There are no discontinuities in history. The trees of today were yesterday’s seeds; the gentle hills were once mountains, worn down by time; the transformation of forest into desert proceeds by small changes. Today’s social struggles are just later chapters in a long story that has seen resistance to conquests, the overthrow of slavery and the steady claiming of rights by those previously denied them. The contradictions of Tecumseh’s day are still with us, older but no wiser, defining the terms of contemporary conflict. Objects in mirror are closer than they appear.
The main social structures established to channel and contain popular aspirations – labor unions, non-profit corporations and tribal governments – were each brought to life in the wake of a social upheaval. Tribal governments, created under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, established zones of limited sovereignty for Native people in exchange for their submission to federal authority. The Wagner Act, one year later, did the same for unions. They could enjoy official recognition if they concerned themselves only with the price and conditions of work and not the structure of power. The non-profit universe rose to prominence following the mass struggles of the 1950s-70s. Following their suppression, funding was poured into new social agencies, permitted to offer “input” into the plans of the powerful and develop programs to mitigate their damage; not question their legitimacy.
These entities, by their nature, led to the erosion of solidarity and an inability to address underlying causes. Horizontal relationships gave way to vertical ones. Tribal governments’ primary ties are to the federal government, unions to management and non-profits to funders. The organizing they generate is akin to fighting for better conditions on the deck of the Titanic. The battles may be hard-fought and their wins of vital importance for the people impacted but they don’t alter the ship’s course. The Titanic is headed for the iceberg and picking up speed. This is the Tecumsian framework. The tribes are divided, each pursuing its narrowly defined interests. Those who hold power propose solutions meant only to distract the gullible so that the plunder may continue. The window of opportunity to figure this out and act on it will close.
The newly minted USA, with no feudal institutions to overcome, was a perfect laboratory for capitalism. Its simple premise was that multiple individual choices, all driven by short-term horizons and personal greed, would produce a brilliantly self-regulating system. An “invisible hand,” acting though the feedback of supply and demand and the genius of commercial innovation would solve any problems. This paradigm launched a boom-and bust cycle that still prevails. Investors descended on a resource – gold, coal, oil, buffalo, beaver, cod, white pine, whales and endless others – and attacked it until it was depleted. They then flocked off to the next opportunity leaving polluted and degraded landscapes, ghost communities and poisoned workers for others to deal with.
A few chapters later and the process has advanced, generating a global crisis of exhausted topsoil, collapsing fisheries, vanishing forests and widespread poisoning. Acidification of lakes, rivers and, now, the ocean is threatening entire ecosystems. The largest mass extinction of species in 65 million years is under way, continents of plastic garbage rotate in the ocean and fish spawning zones, migratory bird stopovers and oxygen-producing river deltas are being replaced by hotels and golf courses. To top it off, earth-heating particulates have passed the catastrophic 400 parts per million mark.
It turns out the world is a complex, interconnected web of life, not an inventory of resources. To admit this, however, would be to undermine the very premise of capitalist ideology. The corporate entities that drive this reckless system of global management don’t do so out of malice. They simply live in a hallucination that rewards gluttony and punishes wisdom.
The one percent is on a frantic hunt for more commons to enclose. Ideas, genetic information and medicinal practices are now being declared the property of investors. Public assets – national forests, prisons, school systems, water works, hospitals, Social Security, the Postal Service – are being sold for parts. Gunpoint land confiscations are in motion in Mexico, Kenya, India and elsewhere to satisfy agribiz, mining, water and forestry corporations. Most bizarre of all, land is being seized for bargaining chips in the new “cap and trade” carbon market. Companies get to hoard “idle” land in order to claim pollution credits that they can sell to each other.
Tecumseh forced a crisis on tribal leaders lulled by Governor Harrison’s promises and frightened at the prospect rocking the (leaky) boat. They were being assured that if they helped defeat the trouble makers they would secure their place as trusted partners of the empire. It would not turn out that way. As soon as General Andrew Jackson’s forces scattered the remnants of Tecumseh’s alliance, he turned his attention to destroying former allies. Students of labor history will recognize this tune. Since the Cold War, the US union establishment has collaborated with its government to suppress worker militancy in other lands in the belief that by so doing they were becoming “partners in prosperity.” Instead they sealed their own fate by helping pacify regions to which their employers could now flee. With their natural allies defeated the unions themselves would be crushed.
Non-profits routinely avoid alliances with other constituencies than their own so as not to threaten their ties to corporate-owned legislators and foundations. Although they often can see big problems on the horizon, they reason that “our mission is to increase urban green space,” (for example) “not to save the world.” Gov. Harrison smiles in his grave.
But our time, like Tecumseh’s, holds opportunity as well. They were both times of collapsing illusions. The rank and file and the employees of non-profits, tribes and unions are increasingly aware that they are spinning their wheels on a doomed ship. They are ripe for a Tecumsian message that can cut through the fog. The corporate elite have little tolerance left for such irritating organizations now that they’ve served their function. The era of the non-profit is ending. As in Tecumseh’s time the initiative will not come from the established leadership – too mired in the illusion that salvation is just an election away. It must come from the margins. In South Africa the service and advocacy groups would eventually be drawn to the rebel side, but only after sufficient power had been accumulated through struggle on the street.
Tecumsian concepts of demarcation, unity, accountability and urgency provide a map current enough for an era of patented genes, global warming and limitless war. The first strategic step is to draw the line. The Titanic will proceed apace if we are too scared to name capitalism as the disease driving the life-threatening symptoms enumerated above. Once that is done, though, myriad solutions become available. Communities everywhere are rife with brilliant solutions for agriculture, nutrition, health, community restoration and democratic governance that are compatible with nature’s cycles, and the universal principles of the commons. The obstacle is that they all are trying to convince Exxon Mobile, Monsanto, 3M and their underlings to turn the ship around. That mirage will never quench thirst.
When the rich nations sabotaged real climate action at the Copenhagen talks, Bolivia stepped up to host an alternative gathering, proclaiming the rights of Mother Earth. When the Canadian feds tried to eliminate Native sovereignty the Idle No More movement rose from nowhere to block the road. When the normally reticent Sierra Club embraced civil disobedience recently, it only did so because grassroots radicalism had shown the way.
The power that holds the constellation Orion in place is the same one that maintains the global system: the power of story. Even armies cannot control if the story is no longer convincing. Tecumseh’s strategy was based, not on lobbying the destructive ones to mend their ways but on articulating a different story, then fighting for it. “I mean to bring all the tribes together, in spite of you,” he told Harrison. “And until I have finished, I will not go to visit your president. Maybe I will when I have finished, maybe.”
Tecumseh’s voice, they say, still rides the wind. I suggest we listen this time.