds the least potential for majority empowerment, organization or unity. Strictly electoral parties provide only the shell or façade of mass democracy and offer no challenge to the fundamental interests of State Power. Second, the economic and political contradictions of Capitalist State behavior which can often be exposed as direct attacks on the public's rights, as well as the current repudiation of Constitutional rule by the State in the U.S. are behaviors that tend to isolate the State. The activists and working class movement roles as suggested in Bolivia and Argentina require actions like demanding nationalization of the nation's resources and reopening closed factories under workers' rule that will take advantage of and enhance the State's isolation because of the simplicity and correctness of their logic.

Finally, while such actions in these Latin American nations began with a decidedly local character, people rallying to defend their own jobs and survival where they live and work, they became in essence national political issues, demands, actions. One can not challenge the State or a state of impunity without a national movement, and yet we can see that in its formative stages such as in Chiapas in '94-99, in Bolivia in '03-05, and in Argentina today, the initiation of such a national movement does not require, at the outset, a unified national organization let alone a political party.

For North Americans to win a campaign against torture and indeterminate detentions by the U.S. State today might require a movement with a local base of actions focused upon the coincident relationships between the attacks on the rights of undocumented workers in the U.S., the rights of Muslims and others targeted by the Patriot Act and Homeland Security, the rights of imprisoned Americans in general, and the opposition to the military recruiting system. It might also include actions like those in Argentina, such as seizure of vacant housing by squatters and a determination to make a legal case for the right to develop such housing for the homeless, with the intent of fighting the arrests and evictions before liberal-progressive City Councils and the Courts. Achieving these types of State-challenging struggles at the local level throughout the U.S. is not simply an abstract theoretical question but a question of how various particular interests can be practically conjoined in activity that will advance practical national goals and allow for confrontations with the State power that may produce fruitful results. Indeed, practical necessity should be the motivating force and guiding principle in the discussion of most theoretical questions.

Marc Sapir MD, MPH ( is a family practice physician working part time in Alameda County, California community clinics. He was co-convener of the April 28, UC Berkeley Teach-In on Torture ( . After retiring as medical director of the Center for Elders' Independence in Oakland, CA in 2001, he formed the Retro Poll group, an organization which performs opinion polls intended to expose how media-government collaboration misinforms and misrepresents pubic views ( He has also recently published a satiric novel (2004), The Last Tale of Mendel Abbe.

Special thanks to Warren Gold, Jane Franklin and Mary Ann Tenuto for helpful criticisms in the preparation of this paper.

1 For material in this section I am indebted to the work of John Ross and Naomi Klein who have been giving extensive talks and interviews, written articles, books and even made a film, "The Take" by Avi Lewis and Naomi Klein, pertaining to these matters. I also received important personal comments from Mary Ann Tenuto-Sanchez of the Chiapas Support Committee. 


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