I am moving back to Philadelphia.
I am moving back to Philadelphia.
Short nerdy post. Neoreaction is more of a morbid fascination than anything actually important. It serves a few useful purposes, though, by acting as a foil:
But none of that is what this post is really about.
The simple issue would be, neoreaction is caught between market and state. But that’s not the real issue – most societies have possessed both market and state. The issue is more that the states which neoreactionaries dream of require a spirit of collectivism which is completely contrary to free market individualism.
Anyone familiar with NRx knows that there is a conflicted “trichotomy” to it: “Christian, Caucasian, and Capitalist.” Nick Land rightfully asserts that among the three, only Capitalist is really consistent. Traditionalists and Racialists are collectivists of a sort, if a highly exclusive and reactionary type of collectivist. Their traditional strictures and tribal loyalties could sometimes impede capitalism’s honorless, soulless, mechanical, inexorable, Terminator-like demands for expansion and commodification.
The crux of the problem is that neoreactionary states require special bodies of armed men, and special bodies of armed men require a collectivist identification to function well as military units.
Every body of armed men is based on and requires a strong camaraderie and esprit de corps. You see it in every police department, in every infantry unit. You can’t have people risking their lives together without it becoming a strong bond. And this tends toward some kind of cultural collectivism. Indeed, it is this very cultural collectivism of brotherhood in battle which probably attracts a lot of the neoreactionary demographic.
These men can be held together by some fancy, civilized, old-school concept of Virtue (that would be Nick B. Steves’ approach). They can be held together by raw necessity in little more than a gang structure, essentially Mad Max barbarians (see Jack Donovan). But whether you’re a Roman or a barbarian, it’s basically the same shit; groups (typically men) form strong bonds based on violence, and this phenomenon can become the basis for a society or state, and the same sort of spirit and ethic winds up defining the special bodies of armed men in states once established.
A quote from Land to explain some neoreactionary logic about the way these themes end up tying a society together:
“Reactionary theonomists, ethno-nationalists, and techno-commercialists share a fundamental aversion to rationalistic social reconstruction, because each subordinates reason to history and its tacit norms – to ‘tradition’ (diversely understood). Whether the sovereign lineage is considered to be predominantly religious, bio-cultural, or customary, it originates outside the self-reflective (enlightenment) state, and remains opaque to rational analysis. Faith, liturgy, or scripture is not soluble within criticism; communal identity is not reducible to ideology; and common law, reputational structure, or productive specialism is not amenable to legislative oversight. The deep order of society – whatever that is taken to be – is not open to political meddling, without predictably disastrous consequences.”
(Here we could see the reactionary kernel of Stalinism still strongly present within the Chinese state – hierarchy brings order, order brings production, it is right to trust and follow the Party leadership, etc.)
Even if the ultra-capitalist alternative “productive specialism” prevails as the deep fabric of society (as opposed to Tradition or Race being the glue that holds it together), the collective spirit within the state would spontaneously form. Even if your state’s special body of armed men consisted of a bunch of heartless mercenaries, their very situation would probably over time give them a collective spirit. If not, the armed men would not be effective. They would not succeed as a state or portion of a state. This collective identification is itself critical to the success of the very state which neoreaction calls for, in spite of its otherwise strong identification with individualist market capitalism.
Is this just a tension within neoreaction? Hell no. This is a tension within most societies. Their mishmash of glorifying entrepreneurial individualism, versus glorifying selfless virtue, civic duty, and public & military service, is a real tension existing right now in America, also in Land’s beloved China, and not just in some bizarre little Internet corner.
And as usual, capitalism handles the synthesis badly, more to the point it doesn’t accomplish it at all.
Want to be a legionnaire-type hero and embody all the noble ideals that you are probably projecting on it? Try actually serving the people.
So I just got done reading this bad boy. I have to say, I’m impressed. It praises the positive sides of the regime and condemns the negative, all while keeping a firm grounding in Marxist theory. It does a great job untangling the many tangled threads of Maoism, and its many stages and incarnations, as well as its theoretical complexity and its contradictions and errors. If everyone in China would read this book, there would be a revolution.
Socialism and democracy
My only hope for socialism in China is through democracy. The CP is completely sold on this capitalist-development-before-socialism assumption, perhaps an economic-determinist overcompensation for Mao’s nutty idealist voluntarism, or perhaps just a great way for these fuckers to get rich. There is only small impulse towards sustaining state control of the economy within the Party, and a willingness to literally dismiss/gulag Party members who lean that way has already been demonstrated. Not that state control is even socialism anyway.
Without political liberalization, the kind of theoretical clarity which (1) critiques state bureaucracy as not inherently socialist, and (2) opposes the Communist Party’s wholesale sponsorship of capitalism, will never be given the space to breath it needs to come to prominence.
However my hope for democracy does not come from traditional 1989-style democracy movements. The glasnost-affected Soviets were willing to cave to that stuff, but the Chinese CP has clearly demonstrated it would rather crack down than back down, and they are kind of high on all this ancient Chinese Emperor glorification to justify it to themselves. (To be fair, the post-Soviet Russian nationalists probably imagine themselves similarly, just without the pretense of calling themselves Communist.)
Democracy movements alone cannot win in China
Every time there is some classic democracy movement in China, it gets smacked down. It is usually petit-bourgeois and student-led. It usually comes at least partially from within the Party itself, which is like China’s version of saying it comes from the bourgeoisie/ruling class. It lacks the social weight or military force to withstand the regime’s fairly easy ability to assault, jail, expel, and execute dissidents. At times there have been internal Party objections to this Game of Thrones-level inhumanity, but they have usually been batted down by more hardline factions and subsequently suffered similar fates to the protesters themselves.
This contrasts to the working class of China, who literally charged the military encirclement of Tiananmen Square while the student protesters were pretty helplessly trapped within it.
Of course they were ultimately shot, defeated, and organizers and participants hunted down in greater detail after the Square was cleared. However contrasting the motives of students and workers is important here.
The students were demanding free speech and democracy, surely good things in themselves, but not necessarily the priority for the workers who got involved. In fact, the workers had a rather different impulse for getting involved – they were furious with the Deng regime’s economic liberalization and introduction of capitalism into China, which was increasingly throwing their lives into poverty and chaos.
Can these two demands survive without each other? Not really. Ideally they would fuse. However, if we have to give weight to one side, we should give weight to the side with superior social weight, the workers. Students will make political demands, and find that they need a broader social base to actually attain them, and find it in workers. Workers will enter the political realm for economic reasons, but then find that they need to take up the cause of democracy in order to defend themselves from the state repression of independent labor organizations.
Both sides certainly have a role to play here, and would go together ideally, but only one side is truly necessary, and contains within itself both the social weight and inherent need to realize democracy.
So if writing public articles for democracy and having public demonstrations for democracy are not the way to go, since in China they are repeatedly repressed without effect of consequence, what other course is open?
Workers and democracy in China
The key is do something that needs to be accomplish also in the USA and Europe: the democracy movement and the workers’ movement need to be fused into the same movement.
Dissident intellectuals or socialists in China might be better off doing the initial steps and reaching out to create a network of underground nuclei for independent workers’ organization, than recurringly publishing articles to the broad public and getting gulaged. In this way they would actually begin to develop a pro-democracy social base, and without immediately exposing themselves. Of course as it happens, the Chinese surveillance state pays special attention to this type of organizing, meaning that for now underground dissidents may have to serve more of a propagandistic role of ideologically supporting that type of activity than actually performing it, but people do appreciate when you bear the torch. At the very least, underground publishing and distribution might be a better idea than open publishing.
Democracy and workerism are directly fused in China, because the Chinese workplace is already fairly institutionalized and surrounded by Marxist vocabulary. Unions exist, but they are controlled by a Party whose own internal culture is viciously top-down. Bureaucratic cultural organizations intervene in workers’ daily lives. Collective workers’ control of the workplace, the Marxist & Soviet original dream, has occasionally appeared in China, and in some places the regime has pretended that this is how a workplace functions even when it is top-down.
Demands for genuine worker-management (fair enough under a “Communist” regime), independent unions, and the free speech to advocate these and other grievances are all democratic demands which can inspire a rebellion that spreads to and democratizes the rest of the society. But rather than being remote abstract issues advocated by students, they are directly relevant to the lives of workers.
Workers and democracy in the USA
There are American analogues to combining workerism and democracy. For example, in many places the $15 movement may find it beneficial to utilize or support the creation of ballot initiative measures which allow the city to vote directly on minimum wage laws, allowing the people to bypass unresponsive capitalist politicians. The more minimum wage is fought for, the more it will be necessary to confront the political structure: many major cities, culturally progressive and home to large concentrations of workers, are the natural home of the $15 movements, but they are blocked from these measures by regressive rural state governments. Increasing the home rule of cities might be a natural extension of the $15 movement.
Finally it is not enough for socialists to dismiss the USA’s fairly rotten, primitive representative democracy and demand we go straight to workers’ councils (though we should probably bring up workers’ councils more). There are so many democratic demands to raise. For one, our first-past-the-post geographic representation system, inherently rigged toward small numbers of parties are horrible pork-spending patronage, should be replaced with European-style parliaments based on proportional representation – ie, national elections where parties get into office according to the percentage of the vote they got, instead of blowing entire votes on offices where only one person will be elected.
Socialists should also intervene electorally themselves. If they give us a platform we have to use it. As Lenin said, “Whilst you lack the strength to do away with bourgeois parliaments and every other type of reactionary institution, you must work within them because it is there that you will still find workers who are duped by the priests and stultified by the conditions of rural life; otherwise you risk turning into nothing but windbags.”
Finally we can also raise the demand of national-level initiative and referendum, so that the American majority, by and large far more progressive on virtually every issue than the officeholders in Congress, can vote on legislation directly and bypass Congress. Especially when things like national health services or national minimum wage are at stake, national initiative and referendum are directly workers’ issues.
We might consider opposing that Trans-Pacific Partnership thing, too, speaking of China/America, though this is a fairly advanced demand only familiar to those of us in the know of political inside baseball. But maybe everything in this article is, and we can build the beginnings of a workerist-democracy movement among people who are opposing the TPP.
The wall of Chinese repression
Velvet revolution is not possible in China. It may begin velvet, but it will definitely not stay that way.
I’m pretty much going to ignore the shrieking of moralists who say “oh but look at Baltimore, the USA is repressive too!” Actually in Baltimore, the police frequently backed down against any real shows of resistance. This is rather different from Tiananmen Square, where the PLA icily gunned down protesters with machine guns by the thousand like Terminator robots. Let’s be real, we’re talking about qualitatively different things.
The problem in the USA is that the unions suck, are controlled by the (Democratic) Party, and no one has bothered to challenge this substantially yet. The problem in China is that the unions suck, are controlled by the (Communist) Party – and every time someone tries to challenge this, they end up in jail for 15 years. It is not the same situation.
This is a major problem if the only hope for regime change and democracy is the workers. If the workers are effectively blocked by police & military hard power from forming independent labor organizations, what moves do they have?
One would be the classic trolling of the state-controlled unions, which the Russian revolutionaries tried during the brief state experiment in police unionism. And rumor has it that sometimes these organizations do face spontaneous disruptions where demands are made. But broadly, they are Party-controlled spaces where it is not even safe to make demands, serving as traps to catch dissidents early.
Only two paths are really open then: the Russian path, and ironically, the Maoist path.
The Russian path is not to hope for open labor organizations, but to undertake underground revolutionary party-building which serves the dual purpose of anti-regime propaganda, and labor agitation. This way the underground party acts as a coordinating nucleus & institutional memory between the various sporadic and spontaneous labor uprisings (which are happening already), and also as a constant steady torch of dissent instead of individual intellectuals occasionally popping up, publishing criticisms of the regime, and getting sent to gulags. Eventually sufficient revolutionary opposition occurs that a velvet revolution of general strikes sweeps the regime off its feet and provides the social basis for military resistance, should it be required.
The Maoist path would be to jump straight to military resistance from the start, largely repeating the methods of the 1949 Revolution, but ironically against the regime which caused it. It is curious to reflect that, after the KMT’s massacre of Communists in the 1920s, the Chinese Communists theoretically could have gone underground and imitated the Russian path, but they opted for guerrilla warfare instead. There are some base-superstructure arguments that such action cannot bring about a workers’ state because militaries are essentially bureaucratic. However I think moments in Chinese history, like the voluntary agricultural collectivizations of 1956, or specific moments of the Cultural Revolution, demonstrate that a bureaucracy with the right intentions can empower the workers & people, and overthrow itself – this was probably the original intention, but sadly not the outcome, of the Cultural Revolution itself. Ultimately, however, the point of this would not be to create a new regime but simply to open up the political space to allow the creative energies of the workers to come forth. For those horrified by the idea, keep in mind that guerrilla warfare was a major part of how bourgeois democracy started in the USA.
The third path is not one open to Chinese workers, but rather open to American workers in hopes of assisting them. The fact is, as much as the US government possesses some wicked military hardware, we have a very open political system which is predominated by corporate corruption but will still allow you to publish your views, form organizations, and demonstrate in the streets. They don’t shoot us by the thousands for political activity. In fact the whole nation freaked out when they shot only four of us at Kent State.
For this reason we must attempt a socialist velvet revolution in the USA, a luxury the Chinese can likely not afford given their state’s superior willingness to kill its own people (and I know the shrieking moralists will shriek, but you really need to get real about how brutally repressive the PRC can be…yes our government can be brutal too, but not all brutality is created equal). Sometimes velvet revolutions bleed into other types, obviously something to keep in mind. If we succeeded in building a politico-economic order that was truly both socialist and democratic, the lies of the CCP would fold before the living reality of our example. There would be no justification to suppress independent trade unions, if we had them and everything was working fine for us. There would be no justification to insist on more capitalist development, if we showed that you can have both socialism and development. There would be no justification for political repression, if our system was radically democratic and open.
The best thing we can do for the Chinese proletariat is to continue grappling with the very real and deep problems affecting the Left in the USA – failures to connect to the working class, issues of democracy, the general inhumanity and inhospitable nature of party-line organizations, fragmentation, and invisibility.
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:
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:
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.
A good fighter, a friend and a longtime activist, MB re-posted an article on Facebook that attacks Kshama Sawant, Seattle’s socialist City Council member, for attending a fund-raiser for Larry Gossett, a member of the King County Council and a Democrat.
The underlying issues are serious enough to deserve a thorough response.
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There has been a small buzz around Sawant’s recent photo opportunity and kind words toward Democrat Larry Gossett. It has apparently caused one upset open letter from a Socialist Alternative member, and also been a recurring theme with a comrade who has raised multiple criticisms of the organization. (Apparently the Socialist Equality Party also issued a denunciation, but of course issuing denunciations of other socialists is their main activity.)
I am certainly not one to hate on ex-members of socialist groups for being noisily critical! I understand the necessity, but also the social and emotional cost of taking an entire social network of people who would back you up for almost no reason, and saying things that will turn them against you. I don’t wish to heap the hate onto anyone. It’s just that I disagree on this issue. So this is a disagreement among comrades.
These criticisms are different, and should be treated accordingly. Some are internal criticisms, some are external criticisms but still sympathetic, and some are sectarian crap.
There are a number ways of responding to Sawant’s recent actions. The first two I utterly reject:
While I ask for nuance from the purists, I also ask for consciousness from the practitioners. If you are going to make a tactical alliance with a Democrat, there had better be a reason. We don’t have to be hush-hush about the real reasons. We don’t have to be embarrassed and avoid talking about it, either, if we really believe in what we are doing. We can have a mature, open conversation about it, both internally and publicly. This way, ordinary participants can make their own call about whether it makes sense to continue allowing this kind of thing, and it can be a democratic process.
Seattle vs. Chicago?
Note that I find the Seattle situation, revolving around Socialist Alternative, to be completely distinct from the Chicago situation, revolving more around the Caucus of Radical Educators (CORE) faction of the Chicago Teachers’ Union, and its various connected socialist groupings. In Seattle, the hardcore socialist Sawant has an alliance with a specific Democrat. In Chicago, radicals and socialists began by supporting Karen Lewis for Chicago Mayor, a union president who emerged from CORE. This was awesome; we had a true labor candidate! Then they continued supporting her even when she began making some pretty awful noises indicating a rightward drift. After health issues intervened, Lewis dropped out and the CTU shifted its support to an alternative candidate, Chuy Garcia, a Democratic politician.
In Seattle, we are supporting a city councilor who is a radical socialist, and who has been fighting like hell on many issues the whole time she’s been in office, but who now has a possibly problematic alliance with a Democrat. In Chicago, we went from supporting a strong union-based candidate, to supporting a lukewarm-but-still-labor candidate, to many among on the far Left collapsing into support for a Democrat!
These are very different debates.
Some people have begun to say, in the Chicago context, that perhaps in local politics, the Democratic Party is more complex, less monolithic, involving dissidents whom radicals can support. To briefly address the argument, many people are looking to support Chuy Garcia for supposedly being an anti-austerity, anti-cuts candidate. But we have seen Democrats claim this role before, again and again, only to implement austerity upon being elected. Often their political record will indicate that there is no reason to be surprised, either.
Furthermore, have we really sunk that low? The whole point of the Left’s increasing intervention into electoral politics is NOT simply to oppose austerity! The point is to imagine beyond austerity (and imagine beyond anti-austerity!), to gain a huge dose of visibility for our direct message of radical politics itself! (This, in fact, is the only actual way we will even beat austerity, let alone beat capitalism.) If not to project a radical message, the goal was also to move unions towards serving their own good interests in the electoral arena, mainly by standing their own candidates, or otherwise breaking from the Democrats. We must not forget these critical goals.
To get back to Sawant –
If you are going to make a tactical alliance with Democrats, OK – let’s talk about it.
There is probably a strong emotional resistance to even discussing the subject, because among most of the far Left, it sounds so awful and traitorous, and you will probably take a lot of flak. But many people (like me) are more forgiving, and they deserve an honest conversation.
Speaking for myself, having one single photo op with a local Democrat is worth it, if it allows the passage of a bill which actually helps the working class, which then can massively increase the credibility of the socialist who is pressing for the measure to succeed in the first place.
Did Sawant go overboard? Possibly. She should probably not have described (Mr. X) as an anti-Establishment Democrat: we must insist that this is a contradiction in terms, there is no such thing, even if that’s what a Democrat wants to be. She should probably not be endorsing a guy who is behind building a jail, unless there is a damned good reason.
So there are other possible ways of responding:
If we are doing some tactical vote-trading, why the insistence on being clear about it (especially when such clarity, sufficiently publicized, could potentially sabotage the arrangement)? Because it can definitely lead from a tactic to a constant reliance, which would be more in the vein of option #2 above. A little tactical vote-trading is one thing, but if you do it too much, you dilute your politics down to nothing, or you end up getting used and played by Frank Underwood types and you don’t even get the results you hoped you were trading for. This is the problem that has hounded Bernie Sanders his entire career. He has no other legislative support, so he ends up basically voting with the Democrats (though he is not honestly too radical anyway).
It is fine to make a pact with the devil as long as you end up the winner. It is fine to make tactical compromises as long as they remain tactical, and do not come to define your entire politics. It is also fine to make mistakes! Let’s dispose of this purist disposability, where we completely throw out support for anyone who makes a wrong turn.
But if we sign our soul away, let’s make sure we do it with both eyes open, knowing why we are doing it, and knowing the risks involved. If it goes bad, let’s make sure we have some kind of popular, democratic counterweight to ensure that such mistakes are not repeated and do not become a trend. Let’s make sure to sell our soul for a very high price, and also rob it back. Let’s make sure this is not some secret internal decision, but something that we can speak very frankly about among socialist comrades and movement allies.
Fight dirty against capital, come clean with ourselves. Actively support Sawant, but be guarded about it.
Many people are critical of electoral strategy, a personal emphasis of mine. That’s fine; there’s lots to criticize about elections.
However I rarely see much that satisfies me outside of electoral strategy. Everywhere people say “build movements.” But there isn’t much discussion about particularly why this hasn’t gotten us very far. Also there is often a terrible misassessment of movements as weak, whereas actually they are strong in their omnipresence but merely scattered to the four winds, with thousands of uncoordinated local coalitions.
What is lacking widely is coordination.
Three of the most important movements right now are (1) anti-austerity, (2) Black Lives Matter, and (3) solidarity networks. But these movements have no national hubs to which they are connected. What is largely needed is networking. (Another is $15Now, which is a very different case.)
However, this might go differently than has sometimes been done in the past. Some socialist groups set up front groups that are sort of “their wing” of a particular movement. System Change Not Climate Change, as a counter-example, has been a step toward overcoming this, allowing inter-tendency AND independent effort on an important issue.
What I am proposing may be even slightly different still, however. Instead of declaring a ready-made organization and inviting local coalitions to affiliate, we instead simply research, locate, and network with pre-existing local coalitions, and increasingly connect them with each other. We can begin micro-regional, work up to the state level, go macro-regional, and then national — maybe international. We can also include any random forces we bump into along the way.
This coalition, again, would not be a ready-made organization to which we attempt to recruit affiliates. Instead, it would merely be a hub for communication and coordination between local groups, having literally no life of its own beyond acting as an aggregation of local groups, for the purpose of making national actions into a real possibility, and a real force instead of just empty calls for a “national day of action” to be taken up by…whoever, ie no one. (“GENERAL STRIKE!!11”)
How do we do this work? Use the Internet, use social media, be open, be welcoming, connect people together, do that work.
Briefly, (1) anti-austerity includes multiple forces, from public-sector unions to parents who oppose education cuts, to welfare rights activists. (3) Solidarity networks are unique in that they are not organized around demands on the state, but some national coordination for national action might still have interesting possibilities. Since many solidarity networks focus on renters’ situations; a national solidarity network could spawn a national renters’ union, or national days of picketing shitty landlords. More in line with their charity angle, another writer proposed the idea of a network to fundraise for the funerals of Black people killed by police.
A fourth most important movement, (4) $15Now, has the opposite set of problems — it is highly nationally coordinated, but is widely perceived as belonging to one socialist group. I don’t expect Socialist Alternative will soften its ownership over $15Now any more than it already has (and it indeed already has to an extent), so really I think what we need to do here is get over it and participate, but without censoring ourselves.
There is also politicized charity, which I have written about elsewhere. I don’t think enough of that is going on to coordinate it.