Both The Commune And Revolution

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Also in Counterpunch

The environmental crisis grows ever more dire but we are no closer to a grand political solution because that requires nothing less than a revolution: we must replace corporate power with economic democracy and war with peace. In the US we are caught between the reckless climate denial of the Republican Party and the opiate incrementalism of the corporate Democrats.  One side denies that environmental destruction is real, the other denies that there is much we can do about it. Both serve the insatiable demand for war, power and profit that sends us hurtling toward the cliff.  While we must pursue every means we have to assert democratic control over government and capital we cannot wait for a new day to dawn. We must act in the here and now. Take climate destruction into your own hands; join the commune.

Many Roads to Revolution

The “commune” referred to in the title of this essay is short for prefigurative politics. Prefigurative projects attempt to create living examples of the social changes we aspire to for the whole society even while still inside of the corporate regime.  We need changes now and we need to experiment with projects that might be useful as models for the future.[1]

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Prefigurative politics try to restart the kind of communal life which was widely practiced by humans prior to rise of the patriarchal family, private property and the state back in the early days of so-called civilization. Sometimes we can glimpse the future by looking deeply into our past.

Indigenous people around the world still struggle to hold on to communal institutions — communal land most importantly — despite the colonial and corporate onslaught.

Prefigurative politics became part of the European tradition of resistance as far back as the English Civil War. Scores of utopian communes were established in the years before the U.S. Civil War and inaugurated an almost unbroken chain of cooperative experiments among everyday Americans. In 1871 the Parisian working-class made revolution by organizing a new kind of government they called “the democratic and social republic.” Known to the world as the “Paris Commune,” this brief experiment merged revolutionary upheaval with participatory democracy and workers’ control.

The struggle against the British Empire reintroduced prefigurative politics to the social change movements of the 20th century. A famous saying from that period, attributed to Gandhi, tells us: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Another strain of this tradition was articulated through Martin Luther King’s concept of the “beloved community.” For King, nonviolence was the revolutionary means and the beloved community, the revolutionary end. For King love and truth became a political force. The desire for “peace and love” touched millions of people around the world and was, in many regards, the brightest part of hippie culture and the new social movements. By fusing love and truth to power, King helped us reimagine what a revolution could look like.

Another strain of this tradition was initiated by organizers in the civil rights and student movements. They worked to create organizations that challenged hierarchical models of political action by practicing participatory democracy at the grassroots. Ella Baker, herself a veteran of the cooperative movement, was instrumental in creating modern organizing methods focused on the development of local leadership and local empowerment.

Ella Baker and many others went on to organize the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) as the first youth-lead organization that consciously aimed at double-edged transformation. They argued that the movement to change themselves and change the world was the same inseparable process. SNCC focused on empowering working-class blacks rather than promoting themselves as leaders. This organizing approach reshaped political thinking and helped to birth other student and youth movements. When the Students for a Democratic Society wrote their founding document, the Port Huron Statement, participatory democracy was its strategic cornerstone.

The other essential strain of prefigurative politics is the centuries-old tradition of alternative economic projects. Community gardens, farmers’ markets, permaculture, worker-owned enterprises, individual and collective energy production, and alternative health care all contribute to improving life now.

The Democracy Colaborative is a think tank and information clearinghouse for the practice and theory of worker-owned enterprise. Cooperatives, communes, and collectives of all sorts show us how the future might look and feel.

Today there is a rising movement of city-centered communes.  One of the leading examples is Cooperation Jackson with its emerging network of democratic political institutions and cooperative economic projects.

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Organizer Larry Stafford sees the cooperative movements of Jackson Mississippi this way:

“Jackson Rising is important because it teaches us how to build and sustain community power; it does not just tell us what we should oppose.  It provides a microcosmic model of what community power should look like.”[2]

And, prefigurative projects do more than model the future. They begin the difficult work of setting up a dual power —  alternative institutions that can lay claim to peoples allegiances and ideals — within a world dominated by corporate power.

New World Growing Within the Old

We need something to which we can point and say: “This is what democracy looks like.” Part of Occupy’s global appeal was that people actually got to experience democracy first hand and often for the first time. I am not suggesting that prefigurative politics does not have shortcomings, but as the history of the civil rights movement demonstrates, prefigurative visions and methods can be fused with protest and organizing to create effective strategies rooted in day-to-day struggles.

Both in raw numbers and liberating potential, local efforts to establish community institutions are a social force changing our culture and civil society in potentially profound ways. This is a quiet revolution happening right under our noses. Prefigurative projects help us envision the positive and rethink what revolution could mean in our time.

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Reflecting on decades of experience and activism in Detroit, Grace Lee Boggs argues:

We are in the midst of a process that is nothing short of reinventing revolution. For much of the twentieth century the theory and practice of revolution have been dominated by overarching ideologies, purist paradigms and absolutist views of a static paradise; arguments over which class, race or gender was the main revolutionary social force; and binary opposites between Left and Right. Big victories have been prioritized over small collaborative actions that build communities and neighborhoods: the end has been valued over the means. We rarely stopped to wonder how much this view of revolution reflected the capitalist culture that was dehumanizing us.[3]

We need to reinvent revolution by making it more possible on a more human scale. While the old left culture of ideological struggle is deeply embedded, it makes less sense over time — at least as the dominant culture of progressives — and is often a time-wasting dead end.

Boggs draws our attention to the liberating potential of cooperation, community building and the power that comes from making our ends and means aim the same way.

We should stop wasting energy and losing allies by criticizing people that are pursuing “lifestyle” changes, prefigurative or seemingly utopian projects, or environmentally friendly consumer practices. Those of us committed to a social change model of activism aim for the big changes: large scale protest, sweeping legislative victories, transformative organizing projects, even revolution. But while we are working and waiting on those grand political projects, we should take heart in the real progress being made by this quiet revolution. All sorts of prefigurative activities should be seen as part of a broader inside/outside strategy.

Organizers and the Commune

We can adjust our vision by starting with Saul Alinsky’s classic insight: we engage the world as it is, not as we wish it to be.[4] Millions of people are already involved in alternative lifestyles and community-building projects. Should we ignore or demoralize them? Fatalism is already one of our greatest enemies: let’s not add to it.

The job of the organizer is to help people find the tasks and tactics that fit their capacity, interest, and understanding of the world — not necessarily ours. Let the people decide. Apparently millions of Americans have decided that prefigurative projects and lifestyle changes are an important place to start and a worthy end in themselves. Is it so hard for us to imagine how community gardens runs counter to the corporate control over food? It’s so easy in fact that people pursuing social change should consider making more environmentally friendly and anti-corporate consumer choices in our daily lives.

If union officials have big houses in elite suburbs, commute long distances in gas-guzzlers, vacation with the powerful at places like Martha’s Vineyard, and eat junk food, what message are they sending to working people? Of course, we might think they have simply sold their souls, but it also sets the example that labor and environmentalism are at odds.

Since social change activists usually think that numbers count, consider the possibility that if just 1% of the U.S. population made significant shifts in consumption and local production, that would translate into real impacts and actions taken by 3.5 million. Some observers estimate that up to 10 million Americans are already participants in local initiatives. When was the last time even 1% of the American people joined together in protest? This large body of Americans should be viewed as allies and potential activists in social change movements.

Part of the objection to lifestyle and prefigurative politics is that it’s too little, too late or too small to matter. But labor and the social movements have been similarly stuck with baby steps and small victories when not reeling from outright defeats. And as organizers know, relationship building is both means and ends, and that occurs as much in small-scale projects as it does in an organizing drive or protest movement.

We must believe in little things because we Americans are now all “little things.” Over the last half-century, corporations have successfully reduced 99% of the people to second-class citizen status, at least on the federal level – the arena in which big changes were often made. Our opinions and views have very little impact on national politics. Local and municipal action is a way to outflank the corporate enemy.

Prefigurative Projects are Cultural Revolution

The swaggering big shots of labor and the social movements are deep in the delusions of the “house servant.” Namely, that they have “access;” that they sit at the table as equals; that things aren’t really so bad; that there is an incremental solution to our problems. Denial.

We desperately need to get back to the fieldwork; that is where we belong. The soil for our struggles will yield so much more when we cross-fertilize our movements against empire, corporate power and injustice with the universal visions and homegrown supplies produced by the commune next door.

“Cultural revolutions typically precede political revolutions, as the former creates the social conditions for a critical mass of the people to embrace new social values that orient them toward the possibility of another world.” — Kali Akuno & Ajamu Nangwaya

John Adams saw the original American Revolution the same way.

“The Revolution was effected before the war commenced. The Revolution was in the minds and hearts of the people…. This radical change in the principles, opinions, sentiments, and affections of the people, was the real American Revolution.”

Prefigurative projects give us one way to practice cultural revolution. There are many roads to revolution. Head down the one that starts at your door. What are we waiting for?

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[1] While communal practises have a very long history, the term “prefigurative” first entered radical vocabulary in an essay by Carl Boggs, “Marxism, Prefigurative Communism, and the Problem of Workers’ Control. Boggs thought that, “[T]hose forms of social relations, decision-making, culture, and human experience that are the ultimate goal,” should be “within the ongoing political practice of a movement.” Wini Breines continued to use this idea in, Community and Organization in the New Left 1962-1968: The Great Refusal.   “[T]he term prefigurative politics…maybe recognized in alternative institutions, demonstrations and the attempt to embody personal and anti-hierarchical values in politics…the crux of prefigurative politics imposes substantial tasks, the central one being to create and sustain within the live practice of the movement relationships and political forms that “prefigured” and embodied the desired society.”

[2] Quoted from Rukia Lumumba, Forward: All Roads lead to Jackson, in Jackson Rising: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson, Mississippi

[3] Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution p. 47-48

[4] See this free copy of Alinsky’s Reveille for Radicals.  It is a far more useful text for organizers than the more famous Rules for Radicals.

 

 

Posted in American Culture, Cooperation, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Prefigurative politics, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, unions, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 18 Comments

Bernie or Bust: Strategy, Sheepdogs and Synergy

Bernie Or Bust: Pioneers of Electoral Revolt

 

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This article also appeared in CounterPunch.

 

Both Intervention And Exit

A new book, Bernie or Bust, tells the story of a small group of electoral activists that made a big difference. They were motivated by the fall of democracy and the coming environmental catastrophe. But, the key to their success was that they actually had a political strategy not simply a moral or ideological position. Bernie or Bust was an attempt at power politics. They called the strategy “leverage.” Leverage came from the dual threat of both intervention and exit. Over a hundred thousand people made a demand on power by signing the Bernie or Bust Pledge: Gives us Bernie or we vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

The authors, Victory Tiffany for the Bernie or Bust committee and Patrick Walker, give us a blow-by-blow account of the project as it evolved over time.  

Bernie or Bust was an on-line campaign to form a voting bloc unified around an uncompromising demand on power. But the Clinton machine could not be deterred and the new voting bloc was not nearly large enough to enforce its demands. Bernie or Bust was, however, a dress rehearsal for the kind of full-scale electoral rebellion its going to take to restore democracy to electoral politics.

At first, “Bust” was a poorly conceived write-in campaign for Sanders that nonetheless worked as a footing for a sturdier bridge that radicalized Bernie supporters could cross. Bernie or Bust ended up helping tens of thousands of voters transition to the Green Party. That is no small accomplishment. What other group — outside of the Green Party itself — can make that claim? (see footnote)*  

I worked hard on the Sanders campaign going door-to-door and organizing phone banking. Then I did the same for Jill Stein. But most effective was the minor role I played in nudging the Bernie or Bust committee to move to “Jill or Bust.” They were already heading in that direction.

Sheep or Revolutionaries? That Is Up To Us.

Bernie or Bust is also a case study in the on-going claims regarding sheepdogging.  The story of Bernie or Bust helps restore struggle and human agency to that debate. Things are what we make of them. 

[S]heepdog or wolf, Bernie bayed out one tune that was absolute music to our movement-organizing ears: political revolution….That Democrats were willing to let outsider Bernie sing such an edgy, ambiguously worded tune — one so easily prone to subversive interpretations—was an index of their sheer desperation…[1]

So you want to talk revolution?  Ok, then let’s talk revolution. For Bernie or Bust the time had come for the people to reassert control over government and that would require a disruptive, forceful intervention.

The sheepdog criticism is itself part and parcel of the fantastical expectations we have about politicians and political leaders— attributing super-powers for good or evil to individuals. What Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez does is not that important — it’s what we do that matters. As a Green Party activist I find Bernie or Bust or the supporters of Ocasio-Cortez a much needed opposition movement inside the Democratic Party.[2]  We need all poles of opposition to win.

And our shared position of opposition is likely to get much clearer as the New Mccarthyism shifts toward attacks on reform Democrats as well as the Green Party. Many a good reform Democrat has already opposed Russia-gate hysteria and we need to stand together for self-defense.

In a bigger context we need such alliances to make social change. The 60’s revolution was a “movement of movements.” Do you think everyone agreed with each other? Hell no. But the movement invented the coalition: a political structure in which each organization retained its separate identity but worked on common issues. There was both unity and struggle. So make the best case for your position, then prepare to work with those who have other ideas. Politics is as much about negotiating disagreement as it is about finding agreement.   

Can we see the campaigns of reformers as an opportunity to organize an effective opposition? If not the fault lies with us. Bernie or Bust shows us that we can engage the contradictory world of politics and make still demands that speak power to power. When a door opens we walk through it, enlarge it, remodel it — not sit and protest that its not the door we always dreamed of.

In fact, no elected reform Democrat, radical independent, or Green will be able to change a system that has long been captive to corporate power and empire until we are many, many in number and backed by large disruptive social movements — or at least that is what the history of the New Deal strongly suggests. Can we rise above mere criticism and/or worship of individuals to make positive interventions from the bottom up? Bernie or Bust did just that.

Movement, Contradiction, Tension, Transition, Transformation

We will not make reform let alone revolution without a revolutionary method. Bernie or Bust is a study in how a dialectal approach might shape political action. Dialectical thinking was at the heart of Marx’s method but you do not have to be Marxist — and Bernie or Bust was not — to value this way of understanding the world. Martin Luther King used dialectical thinking and so should we. Marx wrote:

“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”[3]  

A dialectical vision recognizes actually existing conditions as the basis and context for change. Think on that contradiction awhile. Everything is shaped by its past but is also becoming something else. You can only see that if you focus on motion rather than fixed position.

Growing, dynamic political trends are in tension with one another because they are both opposed and connected. It’s a complicated web formed by both unity and struggle. Martin Luther King described it as “the interrelated structure of reality.”[4] Engage the perennial conflicts and contradictions of political life. Tension is where the action is.

Bernie or Bust saw the contradictions of Sander’s own inside/outside strategy and crafted a parallel inside/outside strategy on his populist flank. 

We feel that Bernie, in his utterly sincere opposition to domination of our nation by corporate…money (a sincerity vouch for by his refusal to take it) is sheer political dynamite. And we intend (whatever Bernie himself does) to exploit that dynamite in a revolutionary way: to blast open the very real fault lines between corporatists and populists in the Democratic Party. [5]

They positioned themselves on the radical edge of the Sander’s surge. Bernie or Bust never sought or received the endorsement of the Sanders campaign. Instead they staked out a position of “critical support” for Sanders seeing the contradictions in Sanders as the makings of an electoral revolt.[6] Sanders open hostility to the big money and naming climate change as our biggest threat bought him into direct conflict with the party bosses he had pledged to support as the price of running as a Democrat. Into that tension rushed Bernie or Bust.

The emphasis on movement not position also meant that Bernie or Bust was able to lead people through a transition process. Radicals often expect converts from our words — because, well, our words are so good. Instead people are much more likely to transition over time as they gain experience.

Bernie or Bust needs to go back to the drawing board on one major point. They tried to repurpose the spoiler smear used by the corporate media but got trapped by it instead. By embracing the spoiler mentality they slip back into conventional either/or thinking. They mistake tactic for strategy and strategy for goal — limiting the potential of their own work. Bernie or Bust is not an end in itself but a movement strategy to restore competition to an electoral system choked by the stranglehold of the corporate power.

This valuable report from Harvard Business School, of all places, proposes structural reforms and concludes that it is the two-party system that has spoiled American elections. And, they are right. The goal of any revolutionary electoral strategy should be to restore real representation by reforming the electoral process — including the creation of a multi-party democracy.  We need to unspoil it not spoil it.

The narrow negativity of the spoiler blinds us to the political terrain. Clinton’s need to blame everyone else for her loss inadvertently revealed that the Democrats lost for 50 different reasons –at least. One reason left out of spoiler claims is that 45% of eligible voters stayed home. The fact that 93 million people did not vote is proof positive that there are lots of votes to be had and no spoiler except the bankrupt system itself.

Victory will be the prize for those willing to organize the unorganized millions.

Overall however the story of Bernie or Bust is a good antidote to conventional left thinking. Typically radicals spend a lot of energy drawing distinctions between their positions and those of other radicals. But, the practice of organizing demands engagement with people you do not completely agree with — and that makes all the difference. This contradiction in our movement is not going away but we should recognize it and give play to both argument and organizing.

But perhaps most important, Bernie or Bust signaled the beginning of the end for the fearful lesser of two evils mindset that has undermined representative democracy in America. As long as voters fail in their duty to vote for candidates that actually represent their interests and values the people will never be represented. The major parties have counted on this fear for a long time but in our desperation we are finally finding courage. Climate disaster looms ahead, the war machine cranks on, the people get poorer and poorer. Representation is all but dead. Participation is all we have left. It’s time for bold action and creative organizing.


  • According to an internal poll done by Bernie of Bust the pledge takers reported the following: approximately 10% voted for Clinton, 70% Stein, 11% wrote in Sanders, 2% Johnson and 2% Trump.
  1. Bernie or Bust p.22
  2. See also former Green Party VP candidate Ajamu Baraka, Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: A Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez.
  3. Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
  4. Martin Luther King, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.’ See also “A Testament of Hope.”
  5. Bernie or Bust p.59
  6. Bernie or Bust p.55

 

 

Posted in American Culture, electoral strategy, Green Party, History, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The People Made the First New Deal. Can the People Make Another?

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Also find this article at Counterpunch.

Massive Protest and Organizing Created the New Deal

The kind of electoral victories we need will take far more than standard electioneering and Facebook debates.  Let’s look at what it took to create the New Deal so we can see just how challenging the task ahead is. During the Great Depression massive organizing efforts and protest movements were necessary just to reform the two-party system. New Deal history strongly suggests that the current dementer v. demexit debate is largely a waste of time until we organize movements powerful enough to upset the existing order.

In our memory Franklin Delano Roosevelt was the standard bearer of the New Deal but it did not start that way.  FDR was a reluctant reformer pushed into progressive action because millions of people were willing to experiment with radical solutions.

Mass movements, third parties and revolutionary parties, labor upheaval, agrarian unrest, powerful populists, discontented veterans, and Democratic congressmen more radical than FDR pushed the New Deal into being. Setting aside for the moment the long-standing debates about the racial, class and other limitations of the New Deal — we can still learn about how the deep conservatism of a major party was partially overcome, for a time, by the forces of reform and revolution pushing from the bottom up.[1]

Workers, Farmers and Veterans 

Widespread labor upheavals changed the political climate. The mass production industries were organized for the first time as thousands of new leaders –including significant numbers of women and people of color — led the revolt from the shop floor. There were strikes waves that included sit-down strikes where workers actually occupied the workplace.  Autoworkers in Flint Michigan kicked off the wave of sit-down strikes that spread into all sorts of workplaces.

Strikes for better conditions and union recognition were massive. For example, in 1934 alone, there were 1,856 strikes waged by 1,470,000 workers.[2] Six million workers formed unions during the decade. Of the 38 new industrial unions, 18 were led by communists or other leftists until McCarthyism and the 1947 Taft-Hartly Act expelled them from the AFL-CIO. So furious was the class war that the New Deal was forced to recognize worker’s rights in an attempt to pacify labor relations.

Woolworth Workers Strike

Female employees of Woolworth’s holding a sign indicating they are striking for a 40 hour work week, New York, New York, 1937. (Photo by Underwood Archives/Getty Images)

Agrarian unrest rocked the heartland. The Farm Holiday Movement claimed 30,000 members and led protests of thousands demanding a moratorium on mortgage foreclosures.  They blocked roads to disrupt markets and destroyed crops and products. In the 1933 the Wisconsin Milk Strike, lead by farmer cooperatives, destroyed milk products in an attempt to raise prices. Thousands of pounds of milk were trashed, creameries were bombed and protestors were shot by police.

Veterans were on the move.  In 1932 “The Bonus Army” marched over 40,000 people on Washington DC where they occupied a corner of the national mall to demand the early payment of a bonus they already had coming. The veterans’ tent city was attacked by the US Army under the command of Douglass MacArthur and George Patton. Two veterans were killed and over a thousand injured. The threat of another march was headed off by the offer of jobs with the Civilian Conservation Corp — a federal jobs program. But still no bonus — instead FDR actually reappointed MacArthur. When FDR vetoed legislation passed by Congress in 1936 to secure an early bonus the Congress returned the bill with a veto-proof majority.  The Bonus became law and the foundation was laid for the GI Bill.

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Unemployed workers formed Unemployed Councils and demanded jobs and reliefs. Unemployment grew to 25% at times and there was unrest and protest across the country. In March 1930, 500,000 people marched in 25 cities to demand relief. Many local demonstrations were brutally attacked by police. People died but we won unemployment insurance.  The Workers Alliance of America originally demanded “the abolition of the profit system” and claimed to represent 400,000 people. They pushed for legislative reforms and progressive candidates. The unemployed movement was lead by communists, socialists, and assorted radicals.

Populists Leaders Push 

Nationally known populist leaders also pushed FDR to the left for a while.  Huey Long is best know for his “Share the Wealth” program.  He proposed to cap personal wealth and personal income and inheritance for the rich. Long proposed a guaranteed income, thirty hour work week, four week vacation, old age pension, free college or vocational training. As Governor of Louisiana and then US Senator he used the resources of the state to build hospitals, schools and roads.  An estimated 20 Million listened to his radio broadcasts and he received 60,000 pieces of mail a week as a US Senator. Long tried to form an independent party to challenge the Democrats.

Robert Townsend was a doctor from California that proposed an old age pension. It generated extraordinary nationwide support and was part of the reason we have Social Security today. There were over 7,000 “Townsend Clubs” with over 2.2 million members and they called for the nationalization of banks. In 1936 Townsend was able to deliver petitions to Congress containing 10 million hard copy signatures in support of the Townsend Plan.

And when judging the movements of the 30’s, remember that the US population was only 130 million or so, less than a third of current levels.

Legislators on the Left

The grassroots rebellion reached into the halls of Congress. In the mid-term election of 1934 the Democrats won a super-majority but much more important — at least 35 Democrats stood to FDR’s left.  Pressure groups like the Washington Commonwealth Federation worked to elect progressive Democrats. Third parties helped push the New Deal as well.

  • The 73rd congress elected in 1932 had five members of Congress from the Farmer-Labor party, 313 Democrats, 117 Republicans.
  • The 74th Congress elected in 1934 had seven members from the newly founded Progressive Party (Wisconsin), three from the Farmer-Labor, 322 Democrats and 103 Republicans.
  • The 75th congress elected in 1936 had eight members from the Progressive Party, five from the Farmer Labor, 334 Democrats and 88 Republicans. Two senators were outside the major parties: Robert La Follette from the Wisconsin Progressive Party and George Norris a progressive Republican from Nebraska that left the party to run as an independent.

Here are the facts: as the number Democrats grew, the number of radical Democrats grew and the number of the third parties representatives grew. At the same time socialist and communist parties were polling about 5% combined. All progressives grew at the same time! What happened to the spoiler? The lesser of two evils?  Those arguments did not yet exist and only exist now to frighten and control the weak minded.

Imagine Bernie Sanders as president with 35 Democrats in the House to his left and 13 Green Party congress members to their left with significant electoral campaigns by self-styled revolutionary parties in the context of a vast popular rebellion — that might be what another New Deal would look like.

In periods of dramatic change old categories are transformed or reconstructed. Before  the New Deal, the Democrats had been the conservative party — during the New Deal they became the more progressive party.  The Republicans — the last successful revolutionary party, the last third party to become a major party — became the more conservative party. Mass political upheaval, third parties and revolutionary organizations fueled the flames of political change.

That Was Then. This Is Now.

You might dismiss this history by saying the conditions were so much worse back then. Maybe — maybe not. But, answer me this: are our conditions not bad enough for you? Inequality crushes millions. Most Americans cannot cover a minor emergency.  We have the greatest childhood poverty in the industrialized world and life-spans are decreasing. The corporate power has a monopoly over the political system and democracy is but a dim memory. Incarceration rates are without precedent and the Bill of Rights is in shambles. And we have existential problems never dreamed of in the Great Depression: endless war, the threat of nuclear war and impending environmental catastrophe. The empire is slowly collapsing. Will it take us all with it?

If we cannot make revolt out of this, then we are not revolutionaries.

The big difference between then and now is in our minds. There is little evidence that the ideas that control electoral activity in our time existed in any meaningful way during the New Deal. Controlling narratives like “incremental change” were not the watchword of the time. The guiding principle was a determined struggle over economic interests and political ideals — not surrender in the name of lesser of two evils. The principle was not the spoiler, not the dementer/demexit trap, not either/or thinking, not falsely checking privilege to support the machine.  The principle was fierce stormy struggle. That is what real change is. Change requires the both/and approach of the inside/outside strategy because it uses all the means at our disposal not allowing the bosses to divide and conquer or pick our tactics for us. The corporate power wins because it still controls our minds. And the best means we have to contest their control and raise consciousness is organizing and movement building.

In the tug of war to pull the New Deal toward the people all progressives pulled in the same direction if not from the same position. Some pulled from inside, some pulled from outside. Some were heavyweights, like the industrial unions, that provided a solid center of gravity, but some, like the radicals, had better rhythm knowing when to pull hard and when to dig in their heels. There were different players but all of them were necessary.

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The New Deal and the 60’s revolution that soon followed could well be taken as the minimum standard for the kind of popular unrest that will be required for transformational change. How can we approach the revolutionary threshold in our time? If we do not commit ourselves to organizing and movement building we will never find out.

 

[1] I relied on an excellent and detailed summary, by Puakev, “How Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal Were Pulled to the Left.”  See also Howard Zinn’s lost classic, New Deal Thought.

[2] Bert Cochran, “Labor and Communism: the Conflict that Shaped American Unions” cited in Sharon Smith, The 1930’s Turning Point for US Labor 

Posted in American Culture, electoral strategy, History, Labor Movement, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, union organzing, unions, War, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 13 Comments

The Betrayal of the American Man

Faludi-stiffed

Susan Faludi’s book “Stiffed: The Betrayal of the American Man” takes a remarkably compassionate and revealing look at the crisis of modern masculinity from a feminist prospective. Faludi is an award-winning writer with the skills required to make a challenging topic easy reading. The book is based on years of fieldwork among men involved in various efforts to recreate some kind of a manly world for themselves. Using WWII as a starting point she goes on to shipyards, the space program, the Citadel, football fans, the New Left, Vietnam War, militias, Waco, gangsters, Promise Keepers, porn stars, the Gay liberation movement and more.

It’s all incredibly interesting and often surprising. Almost all of these attempts fail and far too many of these men pointed to feminism as the problem. The real causes of the crisis in masculinity lie in deeper personal and political changes far harder to understand or admit to.

For Faludi that crisis for male identity begins after WWII when an earlier masculinity grounded in being the family breadwinning, community service, useful work, care and nurturance was undermined. The rise of the new corporate consumer culture changed the way work was done and war’s were fought — sealing the fate of older masculine ideals.

This new economic regime undermined traditional masculinity by demanding obedience and passivity. In consumer culture, the pretty and ornamental were all that mattered. Mass media culture valued image over substance and celebrity over daily acts of service or useful work. Feelings mattered most while action was discouraged.

The only way for men to achieve recognition in consumer culture was for them to adopt the behaviors of a conventional femininity already widely critiqued and opposed by feminism. So whether men attempted to recreate conventional masculinity or adapt a more consumer-culture friendly version—based on image alone— they had a gnawing sense of failure. There was no longer a clear answer to the question: What does it mean to be a man? The search for masculinity lead to a dead end and we are still lost.

In the face of this dilemma the fathers of the 50’s and 60’s had little to pass on to their sons. Many of the men interviewed in this book experienced the crisis of masculinity as a heart-breaking and very personal failure. Those seeking masculine comforts in the projects and movements Faludi investigates did not have much of a relationship with their silent or absent fathers — who in the end were as overcome by the crisis in gender as they were.

Second Wave Feminism was triggered, in part, by mass resistance against the suffocating  expectations of gender roles. The author rightly asks why men did not revolt against their gender expectations as well since we were stuck in the same restricted gendered universe. Faludi answer is, of course, incomplete. But we should accept the evidence that existing strategies of social movements have proven incapable of launching a massive men’s movements based on challenging established gender roles.

And while the way forward remains unclear Faludi does give us two very helpful goal posts. The first suggests a transformative approach beyond masculinity.

“Because as men struggle to free themselves from their crisis their task is not …to figure out how to be masculine—rather, their masculinity lies in figuring out how to be human.”

Now that is useful work befitting a real man.

The second thing Faludi suggest is to focus on action; on doing. Quoting Sylvester Stallone, of all people, she wrote:

“So I’m going to put away this vanity and get on with my life. I don’t even think about what I look like. I think about what I have to do not what I look like when I’m doing.”

We can become better men not by chasing after some mystical male identity or gazing at our own reflections but by finding useful things to do. We are what we do — not an identity we claim to be.

So what should we do? I wish I knew. But If we take some cues from a similar struggle the road ahead might become just a little easier to see. I am thinking of the struggle against “whiteness” that white people must undertake. Since men and white people remain as two large buffer groups standing between the tiny elites and the discontented millions, freeing ourselves from this role may well be decisive. Since men and white people are the two largest categories of “house servants” — of everyday people that tend to identity with the powerful — maybe there are some hidden synergies we can learn from. Both are best addressed by doing and acting.

First things first, we should organize men to join the great struggles for freedom that lie ahead. And we must embrace a very simple compelling truth: there will be no freedom for any of us as long as patriarchy and male dominance holds down half the world. Those ideas are getting weaker by the year. It’s hard to miss the leading role of women and girls in the historic West Virginia teachers strike, in the youthful struggle against gun violence, in the new civil rights movement, and, of course, in #metoo.

We need to consider a less simple truth as well: masculinity and male privilege holds men down and keeps us in our places. Yes, we can lord it over those “below” us — but at a price: we agree not to rebel against those “above” us. But it is in that rebellion we can find ourselves, our freedom and take our rightful place in the world.

So men — help other men get active. Anyplace is a good place to start. When the day finally comes that our activism has changed us so deeply that white people no longer act white all the time and men no are longer obsessed with achieving masculine ideals that we will at long last discover our humanity and stand on the threshold of fundamental social change.

 

Posted in American Culture, Corporate Power, feminism, History, Labor Movement, Masculinity, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Strategy, unions, War, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

What is Organizing?

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Organizing is a practice aimed at helping people create the social movements and political organizations necessary to wage campaigns and win power.  How do we make real the promises of democracy? Organizing is a time-tested strategy for empowering the people.

Organizing Relies on Action/Movement/Experience

The great American thinker, W.E.B. Dubois wrote:

The theory of democratic government is not that the will of the people is always right, but rather that normal human beings of average intelligence will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience.[1] (emphasis added)

“The people…will, if given a chance, learn the right and best course by bitter experience.” Experience is the teacher, the movement is the school, organizing is the method.

The organizer’s work is designed to produce social action because it is in the tumult of political life that leaders emerge, relationships develop and transformations in consciousness are realized.”[2]

Organizing depends on experience and experimentation rather than doctrine or ideology alone. Ideas are best proven or disproven in action rather than in debate. Words are important yes, but actions speak louder.

Organize the Unorganized!” 

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When the Industrial Workers of the World, set out to unionize big industry for the first time organizing became a make-it-or-break-it proposition for the movement. The Great Steel Strike of 1919, raised up “Organize the Unorganized” as the battle-cry of the class struggle.[3] Organizing was the way forward but was also the best defense against the deportation of immigrants, scapegoating and attacks on radicals, blacks, workers and anti-war activists that was all part and parcel of the first “Red Scare.” Sound familiar?

Today, organizing remains as the most basic task ahead and the greatest contradiction: how to build a movement of people not currently active. It seems so simple: movements grow only when they attract people who are currently not involved or disagree. But that means organizing demands that we work with people we do not agree with. Even if millions have a rough agreement with our values, why are so few activists? Even if people agree on paper, we disagree with their passivity. And that is a far deeper disagreement than a matter of ideology.

For organizers, politics is about disagreement as much as it is about agreement. How do we deal with disagreement?

Telling people that they have been duped or turned into fools and that we are right is not the organizer’s way. We do not call people out. We call them in to activity.  Organizers are wary of exclusivity.  We aim to include rather than exclude.

“Don’t be in a hurry to condemn because he doesn’t do what you do, or think as you think, or as fast. There was a time when you didn’t know what you know today.” — Malcolm X

It’s important to be mindful of barriers to entry.  Almost all political organizations consciously or unconsciously erect barriers to entry.  It is our duty to help people overcome the barriers to entry. We should not expect conversion experiences. What are the intermediate steps?  Even vanguard parties created front groups. Even in union organizing it’s often necessary to do “vestibule” organizing — can’t get them in the church right away, talk with them in the vestibule.

Units of Power/Serve the People

One answer to the problems we face is to create organizing projects that build political structures or what Martin Luther King Called “Units of Power.” Here is King’s critique of his own work:

“Our most powerful nonviolent weapon is… also our most demanding, that is organization.  To produce change people must be organized to work together in units of power.

[I]t is necessary to acknowledge that the torturous job of organizing solidly and simultaneously in thousands of places was not a feature of our work.

Many civil rights organizations were born as specialists in agitation and dramatic projects; they attracted massive sympathy and support; but they did not assemble and unify the support for new stages of struggle.

Recognizing that no army can mobilize and demobilize and remain a fighting unit, we will have to build far-flung workmanlike and experienced organizations.[4]

And again.

“To produce change, people must be organized to work together in units of power. These units might be political, as in the case of voters’ leagues and political parties; they may be economic units such as groups of tenants who join forces to form a tenant union or to organize a rent strike; or they may be laboring units of persons who are seeking employment and wage increases.”[5]

Units of power also take the form of projects that serve the people and enhance their survival.

While they were famous for black berets and self-defense, the Black Panthers built a solid base with service work. They helped to create an enduring model for successful community organizing. This excellent short video looks at the Panthers’ health care programs but they also had a breakfast program for kids, food for elders, schools and legal clinics. These programs became known as “serve the people,” or what the Panthers thought of as “survival pending revolution.”

Bill WhitfieldBill Whitfield of the Black Panther chapter in Kansas City serves free breakfast to children before they go to school, April 16, 1969. Photograph by William P. Straeter AP

The same approach was used by white commmunity organizations you can read about in Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power: Community Organizing in Radical Times. One of the most influential community groups was started by radical students that named the organization JOIN for Jobs Or Income Now.  A noble goal but the people decided immediate survival issues were far more important. Housing was expensive and rundown, so tenant unions were organized. The young were harassed by police so JOIN formed a committee to resisted police brutality. The poor found the welfare system confusing and demeaning so JOIN fought for welfare rights.

Today, organizing continues in all kinds of projects around the country.  A recent union drive at Stamford Hotel used deep organizing methods for a big win. The Democratic Socialists of America are engaged in a very promising effort to build a base using a deep organizing strategy.  Teachers self-organizied the historic West Virginia strike.

Two of my favorites projects are The Young Patriots, and The Poor People’s Campaign. Both have roots back to the last revolution. Both address the intertwined issues of our time.

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We also have a powerful new source for contemporary community organizing in Rising Jackson: The Struggle for Economic Democracy and Black Self-Determination in Jackson Mississippi.  Cooperation Jackson is a network of worker cooperatives and democratic institutions that grew out of decades of organizing.

All serve the people, all are units of power — this is how we overcome.

Organizing Demands Engagement

Engagement is true politics and the starting point for transformative change. If there is no engagement there is no discussion and without discussion there is no movement. Talking with strangers is one of the core revolutionary practices of the organizer’s world.

Saul Alinsky, born to Russian Jewish immigrant parents, founded modern community organizing in the 1930s.  While Rules for Radicals is his best known book, organizers also turn his earlier and more helpful work Reveille for Radicals. Alinsky schooled thousands of activists. He captured the kernel of organizing wisdom when he wrote:

“As an organizer I start from where the world is, as it is, not as I would like it to be. That we accept the world as it is does not in any sense weaken our desire to change it into what we believe it should be.”

The world “as it is” means starting with the people as they are. Then we move forward together.

Organizing focuses first on the people, secondly on those in power. In choosing tactics, campaigns, or language the need for engagement with people takes center stage. Speaking truth to power only works once you are well organized and have spoken truth to the people.

The organizers most important target then is the enemy within: fear, fatalism, denial, and distraction. By engaging people in gradually escalating action we diminish fear and fatalism and all the forms of social control that keep people in their place.

A good organizer is one step ahead of the people — always one but only one.

Relationship Building and Leadership Development

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Ella Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders.

Ella Baker, was the greatest organizer of the civil rights movement and one of the most influential activists of the 20th Century.  Ella worked closely with many of the great leaders including Martin Luther King — who she did not always see eye-to-eye with. King was the charismatic leader — Baker the classic organizer. Ella did a lot of the invisible work of bringing people together. Her greatest achievement was that she helped organize the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  SNCC was the bridge between the civil rights moment and young people that propelled the upheavals of the last revolution. Baker mentored a generation of leaders and championed an organizing perspective.[6]

She argued that the movements needed:

“the development of people who are interested not in being leaders as much as in developing leadership among other people.”

It is the organizers job to be aware of an individual’s strengths and skills and to help them find political work that matches and enhances their abilities. Baker’s vision was that everyday people had the capacity to understand and change the world.

Participation, Democracy and Self-Determination

It’s the people’s right to decide what is to be done. The organizer helps the people do it.

SNCC’s slogan was: “Let the people decide.”

As Ella Baker would have it: a good organizer helps people “see their own ideas.”

How is this done? The movement in Iceland today has given new life to an old radical idea. “From the people to the people.” Listen. Refine. Return. Repeat. But stay true. If the people can “see their own ideas” they will lead, if not — you will be on your own.

“The key to organizing an alternative society is to organize people around what they can do and more importantly what they want to do.” — Abbie Hoffman

Huey Perry an unsung Appalachian organizer:

“A community action group consists of low-income people organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions….I feel it is necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than sit down and write up what we think they want.”

The organizer yields power to the people as a strategy for winning power for the people. This is the deep dual meaning of the classic slogan “Power to the People.”

W.E.B Dubois taught that only “Liberty trains for liberty.” Democracy trains for democracy and power for power. There are no substitutes for experience and action.

“Give light,” Ella Baker said, “And the people will find the way.” Democracy is the “light,”  finding “the way” is self-determination.

Organizing is a democratic means in keeping with democratic ends. There are plenty of shortcuts but they just won’t get you there.

 

[1] W.E.B. Dubois, The Negro

[2] Also see Richard Moser, Principles of Organizing, How Do We Organize a Hundred Million? and Representation, Organizing and Community. 

[3] William Z. Foster was the son of radical Irish immigrants. He had a long, distinguished and checkered career rotating through the revolutionary movements of his time.  Most important he was the most notorious leader of the Great Steel Strike.  His pamphlet “Organize the Unorganized” sets out a revolutionary strategy for the period, but is also full of lessons for our own.

[4] MLK, Where Do We Go From Here?

[5] MLK, Nonviolence, The Only Road to Freedom

[6] See also Barbara Ransby, Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement

Posted in Cooperation, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, union organzing | Tagged , , , , , , | 5 Comments

What You Are Getting Wrong About Appalachia

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If you are wondering how one of the greatest strikes in recent history came out of a place we were told was a “Trump County” backwater then read this. This slender book packs quite a punch. Elizabeth Catte takes us on a tour of an Appalachia much more diverse, radical and conflicted than the one we hear about from corporate sources. Appalachia is no more “Trump Country” than is Long Island New York.

The author takes Vance’s famous *Hillbilly Elegy* to task for promoting a racial explanation of Appalachian poverty. Catte’s arguments are completely in keeping with what Nell Painter presents in History of White People: poor Appalachians are cast as broken people from dysfunctional families and damaged blood lines. That conveniently leaves out the role of corporate exploitation and resources extraction. And it hides behind a real history of eugenics and sterilization of mountain folk.

Class and corporate exploitation is made to disappear behind a “culture of poverty” argument also used against blacks, natives and other people. Just as important Catte shows us the hidden history and current resistance of local people against the corporations that dispose of their health — sometimes their lives — and destroy the water, mountains and air of Appalachia. No wonder Standing Rock was so strongly supported in Appalachian communities.

And Catte offers this gem of organizing wisdom from Huey Perry, an unsung hero of mountain resistance:

“A community action group consists of low-income people organized together to identify their problems and work toward possible solutions….I feel it is necessary that we take our time and build an organization that involves the poor in the decisions as to what types of programs they want, rather than sit down and write up what we think they want.”

Start by serving the people — end by changing the world.  The historic state-wide teachers strike then is not some surprising exception to Appalachian history but a continuation of the very best that people — any people — have to offer.

 

Posted in American Culture, Cooperation, Corporate Power, Empire, History, Labor Movement, Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Racism | Tagged , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Mueller the Politician

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This also was in Counterpunch

 

Mueller has proven himself quite the politician.

I was hoping that the indictments would bring some sort of resolution to the investigation and force all the evidence to become public. But no, this investigation is not meant to be conclusive, it is — like Orwell’s description of war — meant to be continuous.

By issuing indictments to individuals that are unlikely to ever come to trial Mueller has dodged the responsibility of presenting any additional evidence — a perfect sleight of hand.

A relatively small number of Facebook ads were used, many after the election, but no one from the investigation claims it had any impact. We are supposed to imagine it did. The Russian meme bombers may or may not be connected to the Russian government but Mueller provides no evidence. The indictments are little more than unconvincing accusations in keeping with the rest of the Russian narrative as eminent historian Jackson Lears has so thoroughly demonstrated. 

Can anyone argue that the Russians had anything close to the influence of the corporate media when they gave Trump $2 billion worth of free coverage? Or when DNC operatives worked with their media allies to elevate Trump before the primaries even started? No contest. The electoral process is awash in $Billions skimmed from the global economy but that disappears from view in face of the foreign foe.

By shifting the grounds from hacking, collusion and intervention to what is essentially campaigning — the use of information, speech and propaganda by those seeking to influence the outcome — Mueller continues the war on “Fake News.” Clinton used the same tactic from the first days of the new Cold War. Not to worry about free speech, the secret police will tell us what is true and what is not. The First Amendment was designed to protect the people from the power of government. It is our right and our right alone to evaluate and judge information. Anything else is tyranny. And make no mistake, these indictments target domestic dissent smearing Black Lives Matters, Berners and the Green Party as unwitting collaborators with the Russians.

Mueller’s recent move covers himself, hides the investigation’s lack of substance and lays the ground work for more. Mueller is achieving the true goals of an inquisition: enforcing political discipline and conformity at home and promoting war preparations abroad. The inquisition diverts us from a terrible truth: American democracy was destroyed by our own hands.  The corporate empire killed American democracy.

In fact, there are plenty of people, both Republicans and Democrats, that could be indicted for election fraud and conspiracy right here in the good ole’ USA. Much of the evidence is not in question and has been documented by Mark Crispin Miller, Greg Palast, Election Justice USA, and Code Red. Hackable voting machines, gerrymandering, crosscheck, and purging voter rolls are just a few examples. These crimes gets no traction for two big reasons.

First, it might lead to the kind of election reform that would make it impossible to rig the system. That would force candidates and parties to actually compete in the arena of policy and platform. They might have to offer something positive to the American people instead of relying on cloak and dagger, lesser of two evils and other fear-based tactics to compel people to vote for parties that no longer represent them.

As Ann Garrison recently argued in Black Agenda Report:

“If the Democrats wanted to inspire trust in Hillary’s three million vote margin or in any future electoral outcomes, they would call for junking all the electronic voting machines and instituting secure, nationally uniform methods of casting and counting ballots: paper ballots counted by hand and safely stored to make recounts possible. They would thereby propose to preclude any future election hacking by Russians, Republicans, or other potential miscreants, including their fellow Democrats. They would turn more attention to ending voter suppression than to $100,000 worth of Facebook ads generated by a troll farm.”

Second, any investigation of US election fraud would disarm the war party — which now includes the corporate Democrats and Republicans — by diluting the propaganda they need to command ever bigger budgets that keep the wheels of perpetual war turning. The war party is led by the former Republican foreign policy establishment known as the neoconservatives. Whatever their bloody and criminal past, the “neocons” like their figurehead G.W. Bush, have been rebranded into Democrats.

And the neocons are just the most recent incarnation of a bi-partisan consensus that has, for well over half a century, conducted overt war and covert operations to topple governments, intervene in elections, extract resources, and assassinate foreign leaders. The costs of war, the sheer tonnage of bombs and bullets, the millions of dead on all sides, the 650 major military bases, the dangerous and provocative military buildup on Russia’s borders, makes the words and memes dropped on us by Russians, or anyone else, look like the feeble attempts of rank amateurs struggling to compete in a game we have mastered.

How can we be outraged at intervention in our election when it is the US that routinely undermines the self-determination of other nations? We can be outraged at Russians or Chinese, but only from the perspective of militarized nationalism that neocons thrive on.  Or, from inside the illusion of “humanitarian war” that has been a part of America’s imperial rhetoric ever since White Man’s Burden eased our minds for crushing the Philippines 1899-1902. And always, and ultimately, from the sanctity of our founding myths: that we are chosen, an exceptional nation that only makes war with “God on Our Side.”

Why would Mueller attack a system that he is so much a part of? Mueller has been a loyal member of the machine enabling wars, silencing whistleblowers and permitting torture since he was appointed to head the FBI by George W. Bush. Mueller dutifully repeated lies that bought us the war in Iraq.

So the inquisition will roll on as it is intended to do. How else can we explain that a year’s worth of investigation has produced no electronic evidence of collusion despite having the world’s largest surveillance system at its disposal? The scene of the alleged crime — the DNC computers and servers — have yet to be inspected; Seth Rich’s computers — the same; two key witness, Julian Assange and Craig Murray have never been interviewed by the investigation. The inquisition is not interested in evidence it is not interested in!

Our job however is to resist being drawn into the bottomless pit of palace politics and to organize a real resistance to empire, war and corporate power. For that we obviously cannot rely upon Mueller, the FBI or any political elites. Either we the people do it or it doesn’t get done.

 

Posted in American Culture, Corporate Power, Empire, Green Party, History, Red Scare, Strategy, War, Working Class | 2 Comments