SITUATIONISM AND THE GREEN PARTY by Robert Archambeau

As someone once said, it’s not easy being green, at least not in the United States.  Even here in Illinois, where the Green Party has had enough support to be an “established party,” theoretically on a par with the Republicans and the Democrats, you run into all kinds of logistical difficulties when you try to support your party.  I’m not just talking about how difficult it can be just to get a yard sign from a party that has no money and few personnel.  And I’m not talking about the eye-rolling you get from Democrats who blame the Green’s Ralph Nader for being the spoiler for Al Gore (for the record, I voted for Gore that time out).  And I’m not talking about the snickering of Republicans who figure you’re some kind of birkenstock-clad deep-woods tree-hugger (my feet are too ugly for open-toed sandals, people, and I admire nature mostly on the Discovery Channel).  Nope.  I’m talking about the difficulties one runs into at the actual polling place itself.  Even with the Greens officially established in Illinois, and election officials legally bound to ask you whether you want a Republican, Democratic, or Green ballot, problems continue.  On several occasions  I’ve been told by election judges that there was no such thing as a Green ballot (not true).  Once, when someone behind me overheard this and asked the judge if the Greens were a real party, the judge told her that they weren’t.  I don’t think this was malicious: I think it just didn’t compute, for this person, that there were more than two parties on the ballot.  I mean, a lot of people actually believe that the two-party system is constitutionally ordained, a permanent (if perhaps not always satisfying) part of the American political landscape.

And this brings me to why I think voting Green is a Situationist act.

Situationism — the movement we tend to think of as starting with the Guy Debord and the Situationist International in 1957 — had its roots about a decade earlier, in Sartre’s essay “Pour un théâtre de situations.”  Here, Sartre argued that what theater should do is, one way or another, to show “simple and human situations and free individuals in these situations choosing what they will be…. The most moving thing the theatre can show is a character creating himself, the moment of choice, of the free decision which commits him to a moral code and a whole way of life.”  That is, theater, ideally, exists to break our sense of complacency and limitations.  It exists to kick us out of our sense that our hands are bound, and expand our sense of freedom and agency.  It’s sort of down the same street as Brecht’s thinking about theater: Brecht saw his own “epic theater” as something that, by breaking down narrative and the wall between the players and the audience, could wake people up from their spectator-stupor and make them active.  Sartre was a more conventional playwright than Brecht, but the goal was the same.  I mean, think of that moment in “Huis Clos” when the characters, who have been locked together in a room in hell, pull on the door and find, despite all their expectations, that it pops open.  They don’t leave (out of fear, out of various psychological weaknesses that bind them to one another) and we, the audience, are infuriated.  We want them to go, and we’re angry at them for refusing their own freedom.    We leave the show exasperated at their weakness and bad faith, and (ideally) we feel more fired-up about our own freedoms and possibilities.

That’s the idea of the “situation” — it is the moment when we realize we are freer than we thought we were, and have more options than we thought we had.  This can be something very small (“I don’t have to put up with that guy at work’s bullshit anymore”) or something large (“the King isn’t really ruling by divine right — let’s storm the goddam Bastille already!”).  And whatever their disagreements with Existentialism may have been, the Situationists took the idea of creating such situations — not just in the theater, but in daily life — as fundamental.  Their main techniques were designed to take us out of pre-fabricated ideas and a sense of passive spectatorship.

Consider détournement, in which one takes an existing cultural product (a comic book, say) and modifies it (replacing the dialogue with lines from Nietzche or something): we’re clearly meant to get the sense that we are not mere consumers of culture, but can intervene in it.  Or consider the Situationist dérive, a kind of boundary-crossing ramble over a built environment, without respecting the prescribed uses for the various kinds of space.  This is meant to help us realize that we don’t have to follow the ordinary paths, and use things as we are implicitly and explicitly told to use them.

So.  For me, voting Green is less about expressing a desire to save the trees and keep the water clean (though I believe those are good things to do) than it is about a desire to keep the Green Party on the ballot (you need 5% of the vote to do that in Illinois).  It’s about creating an environment in which one realizes that the way things are now is not the way they have always been and must always be.  It’s about creating a sense of expanded options.  It’s about creating a situation.


Robert Archambeau is the author of Word Play Place (Ohio/Swallow), Home and Variations (Salt), and Laureates and Heretics (Notre Dame).  He is Professor of English at Lake Forest College.

PETER CAMEJO

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Peter Camejo, Socialist Workers Party candidate for US President, 1976.

REMEMBERING PETER CAMEJO

by Matt Gonzalez

Yesterday marked the one-year anniversary of Peter Camejo’s death. He had been battling cancer (lymphoma) for over a year. It was in remission then came back suddenly and killed him.

I spoke to Peter the last week of his life, in fact, just a couple of days before his death while I was in Ohio campaigning with Ralph Nader. Nader and I took turns talking with Peter by telephone. It was apparent that he was going to die, so there were many heartfelt words exchanged. I made sure to tell him that he had much to be proud of, that we loved him greatly, and that we would miss having him at our side.

Most people know Peter Camejo as a three-time Green Party candidate for Governor of California and for his run with Ralph Nader in 2004. Others recall his days with the Socialist Workers Party (SWP), when he ran for US President in 1976 (with running mate Willie Mae Reid) against both Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter.

Peter was also an author. He wrote about post-American Civil War politics (Racism, Revolution, Reaction 1861-1877, The Rise and Fall of Radical Reconstruction) and about progressive financial investing (The SRI Advantage: Why Socially Responsible Investing Has Outperformed Financially).

Many of his speeches from his period with the SWP were published by Pathfinder press in pamphlet form including: Who Killed Jim Crow?; Allende’s Chile: Is It Going Socialist?; Liberalism, Ultraleftism, Or Mass Action; How to Make a Revolution in the US; and Cuba and the Central American Revolution.

Peter marched with Martin Luther King Jr. in Selma and participated in the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, culminating in his expulsion from the University of California and subsequent run for mayor of Berkeley. It was during this era when then Governor Ronald Reagan declared Peter “one of the 10 most dangerous men in California”.

It is without question that Peter was one of the important members of the American Left of the last half-century. He had combated injustice his entire life and helped plant the seeds for many progressive ideas that are popular now.

None of the things we fight for today: gay marriage, equal rights for women, fair wage laws, immigrant rights, universal health care, would exist or even be conceived of, had there not been men and women like Peter pushing from one side — agitating and making people uncomfortable. It amazes me how once these ideas are commonplace, we celebrate the politicians who joined the effort at the last moment, when victory was all but assured. There’s little credit given to how we got on the beachhead in the first place.

What does it mean to stand up against something that won’t budge, long before it’s poised to be the majority sentiment?

Peter knew the system would crumble someday. Politics as we know it will someday buckle under the pressure of human desires for a more egalitarian and democratic world. And when it happens, the “successful” politicians will not be remembered. They were the ones that took the easy path. Worked for change on the margin. Wanted the winner’s circle at all cost. Even if it meant denying what they knew to be the truth.

Peter believed the two-party system was a failure, pure and simple. He mused how years from now historians will scratch their heads and wonder how people tolerated its oppressiveness? Its days are numbered. Just as slavery was, just as the overt subjugation of woman was, just as concentrated capital’s refusal to pay decent wages and give human beings the benefits they deserve cannot be sustained for much longer.

Peter stood up to say that both parties defended corporations such that the differences, we’re told matter, hardly alleviate any true suffering.

Peter wanted to live in a democracy. He wanted an economic system that produced for human needs not profits. He often said that the only reason someone hires you when you’re looking for a job is that they decide you can make them more money than what they’re going to pay you. He dared to say this was wrong.

He noted that the wealthy mistakenly believed they had earned their wealth and that they believed the poor just didn’t work hard enough. He pointed out that the notion that people should be allowed to do as they please with their earnings overlooked that the manner in which this wealth was invested and enjoyed often meant whether you and I would have a job, whether there would be pollution in the air, and what wars we would be fighting.

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Many disparaged Peter’s electoral efforts. The press often referred to the “perennial candidate”, as if to say “here we go again, this candidate doesn’t have a chance”. In their minds they’d say, he barely registered, in terms of percentage of the vote, when he ran for president (91,000 votes or 0.1% of the vote in 1976) or governor (in his best showing, 400,000 votes or 5.3% of the vote in 2002) so why should they cover his efforts?

But Peter wasn’t discouraged by these election results because he understood that the things we fight for today will come to pass, if only by the sheer strength of the logic and decency of the principles we advocate. He was very aware of Latin American examples of minor parties becoming ruling parties in a matter of a single generation.

Peter spoke of Hugo Blanco who led a peasant revolt among the Quechua in Peru in the early 1960s. He was nearly killed by the government and ultimately was given a 25-year jail sentence. Peter visited him at the prison on the Island of El Fronton, during the period of his “exile”. 15 years later in 1978, Blanco was elected to Parliament, as a member of the Workers Revolutionary Party.

There are many stories like this one, where political efforts are totally marginalized, before becoming the dominant strand. Luiz Inacio “Lula” da Silva helped found the Brazilian Workers Party in 1980. He ran three times for the presidency unsuccessfully, finally winning the 4th time in 2002.

It only took two decades, Peter would have said.

Peter placed his vision of what was possible in the context of these struggles. He couldn’t be dissuaded of his politics just because they weren’t in fashion yet.

Our society has a way of romanticizing past radicals. We don’t think twice when we see Che Guevara on a t-shirt. Many hold up the agrarian revolution that Emiliano Zapata participated in, and think romantically that they would have fought at his side, but the truth is far from that. How many of these people condemn the efforts of politicians like Peter Camejo? How many would have said the timing isn’t right? How many wouldn’t have lifted a finger to help?

Peter Camejo was a beautiful man. He was unreasonable. He thought the timing was right now. He didn’t capitulate like so many of his contemporaries did. He was a socialist.

–Matt Gonzalez

Peter Camejo’s memoir, North Star, will be published in 2010 by Haymarket Books.