Tuesday, March 19, 2002

One Man's Alternative Media Strategy
Sander Hicks, founder of Soft Skull Press, wrote the following raw, rough first draft as a statement for the Alternative Media primer for the upcoming Version 2.0 conference, scheduled to take place in April in Chicago. Sander is about to go on tour with his band White Collar Crime -- and a new newspaper featuring similar material and reporting. He welcomes your feedback, especially if you are experienced in the subjects addressed.

I'm best known for starting Soft Skull Press, a alternative book publishing company. But you know, the current global situation compares so closely to 1991, the year of my first foray into alt.media. When the Gulf War started, I was part of a collective that formed to publish an alternative newspaper. Our college's official newspaper parroted the complicit position of the corporate media, so creating an alternative was a logical, fun choice. But we didn't stop history from repeating itself. Eleven years later there's a new Bush in the White House, and a similar war for oil going on in Central Asia.

We need to stop the crimes of big business, war and poverty. From "The New Xaymaca" newspaper to Soft Skull Press, I think I've learned a few lessons that amount to a media strategy, so here goes:

If being an anti-war, anti-imperialist thinker is what brought you and your friends into alternative media, then just admit it, you are now a part of that fabled entity called the American Left. This means that your media strategy is also going to also be a political strategy. But instead of being a member of a political entity, it's your role to be a part of a production entity: You're more like a union than a party. That means that a certain degree of ideological diversity and flexibility is a must. So I guess my first political point is that anarchists can learn a lot from socialists, and vice versa. (And this applies to all schools of thought and analysis.) To the anarchist/socialist debate I would say: Rather than divide into sects, let's try to find a balance between spontaneity and discipline, between direct action and committed organization. It's not either/or, it's both.

That said, I think it should be a life-long media strategy of a united left to seize state power. There, I said it. At the same time, I'm an anti-totalitarian leftist. Look, a strain of anarchism has to be included in this worldview. The media has to taken out of the hands of the fat cats, the right wingers, the weak moderates, and the lame-o's. We've got to put it in the hands of the common people and then let them run with it. Can this be done? Am I dreaming?

Yes. In China, the Communist Party actually paid for the industries it took over, through government bonds.

But how can you guarantee that a state-run media won't become a propaganda vehicle for the government, some Soviet joke? Here's a quick example, freshly extricated from real world capitalism. The New York Times is a publicly held company, but the shareholders don't get to have influence over editorial decisions. The Times made rules beforehand saying we want the benefits of public ownership, but we can't have editorial decisions dictated by outside interests. In the same way, the entire corporate media establishment should be transferred into the hands of a new American workers' state. It would have to be a part of its charter that the state did not interfere with content. That workers' state could set up some infrastructure, some funding, and just let it go.

Too risky? Well, what are the alternatives? We have a system right now that is a dictatorship. The Rupert Murdochs, the Roger Ailes, the Bill O'Reilly's, the Heritage Foundation, the Wall Street Journal, the sold-out 60 Minutes, and all the rest show us what a free market gets us: a bunch of puppets. Right-wing mediocrity. Instead of hard-hitting reporting, we get excuses for the crimes of capitalism, we get cheer-leading for oil wars. It's time for the power of the people.

I recently debated this guy, a real rabid anti-communist. I won on points, in a 11 to 9 decision, and then he emailed me all bitter. Said that Marxism was akin to fascism because I called the middle-class values and ruling class "the bourgeoisie." He said I shouldn't use this piece of "hate language." Boy, he was really scared by class struggle analysis, wasn't he? If you crack this code and see history as a long story of class exploitation, then this really gets under certain people's skin. I remember the trend five years ago was to accuse anyone slightly on the Left of "class war" if they brought up issues of poverty or the need for a social safety net. That trend now over, the strategy of the Right has shifted over and become its opposite: They are now trying to appropriate class struggle for their own ends. I guess they realized the power of the analysis; they figured they better appropriate it (before the young North American globalization movement grabs the weapons of class analysis). So now Bill O'Reilly's shtick on Fox is to constantly make reference to the integrity of his "lower middle-class" roots. In a recent appearance at Columbia, I watched Chris Matthews go on about how great the "war" in Afghanistan is, because it's a "real blue-collar war" because "it's so GUT" it's so simple, and Bush is leading us around using emotions anyone can understand.

The simple truth here is that this government is the enemy of the people. Pick an issue. The environment, the recent deregulation of communications, the continued deregulation of the energy industry. The war on terrorism is a sick joke. It would be a better world with media with the ability to be critical, thoughtful, piercing, objective, forthright.

Making viable media alternatives is a must. Offset printing a newspaper on a "web" press is actually pretty damn cheap. Web sites are even cheaper. What's hard is staying alive in a world trying to crush its dissenters. Because once you really get to a scale at which you threaten them, they will stop thinking you're cute and they will try to kill you. I saw this personally when Soft Skull did the Bush biography Fortunate Son.

It's time for self-defense. Let's all get in top physical condition. Let's all study military strategy and tactics. Let's all read voraciously across the spectrum of radical left politics. Let's learn from the mistakes of Stalin and Mao and put together a new American socialist alternative.

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