the echo chamber

part of Post-ISO Reflections: Essays and proposals on democracy and organization

Possibly short entry — there is a problem in virtually every organization I have witnessed.

People are too uncritical of the leadership.

This defines literally every aspect of American society, whether we’re talking about religion, unions, political parties, etc.  The only leadership people seem to be fortunately critical of is the “leaders” of companies, ie wealthy CEOs, but even those still have their fan cults.

Of course it extends into other problems.  Not only are people too uncritical of the leadership, but they also fail to lead themselves — they rely on the leadership to take any initiative, and initiating action on their own is something that either doesn’t occur to most people or they are just terrified of.

However even all of that doesn’t touch the worst part of most people’s behavior in regards to leaders.  The worst part is when people uncritically repeat what the leadership says.

The funny thing is that people who do this will insist that actually they do not; they will insist that they are thinking for themselves, and that the leadership just always seems to have good ideas.  The problem is that these people never really check to listen to anything else.  Perhaps people’s minds have been closed by the fact that truly there is shit everywhere; capitalist culture has a deficit of good ideas, and the Left often isn’t stellar either.  However you don’t need to become closed-minded to remain a dedicated radical leftist.  The more you explore, the more you will probably find out that overall orientation is correct.  But the more you explore, the more you might find something that contradicts the party line of a group’s leadership.

This echo chamber effect really destroys the democracy in an organization, and it’s not even necessarily the leadership’s fault.  Really it’s the fault of the people who do it.  The thing about cults is that they don’t need to be formed intentionally; really they are the result of an emerging set of behaviors within a group.

The problem is that every debate begins already stacked.  If you have a room of 100 people, and every time the leadership speaks without fail there will be 30 or 40 people who line up to make supportive statements of almost anything said, it’s impossible for democracy to function.  No honest conversation can be had.  The body is robbed of its content as a deliberative voting body and becomes instead a rubber-stamping chamber.  The sad truth is that typically it will be more like anywhere from 50-85%, not 40%.

Then there is the hideous inversion: it’s not just the leadership supported, but dissenters are also swarmed.  So with the same scenario above, with a room of 100 people, if anything critical is said of the current course of action, or of statements by the leadership, then you will automatically get 30-40% of a group immediately attacking that person’s statement, and probably insinuating things beyond any kind of real factual argument, such as suggestions that the disagreement is not even appropriate to raise, or implications that the person’s statement suggests a lack of dedication, etc.

Again the percentage may actually be far worse — dissenters may have practically everyone aligned against them — but it only takes 30-40% of people acting like parrots to ruin an organization.

Does disagreeing with some statement made by the leadership make you a “bad member?”  Well, it depends.  In top-down organizations based on a downward flow of control, yes it absolutely does.  Your job as a member is to do what you’re told, and to agree with everything.  In a bottom-up organization, or one without any clear leaders, it would make you simply a person with an opinion.

The sad thing is when you learn, through brutal practice, that organizations which are supposed to be bottom-up turn out to be top-down.  Or worse, they’re not even particularly top-down, but simply full of clones who instinctually attack anything not “aligned” with the group, or the leadership, and habitually repeat not even the leadership’s ideas, but what they assume the leadership’s ideas must be, often to humorous results of people suddenly changing their opinions when they find out what the leaders actually believe.

People should step back and think for themselves!  When a new issue emerges, over which no clear consensus or leadership direction has formed, don’t wonder what other people will think.  Figure out what you think!  And speak up about it!

People who disagree in echo chamber organizations face lots of negative consequences.

  • People who disagree lose the social support of the group — friendliness vanishes, which is actually just as critical as ideology to sustaining an organization made of humans
  • Not only do dissenters lose the social support of the group, but they lose it disproportionately — the group majority forgets that they still have so many commonalities, and just a few differences
  • Groups aren’t just characterized by their formal conversations, but actually moreso by their unstructured “chatter,” in which the worst hostility will emerge
  • People who disagree face personal attacks
  • People who disagree face a bias that they are probably incorrect, before their arguments are even heard
  • The leadership enjoys a bias of being deemed probably correct, without the content of their statements being critically examined

Is there a set of formal rules that can overcome the toxic group culture of the echo chamber?  Maybe.  But what we can do now is be conscious of the problem, change our own behaviors

  • Listen to strange ideas with a fresh mind
  • Listen to people who aren’t leaders
  • If you disagree with something, try to understand what they are saying before you jump down their throat and look for holes in it
  • When a new idea is attacked, ask yourself if there is good underlying content which the attack is distracting from
  • Sympathize with people who say seemingly odd things, because if you haven’t heard an idea before, that means it has not yet been internalized into the leadership’s homogeneous ideology, so they must be thinking for themselves, which is admirable
  • Recognize that alternate perspectives may be poorly-formed, not because they are wrong, but because the people stating them lack the resources to spend time on perfecting their articulation, unlike leaders who are sometimes paid to do this
  • Foster a culture in which all people are free and welcome formulate ideas about where the group is headed or what it is doing, instead of considering that activity the leaders’ job
  • Encourage a culture where people are encouraged to “talk their thoughts out” without them needing to be perfect; don’t immediately attack half-developed thoughts

One thing to keep in mind is that sometimes dissenters can end up imitating all the ugly habits listed above, meaning that the group hasn’t been fixed, but simply that the larger cult has developed an oppositional cult inside itself.

We can do better than that.  We have to.

We have to believe in deliberative democracy.  We have to go into conversations with a willingness to have our own opinions changed by the things we hear and learn.

We can build a movement where there is no fear of being wrong, no fear of saying the wrong thing, and no fear of crossing some invisible line, but where people fight for a better world, talk, disagree, and make decisions in the healthy open air of truly free conversation.

The historical period and a socialist party

(originally a Reader’s Views letter to socialistworker.org)

A November 2012 Gallup poll, now a year behind, stated that 39% of Americans have a positive view of the word socialism.  Now many people in socialist groups with more complex, refined, specific ideas about socialism scoff at that.  Those people don’t really know what socialism is.  This scoffing is the wrong attitude – these are people who don’t know what socialism is, but would probably be very happy to learn from us.  And there’s about 120 million of them, suggesting that we may be strategizing on the entirely wrong numeric scale.

However, when these ordinary people encounter our socialist groups, they don’t seem to be joining up as readily as we would hope.  I think this is because people’s conception of socialism is precisely vague at this stage.  The socialist groups demand specificity.  Even the ones which don’t, like Solidarity or SPUSA, are haunted by the fact that we all look ridiculous because there are just too many socialist groups, shouting over each other to sell our competing papers at demonstrations.  Credible unification would have to happen across groups, not by one group declaring itself the big multi-tendency umbrella and expecting everyone to join.

I know there are reasons why these group divisions exist, some more reasonable than others.  I don’t want to work with Spartacists, and not really the RCP either.  But I do want to work with SAlt, Solidarity, Kasama, SPUSA, Freedom Socialist, and possibly others, and I want to give everyone else an honest try.

But even if these divisions are real, the fact is we need a transitional space.  Those 120 million budding socialists are going to drift alone, unorganized.  On our current course we will continue to squabble over who gets to recruit the tiny numbers who go to issue demonstrations, rather than collectively engaging with the radicalizing third of the population.  For whatever reason, issue politics don’t seem to be getting the same results as the clear class-focused challenge for systemic change of Occupy.  This is why I think we need a socialist party, as a transitional space between the radicalizing tens of millions and the specific Leninist tendencies.

I agree with Bhaskar Sunkara’s formulation that ultimately, it makes sense in terms of avoiding redundancy and achieving efficiency to form one united socialist party, with the current (healthy) groups acting as political centers or factions within in it.  (If that is even what he is saying and I am not just putting words in his mouth.)

However, I know that most organized socialists are not ready to even really consider this step.  So instead we could implement a less extreme model of working unity: joint campaigns of socialists running for political office, synthesized with movement work such as Fight for $15 or whatever else is relevant in that locality.

*****

We need a socialist party, not a Green Party, not a Labor Party, not an Anticapitalist Alliance (which would have to be shared with anarchists and would simply recapitulate the shortcomings of Occupy over again).  Why?  First, because we are socialists.  There is going to be a competition over what the Third Party Left becomes, and what kind of third party actually emerges.  In reality that competition has already begun now.  Why not contend for the set of politics that we actually want instead of continually hiding behind other formations?

As far as a Labor Party, in most of America people are actually more favorable to class consciousness and socialism than they are to unions.  That sounds crazy but after decades of unions being spoiled by passivity, bureaucracy, and surrender, actually it makes a lot of sense.  Chicago may be an exception here – labor is actually looked upon positively, but a socialist campaign makes sense even there because it’s one thing for labor to break from the Democrats and go in its own direction.  It’s another thing entirely for that labor formation to gain a clear Left political alignment – we have seen what “Labour” means in the UK.  The latter option is definitely preferable, and when a professional self-organized Chicago Socialist Campaign already exists, a socialist alignment should obviously be advocated by people who call themselves socialists.  If we can’t do it now with such favorable conditions, it’s questionable if we ever will.

The Green Party has a fundamental problem with branding.  By its name everyone thinks it is an environmentalist party only, not realizing its anti-corporate stances.  When dealing with millions of people, that kind of branding matters.  It always astounds me, that after Occupy Wall Street, people still forget to have a class focus or a clear class branding.  We already know that targeting Wall Street and emphasizing the 99% was a successful approach for engaging millions of people.  Class anger was the key.  However the rhetoric of the Greens sounds typically less like class anger and typically more like liberal moralism.  It’s not the equation for engaging with most Americans beyond a very tiny activist milieu.  But the word “socialism” is already making headway, not simply because it is based on class anger (which is huge), but also because people know it is systemic, and they know that is what is needed – not a new form of liberalism in the guide of the Greens, but some kind of systemic change.

A “Sawant-ist” campaign based on a three-layer approach of engaging with class anger, using the word “socialism,” but not being too pushy about their group’s specific definition of socialism while explaining it to anyone who asked, clearly worked.  In fact, such a campaign model even leaves open space for different socialist groups to collaborate on it, and have mature conversations with newcomers about each groups’ similarities and differences.

 *****

So what is the practical next step?  It’s to run socialists for low-level offices.  We should prepare for 2016, but the best way to do that is to run in 2014.  As in, this November.

I think a lot of the anxiety around running candidates comes from mere unfamiliarity with the electoral process.  We are afraid of all the technicalities.  But we must approach that the way we should approach everything else – by putting one foot in front of the other, doing our research, and becoming familiar.  As for myself I asked for some help with campaign science from Green Party activists I met at Left Forum, who were happy to provide it.  I talked to Philly Socialists, a local group who is investigating electoral possibilities.  I followed some of the conversations on North Star, I’ve done some of my own reading.  Finally I actually infiltrated a local Democratic campaign just for the sake of seeing what it was all like in practice.  I now feel confident that I know enough to run an electoral campaign.  A year ago, that was not true at all, but I was determined to learn.  I was not born with that information or confidence, but I learned it, and you can too.

Would we win in 2014?  I don’t expect we would.  But they key is to run a serious campaign, not necessarily to win.  Yes, there is a good reason for people scoffing at unserious socialist campaigns.  But you can have a serious campaign which still gets only 15-30% of the vote, unlike those joke campaigns which get 0-4% of it.

What does running a non-winning, but serious, campaign accomplish?

  1. All the doorknocking, mailing, and phonebankng you do can be rolled into other movements, such as Fight for $15 or whatever you like.  You meet a huge amount of people.
  2. The people you meet this time can help you build a database of supporters, possible campaign volunteers, and voters for the next election cycle.  You can also filter out the houses full of diehard Republicans so next time, you don’t waste campaign time and resources knocking on their door.  In this way, each time you seriously campaign strengthens your position for the next round.
  3. Electoral campaigning trains its participants in the skills of an electoral campaign – a skillset and knowledge base which most organized socialists sorely lack.  The Socialist Left is always haunted by a vicious cycle – we don’t campaign this time, because we aren’t prepared.  But we don’t campaign the next time, because we skipped out last time and still don’t feel prepared.  We are going to have to start running candidates before we can win, as a means to building up skills and supporter databases for the future.

*****

This leads us to some very concrete decisions which are currently before us in the present.  There are openings for socialists to run in Philadelphia, New York, and Chicago, and probably more places I’m not aware of, but those are the ones I have been keeping tabs on.  Unlike the Sawant campaign (no offense to them), these present-and-future campaigns are probably going to have to be more inter-tendency.  Or, they just ought to be regardless.  But there is a great deal of uncertainty.  Who will call these campaigns?  Will the ISO decide to go for it?  Will it wait until others have made up their mind to go ahead with it, and then jump in and support them?  Shouldn’t there be a process of collaborative building?  How will the decision be made in the ISO?  Will a survey be sent around to every member, giving them a vote on this issue?  Will it be an issue at the Convention?  Will it be a leadership decision made unilaterally?  And what if the ISO or its leadership doesn’t take any clear stance?  Who outside the ISO is going to spearhead it?  SAlt?  Will they do it, or will they fail to learn the lessons of their own success and fail to get on the good foot?  If they did start running people, how would the ISO respond to that?  Will individual candidates step forward unilaterally, and ask for organizational support?  How would the ISO respond to that?  What if Jacobin Magazine or its staff call for something?  How would the ISO respond to that?  What if successful, energetic gatherings like Chicago Socialist Campaign start popping up everywhere?  How would the ISO respond to that?

Many different people in the ISO have different opinions about these topics.  Personally I think that’s a good thing, I think that’s a chance to practice democracy and have a true exploration of the issues, undirected by any preconceived notions.

But we need to go from discussion to implementation real quick, which is a critique I have of what the speakers offered at the January 16th event at the Brecht Forum in Brooklyn, “Socialism at the Ballot Box.”  A lot of talking about relevant concerns, but zero concrete proposals of what to actually do.  There was no real suggestion of what to actually do, coming out of that meeting, and that’s pretty reflective of the Socialist Left’s confusion and uncertainty across the board.  It’s time for socialists in the ISO and elsewhere to start coming up with answers to the questions posed, and gearing up to act seriously on those decisions.  Let’s stop being confused, because the answers are right in front of us.  November 2014 is in nine months.  That is enough time to get a serious, if non-winning, campaign going.  But we should really start by March and build pressure over summer, if we are indeed serious.

As for me, I believe that this is our time, conditions are right, and we can seize this era if we only reach out and take it.  Fortune favors the bold.

the dark side explained again

Something about Nile achieves the guttural in a way that no other band I’ve found really does, to the point that it feels transcendent, but in a transcendence pointed downward…

In “How to Become an Alchemist” Catherine MacCoun explained the way the psychological realm works: what if there was an entire dimension dedicated to a kiss, and the feeling of a kiss, but if you moved beyond the boundaries of kissing, you would leave the boundaries of that place? Its only reality is kiss-ness, you touch it when you touch kiss-ness, you disconnect when you leave. Everyone who kisses is thus part of an unspoken religion of contact with that center of gravity which is the essence of kiss-ness.

Imagine one made of willpower and malice. Once in a dream I met Mussolini there. His soul was as black as ever, and I was happy to see it. The emotion was so pure that I could share in it as it emanated from him. He was broodingly regretful — but not apologetic — about his life. The relevant politics were not spoken, but understood. He had been a Leftist, and the Left had disappointed him. He wanted to find a movement worthy of his energy, and invented fascism. But not only was it not what he had really, deep down wanted, but it also ended in miserable defeat. Yet he was absolutely sure that it wasn’t his fault, his life had played out pretty much the only way that it could have given the shortcomings of the Italian Left.

Since that dream I’ve worked to carry that evil energy in a better direction, to actual glory and not disgrace. I’ve realized I must never trek down the road of trying to popularize Left ideas by polluting them with the content of the Right, but instead must tap deeply into the emotional and unconscious side of politics, and the more human methods of organizing which utilize it (as opposed to conscious theory), and use them to bring an actual mass character to the US Left. Also to acknowledge the unacknowledged dark side of my life of needing to focus on my own personal economics and career, and not just the big light side dreams of changing the world. But as for the Left I’ve realized that this is something I must do, not because it is the right thing to do, but because I cannot exist any other way. Out of nothing more than my own sheer selfish will to see our side win, my life is entirely tied up with our victory, our emergence as a mass relevant force, and then pushing beyond that all the way, to unspeakable dreams.

My will is tied up into this irreconcilably. There is no scenario in which the Left of the next decade fails to constitute itself and gain ground in an unignorable jump of organized strength. Not because that’s the rational prediction, though in many ways it is. But because those words are simply unimaginable, my brain rejects them. They make as much sense as “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” or “I think I’m becoming apolitical.” I know firmly that others but also myself are working on this, and as for me, I am going to stay determined, and systematically consolidate each phase of growth, and sustainably expand. Nothing else can even possibly happen, because such is my nature.

The gravity of our looming future sends its echoes backward through time, those of us who listen can hear and see them, and the gravity reaches backward too, pulling us almost helplessly to the rituals of hastening its arrival.

Absolute Will ceases to feel like a choice. It is more a possible future that you have sworn loyalty to, with which you are henceforth aligned. Perhaps some people find themselves compelled to such visions out of love, or selflessness, but I’m skeptical that’s possible. As Nietzsche explained, every saint and martyr draws their legendary determination, their power-over-themselves, from their insistence that their own individual personhood is worthy of grand significance. The audacity of individually electing a destiny so vast can only be possessed by someone with a deep self-respect that proceeds beyond to abundant self-love and ultimately bleeds into a sort of ethical solipsism. The only thing they can see is their goal. THEIR goal. All else fades into the surroundings.

Such is the dark side.