Socialist Alternative: Successes and Turds

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“When you come to a fork in the road, take it.”  — Yogi Berra

If you want people to actually listen to your criticisms, it’s useful to use a “praise sandwich.”  Mix the bad in between some good up front and some good in back.  I broke from that formula and placed all the sugar up front and all the shit at the bottom.  But actually this formula is quite convenient for me.  I’ve come to believe that the proper dialectical answer to any yes-or-no question is almost always “both.”  After being a marxist for long enough you start to talk like Yoda.  So if someone asked me “Is Socialist Alternative doing the right thing, or the wrong thing?”, I would say the only thing that a man with two cocks could say when his tailor asked whether to hem his trousers to the left or to the right:

Yes.

 

SAWANT: SUCCESS

As Andrew Sernatinger stated, the Sawant campaign was exactly what the socialist movement needed in the post-Occupy environment.  “Given that the movement was in a low ebb and that the oppositional class consciousness brought out by Occupy could have been lost, it seems to me that for the moment it was in Sawant’s election was the best thing to foster social struggles in Seattle and the US.”

Myself and others have written so much elsewhere about the significance of the Sawant campaign that I will not write much about it here.  Point is:

  1. She ran as a socialist
  2. She ran local, winnable campaigns
  3. She ran serious campaigns
  4. She demanded $15 min. wage as part of her platform
  5. She is clearly principled, able to stand up to tremendous bureaucratic pressure in the $15 fight in Seattle, and unafraid to advocate brazen socialist measures in public
  6. She won; power is its own argument

Socialist Alternative has already gotten plenty of praise for this, but here’s a little more.  Good job.  And good job to Sawant, too, who is a real human being and not just a strategic abstraction.  Thank you!

 

15NOW: SUCCESS

For years after the recession I was livid, and this anger returned to me after Occupy Wall Street fizzled.  Why?  Because we were blowing a perfectly-good economic crisis on continually cycling through our spectrum of non-class demands.

Now of course all demands are class demands at some level.  But not directly.

What was more frustrating was watching organizations place a weird emphasis on one single issue, then another, then another, in succession: race, feminism, the environment.  While there was sometimes a small external impetus of relevancy, actually most of the time it seemed like the Left was cycling through these issues through some kind of random internal gyration.

Don’t even get me started — yes, obviously these issues are important, all of them.  But there has been a bizarre neglect by socialist groups of involvement of directly class issues, for a long time.  In the weird lull from 1968 to 2008 this may have been acceptable, but not anymore.

And this was all (1) in the midst of the greatest recession since the 1930s, and (2) after the rise-and-fall of the largest wave of protest in the USA since the 1960s, Occupy Wall Street, a protest which focused specifically on class and made it the center of American political conversation, (3) as unemployment, suffering, homelessness, and a fall in wages continued to plague the American working class, and (4) as polling data consistently placed jobs and economics as the issues of highest concern to the public.

This situation should have been so easy and obvious for the Left to capitalize on from a class perspective.  It was like store-bought macaroni and cheese.  You boil the water, you put it in the pot…

Of course the situation was more complicated than that.  Unions in the USA are in a position of horrible weakness and degeneration.  The Left’s traditional idea of class struggle is through unions, and in a continually shifting workplace structure, it’s really hard to know how to do that.

Then the fast food protests began, and I knew some kindred souls were thinking the same thing.  They actually broke into something economic, something directly related to people’s own standard of living!

But of course trying to create work stoppages in huge networks of fast food chains with low numbers of highly-replaceable workers is not really doable.  So at some point someone in the SEIU, the Service Employees International Union, launched “Fight for $15.”  This was a genius way to involve the tons of people who would really love to participate in a class-oriented struggle, but who are in positions of weakness which prevent them from fighting directly on the job (ie almost everyone).

However, Fight for $15 is essentially an SEIU front.  This guarantees that it will not be a democratic organization, and that it could suddenly just fold up and pull its demands if the wrong labor bureaucrat cuts the wrong deal with the wrong politician.

This is where 15Now comes in.  Socialist Alternative launched it specifically so it could keep working on the $15 wage demand without getting into legal battles over names and labels with the SEIU.  The fact that a network independent of the SEIU exists ensures that the struggle will continue.

Given the class anger everywhere, but the weakness in the workplace, a political struggle for a wage increase is one of the best ways to channel that anger and energy into something which can get real results.  It is free from the standard Left-activist cycle of reincarnation through various non-class issues – it cuts directly to the red meat, enabling people of all kinds to participate in a struggle of direct, immediate benefit to themselves.

It is working-class self-interest incarnate.  Congratulations to Socialist Alternative for helping set it up.

 

15NOW: CONCERNS

15Now appears to be just an extension of Socialist Alternative.  In some places the launch meetings of 15Now were openly Socialist Alternative meetings.  All those people who changed their profile pictures to the 15Now logo on Facebook?  Yeah, they were pretty transparently all members of Socialist Alternative.  I was recently at an event in New York where a Socialist Alternative member announced a 15Now event, and made sure to clarify that 15Now is not Socialist Alternative.

Hate to say it, but if you need to make that clarification, there’s already a serious problem.

(Actually this guy’s comments were an almost self-parodic example of how to be a party hack.  He also tried to get people to buy a pamphlet and then immediately confessed he hadn’t read it yet – how can you promote something you haven’t read yet unless you’re committing an act of utter blind loyalty?  This is, tragically, how many people in socialist groups behave.)

Furthermore, there was just something fishy about how 15Now’s launch was essentially a wave of fundraising, before on-the-ground activity around the country even began.  Fortunately a wave of in-person local cells of 15Now have developed, making this less creepy, but there was a time when 15Now was pretty much just a name and a request for donations to a faceless organization, which was obviously a front for Socialist Alternative.

It is not clear what 15Now will do with the money.  The fact that this goes hand-in-hand with the Sawant campaign apparently spending into the red and owing a large amount of money is highly suspect.  Even if that wasn’t the case, who is to say that 15Now donations wouldn’t just get funneled into Socialist Alternative hiring a pile of new staffers for building itself?  I’m skeptical that rank-and-file SAlt members are allowed to see the organization’s budget – transparency in accounting being a whole ‘nother frigging problem in Left groups!

I don’t really know what to do about this fundraising thing.  It’s just creepy and unclear.  I suppose ultimately it’s something I’m willing to ignore in order to help fight for a $15 minimum wage (but not without pointing it out unapologetically).

So back to the issue of Socialist Alternative dominating 15Now.  Is this an irreconcilable problem?  No, in fact I suspect Socialist Alternative is already becoming aware of the mistake they made, and trying to reverse it.  We will see how far they go in correcting it.  Like PSL’s relationship to ANSWER, once you launch a group as a front group rather than a coalition, it can be extremely difficult to let go of the position you’ve entrenched yourself in.

But it’s not just Socialist Alternative.  I suspect that their early domination of 15Now may have created a cycle of suspicion, where even if they are opening the gates to other groups, those other groups might now be distrustful and standoffish.  Everyone has a part to play in behaving themselves.  The other groups need to get involved, and Socialist Alternative needs to make sure it is truly making space for them in actions not words.

How would it do that?  It would need to open up the elected leadership of 15Now broadly, and actively encourage people who are not members of Socialist Alternative to take leadership positions.

However it’s not enough to bring in just the random people who join the campaign.  In order to ensure that the other socialist groups will feel represented enough for them to sink resources into the thing, you would have to invite some of them in on the decision-making as well.  Perhaps a 50/50 arrangement, between representatives of sponsoring groups, and elected officials from the mass membership.  (This may also be a workable answer to the question of an electoral front.)

All in all, it would result in a situation where Socialist Alternative is in the minority on the leadership, which would only be a fair proportion given that it is one of many groups and seeks to include all sorts of unaligned activists.

Finally there is the issue of Fight for $15, which is actually still an organization, a front group for SEIU.  Again, it’s good that Socialist Alternative established something independent of the SEIU.  The key is simply to encourage those two wings of the $15-wage movement to work together as much as possible – a proposal you could raise if Socialist Alternative hands over control of the organization from its own representatives to the movement activists.

 

SAWANT: CONCERNS

After Sawant’s victory, Socialist Alternative said in a few different articles that it advocates something like a wave of hundreds of “Occupy” candidates, or broad-left candidates, or even socialist candidates, or whatever.

That’s an awesome proposal.  I would love to see such a wave.  I am not sure, however, how much it would actually accomplish if these candidates were not in some kind of mutually-encouraging, information-sharing communication with each other.  I’m also not sure how much it would really matter if it just ended up being fuel for the Green Party, which is full of people I respect but in my opinion will ultimately never go anywhere.

However I personally have not seen Socialist Alternative working to create the kind of electoral action network which would make a wave of candidates meaningful.  If people ran in isolation, it wouldn’t feel like a movement.  It needs to feel like a movement.

Instead, the pattern which has been observed by me and many others is that Socialist Alternative is using the Sawant victory for two reasons: (1) to promote Socialist Alternative, and (2) to promote 15Now (which, as mentioned earlier, has a problematic history as starting as a tightly-controlled front group for Socialist Alternative).

Basically the Sawant victory is more or less being used as political capital in order to feed into the Left’s perennial game of King of the Hill, jockeying over which socialist group will be the biggest socialist group – all the while the drive toward a collective political front is neglected.  This pattern is further reinforced by the fact that there is a real willingness to talk in generalities about how awesome the Sawant campaign was, but not much willingness to pass on the knowledge gained about how to run an electoral campaign, which would actually allow the challenge to run a hundred candidates to take form.  Instead people in Socialist Alternative only want to talk about the “broad political lessons” which are frankly so abundant on the Left that we are all sick of hearing them, and need to get into the nuts-and-bolts so we can actually do this thing.

I even hear many people come out and openly say, “Why can’t people just suck it up and acknowledge Socialist Alternative as the socialist group?”

This simply cannot work.  Note I did not say it is undesirable – I said it cannot work.  Why?

Because Socialist Alternative has specific politics which it is sharply committed to.  Like most socialist groups in the USA, it has more implied political positions than a single individual could even memorize.  It is simply too much for the millions of radicalizing Americans to take in.  And this acts as a tremendous barrier to growth which none of the groups operating on this model want to acknowledge.  They are all aware of it to an extent, but they keep choking on the reality of it, hoping they can circumvent it somehow.  They can’t – it’s their core defining feature.

Besides, it’s not self-promotion which expands a group.  It’s the awesome work they do!  The recent Socialist Alternative article bragging about their growth is the exact opposite of the victory which earned that growth.  The Sawant victory was a victory for socialists everywhere and got global media attention.  It wasn’t because Sawant was a member of Socialist Alternative, but because she was a socialist with a strong campaign.  (Yes, you can have those things without joining Socialist Alternative.)  Socialist group growth is like Taoism or Buddhism – you can’t desire the thing you are chasing, you have to focus on other things, and labor without lust for result.  If you want your socialist group to grow, you can’t be self-promotional about it.  You have to prove through actions that your group deserves to grow.  Socialist Alternative has been doing some of that – so it should continue doing that, not collapsing back into the self-promotion, which all socialist groups have been burning themselves out by doing continually to no avail.

Could Socialist Alternative be a faction within a larger party?  Absolutely, that would be great!  But that larger party is going to have to be much more pluralistic than Socialist Alternative itself, because when we are talking at the scale of millions of people – and that is the scale of a mass party – you just can’t expect people to move in unison or have all the same opinions about every issue under the sun.  Such an arrangement can be absurdly, uncomfortably enforced at the current micro-scale of Left groups in the US.  At any sizeable scale, its unmanageable reality would make itself immediately clear.

We need to assert loudly, and everywhere, that it is better to have a mass party which is Left and confused, and be a voice of reason within it, than it is to have a Left group that is tiny but has all perfect positions.  (“Why not both?,” people say, while only practicing the tiny group part, putting in no concrete work to explicitly lay the framework for a larger party.)  39% of the US likes socialism.  We are at the point where this is possible.

 

CONCLUSION: WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT THIS NOW, NOT LATER

People may accuse me of being a sectarian killjoy for writing this, and likely level that criticism against anyone posting or sharing this piece.  After all, there is a reason that Socialist Alternative has been in our headlines: it’s been succeeding!

However we cannot afford to wait, or censor ourselves.  Socialist Alternative has accomplished some truly special things, but is now on the verge of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory.  The fact is, Socialist Alternative’s successes were a strong deviation from business as usual on the US Socialist Left – its typical routines of self-promotion and cycling through non-class issues.  But now Socialist Alternative is attempting to capitalize on those successes through methods that are almost opposite of the ones that made them successful!  Instead of doing good work which is inspiring to the entire Left, they are caving back into self-promotion and domination of front groups.  And it will make their success short-lived.

In fact that may be somewhat inevitable, given that I’m not sure anyone will actually listen to me, or to people saying similar things.  So here’s another warning: when Socialist Alternative’s expansion slows, the rest of the Left needs to be mature about it.  Instead of lifting our noses and saying “told ya so,” we need to continue affirming what Socialist Alternative did right, and integrate it into our own practice.  (Most of the Left has still not done this!)

However I know that if Socialist Alternative’s current moment of success just turns into another example of collapsed waves – another smashed Occupy littering the side of the highway to systemic change – it will only reinforce a cycle of defeatism and sectarian cynicism.  So I am going to try my best to do a few things at once:

First: persuade Socialist Alternative to open up 15Now to cross-tendency cooperation in the real, substantial way outlined above.

Second: convince other groups to try getting involved in 15Now.

Third: convince both Socialist Alternative and other groups that the Sawant victory can represent something more than competitive self-promotion, or even more than a call to broad left electoralism where socialism gets buried under the broadness – it can represent the first spark in the rise of a socialist electoral front which effectively challenges the two-party system in the USA, and which makes socialism a concrete option in the minds of 315 million people.

Either my group, or the Greens, but never socialist unity?

 

So we have three layers: (1) socialist groups promoting themselves, (2) socialist groups banding together to project socialist visibility, and (3) socialist groups involving themselves in broader, progressive-left formations.

Socialist groups are currently very good at (1) and (3); they need to do a better job at (2).

For example, Socialist Alternative seems enthusiastic about running candidates under its own banner.  It also seems enthusiastic about supporting Greens.  But there is little initiative, from Socialist Alternative or anywhere else, to run socialist candidates which belong to the entire socialist movement instead of just one sub-group of it.  (Hell, I would also be happy with simply more examples of socialist groups running their own candidates in serious campaigns.)

Basically this strategy is driven by the socialist movement’s internal competition.  If a group is not promoting itself, it would rather be among people who aren’t socialist, in order to convince and recruit them.  The socialist groups often see little point in having much interaction with the other socialist groups, because you can’t recruit those people – they’re already “taken.”

Sometimes this is just a healthy recognition that the Socialist Left should be working with people who aren’t socialists!  That’s good!  But it also has a flipside, where it instead behaves as a weakness.

The one thing which the socialist groups coming together could accomplish, also happens to be a very critical thing: they can form a socialist electoral front.  This is critical for making socialist forces nationally visible in the USA.  No individual socialist group can become a nationally-visible party on their own; bundling ourselves into a broad left progressive third party would hide our socialist label behind the Green or whatever other label arises.  We need visible socialism, badly.

After all, it is not a progressive party, like the Greens, nor a labor party, which is ever going to succeed in becoming a mass third party.  Why?  Because the USA’s propaganda machine has everyone convinced that the Democrats are both progressive and labor.  You need a more decisive break in order to make people understand why a distinct party is necessary.

What is the one thing the Democratic Party does not claim to be?  Socialist.  In fact they actively, consciously distance themselves from socialism.  But in a USA that is 39% sympathetic to socialism, that is leaving one hell of an opening for a party, far bigger than the milquetoast leftie activist scene which constitutes the Greens, or the Democrat-married labor bureaucracy in a country with 11% union density.

Furthermore, there is just the issue of socialist sincerity.  When will socialists ever stand up for themselves?  39% of the US likes socialism.  We seem to be assuming a sort of two-stage scenario, where first the Greens or someone else will break America’s two-party system, and “Europeanize” American politics by turning the thing into a truly plural contention.  Then after that happens we will build a socialist front?  But truth is, that might never happen.  Perhaps America cannot be Europeanized, and we need a socialist pole of attraction for revolution directly.  Or what if, America can be Europeanized, but only by a socialist electoral front?  Let’s dump the stage-ism, and dump the waiting.  We can do this now.

 

Revitalize May Day for socialist visibility

Most of us have been to demonstrations for a single issue – the anti-war movement, same-sex marriage, etc.  But have any of us ever been to a march where the slogan of the day was the very system we believe will actually get to the root of all these problems?

Imagine a demonstration for socialism.  It’s not a conventional concept!  Most activist coalitions are based on the socialist concept of a “united front”: the entire point is to place political labels as secondary, so people of different labels can come together.  This allows for the maximum number of people who may have different views, but care about the same issue.  (It also allows radicals to circulate among non-radicals, for the purpose of persuasion and recruitment.)

But there’s more to life than united fronts.

Socialists are good at promoting their own group, and good at jumping into broad coalitions with liberals for the sake of having a united front, but are so far no good at coming together as socialists specifically for the purpose of promoting socialism openly.  This has got to change.  A renewed socialist visibility on May Day would be a great place to begin practicing this possible socialist unity.

Some people say demonstrations don’t accomplish anything.  I disagree.  They create waves of opinion-shift throughout the population which can sometimes react against the state, to the point of causing a shift in policy.  Sometimes the state ignores protest, but as revolutionists this doesn’t bother us: (1) when the state ignores protest, it de-legitimizes the state; (2) we don’t entirely care if the state ignores protest, because while shifting policy would be nice, the real target is to move the minds of the proletariat – to shift public opinion.

After 9/11, this country was headed straight to the Right, until the Day X protests against the Iraq War in 2003.  Ever since the recession in 2008, the first group to take to the streets was the Tea Party, which everyone knew was crap, but since they were the only visible force, the dialogue was hijacked by people who think the only problem with the economy is taxes and the public sector.  Occupy Wall Street, essentially an extended protest, succeeded in ripping the public dialogue wide open to the Left, and class war rhetoric became commonplace.  People may not like protesters, but they are nonetheless begrudgingly affected by protest — the tool of protest succeeds in shifting opinion and dialogue.

So again – if we can insert socialists into single-issue demonstrations, why can’t we just openly demonstrate for socialism?  It has the same effect of energizing the forces you have, and acting as an opportunity to possibly call out and have first contact with a layer of forces you’ve never met before (as long as you actually promote the event).

In the Sawant campaign, volunteers had events called “stand-outs,” where they picked high-traffic areas, brought signs, and simply had miniature rallies for Sawant.  There is no reason this couldn’t be done for our label itself.

Of course people might ask themselves “what is the point?”  If this effort is not feeding into any larger movement for socialism, it might seem pointless.  The effectiveness of protest in meeting new people and energizing existing forces was already mentioned.  But actually, it is a problem.  We do need a united socialist party in order for such a renewed socialist visibility to become something which can build momentum instead of just fizzling.  But actually undertaking to turn May Day into a demonstration for socialism is a good place to start.

The USA: free speech but not democracy

We need a way to express what is wrong with the government, but without resorting to exaggeration.  Here it is: in the USA you can say what you want, but the people do not control the government.

There is a false dichotomy in people’s minds: democracy versus dictatorship.  We often don’t get beyond that in pedestrian discussions.

The idea is that dictatorships are places without free speech or voting, and they are powder kegs where the people are waiting to blow up because they can’t even openly say what they feel.  Then on the other hand democracies are rather inglorious affairs where you can say what you want and history is over, there will be no more rebellion, and certainly not a sort of velvet revolution where the people rise up and throw off their restrictions like under a dictatorship.

However, there are two axes – whether a state has individual rights, and whether a state is a democracy.  Most of the “democracies” on the planet are not actually democracies, but merely have civil liberties.

Of course a country can claim to be a democracy while not being one.  Most of us know about that recent Princeton scientific study proving that the USA is an oligarchy where the wealthy determine policy rather than the people.  Of course there is also the issue of the USA having an incredibly archaic, stunted “representative democracy” where the population has a single representative for every 580,000 people, and the results are neither representative, nor democratic.

So against the stereotype of the USA as a nation of free citizens with no tension between people and state, perhaps we could view it as something more similar to certain phases of the Roman Empire: you can whine about what the government does, but it operates entirely without the consent of the governed.  It is an independent entity, living among us, taking actions which may be in obedience to someone, but which are not directed by the will of the people.  It is a dictatorship without censorship.  It is an oligarchy without a conspiracy.  It rules, but does not repress, except as backup plan.  It lets us publish scandals about politicians, but in the final analysis, the most powerful entity in the country, the defining political institution of the nation — the government — does not belong to us.

Is this not a scenario which demands another velvet revolution?  Could the USA — or really the entire West — have its own “Tahrir Square” moment, but where the demand is not simply “down with a dictator” and his repressive censorship, but UP with the people?  To truly inaugurate a system of one person, one vote — not for public officials, but with citizens voting on legislation?

a poem of thrones

Sorrow we’ve inflicted, doing what we must

All we say in self-defense is “better them than us”

 

Kingdom without honor, decency or trust

Ruled by madmen from the loins of siblings locked in lust

 

Hunger we’ve evaded, living off their backs

Fall below our notice til the day the mob attacks

 

Fates we have avoided, onto others thrust

Blade that we have lived by soon could turn on us

 

Cosmos without meaning, kingdoms brought to dust

Sorrow we’ve inflicted, soon it will be us

Direct democracy: socialism’s neglected ultimate weapon

 

What if you could vote with your phone?

If the American majority was currently allowed to determine national policy through direct voting, we would be pursuing some policies completely opposite to what Congress is doing.  We would legalize marijuana, withdraw from Afghanistan, pass single-payer healthcare, tax the rich more, and legalize same-sex marriage.  This is probably the tip of the iceberg; there is probably a whole host of issues on which the people would differ from Congress if we really had our hands on the levers and built up some momentum.

Switzerland recently faces two Left-economic ballot measures: a cap on executive salaries, and a guaranteed minimum income equivalent to roughly $30,000 a year in US dollars.  They unfortunately rejected an executive salary cap, which is perhaps not a surprise in one of the financial havens of the globe, but the fact that it could even get on the ballot means that society was forced to discuss the measure as something being considered seriously.

 

Existing and Future Direct Democracy

In Steven Piott’s book on the history of direct democracy in the USA, Giving Voters a Voice: The Origins of the Initiative and Referendum in America, he recounts how I&R was established in large part during the economic unrest of the 1880s, as farmers and workers sought to achieve pro-labor legislation, break strike injunctions, establish public utilities, and build the Populist Party.  It’s no coincidence to me that what small measures of direct democracy do exist in the USA were established during a time of labor battles, when people were entertaining the idea of socialism and experimenting with third parties.

Some measures of direct democracy already exist in the USA, in certain places: state and local initiative, referendum, and constitutional amendment.  New Jersey just experienced the oddity of adding a minimum wage increase to its state constitution, because it’s the only way we Jerseyans have to bypass Congress and the Governor, or as a participant in the I&R era wrote, “Some recent state constitutions have come almost to resemble bodies of statutes.”

However it’s very rare that the Left pays much attention to any of these.  In some cases this is our own fault, but it’s also often because the obstacles to actually utilizing the existing measures are so difficult that ordinary citizens could not do it without having funding from a giant foundation and such.  In order for direct democracy to transform from a bizarre legislative relic to a vibrant institution of mass empowerment, it will have to live up to certain standards:

  • Easy to Propose Legislation: It doesn’t count as democracy if so many signatures are required to get a bill up for vote that you have to give up your job in order to go around getting enough.  In general this means that we should support a relatively low signature requirement for laws to make it to the voting booth.  That being said, sometimes having paid petitioners can help, so we need to support laws which let campaign workers do their job seeking signatures, unobstructed.  We must also pressure the government to create a clear way to get signatures counted, instead of pulling a cheap trick and trying to get signatures disqualified.  Or we could skip this problem entirely by using the Whitehouse.gov method, where Obama agrees to address any proposal which gets a certain amount of signatures, except in this case, it would mean the measure is up for popular vote.
  • More Voting, More Often: If direct democracy lived up to my insane fantasies, it would happen every month.  In fact, it’s even imaginable that we could create a system where legislation was counted as valid if it had a national majority, with people having “static votes” for or against, and they could change their votes.  (Damn it, the 159,999,999th person changed their vote in the middle of the night!  There goes the healthcare law!)  But seriously, the pace of change in the USA is slow precisely because of Congress’ bizarre scheduling system and because direct democracy only happens during elections, with public questions slapped onto electoral ballots as an afterthought.  Direct democracy should occur more frequently than elections by far.  Our democracy should attempt to be a real-time reflection of what the people actually want.  This means that even an annual vote would be much too slow.  The Swiss currently vote about four times a year.
  • Easy to Vote: Polling stations need to be opened, and not use annoying procedures which discourage people from showing up.  We may need to open more polling stations to make them convenient.  We must oppose the Voter ID laws which are entirely engineered to reduce the Black vote and not to improve security.  Finally, we could do away with polling stations entirely by turning the ballot system into a digital affair based on phones and computers.
  • Fully Funded: If we aren’t going digital, we need to pay for the polling stations – and in Black and Latino neighborhoods, we need to make sure that people of color aren’t cheated of their votes by ensuring that polling stations are even opened!  If we are going digital, which would be awesome, someone has to pay for it.  Frankly it would be no great expense to provide America’s voters with cheap phones capable of voting, other devices created specifically for voting alone, or hell, since we’re commies, let’s just get everyone a smartphone and make the rich pay for it.
  • Fraud-proof: If we are going digital, cyber-security will be a huge concern.  Direct democracy doesn’t need to be born with a black eye after it turns out the entire vote was hacked.  This would be the only real justification for going paper.  Either way, opponents of direct democracy will place under brutal scrutiny.  For the purpose of ensuring everyone’s vote counts the way they wanted it to count, we should live up to that scrutiny.  This is something that the state and its full resources could certainly manage – but will they want to?
  • Possibly optional: Some German researchers have been toying with an idea called “liquid democracy,” which allows direct democracy, but also the option that a voter may refer their vote to someone that they trust, whether that person be an elected official, or actually any individual that they choose.

 

Expose America’s False Democracy by Attempting to Practice It

Instead of scoffing at democracy, socialists should be its greatest champions, and the first thing to establish on that count is that we stand for democracy in societies which do not have it – and this includes the “democratic” West!  We must argue everywhere that we literally do not live in a democracy, that just because we have free speech does not mean we control our government, that the government is tightly controlled by the wealthy through a combination of campaign contributions, bribes, connections, and a bureaucratic separation between the state and the people in the form of “representatives.”

Many socialists argue that because we do not live in a democracy, it’s not worth trying to enact changes through the system.  The opposite is true.  It is precisely because the system is rigged that we must attempt to utilize it, thereby exposing it.  In order to achieve a revolution, we will need to create a “trigger scenario.”  People don’t flood the streets for just anything.  Americans already have a vague consciousness that our government serves the wealthy instead of us.  But we need a sharp, illustrated, concrete scenario of ordinary citizens attempting to exercise democratic sovereignty, and seeing it obstructed in practice.  This is the ultimate trigger scenario, and direct democracy makes it much more sharp and concrete than practically anything else.  (Another possibility would be through the use of a third party.)

We do not know what goes on behind the scenes of our government.  It is entirely possible that there is a shadow government of corporate handlers who act as the true “party whips” of the ruling class and ensure that, at least on the critical issues, Congress votes to continue empowering and enriching the wealthy and the corporations.  This is not really far-fetched.  With so many lobbyists, so much corporate money in politics, and so little transparency, really anything could be going on.

What if there is such a force lurking within the ruling class, and we achieved direct democracy?  What if we started enacting legislation which badly damaged the position of many industries?  We could wipe out the healthcare capitalists by nationalizing healthcare.  We could wipe out the petro-capitalists by subsidizing green energy, or withdrawing the US military from various regions.  We could dismantle the narco-capitalists by legalizing drugs.  We are talking about billions, possibly trillions of dollars of the wealthy liquidated overnight.

If we did these things, the hypothetical corporate shadow government would never allow it.  They would be forced to either (1) surrender, (2) tell the governing politicians to try illegally vetoing us, destroying their last shred of credibility, or (3) initiate a civil war for open corporate rule, or at least the overturn of direct democracy.  Again, this is the “trigger scenario.”

It is precisely because the system knows that billions of dollars hang on the line with their every vote that they do not want to let us anywhere near the levers.  Even if Americans did not pursue Left legislation at first, there is always the threat that a new mood would sweep the people, and the masses would go Bolshevik in a way that corporate-sponsored politicians would never dare, nationalizing industries, punishing the true criminals, funding social programs, and enacting laws that actually make sense.

This is why, even if we never achieve direct democracy before a hypothetical revolution, we ought to raise our voices for it loudly.  Either the system will dramatically weaken itself by caving and letting us have it, or they will discredit themselves by stonewalling on it, thereby turning direct democracy into the promise of the socialist future.

 

Socialism’s Troubled History with Democracy

Standing up for direct democracy, as the next expansion of democracy above and beyond representative democracy, is the best way to clear socialism’s name for its horrible record with democracy in the past.

Many socialists profess to advocate a radically democratic system, where workers directly manage themselves, and government is run by immediately-recalleable delegates from these workplaces or other community councils, which also practice direct democracy.  That is wonderful, but tragically the reality of “socialist” practice has often been to either abandon these institutions, or to restrict them so brutally that they are emptied of content or power.  Ironically, many socialists do not even run their own organizations anywhere near as democratically as the admirable systems they claim to fight for.

First there is the problem of countries where socialists have actually taken power.  By and large almost every example of “socialism” in the world has relied on secret police to repress political dissidents.  The usual pretext for this is to stop the re-establishment of capitalism, but this is a weak argument because socialism should be able to sustain itself even if it has to allow free speech to market advocates.  If we are correct, then socialism should prove itself to be superior to capitalism in practice.  And then in some cases it is not even really political dissidents who are repressed!  Socialists need to step back and realize that, while socialist unity is a necessary goal and I will work with anyone who disagrees with me on this, the lack of democracy in socialist history is a deep crisis that will continue to hold the socialist movement back, and hold the world revolution back, until we correct our course.

Some defenders of bureaucratic regimes counter that they were trying their best to be socialist in difficult conditions, but weren’t perfect.  However, this is not merely a problem of “imperfection”: there is a disturbing, consistent pattern of non-democracy across nearly all of world history’s regimes which have called themselves socialist, and if someone does not find this disturbing, we should find that disturbing.  This is where anarchists break off and conclude that all endeavors involving the state must necessarily end up as some kind of tyranny.  Socialists who value democracy offer a different take: we endure the misfortune of this era’s main bastions of “socialism” being undemocratic, with the main bastions influencing all their smaller allies to imitate their model.  We can acknowledge this, and lament this, while still insisting that it doesn’t have to be this way.

Left organizations themselves are often still based on a representative voting system.  This may have been necessary in times past where direct voting was not technologically feasible, but that is no longer the case.  Some groups insist that democracy happens through a collective conversation, in which only the people in physical attendance truly participate.  However, again, the world has evolved: there is no reason that the proceedings could not be broadcast in a livestream to the group’s members, so that each member’s vote could be informed, but still truly counted.  (This would require groups to have a clear and objective, not vague and subjective, definition of what it means to be a member and get a vote — this itself is an improvement many groups could use.)

Of course some Left groups don’t practice democracy because they place a very low value on it.  Inheriting the idiocy of the Cold War binary, they associate democracy with the capitalist enemy!  They value a “monolithic party” which is completely contrary to democracy.  While a monolithic party could be democratic theoretically, open advocates of the monolithic party tend to practice top-down forms of organization where not only are the group’s actions monolithic, but even speech within the organization is expected to be monolithic, and thought as well.

Critics of the monolithic party model often end up practicing it unintentionally.  It is easy to let democratic centralism, with free competition of ideas but unity in action, devolve into simply a cultish obligation for everyone in the group to have the same ideas.  Striking the balance might be possible, but has historically proven difficult.

 

So what do we do?

At this stage the organizing will be primitive.  There is already a grass-tops organization, Citizens in Charge, which fights to protect initiative and referendum laws through court battles, and which does legal research to keep track of the status of these types of things.  In the past they supported one or two state-level campaigns to achieve initiative and referendum, but most of the time it’s the typical non-profit stuff.  Their work can be useful to us, but if that method was going to turn direct democracy into the kind of mass insurgency that I am imagining, it probably would have already.

Things we can do:

  • Educate ourselves: There is a lot to learn on this topic, and most of the Left has not taken any time to research it whatsoever.
  • Make people aware of it: We need to make this a “cool” issue, but it won’t be hard, it practically sells itself.  While it may be a long time before any institutions change their internal practices, it’s definitely worth bringing up in activist groups and political groups.  Even bring it up to your roommates or family or whoever, you’d be surprised how many ordinary people are supportive of the idea.  But this can also be achieved with any of the following…
  • Create a national hub: It’s easier to raise awareness, or do anything at all, if the dispersed people from across the country are in touch with each other through web sites, social media, and conference calls.  This also helps with education, since whatever people learn then trickles through the network.
  • Be direct democracy’s “boots on the ground”: While direct democracy may seem like a “systemic” issue, there is no reason not to treat it like any other issue.  We can and should demonstrate for it.  We need to build local clubs that socialize, have fun, educate themselves, and make the issue visible to the public in their locality.  It’s the classic method of “base-building,” in contrast to the non-profit legal battles.  The environmental movement just put themselves on the map by tying themselves to the White House fence; it may seem silly, but if it works to take us from non-existent to known, maybe it’s worth considering.
  • Consider supplementing our movement approach with a lobbying approach: Fact is, some Congresspeople may already support direct democracy, or be of the temperament that they would support it once they hear of it.  This is not so much about getting it passed immediately (though that is great insofar as it is possible).  It is more that if we can get one prominent Congressperson discussing direct democracy and taking it up as a cause of their own, it dramatically raises people’s awareness of the concept.
  • Openly advocate a fairly radical, national bill as a long-term goal: Local-level fights are winnable, state-level fights are harder, and the national fight is not winnable at this time.  However, the states and municipalities are not where the USA’s truly decisive legislation is formed.  In order to promote direct democracy as a real transition of power, we will have to propose it as a national issue, and advocate a strong, accessible, frequent form of it.  (Side note: to comply with the US Constitution, this bill wouldn’t so much abolish Congress, but would be a Congressional authorization of citizens to make legislation — similar to a Congressional authorization of the President to take military action.)
  • Find winnable battles too: We may have to start small, but this is all part of making people aware of the concept and building local bases.

We have an opportunity to turn around a century of dragging socialism’s name through the mud.  As tribunes of the people, we must not be democracy’s laggards, but its spearhead.  The technology is available.  All that is required is the political will.  It is the wave of the future, and as with all waves of the future, we either ride them or end up crushed beneath – we either establish ourselves as social leaders, or get left behind as irrelevant and behind the times.

And remember, when we finally do achieve this system, try your best not to mis-click, because policy will someday be determined by your very own fingertips.