So I’m doing this writeup almost more out of obligation than actually wanting to. That’s all my blog is anymore, nothing gold can stay. If you want a super-serious writeup, check out Dan La Botz’s piece over at New Politics, and I think many more assessments will be forthcoming (from North Star editors Louis Proyect and Mark Lause for example), all of which I will reprint here or submit to North Star. The parts I’ve read are solid. But if you want something perhaps a bit juicier and more detailed, and more stupid, stay here.
So what the fuck was this thing and how did I become involved? These are excellent questions, and it’s still sort of unbelievable to me.
HOW IT HAPPENED
So you all know CUSP, a project which I love and I don’t see as unimportant but which is basically little more than me and some friends putting up a shingle on the Internet and say “hey socialists should be united derp derp” (more on that later). During some CUSP canvassing over the Internet, a leading member of Solidarity messages me that he and his org are generally very much down with the broad direction of CUSP – probably more looking for anything Left-Independent than explicitly Socialist, but hey, it’s something. He asks if I would want to be on a Soli conference call about putting forth the idea of an independent Left electoral conference. I say, def.
That was a huge con call, probably the most active/collective participation that has occurred in one place in Soli for a while. That’s not meant as an insult, because personally I think creating a collective beacon of visibility is one of the most important tasks the Left could be undertaking right now. I was really energized to be on it.
However from there it was less about anything mass participatory (for a time) and more about people on Soli’s committee reaching out to other groups and local campaigns/candidates/outfits. I followed this process as a fellow traveler on con calls of Soli’s committee, but not the collective inter-group planning committee. Keeping me hidden away in the basement was probably for the best given that I think some people might still be mad at me about the whole saying what I actually think thing. They asked me to help publicize the conference through CUSP, North Star, tankie facebook pages I bizarrely happen to be an admin of, and whatever the hell else I was involved in, plus to work on making the conference website.
CUSP => Soli con call => Soil IPA committee => logistics & attendance
My concern with the conference was NOT to launch some big intervention arguing that it should be socialist-only…there were enough weirdos mucking the thing up by advancing their own little bizarre formulations there (enough, but fortunately few!). Now if you can believe this, I was actually not going to attend. Still kind of unbelievable to me too in retrospect, but I figured I would try to make the conference a livestreamed interactive event over the Internet by setting up the application end, promote it among my affiliated audiences, maybe send a few minions to call for taking the whole thing to its next level of development (that ended up being me in practice), and that would be it.
So at some point a guy in Solidarity asks me, dude, this is all you have been about for like, years now? How the fuck can you not go? (He said it nicely, but pretty much that bluntly, which in truth was warranted.) And I say, I’m broke.
He says, I found flights out of Atlantic City for $80 round trip and we can put you up.
Damn. I have never felt so believed-in, except when my blog started getting an audience, Louis Proyect made me chancellor of North Star, or when my recruiter told me I should go to Officer Candidate School (Maximum Problemagic). For real though, people seem to keep thinking it’s worth it to take a chance on me despite my uncompromising hate of authority, tendency toward putting forward grand sweeping plans for what the Left should do, and occult insanity/general weirdness. If sometimes I seem a little wrapped up in what I’m doing and I don’t pay attention to you, don’t take it personally. I notice when people notice; I notice when people support me, every time. It all means a rather lot to me, thanks to everyone who gives me a hearing. We’re rebuilding and reinventing the Left together and you rock.
I have been badly wanting to go to a rave ever since receiving miraculous revelations telling me that I should, I hoped this trip would be my chance. Alas, too much fatigue, money limits, and not knowing my way around town concluded with this not happening and me getting only mildly drunk with small handfuls of leftists instead. Only later did I hear from a comrade in Philly Socialists who had been passing through that she had indeed attended such an affair the night before we spoke. Perhaps if I had only dedicated myself more, I could have gone apeshit in a bath of color and sound…truly the gods are cruel and regret is a bitter taste. Someday.
I subjected some poor Green Party electoral technicality maven named Phil Huckleberry to my insane ravings about Jesus and reincarnation (the idea is that God had no moral authority to judge humanity until living a human’s life with perfect principle, hence Christ, except that for it to really count Christ had to be born without the knowledge of being God, etc). A young woman asked for my phone number, but when I gave it to her, she quizzically asked if I was giving her an area code (I was), must have concluded I was an out-of-reach out-of-towner, and immediately abandoned the chase. I guess it was just summer love.
I brought both Greenman and Redman, by which I mean to the uninitiated the mono-color body suits as seen on Always Sunny in Philadelphia, and I asked Jill Stein to do a photo with me of me wearing the red one and her wearing the green one. She said she had to catch a plane. This was almost certainly a lie.
One thing I said (roughly) during my comments was “It might not be 100% clear how to connect to Black Lives Matter, we can connect with its organized national convention, but it’s also sometimes enough to give our rhetorical support to it. In the same way that Syriza has been Greece’s Party of the Riot, we can be that.” For some reason this got laughter; I think it’s because how wide-eyed and rapturous I must have looked and sounded during that last beautiful vision of bricks and ballots.
On the flight out I got a ridiculous ton of writing done, regarding where CUSP is going, where Emerge is going (into North Star probably), and an emerging theory in my head about the relationship between the fabric of personal relationships, the formation of cliques/friend groups, and the dynamics of power and democracy within organizations, and also how this relates to the issue of state-based ruling classes in state-based economies. It was a giant burst of suppressed creativity somehow, probably because I’d been working on conference stuff, but it finally got out. All of that is forthcoming.
The conference was predominated by the 60s generation, but they were simply the largest group instead of the majority. Ages were mixed, gender was mixed, and race was mixed, especially for what I assumed would be the most nerdy white petit bourgeois common interest imaginable. Attendance was over 175, up to 200, I never got the final count, which is pretty good regarding that some critics viewed this conference as trying to create something out of nothing. There was strong attention not just to electoral machinery (necessary!) but also how that stuff interconnects with issues like Black Lives Matter and $15.
The conference was somewhat nastily divided over Bernie Sanders and Jill Stein, leaning decisively toward Jill of course given that it was meant to be an independent, anti-Democrat conference in essence. However Bernie supporters were there, both in the audience and as speakers/candidates/officeholders.
One of my few complaints is that numerous people were a bit too brutal to the Sanders supporters, and I say this not least because I am leaning toward his campaign (believe me I understand the anxieties of all sides). A 16-year-old woman came to support Sanders and was subjected to endless berating of him, often with very little clear articulated reference to what precisely Sanders has done wrong (and honestly I could list things…). Later in the conference she said that this was the first time she had been exposed to socialist ideas, she agreed with a lot of what she was hearing, but she was badly dismayed by the venom with which people were trying to “communicate.” I agreed wholeheartedly on that front – whether you’re inside or outside the Bernie campaign, you should try to connect with these people and that means treating them like human beings. I think we need to reach people like her, since there are already 175,000.
And this was a unique issue because the rest of the conference got along famously. It was probably one of the best, least annoying inter-group Left gatherings I have ever been to! The typical sectarian shitshow was almost nowhere to be found. Sure, some groups were slightly self-promoting (and why not, really?), but they were also unmistakably contributing. Sure, there were one or two sectarians making speeches about their bizarre preferred exact formulations of a party or whatever the fuck (and deep down I could be considered one of those though I did not really torture people at this conference about that), but they were completely overwhelmed by people actually talking about how to run campaigns, eager to work together, and focused on learning from each other.
One of my favorite presentations was from Richmond Progressive Alliance, a formation in California. I hadn’t really paid much attention to them earlier because they were not Orthodox Pig Iron Campaigners for Socialism, but their methods were actually amazing.
Some of the key insights from their campaigning were two main points. One was that in non-partisan struggle, you almost have to make the race partisan. People need a collective bloc which they can clearly politically identify in order to vote; much of people’s voting habits are, in truth, party-based instead of individualistic, the constant self-dishonest griping of independents notwithstanding. The second thing was that, while you should strive to give your bloc a broad progressive identification by participation publicly in many social issues, they actually win races by picking one strategic critical wedge issue. This is comparable to Sawant’s campaigns, which revolved around $15 and now rent control. RPA’s approach was very similar.
A guy from Vermont Progessive Party claimed that they run successful state rep campaigns for only $5,000 and state senate campaigns for only $20,000. I am sure non-grassroots campaigns blow ten times that.
Jorgé Mújica of Chicago Socialist Campaign had one of my favorite quotes of the night. He said that people at the conference were involved in a scattered focus on issues, and insufficiently on electoral machine politics required to actually win. He said: “We win all the debates, we lose all the elections.” Amazing. Of course a more nuanced take would be that it all matters, but really he was counterbalancing other tendencies at the conference himself, so in context it made sense.
As for me, I was running the livestreaming. At first we were using Twitch. I thought this made sense; many people have heard of Twitch, and I heard of it through Jodi Dean posting something about how Twitch Plays Pokemon could be a visionary example of future online direct-democratic structures.
However, little did I know, Twitch is not simply a livestreaming platform popular among gamers, but is instead a livestreaming platform only for gaming. We had gotten almost entirely through Saturday’s first two pre-lunch sessions when Twitch informed us our account had been suspended for non-gaming content, LOL. Me and a comrade considered pressing the argument that this conference was itself a form of strategy game but concluded that time was critical and concessions had to be made.
I had to scramble to set up a conference YouTube account, learn their system, redirect my Open Broadcast Software client, and test it out all when I was supposed to be eating lunch, fun fun.
I ended up doing some of their other filming/recording stuff, and dealing with piping distance greetings from Denmark/Seattle onto a projector, and other projector stuff like power points and the notes from the final brainstorming session. I also just did whatever bullshit that was asked of me like carrying stuff around or whatever. I was a pretty good little boy, but they kind of paid for me to go so I had no problem with it. Lots of video will probably be forthcoming at LeftElect.org.
Sad thing? The livestreaming audience only ever reached single-digits at any given time. That’s not to say that’s all it was; I am thinking it could have been around 30 people shuffling in and out, and if the livestreaming helped 30 people who couldn’t afford to make the trip follow along, then I consider it a good deed performed.
However, what was really hilarious is how many times people during the conference said things like “Fuck the mainstream media, fuck the corporate media, let’s BE the media! We need to get this shit on YouTube!” and I was thinking “point of information ma’am, you are currently on YouTube…carry on.” My services were appreciated by the attendees, if not so much utilized by the wider masses this time. So I suppose that in its future development (future, larger, more participatory, and hopefully more widely-followed conferences coming out of this one) that the practice of getting the livestreaming and all the A/V & projector shit set up was good, and may help us be prepared for the future actual huge Podemos-magnitude flood of web participation. If anything, I learned a lot and I am putting it on my resumé.
We were in a basement with shitty reception so I had prepared myself by enlisting the services of Jump Wireless mobile broadband, so I would always have an Internet connection independent of the infrastructure provided by the union (to be honest theirs was pretty weak, sad to say). Mobile broadband really is excellent for sidestepping unresponsive institutions! (It is necessary at all times to maintain a renegade political infrastructure in case of expulsion/split/government crackdown!)
The final session is what I had been hoping would be a democratic session to forge a network right then and there. It’s not what it was.
Instead it was more of a consultative session where the planning committee who set the thing up affirmed that it would persist as a sort of unelected bureaucracy to keep pushing the process forward, but it now opened itself up to ideas/consultation/critique. The committee’s plan/recommendation:
- Keep continuations committee
- Let continuations committee forge network after the conference
- Reach out to even more groups and more local independent campaign forces
- Support Sawant! (This was a major point to celebrate in my opinion.)
- Keep website for coordination, opinion, content/video
- Weather the Sanderite storm of 2016
- Continue process at US Social Forum?
Another interesting possibility was that the Democratic National Convention is at Philly in 2016, and various voices came out in support of the idea of crashing it/hosting a large nearby event for the inevitable disaffected Bernie supporters.
What frightened me about the whole “let the committee handle it” approach was that I’ve seen this thing happen before over the last few years…many groups have been responding to electoral Left stuff out of more public pressure to do so than necessarily real commitment, as far as I could tell. Several Left Unity talks have occurred only to be followed up by inaction, as well. This conference assuaged my fears however – it seemed the people who set it up are dead serious about at least having another conference. Whatever beef I may have with the structure, the continuations committee did state a sincere intention to keep pushing the thing forward in a way I found believable.
Indeed, someone raised a motion to accept the committee’s recommendations. I objected that this session was not even really set up to be a democracy – there was insufficient time scheduled for competing motions, real discussion or planning, and the moderator was definitely not prepared to carry out anything approximating Robert’s Rules or even a basic fair democratic process. I said a good deal of this. I was one of four abstentions from voting for the motion, having no votes against and almost unanimous.
Yeah, that was a dickish thing of me to do given that I agreed with all the content of the motion in itself. But you know what? Democracy is something I insist on, and yes even formal democracy. Virtually everything on the Left is done by “trusted cadres” as they said in the USSR (see intro), and if we are ever going to break out of our little corner into mass relevance, we have to do it by empowering the people in the room to debate, vote, and run shit themselves. That is the only way our organizations will create a world worth living in, and indeed the only way people will feel ownership over them enough to put their time and participation in. We need to be more flexible and prepared to turn discussion sessions into proper debate & voting sessions. This means we have to surrender our own plans, our own pre-decided processes, and the undespoiled sanctity of our own positions to the will of the mob. Really we should have only one position – all power to the mob, and none for ourselves, except through it.
I still thought putting the network formation off to another conference was a bad idea and we needed a network right here and now, and I said so. How much momentum can people keep up? We’ve all got other political stuff, and lives. Shouldn’t this have been the conference to declare a network? Why put it off after losing momentum? If it never happens on their part, I’m fairly prepared to put it into motion unilaterally, and if anything, this conference strengthened my network of contracts and my ability to do such a thing.
My proposals were in this spirit of being pointed toward setting the damned thing up now:
- walk away with a structure decided, less amorphous
- mutual educational support re: electoral skills
- Podemos-style launch-petition circulation for a targeted election
- a wave of local candidates under a common umbrella name
- a few keys issues defining this umbrella, ex. $15, BLM, Green New Deal
- eventually a participatory decision-making structure
The response I got from the crowd was decent, and I have a feeling this and other brainstorm quality comments from the crowd (all viewable here) will help steer and influence the continuations committee in its planning of next steps. (I don’t think I’m being oversharing by linking to this; it was, after all, up on a giant projector screen.)
So, in conclusion. Will me and collaborators still probably launch a Socialist Electoral Alliance, based more on participatory membership, online organizing, and Socialist specificity? Yes, but I don’t see it as competing with this conference or the alliance of people around it; it would be more like a component or ally of it, really.
Did I get everything I wanted? No.
But the overwhelming feeling I got from the entire conference, seeing the mix of groups, the mix of ages, the mix of genders, the mix of races, the era of good feelings and willingness to come together, the common recognition of this common need, all to build some kind of collaborative electoral intervention & common electoral front in the USA, is “holy fuck this has needed to happen for years, I am so ecstatic it is actually happening.”
And it finally happened.