Ranked Choice Voting Begins: The People of Maine, Lisa Savage and Howie Hawkins Challenge Lesser of Two Evil Voting and the Politics of Fear

The electoral system is broken.[1] 

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.

This year RCV is on the ballot in Alaska and Massachusetts in November.

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. 

  1. The Election Integrity Project based at Harvard, (not to be confused with the ruling class formation the Transition Integrity Project) ranks the US last among “Western Democracies.”

Posted in Organizing Strategy | 4 Comments

The Last Third Party to Win Waged Political Struggle with a “Revolutionary Reform.”

 

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.”[1]

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.[2]

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.

[1]  Foner, Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men p 314

[2] Leonard L. Richard, The Slave Power, 154

Posted in American Culture, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Green Party, organizing, Organizing Strategy, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, War, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , | Leave a comment

The Last Third Party to Win: The Republicans, The Civil War, The “Slave Power,” and The Current Crisis

“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.[1]

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.”[2]

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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.

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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.

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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.[3]

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.

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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.

This article also appears in CounterPunch.

*I am relying on two classics, a newer one and an older one. Leonard Richards, The Slave Power: The Free North and Southern Domination 1780-1860 sets out the long-term damage created by the Three/Fifths Compromise of the Constitution and demonstrates that the Slave Power had a systematic and institutionalized foundation in the Constitution and political parties. Eric Foner’s classic work: Free Soil, Free Labor Free Men: The Ideology of the Republican Party Before the Civil War remains a useful read. While Foner places ideology at the center of things, I am reading across his main purpose to find the political and rhetorical strategies that emerging third parties used to rise to power.

[1] 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.

[2] Foner, 92

[3] See Foner, 308, for the estimates of the organizational effectiveness of the moral abolitionist versus the political anti-slavery movement.

Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Empire, Green Party, History, Movement Culture, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, War, White Privilege, White Supremacy, Working Class | Leave a comment

Still Triangulating After All These Years

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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.[2]

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.

Michael Lerner’s analysis of 2010 points to the long term effect of triangulation.

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.[1] 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.

New Democrats” or “Third Way” Democrats” have dominated the party since the first Clinton administration. Their support for austerity measures and Wall Street deregulation has led to economic disaster and suppressed the vote. As Michael Corcoran aptly argues, Hillary Clinton continued to embrace the destructive Clinton/Obama legacy of pushing the Democratic Party to the right

There is No Center

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.”

Just how badly can public debate be twisted? If Obama can be attacked as an anti-war president or Biden as a leftist or Harris as a Marxist, then reality is no measure.

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.

 


[1] Michele Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, 56-57

[2] To see the similarities between 2014 and 2010 see Roger Hickey http://ourfuture.org/20141120/as-in-2010-dems-lost-without-an-economic-message-worth-fighting-for 2010 election was notable for low democratic turnout and the Democrats retreat from the stimulus, job creation, caving to the Republicans on budgets, and unwillingness to tout health care reform. It was long term triangulation at work to support right-wing Democrats.

It was the right-wing “Blue Dog” Democrats that lost big. See Amanda Terkel http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2010/11/03/blue-dog-coalition-gop-wave-elections_n_778087.html See also: http://www.democracynow.org/2010/11/4/as_right_leaning_blue_dogs_lose

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

Posted in Electoral Strategy for 2016 | Tagged | 2 Comments

Cops and Constitutions

6ynHNXjA(Doug Brown/ACLU of Oregon)

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.

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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?

 

Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Climate Change, Corporate Power, Empire, Military, Organizing Strategy, Racism, Red Scare, revolutionary strategy, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

White Privilege: The Psychic Wage, Mass Incarceration and Class Solidarity

Also at CounterPunch

White Skin Privilege

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.

Mass Incarceration

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.

The US rate for white male incarceration alone is far greater than every other European incarceration rate for total prisoners of all classes, races, and genders. And the Russian incarceration rate skews the statistic as it towers above every other European country at 439 per hundred thousand.  The average rate for the European Union was 135 in 2006. US white women, for example, are incarcerated at higher rates than the total of all classes, races and genders of 20 European counties.

The penal system captures the effect of white privilege in a nutshell. “You got more than the Blacks don’t complain.” But so much less than justice, freedom or democracy would demand.

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.

James Baldwin, the black writer, and visionary, put it this way:

[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.

In a broader sense, it is the corporate power that is creating a crisis in privilege as a form of social control. If the corporate state can no longer allow any meaningful improvements in the lives of everyday people — and impose only austerity and growing poverty — we can expect that both the Democrats and Republicans will increasingly turn to the psychological wage as the remaining form of compensation, bribe, and appeal. In different ways perhaps, Trump, Clinton and Obama have nonetheless resorted to the vertical solidarity of nationalism and/or corporate forms of political identity to block the political space that should be occupied by struggles over economic democracy, equality, ecology, and peace.

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.


  1. The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy. p 8-9
  2. Ted Allen, Can White Workers Radicals be Radicalized p. 175

3. W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction [New York, 1935], pp. 700-701.

4. An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis

5. For more see Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, From Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation, Chapter 3.

Posted in Movement Culture, Organizing Method, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Strategy, Uncategorized, White Privilege, White Supremacy | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Can White People ‘Organize Their Own’ Against White Racism?

“ Their (the poor “whites”) own position, vis-a-vis the rich and powerful . . . was not improved, but weakened, by the white-skin privilege system.”

“The ‘white race’ is the historically most general form of ‘class collaboration.”

 Theodor W. Allen*

Also at Counterpunch

 

The Time Is Ripe To Protest. The Time Is Ripe To Organise.

At no time since the ’60s has social upheaval and activism created so many opportunities to oppose racism. It is time to engage each other in a struggle over what it means to be white and a worker in America. And that engagement will be most successful in the world’s best classroom: movement building, organizing, and activism.

The uprising against police violence is history in the making. Why? Because the people are on the move. No movement can succeed without unleashing the creative energies of the millions. While many questions remain, the big one for the long game: What is the relationship between organizing and protest? Reflecting on the failures of the Civil Rights movement, Martin Luther King said:

Yet in candor and self-criticism it 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.

Can we build long-lasting organizations to carry on the struggle and spirit of the most important popular uprising in recent history?

Resistance To The Vast Militarized Penal System

Like many times in our past, Black people have led the way. In the midst of the pandemic, the great 2020 uprising has revealed deep systematic dysfunction and crisis. Can we seize this opportunity to engage white people in questions of power, race, class, and empire?

Over the past few decades, the American people have created a vast militarized penal system that is now the most powerful institutionalized racism in the US. And like the forms of institutionalized racism that preceded it, the penal system is an effective form of social control.

The system controls through discriminatory and militarized policing, on-the-spot executions, slave-like prison labor, mass incarceration, school-to-prison pipeline, restriction of trial by jury, lengthy and mandatory sentencing, and predatory fine, fee, and debt traps.

The penal system’s gigantic sweep and size constitute nothing short of a preemptive war against the most rebellious: the young, people of color, the poor. The movement for social change and equality will fail unless we confront the vast militarized penal system. It controls us all black and brown and white.

Photo by @christine fisher

The Uprising is a Challange

Can white activists confront white racism at a time of intense class conflict? The never-ending recession of 2008 has intensified wealth inequality across the board with the upward redistribution of wealth falling hardest on people of color but hitting whites too. Good full-time jobs are going and they are not coming back.

The pandemic resulted in mass unemployment and mass misery. The pandemic bailouts of corporate America — passed by a unanimous Congress — reinforced ruling class power, made inequality far worse and gave the elites cover to attack us all by doubling down on austerity.

There is a widespread understanding that the economy and political system are rigged. One of the main rigs is the class line: corporate power is the government now. Once the insatiable demand for power and profit drive government, representative democracy can no longer deliver significant economic benefits to everyday people. The Uprising, Standing Rock, Occupy, the Sanders campaign, the resistance to Trump, and other events have revealed the discontent of millions of white people and our willingness to stand up. We have the capacity to help create progressive social movements and even make history.

But the working class has deep flaws that have until now proven fatal: it is divided. Race, gender, sexuality, and age cut us up in many ways. If history is a guide to action we can retell a crucial part of the tale by making a challenge to white supremacy central to our organizing efforts. To do that, white people must combat the system of white privileges that have long been the primary means by which racism has divided the working-class.

The idea of privilege does not mean we are not exploited by the bosses, killed by cops, unjustly imprisoned, or used as cannon fodder — we are ruthlessly exploited in many ways — but because of our class not because of our skin color.

Those white privileges are a hidden web of arrangements in housing, education, health care, law enforcement, election procedures, and voting that further rig the system against people of color. But because white privileges have been so deeply entrenched for so long they often seem to be neutral measures of merit, at least to white people. How do we shine a light on this blindspot?

Action is the best way to reveal the truth. Systematic racism is historic and collective and cannot be wished away by simply having better attitudes, being born to progressive parents, or being “nice” to people of color. You can’t just give it up, even if you want to, except through joining the social movements for change and organizing at the point of privilege. White organizers and activists who challenge the system have taken the first crucial step in transforming white privilege into class solidarity. Many organizing projects await. We can expect no easy victories.

 

Organize Our Own?

As the ’60s revolution came up against the wall of interlocking obstacles, civil rights organizers experimented with Black Power and Women’s liberation. Malcolm X, Stokely Carmichael, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Jo Freedman, Shulamith Firestone, and the authors of “To the Women of the New Left” offered up some hard-won knowledge.2  They told a sometimes bitter but compelling truth: organizers were most effective working within their own communities.

Speaking to the Organization of Afro-American Unity, Malcolm X put it this way.

Now if white people want to help, they can help. But, they can’t join. They can help in the white community, but they can’t join. We accept their help….They can…work in the white community on white people and change their attitude toward us.3

“Organizing your own” is not a call to white separatism, but a way to lay the basis for authentic coalition movements in which working-class whites see their own destiny bound up with that of black and brown people.

 

In Black Power and White Organizing, Anne Braden, a legendary southern white civil rights organizer, wrote:

Certainly the inherent needs of poor white people are reason enough to organize—they, like poor black people, are ill-fed, ill-housed and lacking in opportunities for education, medical care, political expression, and dignity. But I think what we are recognizing is that these white people will never be able to solve these problems unless they find ways to unite with the black movement seeking the same things.

It was true back then and it is true today.

My purpose is not to present false either/or choices. The organizational forms we create are up to the local situation and local actors. White organizers can, and are, making real contributions in multi-racial organizations and movements. But one way or another, we white organizers must reconsider ways of talking and organizing around white supremacy and white privilege.

Luckily for us, we can follow the work of the great white working-class intellectual, Ted Allen, as our north star. We can start with the strategic implications from his classic work: The Invention of the White Race.


*Both quotes cited in Jeffrey B. Perry, The Developing Conjuncture and Some Insights from Hubert Harrison and Theodore W. Allen on the Centrality of the Fight against White Supremacy  p. 2 and p. 5

  1. See Chapter 8, Sara Evans, Personal Politics. “Women of the New Left” cited by Evans p. 200.
  2. Malcolm X, By Any Means Necessary, 58.
Posted in American Culture, American Exceptionalism, Capitalism, Corporate Power, Empire, feminism, History, Labor Movement, Martin Luther King, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Racism, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, Strategy, White Privilege, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

What is the General Strike?

Also at CounterPunch.

The General Strike in the US is a multi-faceted, poly-centered resistance movement responding to the general crisis of capitalism and corporate power triggered by the Covid-19 crisis. The pandemic is revealing to millions what was always well hidden: America is a house of cards.

The bosses and their government have no interest in defending the life and liberties of working-class people. Quite the opposite. In order for corporations to achieve their control over us, they are driven to undermine our human and political rights — just as they are driven to maximize profits. Their strategy is to hollow out and weaken all the democratic and representative functions of the government, the two-party system, even trade unions.

After four decades of retreat by organized labor; after the double defeat of the Sanders campaign; after Citizens United legalized bribery; after the multi-trillion dollar bailouts of the ruling class passed by a united and unanimous Congress — we are on our own. The General Strike is an attempt to fill the vacuum left by the collapse of representative democracy.

The General Strike is anti-Trump but it is also against the system that produced Trump. So many still want to believe the system can work for us if we elect the right leaders; that elections are actually on the level; that justice will prevail if we get the right person on the Supreme Court. We tried all this and failed.

And as inspiring as the general strike is, it is a prelude to what is coming. In a mere ten years, we will be lost to irreversible, war-driven climate chaos. The pandemic is the opening act of humanity’s greatest drama. It is now time to “fish or cut bait” and we have been cutting bait for far too long.

Neither the incremental change internalized by far too many union officials nor the incremental change of nordic social-democracy sold by democratic-socialists will be permitted in the USA. Even a moderate reformer like Bernie Sanders or a common-sense anti-war politician like Tulsi Gabbard will never ever be let near the real levers of power — unless they surrender. Why? Because we are at the very center of the empire and if the bosses lose here they have lost it all.

But we can start right here, right now. There will be real resistance no matter what because people face life and death issues. The lose/lose choices people face between food or rent or healthcare will provoke resistance. Should we stand aside and call this wave of resistance nothing: just a strike here, just a strike there? Some unhappy tenants over here or some nice mutual aid efforts over here? Or should we provide the material and symbolic support for what workers have already decided to do? We face an unprecedented crisis and millions of unemployed workers, tenants, essential workers, the poor are on the move. Let’s catch up with them.

The General Strike does not simply harken back to early 20th century models or follow normal union channels. The general strikes of long ago occurred before the US empire achieved its global dominance and stepped up the tactics of oppression used abroad against its own people at home. McCarthyism was that war at home and it went right for the labor movement’s throat. The 1947 Taft-Hartly “Slave Labor” Act essentially made general strikes led by existing unions illegal.

While corporations were always powerful it wasn’t until approximately 1980 that they finally completed their merger with the state placing their interests above and in direct opposition to all others.

For a more useful history, we should look to the waves of resistance that have occurred since the 1999 “Battle for Seattle.” Perhaps most important was the immigrant-led one-day general strike called the  “Great American Boycott.” On Mayday 2006 approximately one million people in 50 US cities avoided work, school and shopping to be part of one of the largest days of protest in American history.

In 2011, protests in Wisconsin were followed by Occupy which created millions of new activists around the world. The idea that we belonged to the 99% resonated with millions of people and gave new life to class consciousness and class solidarity by reinvesting “class” with its broadest possible meaning. Economic democracy became a mass aspiration.

The General Strike is much closer to the never-realized ideal of social movement unionism in which workplace struggles must be connected to social movements if we want to win.

But whatever historical examples you find important, today’s General Strike is based upon an actually existing resistance movement. General Strike 2020 introduced their efforts by saying:

We started this organization after we saw working class people launch a wave of labor strike and rent strike actions across the world in response to the severe negligence of our “leaders” as the pandemic has emerged. We were inspired into action by the workers and tenants and debtors who have already begun fighting and the hundreds of mutual aid systems which have spontaneously popped up everywhere.

There have been over 150 strikes since March 2020. These are the latest episode in a rapid upswing in strike activity since 2018. Many of these strikes are wildcats where strikes occur before unions were formed or are on the margins of an existing union structure. This worker self-activity should push unions, and all of us, into action.

The General Strike is also the emerging strike support networks, the expanding and unprecedented rent strike movement, the approximately 1000 active Mutual Aid projects, strategic boycott efforts targeting Amazon, Wholefoods, Trader Joes, Walmart, Tysons and more. The General Strike also means alternative supply chains and resources produced by all sorts of communal efforts from community gardens to cooperatives such as Cooperation Jackson.

The Green Party and other parties outside of the chokehold of the two-party system have been rejuvenated. And the growth of third parties will continue to the degree that we turn ourselves into the electoral wing of the social movements — or in this case the electoral wing of the General Strike. The activists associated with Popular Resistance are playing just such a role commuting back and forth between the Green Party and General Strike.

The general strike is the sum of all these struggles.

The general strike may not live up to expectations or rigid categories based on backward-looking models, but in fact, it far exceeds them because it is based on the actually existing concrete conditions of this historical moment. We cannot love our categories more than we love the life that appears before us. While was must learn from history we do not get to go back in time.

We cannot disentangle the multiple social forces at work that produced the General Strike. In fact, the organizing task is just the opposite. By seeking synergy and building networks, we will discover the organizational forms that give life to solidarity. Can we innovate the next generation of the Original Rainbow Coalition or something like it?

Our moment is one of deep crisis and opportunity. Guess what? It’s tangled and messy. Making history always is. We don’t get to select the circumstances of our engagement with history, but engage we must.

The overarching goal of the General Strike is democracy: economic, workplace, and community democracy. Representative democracy is largely broken. Direct and participatory democracy — on a mass scale — is the best response to the deeply interlocking crisis of pandemic, climate chaos, empire, and corporate rule.

We need a mighty movement to transform the political climate. For that, we need a big coalition and the political skill to find unity without uniformity. Can we build a movement of movements? For that, we need the General Strike and we need all its many parts to stay in motion.

Posted in American Culture, Capitalism, Climate Change, Cooperation, Corporate Power, electoral strategy, Empire, Green Party, History, Labor Movement, Military, Movement Culture, organizing, Organizing Strategy, Red Scare, revolutionary strategy, Socialism, union organzing, unions, White Supremacy, Working Class | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

General Strike v. Fear and Fatalism

The General Strike is already underway. It will test us all. The big question: Is there any shred of democracy left in America? Only you can answer that. Only you can decide what course of action is best for you. But know this: the greatest enemies we face are not the oligarchs or their police or propagandists or politicians — it is the fear and fatalism within us that breeds silence and makes the millions surrender before the power of the few.

Posted in Organizing Strategy | Leave a comment

Strike, Sick Out, Slow Down: The General Strike and You.

Also at Counterpunch.

The strike, sick out, and slowdown are among the most effective weapons in the arsenal of class struggle. They disrupt production and interrupt the flow of profits. But the most effective weapons are also the most demanding. Strikes require discipline, sacrifice, and struggle. Strikes are short-term pain for long-term gain. It’s not a coincidence that as strikes fell out of use over the last few decades the US working class fell too.

Striking for Life: Protect the Front-line, Not the Bottom Line.

The most dramatic examples of the General Strike are the many wildcat strikes across the country. Follow the action at On The Picket Line or check out this interactive map of strike actions, or the “Dual Power” map by Black Socialists in America. Get in the loop and get connected at General Strike 2020.

If you are an essential worker and risking your life — talk to your co-workers. Form a clandestine strike committee and speak to, and listen to, everyone in the shop. A strike, sick-out, or slowdown can last a few hours, a day or indefinitely. Don’t hoodwink the workers into thinking it will be easy, but when life hangs in the balance the choice becomes clear.

Wildcats are strikes led by the rank and file workers, not union officials. This is a hidden strength. The kind of actions that were the backbone of the general strikes during the 20th century are now illegal — here in the land of the free. “Sympathy” or secondary strikes where workers strike — not out of a specific grievance with their own boss — but in solidarity with other strikers were made illegal. Russia-gate’s forerunners — the anti-communist purges of the Cold War and McCarthyism gave us the 1947 Taft-Hartley “slave labor act” that tamed the labor movement. Until this day, union officials that call sympathy strikes are treated as criminals — but the wildcats strikes have no official leaders.  

In all those years since 1947 Democrats made not a single serious attempt to repeal Taft- Hartley. Maybe we can repeal it through direct action. Anyone who knows this history knows that Russia-gate and China-hate is no friend to the US working-class. 

How can we help strikers?

Local efforts may be best. You can support your local strikers by setting up a “gofundme” account for them. Mask up and observe physical distance, but show up at picket lines with food and beverage. Join your local Mutual Aid team and help back up strikers.

Learn from our new leaders. Do what the strikers ask you to do. They know best.

Strategic boycotts in alignment with strikers are an important way to slow profits — the main form of leverage strikers have. Boycott Bezos for starters.

Sick Out and Slow Down

For at-home workers, the sick out and slow down are tailor-made for you. Call in sick sometime in the first week in May. Mild symptoms; a day or two, severe; a week or more. How sick are you? Only you know. Get it? Or, take a sick day, go back for one, then take another sick day. Can’t take the whole day, take half a day. Can’t take half a day just slow down — cut your production in half or more.

Almost all stuck-at-home workers I speak with are having symptoms due to isolation and confinement. Time for a mental health day? You owe yourself one.

One of the classic slowdown tactics is “Work to Rule.” Workplace rules are usually the product of the Human Relations department meant to put a liberal face on exploitation. But these rules often slow down production and are routinely ignored by management and worker alike. Study your “handbook” and find the weakness. Sometimes you can actually slow down by following the rules.

Resistance

Working people have always resisted. Unfree workers, like slaves, developed forms of resistance to oppose slave owners. We can use the same kinds of resistance to oppose corporate power.

  • Pilfer. “Steal” it back to reclaim value the boss stole from you in the first place. Let the bosses pay.
  • Sabotage. Break your tools. Delete paperwork. Use stealth and cunning. Don’t get caught.
  • Shamming. Bullshit them. Behind your smile is the strike.

Show solidarity with the general strike.  Have a strike poster in your apartment window. Wear a red or black or lavender bandana. Change your Facebook cover image.

We have to rely on the creativity and power of the people. I am confident we will figure it out. The general strike has no central committee and that is probably a good thing since no one has all the answers. Let the people decide. You can best determine the kind of action you can take.

Just remember: whatever small step you take, you are part of something bigger. And the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

No one can do everything but everyone can do something.

 

 

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