With the rise of the extreme right, the Klan and its modern descendants are definitely “in the shop.” Here’s a story from a long time ago but it could have happened only yesterday. This is not a heroic tale just a memory of day-to-day struggle and the lessons learned.
As a young organizer in the mid-1970s, I went to work for District 65, an independent radical union. Martin Luther King called District 65 “The Conscience of the Labor Movement” after their early and staunch support for the civil rights movement.
Our dress pin was a black hand and a white hand working both ends of an old fashioned two-man tree- saw cutting through the chain of oppression. We were largely led by older radical Jews. Some of them had left the Communist Party during the Cold War purges to stay with the union.
65 organized low wage workers and small shops most unions would not even touch. Many members were Black, Puerto Rican, or Jewish. It was one hell of a good little union even if it remains largely unknown. 
After a few months working as a “salt” (a clandestine organizer) in a giant book warehouse, the boss grew suspicious and fired me. Luckily, the union hired me full time.
I got to work with some mighty impressive shop-floor militants, like local legend Bob Mihalko. I loved Bob. We often worked as a team and I soaked in as much as I could from him. We worked aggressively opening up campaigns at multiple shops — looking for ones that could win. But win or lose, we knew it was worth the effort as long as we were talking with workers.
One day we got a lead about an electronics factory in Jamesburg NJ. There seemed a reasonable level of interest after a few days of handing out flyers; we called our first meeting. About halfway through I noticed a group of three workers (two men and a woman), wearing KKK shirts beneath their unzipped jackets. My heart sank. The meeting went well enough, but I was ready to move on to better prospects.
The next day I reported to Frank Engelberg, the Director of Organizing. Frank was a radical Jew and a great person loved by the members for his rabble-rousing speeches against the boss. And he had no illusions about what fascism really meant.
I went into his office and said: “Frank we’re fucked, we’re done, the Klan is in the shop and in our meetings.” He turned to me with a look far more intense than usual. In his gruff Jersey voice, he barked out: “No! Richie, you get your ass right back in there and you organize the Klan right into the union.”
After a moment of stunned silence, I thought to myself: “So this is what it means to organize the working class. Man, this is no picnic.” “Ok Frank,” I said, trying to muster some courage, “Fuck the Klan, we’ll go back and give it a shot.”
What Frank was telling me is that we have to engage workers the way they really are, not the way we want them to be or imagine them to be. And why bring the Klan into the union? Because better pay and the benefits of a union contract was good medicine for everyone — including racists. Frank knew that the boss was our real enemy.
We always have to pick our battles, true, and I am dead sure I would not spend scarce resources on white supremacist organizations. But, white workers with racist attitudes? White workers exposed to the neofascists? That is the battleground. That is right where white radicals belonged — and still do.
I did not just belong with these backward white workers as a revolutionary political project — that is where I was from, that is who I was. I grew up just 40 miles from Jamesburg in Neptune, a segregated working-class town where my high school was closed a week every spring for “the riots.” There were a lot of fights between Blacks and whites.
When a week-long rebellion in neighboring Asbury Park went down on July 4th, 1970, there were running battles between young Black rebels, cops, and National Guard. 180 people were injured including 15 state troopers. Large parts of Springwood Avenue were burned and I could see the smoke from my house.
I sure was relieved that school was not in session since we already went through our high school riot that spring. It weighed pretty heavy on my young mind. When I saw white teachers fighting Black students, and armed soldiers in the hallways and on the grounds I felt a strange resentment — like the adult world was forcing itself on all of us. When I heard some white parents whipping up hate and fear and heard that soldiers had shot Bob Ivey in the legs – Bob was a Black kid I ran track with — I knew deep down that something was terribly wrong — but I sure did not know what was right. So white workers with racist attitudes? I knew them because I was one of them.
Maybe you can show me some white people — radical or conservative, left or right — free from racism. How does any white person grow up in America and not internalize some aspect of racist culture? You? How? Explain it, please. I would really like to know how kept yourself clear from the long history of Whiteness.
There are many approaches. Antifa is a solid mobilization effort monitoring and resisting open white supremacy. And, there is nothing wrong with movement workshops and training for whites. It’s a good start and regular check-ups are needed but these tactics should be part and parcel of organizing. Organizing is about engaging people in a struggle for their own class interest and against the systematic forms of racism — if for no greater reason than it is impossible for white workers to win without the Black and Brown workers that have often led the class struggle. Working-class power demands solidarity. The bosses’ power demands racism. We only get free together.
The question is not are you trying to organize the multiracial working class — the question is how? Whether you choose to work in multi-racial groups like unions or focus on coalition work or engaging white workers as a form of community organizing, the dilemma is the same: are we a class, or aren’t we?
Is the multiracial working-class real? Yes and no. On the one hand, it’s what Marx called “a class in itself.” Sure, it exists as a demographic, but not as a class aware of its own political power and potential. And the path to that awareness runs us right into a confrontation with white racism. How could it not? White racism has been the most effective form of class collaboration for well over 300 years.
How do we transform the working class from a “class in itself” to a “class for itself” — a class aware of itself as a force in history. There are no shortcut answers. But if we do not have projects to organize white workers, and engage in conversations that matter, we’ve lost before we started.
Yes, we went back to Jamesburg, proudly showed our anti-racist gear, and kept the conversation going. The meetings slowly lost steam and we heard the Klan was calling us an “n-word union.” No, this is not a tale of heroic victory. In the end, the workers were not strong enough to stand up to both the boss and the Klan. Sometimes organizers do change people but most of the time we just help people along. They’ve got to be ready to take the next step.
Eventually, we moved on but no matter where we went every workplace and every community was divided in some way. No exceptions. No matter how homogeneous it appeared, every workplace was divided. The should be no surprise since the boss’s first job is to divide and conquer– their profits depend on their power. Overcoming those divisions was our job. And we couldn’t do that by running away from trouble or taking shortcuts, like not talking with, and listening closely to, people we disagree with.
From time to time Frank comes back to haunt, challenge, and inspire me. I’ve never forgotten the hard-edged working-class wisdom he passed on to me that day. It continues to shape my thinking and practice. If you’ve got the guts to go out and engage the working class with all our shortcomings and flaws — if you’re full of “piss and vinegar,” as Frank used to say — maybe it will shape your practice too.
The only book I know on District 65 is Lisa Phillips, A Renegade Union: Interracial Organizing and Radical Unionism.
Hy Thurman’s reflections on the original Rainbow Coalition is a powerful new book on white workers: Revolutionary Hillbilly: Notes from the Struggle on the Edge of the Rainbow. See also Hillbilly Nationalists by James Tracy and Amy Sonnie.
As more and more evidence comes in, much of it reveals collusion between the neo-fascists who were the hard-core and vanguard of the mob and the police, military, politicians and President. While some of the overwhelmed Capitol Police resisted the mob others welcomed it, opening barriers and treating them like tourists — selfies and all.
This collusion was not extraordinary, rather it fits a long- standing pattern with one huge exception: when cops collude with vigilantes, white supremacists and right-wing gangs, it’s always against Black and Brown people or workers. Never is it an attack on the ruling parties or ruling class interests — until now. And, that makes all the difference.
On Jan. 6, a vanguard within the generally disorganized mob was well trained in military tactics and remarkably unafraid of the Capitol Police. Some arrested for their role in the riot were retired or off-duty cops, (including two Capitol Police officers) and nearly 20% of those arrested were veterans. At least 28 off-duty cops were in the crowd. Among those arrested were a white supremacist Army Reservist with a secret-level security clearance and a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel who carried zip-ties and wore tactical gear. One group marched up the Capitol steps in “Ranger File” a tactic used by the US military in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Was this a massive failure of the security forces or something more? More evidence is needed. Of the 2,000-strong Capitol Police only an estimated 500 were on duty. The Capitol Police Chief resigned amid allegations of incompetence. It appears that Pentagon officials restricted the use of National Guard in advance.
Now, I’ve been to many, many demonstrations, and scores in Washington D.C. I have been arrested six or seven times for “disorderly conduct” and I have never seen police unprepared. Never.
This was not a “failure” so much as it was the long-standing culture of policing gone haywire. Police, judges, and military officials simply don’t see the right-wing as a threat because they are part of the penal system itself. As reported in ProPublica officers describing the morning of Jan. 6 said, “It was business as usual,” said another, who has been on the force for more than 15 years. “The main thing we were told was to be on the lookout for counterdemonstrators.” So as the mob assembled police were told by their superiors that the real threat was the left-wing counterprotesters.
A federal judge actually decided to release the “zip-tie guy” on bail. A major consideration, according to the judge, was that the accused showed “apparent and clear respect for law enforcement.” Despite his role at the Capitol and his possession of a huge cache of weapons at home, the accused “does not pose an obvious and clear danger to the safety of this community.” That cozy relationship is what matters.
And talk about cozy, the leader of the Proud Boys, has a close relationship with the law. He served as an informer and collaborator with local and federal police. At least five Proud Boys have been charged with conspiracy.
Not to be outdone, a suspected leader of the Oath-Keepers Milita arrested for his role at the Capitol, was a Navy veteran, held a top-secret clearance, and served as a section chief for the FBI according to his own lawyer.
Collusion Yes. Coup No.
Collusion was the real source of mob power but it was far, far too little to make it anything like a serious coup/insurrection attempt.
There is still no significant evidence that Trump made the preparations and plans that a successful coup or insurrection would have required. Even Trump’s open, deadly, yet unsuccessful coup attempt in Venezuela suggests he understood coup making better than that. If he wanted anything more than the chaotic spectacle that did occur, he did not (or was unable to) put the pieces in place required to make it real. Despite the fears that members of Congress would be assassinated — something that might actually happen in a real coup — the claim that there were “kill and capture” teams has been walked back by official sources. There was collusion yes but not a single unit of the military sided with Trump. No troops no coup. If you have any doubt just look at the history of US-sponsored coups — that is the model.
This kind of collusion with white supremacists and right-wing has a long history dating back to Reconstruction Era when the police were accomplices to the white terror of the KKK. Thousands of lynchings, the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898, the Tulsa Massacre of 1921, the Battle of Blair Mountain, also in 1921, and hundreds of strikes, before and since, were repressed with a similar mix of vigilantes and regular police. During the civil rights movement of the 1960s attacks on activists were carried out in the same way.
This pattern comes right up to recent times when “oil cops” and real cops fought the water protectors at Standing Rock. The paramilitary gangs that police considered “armed friendlies” did their deadly work during the 2020 BLM protests. This mix is institutionalized at the highest level of empire in places like Afghanistan where, mercenaries — deceptively called “contractors,” — have largely replaced the US Army. As reported by Stars and Stripes, contractors now number 18,000, a stunning seven times the number of regular US troops.
The mob and its sponsors were easily overcome with ruling class solidarity against this half-assed but still potent sign of what could be. Was it a challenge to the existing social order? As a symbol perhaps, as reality, not even close. But symbolism matters and it was enough to trigger a ruling class response. The big strong forces of corporate power moved quickly against the weaker forces they usually count as allies: extremist police, vigilantes and neo-fascist gangs.
The Ruling Class Flexes
For a century and a half, vigilantes were used to divide and suppress the working class. They are useful to the bosses but only when they punch down and punch left. If obedient to their master’s voice they get money, immunity and weapons of war. But, go rogue, sack the “Citadel of Democracy,” where the elites conduct their affairs, and it’s punishment time.
We shall see how deep the purge goes. Will there be a major commission to investigate collusion, gross incompetence or both? Likely not. To do so would reveal the racist rot within the police. The militarized penal system is one cause of the fascist revival. Its a “prison-industrial complex” with direct profit interest in a “law and order” regime that includes right-wing violence. The parallel to the military-industrial complex is striking: major corporations with direct interests in war increasingly depend on a network of mercenaries and militias to do the dirty work.
Sooner or later the gang members and rogue cops that got caught will be removed from duty, the rest “vetted” and reintegrated back into the system to serve the broader agenda of corporate power. After all, the underlying crisis that requires violent, forceful social control is not going away. No, the elites will not defund the police.
Vigilantes are acceptable to the real rulers as long as they obey their masters. But, when the masters are no longer of a single mind and broadcast messages encouraging action against the government — as Trump did — the fascists types including some police and military slipped off their leashes.
The mob, thousands more in the legal demonstration and millions of Trump supports were able to delude themselves into thinking that their support for Trump’s “Stop The Steal Steal” conspiracy meant they were still “patriots.” What Trump and his followers missed is that the ruling class craved legitimacy and stability. After four years of Trump they aimed at restoring what they believed to be the steadier government of the Obama years. Social order and harmony are required to maximize profits. To that end, the major ruling class players had already lined up behind Biden and that was that.
To the degree that Jan. 6 — with its brief four-hour occupation of the Capitol — hinted at disrupting ruling class hegemony, the bosses quickly responded demonstrating impressive class solidarity. The extreme anti-worker National Association of Manufacturers condemned the mob and Trump; the Business Rountable, the voice of large corporate CEO’s did the same; 25 corporate donors put their contributions on pause; all the Democrats and many Republicans closed ranks against Trump. The Joint Chiefs of Staff, the corporate media, and the corporate giants of Big Tech, all moved decisively. Trump’s favorite money merchant, Deutsche Bank, cashed in their chips. Even Trump’s henchmen Pence and McConnell showed themselves trustworthy company men in the end.
Trump — the hero, the celebrity, the President — was outed as a feckless wannabe fascist who committed the unforgivable sin of letting the vigilantes off the leash. So now the state is rounding them up while using the opportunity to deploy a new round of censorship and repression against all social forces outside the order — left and right. Many on the left are cheering this on from what they mistakenly think are their safe spaces under the equally mistaken assumption that there is no alternative to state repression.
The calls for armed protest in 50 state capitols during inauguration week totally fizzled. Almost no one showed despite free national publicity from the FBI. Deindustrialized Michigan, a hotbed of paramilitary activity, drew a very small crowd that was far outnumbered by police. The brief season of dramatic right-wing action revealed the limits of the neo-fascist movement as an independent force.
Fascists can only come to power and stay in power as a result of accommodation with the existing ruling class and military. That may happen someday but not today. The failed attempt at mini-insurrection and the ruling class response proves that.
Will elements within the Proud Boys, QAnon, and others turn on Trump and strike out of their own? Most likely. But, as long as their relationship with the state remains adversarial their power will be limited — at least for now. But the threat remains.
The real struggle against fascism is not some surface conflict between Democrats and Republicans, but a struggle to confront the deep crisis of corporate power and empire both of which enforce austerity on an increasingly miserable and restless working class. A protracted struggle lies ahead, and it must include a struggle against austerity and for the entire working class. It will be led by the people or not at all. Neo-fascism is after-all, a product of corporate capitalism itself and the vast militarized penal system it needs to maintain order. The corporate state cannot and will not solve a crisis of its own creation.
No relief worth a damn? No healthcare? What we have here is a failure to negotiate. And that is a direct outcome of the failure to challenge power. I was only chief negotiator once but I sat at enough bargaining tables to know an epic failure to negotiate when I see one. The Congressional progressives missed three great opportunities to use their leverage — if they had a desire to do so. The same problems of class struggle, corporate power and austerity plague the labor movement.
Pattern Bargaining: After the CARES Act It Was Downhill All The Way.
Originally “pattern bargaining” was a way for unions to leverage a strong contract at a major employer as a model for industry-wide negotiations. Now the CARES Act sets the pattern, but for continued austerity.
The first and worst failure to do a damn thing for the working class was the multi-trillion-dollar corporate bailout of the CARES Act. If you walk into the first bargaining session with the bosses and give them everything they want, throw a few scraps to the workers, and agree to come back to the table later — you have surrendered all leverage and sold out. Why would the billionaires and their faithful servants in government agree to anything more?
Most government services are provided at the state and local levels. Once the CARES Act showered trillions on the corporations and starved the states and cities, it could only trigger a cascade of cutbacks and austerity measures. Did the politicians vote for it not knowing that CARES would reinforced austerity and corporate power?
Yet, that is what every politician voted to do. Once CARES passed the die was cast and the pattern established. After CARES, winning real relief for the working class became a long shot at best and mere political theatre at worst.
Now Sanders is threatening to hold up the relief bill — but for what? He is actually using the CARES Act as a model solution. In a speech deceptively described as “fiery,” Sanders did criticize both parties. But, when it comes to action he returned to the pattern established by the CARES Act. Sanders said:
“All that we want to do is to once again provide the same benefits that were provided in the CARES Bill.”….President Trump signed it and supported it…That is all we are asking is to do what we unanimously did in March.”
If setting your sites on the CARES Act is the measure of the congressional left, then that demonstrates just how the initial surrender set hard limits on all further relief efforts and blinkered the vision of those that agreed to it. Whether it’s $1,200 or $600 CARES determined what was possible and what was not. And the pattern was set — not by Sanders — but by the corporate politicians of the DNC and the RNC that negotiated CARES behind closed doors.
They are not fighting for us, they are enforcing austerity and lowering expectations. “Half a loaf is better than none” is what the rich say to the poor as they push them toward eviction and hunger.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act was another chance to recapture leverage by delaying something the ruling class really wanted: war and empire. Again there was strong bipartisan support for spending 740 billion on war and almost no vocal opposition from the progressives. Did they not know or just not care that they once again surrendered? Or, is war and empire such a part of the Washington consensus that the thought of using the NDAA as leverage never entered their minds?
Will they challenge Pelosi for the speakership? Thanks to Jimmy Dore, a strategy of withholding support from Pelosi in exchange for bringing universal health care to a vote has become a popular way to lobby progressives. This tactic is not strictly performative, as some have claimed. It’s a tool for organizing. Making claims on Twitter that you are not serious about is performative. If showing the working class that the left is their champion is performance — then it’s just the show we need to see.
Dore’s strategy will draw battle lines by revealing who is really for health care and who is not — that is crucial. If knowing where people stand is not important then why does Pelosi mask and protect Democrats on some of the most important issues of our time.
In March 2019 McConnell called the Democrat’s bluff by bringing the Green New Deal to a vote. Pelosi and AOC organized a “present” vote to hide the lack of support among Democrats. The three Democrats that broke party discipline all voted no.
The CARES Act was historic support for the ruling class — again a voice vote. As Robert Brenner observed in New Left Review:
“The DP leadership was able to provide political cover for House Democrats in general, and the Party’s left-wing in particular, by relieving members from having to vote on it through use of the House’s unanimous-consent ‘voice vote’ procedure.”1
Will the Squad challenge Pelosi in the open and force a recorded vote on health care? We shall see.
Are the Bosses Adversaries or Allies?
How do we interpret this failure to negotiate and challenge power? A quick look at negotiation strategies from the labor movement sheds some light. There have been two contending approaches to negotiations that can be applied to the electoral arena.
The first is the class struggle approach of adversarial bargaining. Adversarial bargaining assumes a fundamental conflict of interest between workers and bosses. Successful bargaining hinges on the willingness and capacity of workers to disrupt the flow of profits and power. The bosses are recognized as class enemies.
A more recent corporate-style approach called “mutual gains” or “interest-based” bargaining has partially replaced adversarial conflict. Mutual gains bargaining assumes that workers and the bosses have a significant “community of interest” making win/win outcomes possible. Mutual gains accepts the idea that some level of class collaboration is a necessary way to ensure good relationships between unions and bosses. A community of interest replaces class conflict as the main principle.
The entire project of reforming the Democrats is on the horns of this dilemma: are the bosses adversaries or allies?
Bargaining Against Yourself
The critique of “mutual gains” is not just ideological but practical: by adopting a corporate mindset we end up bargaining against ourselves. In practice, this means taking the most visionary demands off the table before negotiations even begin. In practice, this means accepting austerity. In the union world, this capitulation is passed off as being “reasonable,” “responsible,” or “professional.”
For decades the unions have agreed to concessions — one of the most devastating being the acceptance of multi-tiered labor systems that reproduce class divisions within the union. This is the ultimate in bargaining against yourself as it undermines union power with the old “divide and conquer.”
In the political arena think of Obama silencing any discussion of universal health care during the run-up to the ACA. Similarly, the CARES Act safeguarded the power of the ruling class by crushing working class interests.
Union officials and politicians do the work of the bosses when they internalize the corporate world view. This often happens unconsciously — even by well-meaning people — because corporate viewpoints have achieved hegemonic status. Corporate culture appears as “common sense.” And, it works to enforce ideas of incremental change while managing the expectations of workers.
The left is anything but immune. When you hear “free-market fundamentalism” passed off as a description of reality or lesser evil voting offered as a cunning tactic you are hearing the left surrender to the hegemonic power of the corporate order.
This ideological surrender leads to tactical failures. I was part of the union world for over two decades and saw far too many union officials that wanted to control their most militant members rather than learn how to leverage them. Here is how a good union leader does it: “Listen boss you got to give us a bigger raise because I have these militants that I cannot control. They are pushing for a strike and just want to burn the place down.” That is how we win. Instead, too many officials put their own perceived power first.
The tendency of union officials for controlling their radical members finds its equivalent in the electoral arena when corporate Democrats punch left on reform Democrats who then, all to often, punch left on third-party voters.
The Threat of Strikes and the Threat of Exit
The main tactic of adversarial bargaining is the threat of strike. In the electoral arena it’s the “threat of exit.” Both lay bare the class struggle. In strikes workers risk hardship to disrupt business. We gamble that we can hold out “one day longer” than the bosses who need a steady flow of profits to maintain their position relative to other capitalists. In politics, we threaten to take our support elsewhere if our demands are not met. If we take “threat of exit” off the table there is no way in hell we will ever have a “seat at the table.” AOC being passed over for important committee positions is a case in point.
The head of a state trade union federation (AFL-CIO) told me in 2011 how, after he expressed dissatisfaction to Vice President Joseph Biden with the Obama administration’s lackluster performance on labor, Biden shot back, ‘What are you complaining about? You know you have nowhere else to go!’ The bitter truth is that Biden was right. As long as labor’s officials refuse even to consider breaking with the Democrats, it will be exploited to its increasing peril.” —August Nimtz
Of course, the threat of exit is meaningless unless you have somewhere to go. Without a credible threat of exit, progressives cannot challenge power. They may be captive to the DNC but we don’t have to be.
Look to rank and file upheavals like the strike wave that started in 2017 and continues today. We need third parties, movement building, communal efforts at independent power, wildcat strikes, and a new militant wing of the union movement, maybe even a general strike. Without a powerful outside position, the inside efforts are doomed to failure. And no amount of wishful thinking or narrow partisanship can change that.
There is a lot at stake: people’s lives and our political future. If we fail to fight hard for relief or health care in the middle of a pandemic, we will be disqualified from leading the millions — and rightly so. In the end, the failure to negotiate and confront power will only reinvigorate the forces of Trumpism.
One way to restore a semblance of democracy is Rank Choice Voting (RCV). RCV gives voters more power because we can rank candidates by order of preference free from narrow binary choices.
And, RCV insures that the winner has an actual majority of votes not just a plurality. Having more votes than the other candidate, is a very low bar indeed. Contrary to the convention wisdom that “majority rules” US elections are not based on majorities but pluralities.
Majority Does Not Rule
RCV would help correct one of the most pathetic shortcomings of the electoral system: presidents and most other politicians are elected by numerical minorities. RCV would make majority rules the standard and minority rules the exception. As reported in the Christian Science Monitor:
“If there is no one with an outright majority – more than 50% of the vote – the votes are recounted, with a twist. The candidate with the least votes from the previous round is eliminated, and the ballots with that candidate as No. 1 have their No. 2 slot counted instead. This pattern continues until there is a winner with an outright majority.”
Just since WWII, presidents such as Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Bill Clinton (twice) all failed to win a majority of those voting. Even worse, GW Bush and Trump won without even getting more votes than their opponents thanks to the anti-democratic Electoral College.
For example, in 2016 Hillary Clinton won 48% of the vote, while Trump won 46% but neither won a majority. Factor in the 100 million eligible voters that do not vote and both Clinton and Trump got a meager 27%, more or less, of total eligible voters.
RCV would weaken party-line discipline and blind obedience. Winning over the second rank vote would become central to victory. Candidates would be more inclined to discuss policy and offer positive programs. Negative campaigning would be tempered for fear of alienating those key second rank voters. This matters because negative campaigning is an important factor feeding voter disgust and suppressing voter turnout. Millions chose not to pay the moral and psychological costs of getting involved with the vacuous, mudslinging circus that passes as electioneering in the US.
Fear and the Accommodation to Power
RCV would lower the level of fear. That is incredibly important since fear is the main form of social control in the US. All those scary arguments: the lesser of two evils, the spoiler, wasted votes, it’s not the right time, the corporate privilege arguments — all disabled by RCV.
It’s not a coincidence that lesser of two evil voting first became a regular part of electoral politics in the 1950s and 60s. Just as the war machine gutted the old Constitution, lesser of two evil voting became common.
What a price we all paid for the Cold War: the old constitution was destroyed by the new all-powerful Imperial Presidency. Lesser of two evils replaced the idea of representation as the theory and practice of voting.
This transition to imperial politics was accomplished by the fear campaign of Cold War anti-communism. We have been living on borrowed time ever since. Trump is the wake up call: the empire destroyed democracy, all presidents are tyrants and we are not free.
From this historical perspective we can see that lesser of two evil voting was a dysfunctional adaptation to the system. Just as democracy died, the political culture legitimized the surrender of the basic principle of representative democracy: that people should vote for parties and candidates that actually represent their interests and values. As the government became unable and unwilling to represent the people, the people were told to settle for the least worst enemy and give up all claims to actually being represented.
Lesser of two evils voting was an accommodation to power displacing other forms of political struggle that challenged power such as the civil rights/black power movement, the anti-war movement, feminism, gay liberation or the workers movements of the 1930s.
There is no sadder comment on the strategic poverty of the left than the fact that lesser of two evil voting has been the main tactic used by progressives for 70 years. How is that working out? And, this accommodation to the system was led by left icons such as Noam Chomsky. Decade after decade, Chomsky has repeated the ruling class mantra that there is no alternative — no time and no conditions under which the working-class can have an independent voice in electoral politics. The ultimate meaning of lesser of two evil voting is now clear: we must remain forever under the tutelage of the corporate parties.
I call on Chomsky and his followers to prove that they are not just adapting to the system by putting as much energy and urgency into electoral reforms like RCV as they put into the repeated calls for the Green Party to stand down. Stand for electoral reform and we are on the path to standing together. A new realignment is possible but not without recognizing that the two-party system splits progressives who otherwise have broad areas of agreement.
But perhaps most important of all, RCV could establish the minor parties without which no meaningful negotiations can occur.
Without a third or four force there is simply no leverage, no alternative, no credible threat of exit and no real negotiations with party bosses. Politically savvy reformers inside the Democratic Party will seize the opportunity to support RCV because it enables them to negotiate reforms. In contrast, the main current of the pro-Biden left is so scared of Trump they have abandoned all hope of moving Biden toward majority supported policies like health care or the Green New Deal. They settle for beating the vulgar frontal fascism of Trump with the softer less obvious institutional fascism of Biden.
The Maine Chance
The people of Maine challenged power. In 2016 they used a referendum to decide how they wanted to elect representatives rather than letting the politician decide how the people would vote. They fought back and survived legal challenges led by Republicans.
San Francisco, Corvallis and Minneapolis use RCV and New York City is on track for 2021. California was poised to bust the campaign for RCV wide open but when the California Legislature passed RCV twice, two liberal Governors, Gavin Newsome and Jerry Brown, vetoed it — proving once again that the Democratic machine is against democracy. But it’s worth noting that Wyoming is using RCV for their primaries and other state Democratic parties are considering it.
Anyone interest in democracy should pay close attention to the campaigns of Howie Hawkins and Lisa Savage in Maine. Hawkins/Walker are running a working-class campaign that can think for itself and their Green New Deal is the mother of all progressive reforms.
Lisa Savage started as a Green and still has the the Green platform even though backward state laws forced her to run as an independent. But with access to debates and media, Savage is running the strongest Green-style campaign for the Senate in history.
It is the first time for RVC so while we can expect the old political culture will continue to shape thinking and the old machine will continue to marginalize rivals — we will still get a truer idea of what Green candidates can do.
Unfortunately, Planned Parenthood — with its long track record of opposing universal health care and supporting Democrats — gives us a sorry example of how the old culture and the old machine will continue to squelch democracy. According to Lisa Savage:
“Planned Parenthood should be ashamed of themselves for lying to Maine voters. Put a Maine address into their Voter Guide and you’ll find no mention of my presence in a ranked choice voting race as a strong advocate for reproductive rights and health care. Yup, I’m just invisible so they can promote the Democrat and bash the Republican. I know RCV has a lot of enemies, but I didn’t expect PP to be one of them. Once orgs become beholden to one of the corporate parties, their actual advocacy on behalf of voters goes down the drain.”
To engage electoral work without fighting for electoral reform is more than hypocrisy — it’s a trap. We cannot win in a system so utterly rigged. We can start by recognizing that the US has the most dysfunction system of all so-called “western democracies.” We cannot blame the Russians for that. Even if the Green Party agreed to commit political suicide every four years that sacrifice would not even come close to fixing it. Only real reform can do that.
The last third party to win — the Republican Party — used a revolutionary reform they called the “non-extention of slavery” to fundamentally alter the existing two-party system.
The history of the anti-slavery movement and the early Republican Party raises a question we are dying to answer: under what conditions and with what strategies can government be fundamentally transformed? Those conditions exist when there are major problems that the existing political order created but cannot solve. Back then it was slavery and the domination of the government by slave-owners. Now, it’s the interlocking crisis of climate change, empire, the militarized penal system, inequality and the domination of government by corporations.
Starting in the 1840s a series of third parties raised a fundamental challenge to the existing social order and they did so with a special kind of reform — a reform that required revolutionary measures to achieve.
Non-extension of Slavery was a Revolutionary Reform
The demand for the non-extention of slavery literally drew a line in the sand beyond which the system of slavery could not pass. Its appeal would mobilize millions of people from all walks of life. Non-extention was a first step leading to abolition and the creation of a revolutionary party. Non-extention was a wedge issue that busted up the existing order and convinced northern white people to oppose slavery.
A new array of social movements and political parties, including the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and eventually the Republican Party organized resistance against the slave owners that controlled the federal government. By wielding the power of government the slave-owning oligarchs ruthlessly exploited slaves and threatened the interests and values of northern white labor.
As the demand for non-extension made slavery a mass issue, the existing two-party system began to splinter.
Non-extention was a reform because it did not demand the immediate abolition of slavery as the black abolitionists or the morally-driven white abolitionists did. But, it was revolutionary because both the anti-slavery movement and the slave owners themselves understood that slavery was a “grow or die” system, just like the modern corporate empire. To block its plans for expansion was to put it on the path to what the anti-slavery movement called “ultimate extinction.”
As early as 1846 non-extension became a popular issue in the struggle around Wilmont’s Proviso — a proposal to bar slavery from the new territories conquered from Mexico. Although Wilmont’s Proviso never passed Congress it became a lightning rod for anti-slavery organizing.
According to the greatest of all abolitionists, Frederick Douglass, the campaign for Wilmont’s Proviso was an effective way “to keep the subject before the people — to deepen their hatred of the system–and to break up the harmony between the Northern white people and the southern slaveholders.”
As non-extention shattered “the harmony between northern white people and southern slaveholders,” it challenged the white racism on which the two-party system rested.
Where Did the Republicans Come From?
One important source was the splintered elements of Whigs and Democrats that were pushed to the left by the growing anti-slavery movement. By 1848 the Free-Soil Party — the forerunner to Republicans — was created out of northern Democrats that split from their southern controlled party, Whigs pushed to the left by the antislavery movement and members of the Liberty Party, an explicitly abolitionist third party.
Non-extension was a political campaign and an organizing tool. It was different from the radical abolitionists who spoke in the uncompromising language of moral outrage about the sinfulness and corruption of slavery.
The radical abolitionists demanded a clean break with slavery but were only able to attract about 5% of white northerners to its view. But by seeing slavery as a system hostile to everyone’s freedom, including whites, and damaging to the future of the country, the Republicans were able to reach a majority of northern whites estimated at 66%.
What Revolutionary Reform Can Break Up The Harmony Between Everyday People and Corporate Power Today?
We need to “break up the harmony” between everyday people and corporate power — including the politicians, police and military that enforce their rule. We can push the wedge by focusing on issues that cannot be accommodated or compromised: climate change, war, empire, the militarized penal system, and corporate control over the government.
What reforms can help us to disrupt the social order in a way that corporate power cannot agree to without compromising their political might? Here are a few examples:
The abolition or defunding of the vast militarized penal system including the police. Mass incarceration is the foremost example of systematic racism and social control.
The Green Party’s Green New Deal is one of the best examples of a revolutionary reform because it centers the role of war and empire in climate change.
Extensive election reform would reveal the rot at the heart of the system. No wonder election reform is ignored by corporate parties and media.
Returning the power to declare war back to Congress — as the Old Constitution clearly states — we would undermine the power of the “imperial presidency” and the empire along with it.
The repeal of “Citizens United” would strike at the heart of the legal fiction that gives corporations special powers: corporations claim the protections and rights of the people even as they merged with the state.
Reparations to American Descendants of Slaves would jump start the economy and strengthen leadership from this key community of resistance.
Land Back to Natives and recognition of Treaty Rights would erode one cornerstone of the settler state and safeguard the environment.
Projects and laws encouraging and subsidizing worker-owned enterprise and local cooperatives would help us build “a new world in the shell of the old.”
Restoration of the Old Bill of Rights. The tyranny of the corporate empire demands that our rights be restricted.
“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” — William Faulkner
There are striking parallels between then and now.
White supremacy remains the most damaging form of class collaboration weakening all efforts to rebuild democracy. Breaking those bonds will be decisive in mounting any major challenge on the existing order.
One way to start is by reclaiming the arguments on white privilege as an educational and political tool. But, the most important paths are social movements like the on-going Black-led but multiracial uprising against police violence. Some seven million people took part including millions of white people. The “harmony” between white people and the system is breaking down. No wonder the powerful have moved so strongly to coopt or crush the movement.
Beware the Wounded Ruling Class. Arm Ourselves With History
As the position of the slave owners began to weaken they doubled down. The pro-slavery forces actually claimed that slavery was a good thing in keeping with the natural order of things. And, a system to which there was no alternative. We can hear echoes of this in the bosses’ propaganda about the virtues of free markets or the doubling down by the ruling class to control the crisis they know full well is coming.
But, when the great day came and the Slave Power could no longer rule with an iron fist, — when all the special advantages of the three-fifths clause, gag rules, compromises, and evasions no longer worked — it plunged the nation into its deadliest war. They chose disaster over defeat. Beware the wounded ruling class. Beware.
History is terribly unpredictable as it unfolds and only seems inevitable or orderly in hindsight. In times of deep social change political movements once considered marginal become mainstream; ideas once thought impossible or unrealistic become both urgent and practical. Third parties become major parties. And so it is in our time.
Climate destruction forces us to both recognize the interlocking nature of our problems — the deep structural connections between corporate power, racism, patriarchy, war and climate change — and to seek solutions that aim at nothing less than what Martin Luther King called the “radical reconstruction of society.”
Yet, we have no choice but to start with the world we have inherited. To find our way forward we must study the past not as something dead and gone but as something very much alive in our minds and embedded in the very structure of the existing social order. Our anti-slavery ancestors crafted a winning political struggle with a revolutionary reform. Can this past live again? Only if we make it so.
“Third parties can never win” or so you have heard a thousand times. Except — and it’s one huge exception — under historical circumstances much like the conditions we currently face. We are living in a rare historical moment when the deep inner conflicts of the system can no longer be solved, compromised, or even faced by normal political means. The two-party system has only made things worse.
In the years before the Civil War, there was an issue that also could not be solved, compromised or avoided: slavery. Slavery was an economic system but it was also a political system that gave special benefits and special powers to the slave-owning class. The radicals of the day had a name for this rigged system: “The Slave Power.”
The decades before the revolutionary leap of 1863 are full of meaningful parallels to our own time. The existing two-party system was destroyed because it could not solve the problem of slavery. Instead, the politicians of the day resorted to gag rules, denial, distraction and deception — all the same tools used by our current political class in the face of the new issues for which there is no middle ground.
Now we face a clusterfuck that no amount of denial, propaganda, or machine politics can make go away: extreme wealth and political inequality, irreversible climate chaos, systematic racism and patriarchy, perpetual war, global empire, and the collapse of democracy. The corporate power rules over us because it has merged with the government in order to secure the special powers, protections, and benefits that guarantee its supremacy.
As our anti-slavery ancestors fought the “Slave Power” so must we fight Corporate Power.
Abolitionists, rebellious slaves, and political radicals searched for strategies to best resist or abolish slavery. Once the Civil War turned to revolution after 1863 the most successful slave rebellion in US history flooded the federal army with recruits eager to fight for freedom. Black action turned the tide of war, destroyed chattel slavery, and launched the failed but deeply democratic experiments of the Reconstruction Era.
But the path toward the revolutionary upheavals of 1863 – 1877 was paved by a long political struggle against slavery. The abolitionist movements against slavery gave rise to a new revolutionary party: the Republican Party.
The Slave Power and the Anti-Slavery Movement*
The anti-slavery movement busted through all the gag orders, denials and distractions with a strategy that clearly named the “Slave Power” as the enemy. The Slave Power advanced the interests of all slave owners and suppress the rights and interests of all others — including enslaved and free blacks, white workers, and small farmers.
The power of the slave-owners was guaranteed by the original US Constitution. While there were many flaws and shortcomings in the Constitution’s design the worst of the worst was the “Three/Fifths Compromise.”
The Three/Fifths Compromise allowed the slave-owning states to include three-fifths of all slaves into the census that determined the number of congressional representatives and electoral college votes. Needless to say, the enslaved were not represented. This distorted representation gave slave owners effective control over Congress and a decisive edge in presidential elections until Lincoln’s victory in 1860.
The presidencies and power of Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe depended on the extra political power of slave owners. This rigged advantage continued to give the slave-owners of the 19th Century an upper-hand. They pushed through a series of laws that sought to open the territories and new states of the west to slavery.
This steady enlargement of slavery’s domain sparked northern resistance.
Three third parties — the Liberty Party, Free Soil Party and finally the Republican Party — tried one after the other to take this fight against Slave Power to the northern white masses. They took aim at the Slave Power and they were armed with a “revolutionary reform:” the demand for the non-extension of slavery to the western territories. (More on this in an upcoming article.)
Salmon P. Chase, one of the most effective anti-slavery organizers, honed these twin strategies over the long struggle that lead to the triumph of the Republican Party. Chase’s political plans depended on the “absolute necessity of organized resistance to the extension of Slavery and the domination of the Slave Power.”
The Slave Power was the defining narrative of the anti-slavery movement. It was a blunt instrument used to break up the deeply embedded racism of whites — including their own followers. It may seem counterintuitive and deeply troubling, but the right-wing of the anti-slavery movement used white supremacy as a political tool. In this racist view, the west should be spared slavery because it was “white man’s country” — no place for Natives, Blacks, or Mexicans.
But, the radical wing of the movement was far from silent. Their powerful arguments about the Slave Power — proven at every turn by the insatiable demands of the slave owners — turned even racists against slavery.
Many understood as Frederick Douglass did, that white racism was, “the greatest of all obstacles in the way of the anti-slavery cause.”
Their method was to expose racist whites to ideas about civil rights and racial equality while engaging them in the struggle against systematic racism. Now, that is an organizing approach worth studying. By the end of the Civil War, a majority of northern whites agreed with the vision and values of the new Republican Party — at least for a time.
A Power Struggle or a Morality Play?
A comparison between the different tendencies resisting slavery gives us some hard contradictions to think about. The best known to history are the radical abolitionists. Their leader was William Lloyd Garrison who viewed slavery as ungodly and sinful. Their main strategy was a strident moral demand for immediate abolition. The radical abolitionists organized about 5% of northern whites against slavery.
The anti-slavery forces, on the other hand, were committed to a primarily political strategy. Many leaders did emphasize the moral and political critique of slavery, like Salmon Chase, but others were openly racist. In the end, however, it was a political strategy — not merely a moral appeal — that was the path to both power and morality.
Lincoln was a “centrist” in the Republican coalition and went back and forth between racist and anti-racist positions. By 1859 Lincoln finally claimed that the Republican Party was motivated by “hatred to the institution of slavery; hatred to it in all its aspects, moral, social and political.” Over 60% of northern whites eventually rallied behind that program, at least during the later phase of civil war. This political hatred of slavery did not necessarily translate into the desire to see Blacks as equal.
But, by engaging the millions in a political struggle, the Republican party moved toward the revolutionary threshold. In 1863 Lincoln finally accepted the fact that it was either emancipation — including the arming of thousands of blacks — or defeat. Lincoln choose revolution because it was the only path to victory.
By targeting the Slave Power the anti-slavery activists united a wide-ranging and internally conflicted coalition of forces into a revolutionary party.
The Republicans won the allegiance of the most important actors of the period: the hundreds of thousands of rebellious slaves, Black Abolitionists, and soldiers that won the Civil War. They became the backbone of the Republican Party and the new democratic governments in the south.
Martin Delany, one of the founders of African Nationalism, was commissioned a Major — the first Black field officer in the US Army. Delany would later run for office as a Republican.
The 2,000 or so newly elected black officials — virtually all Republicans and southern — rode the wave of revolution earned by the sacrifices of the 250,000 black soldiers and the many thousands more black women and children that supported the federal armies. An estimated 15% of white federal troops were abolitionist minded– a percentage that grew as the war went on — and meaningful black/white unity existed for a brief few years in the south behind demands for public education, economic reforms, and basic democracy.
The transition of Black men from slave to citizen was also the result of political necessity. Just as emancipation was absolutely necessary for military victory, citizenship rights for Black men were absolutely necessary for political victory. Had the slaves been technically freed but not become voters, the southern states would have returned to Congress with even larger delegations than the 3/5 compromise granted them — since all Blacks would now count in the census. Only the Black male voters, many of them soldiers or veterans, guaranteed Republican majorities in the south.
The Hayes-Tilden compromise of 1877 ended Reconstruction and ended the Republican Party as a revolutionary force: Federal troops were withdrawn; Republican majorities destroyed; white terrorism unleashed.
Despite the failures and limits of the Civil War, Reconstruction, and the new Republican Party this remains one of our proudest moments. But now the Slave Power of old has been replaced by Corporate Power. By merging the corporation with the state, big money dominates the government like never before. And the results? All the existential crises we now face are driven by Corporate Power’s insatiable demands for profit and power.
We must find the modern equivalent of the great slave rebellion, the abolitionist soldier and anti-slavery movement that together made a new revolutionary party. Look to the “Left-Unity” Hawkins/Walker Green Party campaign, the massive resistance against police violence and the strike wave triggered by the pandemic for clues as to what that looks like.
We will make history from the bottom up or we will not make history at all.
 In a series of fairly close votes Congress supported the slave power’s agenda: the Indian Removal Act, Gag Rule, Annexation of Texas, Mexican-American War, Defeat of Wilmont’s Proviso, Fugitive Slave Act, repeal of Missouri Compromise, the Kansas-Nebraska Act and more.
 Foner, 92
 See Foner, 308, for the estimates of the organizational effectiveness of the moral abolitionist versus the political anti-slavery movement.
While it’s stunning to watch the DNC repeat the losing strategy of 2016, we should know this is part of a decades-long history of moving toward the right: aka Triangulation. It’s not that the Democrats don’t want to win — Wall Street, billioinares and the war profiteers are depending on them — it’s just that they only want to win under conditions that suppress and demobilize challenges from their left. To achieve this they are forced to repeat the strategies pioneered by Bill Clinton and refined by Obama.
Triangulation is the Strategy of the Two-Party System
One of the most powerful achievements of the two-party system has been to effectively limit political competition in a nation still widely regarded as a democracy. These limits are enforced by law and procedure but are also the results of the strategy of Triangulation.
Triangulation proclaims: “there is no alternative,” and works to enforce that claim. This strategy has demobilized a near majority of US voters into non-voters and induced a significant minority to knowingly vote for parties that do not represent their views or interests.
Triangulation took its most coherent form under the Clintons but it really describes the relationships between the Democrats and social movements since the 1970s at least. The Republicans play the same game.
Triangulation is a War of Position.
The Democrats position themselves to the right of the labor and social movements, and of the majority of Democratic voters. Democratic strategy targets ‘swing voters” or “swing states” standing between Democrats and Republicans. Mainstream Democrats don’t bother with a direct appeal to the social movements or non-voters because then they would have to have a positive program and risk unleashing forces of social change.
The first Obama campaign was a partial and momentary departure from this and proved the potential for mobilizing occasional voters and new voters by what seemed a visionary call for change. Even conservative unions switched their Clinton teeshirts for Obama ones.
But most of the time the “progressive” votes are signed, sealed and delivered without real pressure or public criticism. Some political critics and activists even take a holiday during the election cycle for fear of damaging Democratic prospects. Others, like Chomsky, go unconditional surrender and advocate for “any blue will do” even before the primaries begin. They surrender the right to debate or make demands in the name of some clever tactic to defeat the right. In 2000 the call for “Anyone but Bush” failed, in 2016 Clinton’s pathetic campaign to both elevate Trump and be the “Not Trump” failed. Biden is heading down the same path.
The Democrats tailor their appeal to the small percentage of undecided voters between them and the Republicans because it narrows the terms of political debate. Take the 2012 presidential election for example, when the war in Afghanistan and the environmental crisis were effectively non-issues. Now in 2020 the DNC once again attacks the left and invites in “Never Trump” Republicans. The Lincoln Project will be players for years to come and will build on the already considerable influence of Bush and his bloody neocons already assimilated into the party by the Clinton campaign.
Mid-term elections, in particular, are revealing as to how triangulation strengthens the right-wing. Once incumbency relieves national Democratic leaders of any need to lean toward their “base,” triangulation comes in full swing. In 2014 for example, triangulation led to electoral disaster for Democrats and the lowest voter turnout in 70 years despite the record $4 billion spent on the election.
With few exceptions, 2014 offered the choice between pseudo-Republicans on the Democratic ticket and real Republicans. Voters choose the real deal and/or the demoralized voters stay home.
Triangulation sharply curtailed Obama’s possibilities. This is not a new pattern. Triangulation did its share to contribute to the rightwing resurgence and entrenchment in 1994, 1996, 2010 and 2014.
Most Democrats elected during the “Blue Wave” of 2018 were actually “Blue Dog” Democrats that went on to vote for the Patriot Act, support Trump’s military budgets, and endless wars.
We know, of course, that the Democrats did not have a solid majority in Congress, given Rahm Emanuel’s 2006 decision to back the most conservative candidates in the Democratic primaries in order to win in swing districts and take Democratic control of the House of Representatives (a decision he made while serving as chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee). Democrats in the Senate followed a similar path. As a result, they won formal control and hence could be blamed for what ensued, but they did not have the votes to fulfill their promise to the electorate to cut off funding for the war in Iraq.
What’s a Republican to Do? Move to the Right!
When machine Democrats steal thunder from Republicans, as the Clintons were infamous for, the Republicans are pushed further rightward to redefine their appeal, mark their territory, and secure their voting base. By becoming another party of Wall Street, the Democrats have relieved the Republicans of much of their mission.
It was after all the Clinton administration whose “tough on crime” stance outmaneuvered the Republicans and produced the largest increases in the state and federal prison population of any president in history. Clinton militarized the police with as much zeal as his rightwing predecessor. Triangulation created the American gulag. NAFTA, too. “Ending welfare as we know it” was a signature accomplishment of the Clinton White House as well as a priority for Republicans. Both parties lead their attack on the poor with moralistic calls for “personal responsibility.”
When Democrats protect big banks, Republicans are free to attack unions. When Democrats coddle big oil, coal, and gas, the Republicans resort to climate denial and gag rules.
Here is how the Guardian describes the ideas of George Lakoff, the cognitive linguist:
“[T]he left, he argues, is losing the political argument – every year, it cedes more ground to the right, under the mistaken impression that this will bring everything closer to the center. In fact, there is no center: the more progressives capitulate, the more boldly the conservatives express their vision and the further to the right the mainstream moves.”
If there is a bottom to the depths we have not marked it yet.
So every four years we are served up a full course menu of Republican horribles. Stampeded by revulsion and fear, we are left with the choice of voting for right-wing corporate Democrats whose strategy then enables the further rightward drift of both parties. Or, so it has been for half a century.
But, for many politicians in high places, finishing second in the richest, most powerful country in the world is not so bad. Two-party triangulation limits risk because the “loser” is guaranteed a comfortable place at the table.
The major party’s leaders really have no skin in the game.
As long as triangulation works to reproduce power unchanged, then the social movements largely miss out on the political opportunities that elections should present.
Almost as extreme was the 1994 mid-term elections with the Democrats adhering to triangulation under Bill Clinton. In 1994 and 1996 Congress was elected by less than 25% of the eligible electorate. See Kay Lawson, “ The Case for a Multiparty System,” p. 34 in Multiparty politics in America second Edition, Eds. Paul S. Herrson and John C. Green
The cops are violating the Constitution by attacking people exercising their basic rights — — that much is obvious. The rounding up of random protestors because they “fit the description” is related to the discriminatory policing that has historically denied poor, Black, and Brown people their basic rights because they “fit the description.” It’s a form of collective punishment outside the rule of law.
The very existence of the new uniformed secret police violates our rights. But, there have been so many assaults and exceptions to the Constitution, it cannot seriously be called the “highest law of the land.” Instead, the use of secret police should reveal to us a deeply entrenched and systemic tyranny that is the political blowback from empire. In fact, we are now ruled by a system of principles and practices that are nothing short of a new imperial constitution.
Yes, the empire delivered the death blow against the Constitution and the republic it defined. But we cannot know how the murder was committed without inspecting the body. My years as a teacher made it clear that most people had never actually read the founding documents. How do we expect to transform something we do not know?
Great artists innovate new forms of art when the existing forms no longer express the times they live in or the visions they have for the future. But at the same time,the act of creation comes from knowing and mastering the older decaying forms. This is also true of the political innovations we call revolutions.
The Old Constitution
For us, the old decaying form is the US Constitution. The Constitution failed to grant “the people” any power beyond electing elites to represent them— a limited form of power now totally undermined by the two-party system never mentioned in the Constitution. The Constitution gave all power to the government and no real power to the people — compounded of course by the fact that Blacks, Women, Natives, and Mexicans who comprised a majority of the people were outside of the definition of ”we the people.”
In its original form, the proposed Constitution was still unacceptable to the minority white male electorate because nothing listed the rights of the people to protect them from the power of the state. The Bill of Rights was added by popular demand and without it the Constitution would not have been ratified. Those rights were listed in the Bill of Rights — but not granted or created by it — since they were “natural rights” beyond the legitimate power of any government to either confer or revoke. It’s not that the Bill of Rights ever worked well, it didn’t. But it did work as contested terrain to struggle over.
The first Constitution created a republic in form but one that allowed very limited democratic power even for the newly enfranchised white artisans, small farmers, and workers. The “Three/fifths Compromise” of the original Constitution institutionalized slavery, conquest, and the white supremacy that had been taking shape since the first Europeans arrived.
The Imperial Constitution
For the last seventy years, even the remaining form of the republic has been irreversibly damaged by war and empire. And as with racism, institutional structures tell the real tale. After 1950 or so Congress surrendered its constitutional power to declare war and the imperial presidency quickly took over. The people surrendered too — bullied or conned into obedience by the fear merchants of cold war anti-communism.
In short order, we had standing armies, secret police, and the military-industrial complex. All real power was quickly centralized into the executive branch. There were important milestones when that power was further consolidated: 9/11, the War on Terror, the Patriot Act, various NDAA’s, the militarization of the border, ICE attacks on immigrants, the attacks on Occupy and Standing Rock, to name a few. Mass incarceration and the militarization of police were the final jewels in the imperial crown. The systematic tyranny of the imperial constitution was ready-made and waiting for a president like Trump.
But, in fact, every President since 1950 has been a war criminal and a tyrant by definition: their power was in violation of the rule of law. And, this monster executive branch includes the rapidly growing police forces — uniformed and secret — and the new form of secret but uniformed police that have appeared in DC, Portland, and Columbus. There are eighteen secret police forces in all.
In the past cops often hid their badges before committing crimes — now we have entire police forces that both violate, and are immune from, the rule of law by their very nature. If not intent on committing crime why would police need immunity from the law they claim to enforce?
But the rubber bullets, sticks, and chemical weapons reveal weakness. Would they resort to violence if other forms of social control were working to maintain order? Or is this a domestic replay of the military’s strategy of “full-spectrum dominance?” Do they simply see all forms of dissent as a challenge to their power? All of the above?
We now face an interlocking crisis of existential proportions: climate change, extreme wealth and political inequality, perpetual war and empire, the merger of the corporation and the state, the collapse of democracy, and the ramping up of racism and patriarchy necessary to weaken the people. These crises cannot be faced let alone solved by the existing order because they are the existing order.
A New Constitution?
We now have no choice but to create a new democratic system or else the interlocking crisis will come crashing down on all of our heads. Democracy will take many forms but massive protest movements that reveal and challenge the illegitimate power of the state is a huge step in the right direction. And, the secret police and the militarized police forces are the front lines of unlawful and illegitimate state power. That is why we see the good cop/ bad cop efforts to co-opt the movement with one hand and to crush it with the other. That is why Trump and the executive branch he now personifies have no choice but to double down.
This crisis of empire is the cause of so much sound and fury but this time signifying everything: the old constitution is dead, the imperial constitution rules and the new constitution awaits. Let’s see now — how do new constitutions come to be?
White privilege is a thing. It’s just not the same thing the corporate Democrats use to boss us around with. The concept of white privilege was not invented by some liberal university professors. In fact, the concept of white privilege was invented by a white man: a radical activist and historian who never went to college.
Writing for the John Brown Commemoration Committee in 1965, Theodore Allen innovated the discourse on white skin privilege. Then in 1967 he co-authored “White Blindspot” and in 1969 published “Can White Workers Radicals Be Radicalized?”
According to Jeffrey B. Perry,
Allen’s work influenced the Students for a Democratic Society and sectors of the “new left” and it paved the way for the “white privilege,” “race as social construct,” and “whiteness studies” academic fields.1
In our deep past, white privileges were granted by a “presumption of liberty” to whites that were simultaneously denied Blacks.
We can track that presumption of liberty straight to the great 2020 uprising against police violence. We are all supposed to enjoy the “presumption of innocence” but that is systematically denied Natives, Blacks, other people of color, poor people, and those that do not conform to gender or sexual norms. On-the-spot executions deprive people of color the right to be “innocent until proven guilty” and to enjoy the equal protection of the law. As “guilty until proven innocent” became the new normal it affected everyone including the white working class.
Unlike liberal interpretations of white privilege used to quiet dissent, Allen’s understanding was that white privileges are contrary to the long-term political and material interest of white people. The benefits, bribes, and appeals to white people do have a real value, which is one reason they work, but that value is far less than the value that would be produced by class solidarity and cross-racial action to raise wages, win political power and establish justice.
In 1969 Allen wrote:
The white-skin privileges of the masses of the white workers do not permit them nor their children to escape into the ranks of the propertied classes. In the South, where the white-skin privilege has always been most emphasized and formal, the white workers have fared worse than white workers in the rest of the country. The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege, not release from jail, merely freedom of movement within it and a diet more nearly adequate. It is not that the ordinary white worker gets more than he must have to support himself and his family, but that the black worker gets less than the white worker. The result is that by thus inducing, reinforcing and perpetuating racist attitudes on the part of the white workers, the present-day power-masters get the political support of the rank-and-file of the white workers in critical situations, and without having to share with them their super profits in the slightest measure…2 [emphasis added]
To this day, “The white-skin privilege for the mass is the trustee’s privilege not release from jail…” Some of the prisoners can control other prisoners but never challenge the warden.
Allen’s reference to prison is not just a metaphor. Look at mass incarceration today. According to a Pew Research Center study 2010 US incarceration rates for white men are 678 per hundred thousand and 91 per hundred thousand for white women. The incarceration rate for black men is a staggering six times greater than white men, and almost three times higher than for black women. (4,347 for Black men and 260 for Black women). Yet, white men and women are incarcerated at rates much higher than those of comparable countries.
Yet our relative privilege allowed whites to consent to the war on drugs and vote for “get tough on crime” politicians like Joe Biden. They aimed at Blacks first but ultimately created a police state that punishes protest with violence and aims to make the exercise of constitutional rights a criminal act. We all lose, including losing our rights to a trial by jury that the Bill of Rights claims to protect. The new penal system also got tough on working-class whites as it garrisoned the entire country with a militarized force dedicated to protecting the established order.
The Psychic Wage
The privilege harder to put a price on, and one of the most serious remaining obstacles to overcoming racism is what W.E.B Dubois called the “psychological wage.“3 The psychological or psychic wage is that highly coveted sense of personal, spiritual, and moral superiority we are taught to derive from our skin color.
This psychic wage is collected, in part, by an imaginary connection with whites of high status. White privilege creates vertical solidarity that connects working-class whites to the power and glory of the rich, strong, and celebrated white elites, even though our overall political and economic interests are shared by working-class people of color. White workers are exploited by the boss and sent to die in their wars daily. Our privilege gives us the delusion that we are not who we truly are.
[A]s long as white Americans take refuge in their whiteness—for so long as they are unable to walk out of this most monstrous of traps—they will allow millions of people to be slaughtered in their name, and will be manipulated into and surrender themselves to what they will think of—and justify—as a racial war. They will never, so long as their whiteness puts so sinister a distance between themselves and their own experience and the experience of others, feel themselves sufficiently human, sufficiently worthwhile, to become responsible for themselves, their leaders, their country, their children, or their fate. They will perish…in their delusions. And this is happening, needless to say, already, all around us….But the American delusion is not only that their brothers all are white but that the whites are all their brothers. [emphasis added]
Whiteness and privilege distance us from our “own experience and the experience of others.” You may feel connected to a Trump or a Clinton for an Obama, or aspire to become a general or a billionaire, but to them we are but chumps and pawns.
Horizontal or Vertical Solidarity? Class Solidarity or Class Collaboration?
Yes, it is the privileges whites have that disrupt horizontal solidarity, but when those bribes are eroded, even partially, by debt, poverty, the long term decline of wages,poor health, drug addiction, and hopelessness, their hypnotic power weakens. Young whites in particular have come to see the transparent truth that the system is rigged against them. Perhaps most of all, that the forecast of life on our planet is so poisoned and precarious that no amount of privilege will save them.
The fact that tens of thousands of white people — often from small towns — have joined the Uprising is evidence that the white privilege system is weakening.
These changes in consciousness are signs that we might again cross into revolutionary territory. The unending recession of 2008 has forced whites to choose: cling ever harder to the psychological wage, hate, and white supremacy, or join the movements toward social reform, revolution, resistance, and love.
The vertical solidarity of white privilege should make us very wary of other forms of vertical solidarity that have been a typical tool of the elites. Tokenism and machine politics establish a political and spiritual connection when people identify with the managers of war and empire because they share the same gender, sexuality, color, class, or national origins. 5
Privilege, vertical solidarity, and the psychic wage remain potent means of maintaining social control at home and empire abroad. In the same way white privilege blinds white people to their own invented identity and the depth of racism, imperial privilege blinds all of us to the ongoing imperial project with its constant bloodletting and profit-making that has become our way of life.
Our best move is to take on the most deeply entrenched form of privilege: white privilege. For that, we need to organize the white working class.
It’s Not Academic.
Debates continue over Allen’s assertion that the white race and white privilege was invented as a conscious and deliberate act of the oligarchs. Was it that, or the general outcome of the historical conditions of the time? The key argument for activists, however, is that white racism is not itself innate and therefore can be changed. History is made by human action. Sometimes human acts are conscious, even conspiratorial. Other times we contribute to change through a multitude of human decisions; local and global, visionary, and parochial.
But the political world is not an academic debate. It is up to us to prove that white racism is not innate in white people and that racism can be changed by activism.