Labor Theory of King of the Hill

– Claire Blechman

Who is Hank Hill? You don’t have to ask; he’ll tell you, with pride: Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane. He sells propane and propane accessories. Lady propane has been good to him.

Has there ever been a better example of the perfect worker than Hank Rutherford Hill? Excessively competent, inexplicably dedicated, and willing to go to great lengths to protect the system that exploits him for his labor, Hank is a capitalist’s dream.

King of the Hill (KOTH) is not a politically radical show. Even in the episode featuring the 2000 election (S05E01), in which Hank has a crisis of faith as to whether he can vote for W. Bush, and Luanne flirts with communism, the explicit message is a basic “vote: it’s your civic duty.” Although the show ran from 1997–2010, neither 9/11 nor the Obama administration happened here, and Arlen remained in simpler, Clintonian times. KOTH is not politically radical, but it is a show about the working class, and no show about the working class can avoid conflicts that arise from the deplorable conditions for workers in this country. Over the course of 13 seasons, KOTH portrays many labor actions: strikes, stoppages, scabbing, protests, and even corporate sabotage. The overt message of these episodes is never revolutionary, but a TV show doesn’t have to have revolutionary character to hold great lessons for those of us seeking to raise class consciousness. Hank’s relationship to his hedonistic boss, Buck Strickland, is rich material for uncovering and understanding the dynamics between the working class and the capitalists that run our businesses (and our lives).

When we say Hank is a capitalist’s dream, the specific capitalist living that dream is Buck Strickland, owner of Strickland Propane. Buck “discovered” Hank Hill when he was a young high school graduate selling Jordache at Jeans West. He correctly recognized Hank as his “golden goose,” and brought him into the “Strickland family,” to sell propane and propane accessories. Because of this, Hank looks to Buck as a mentor and a surrogate father figure. Buck, on the other hand, exploits Hank for all the surplus value he can squeeze out of him over the next 15 years.

All capitalist bosses exploit their workers and extract value from their labor to make their profits, but Buck takes this parasitic relationship to extremes. It is a running joke that Buck contributes nothing to the business, steals from the safe and the coffee fund, and skips town the second he might have to take any responsibility (sometimes literally bailing out the window). In the episode where Buck gets banned from his favorite strip club (Jugstore Cowboys), Hank tries to convince him to come back to work at Strickland Propane, but Buck makes his position clear:

BUCK: I hate work, Hank! It’s so god-awful boring. How you don’t kill yourself is beyond me. (S10E12)

No matter how big a mess Buck makes—philandering, gambling, even colluding on an illegal price fixing cartel—Hank is always there to clean it up. On top of Hank’s regular work managing the entire business, Buck has Hank bail him out of jail on multiple occasions, complete his community service for him, and otherwise do all his dirty work. All of this he demands of Hank without so much as a “please,” and certainly never a raise. On more than one occasion Buck loses Hank at the poker table, gambling him away like so many chips. Hank’s labor power is a commodity that his employer controls, and that Buck trades in to pay his debts.

Despite Buck’s exploitation and even outright abuse, Hank is pathologically loyal to the company that defines him. It takes a series of significant betrayals for Hank to question that loyalty.

Hospitalized with the first of many “infarctions,” Buck passes over his most effective and loyal worker (Hank) to put the toady B-school graduate Lloyd Vickers in charge of the business (S02E12). Hank, by contrast, is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds, and while at Buck’s mansion, he finds out that the man he idolizes doesn’t even cook on a gas stove.

HANK: How could you, sir? …you’ve always said that propane is God’s gas. It’s a higher calling.

BUCK: Aww hell Hank, it’s just a business! It’s about makin’ as much money as you can while you can. (S02E12)

Buck has no illusions that there is anything noble about running a business, and no compunctions about throwing his best worker under the bus in the hopes of earning higher profits (a decision he will regret in this one instance, but only briefly). Hank is loyal to his boss, but this is a tragic, misplaced loyalty that is never reciprocated. It’s a form of dramatic irony that we in the audience know Buck is a terrible boss, even if Hank will not admit it. This is a relatable characterization of Hank. It is often easier to recognize poor treatment of others rather than confront our own exploitation.

Buck puts Vickers in charge because he thinks his “fancy business school degree” might earn him more money (10 cents a gallon in fact). Hank would never consider Peak Demand Pricing because that’s “sticking it to people when they need us most” (S02E12), but to a capitalist like Vickers, the market demands they extract as much profit as they can—from both the employees and the customers. Buck agrees to put the tattler boxes in the trucks (to track drivers’ routes and cut down on unscheduled stops) for the same reason. This is the last straw for Hank.

HANK: Mister Strickland, I never thought I’d say this but…I’m not coming in tomorrow

BUCK: You quittin’, or are you taking a personal day?

HANK: You heard me! (S02E12)

For the first (and arguably last) time, Hank has finally seen through the layers of bullshit Buck uses to placate him into accepting all of this poor treatment. He goes to the lake to reflect on what it all means, but Hank is not a man who is equipped to emerge from his retreat with new philosophy of life. Because he doesn’t know how to relate to the world other than through his identity as a worker, what he ends up doing is searching for some more “authentic” work to structure his life around. He settles on being the manager of a “Mom and Pop” general store.

HANK: Peggy! Pack up the car, I’ve figured it all out. It’s not about tattler boxes or who’s in charge. It’s about service with a smile and makin’ people happy. […] Everything I thought I’d find in propane, it isn’t there. It’s in the general store, where they put people before pennies. (S02E12)

The problem is there is no aspect of the capitalist system that puts “people before pennies.” It is, as Buck said, “about making as much money as you can, while you can.” We know that Hank’s sentimental vision of the general store is also a lie. After Hank leaves the store that inspired his epiphany, “Ma” berates “Pa”:

PA: Twenty’s close enough. we don’t care about a buck here or there. People before pennies I always say

HANK: Well thank you friend; you’re good people

[HANK leaves]

MA: We don’t care about a buck here or there? Now I know why they call you Pa. Because you’re PA-thetic

PA: And I know why they call you Ma! Because you’re always riding MAH ASS. (S02E12)

“People before pennies” is a line Hank can embrace in his search for meaning in his work. But it’s a complete illusion. You cannot run a business this way, and you definitely can’t run it the way Hank envisions running his general store:

HANK: A fella’s got no money, he can’t pay his bill? Well that’s good enough for us. And then that fella will tell another fella, and before you know it we’ll have customers lined up around the block. (S02E12)

Meanwhile, back at Strickland, the drivers have all quit, Buck has fired Vickers (after unleashing a torrent of creatively TV-appropriate swearing), and customers have left dozens of messages on Hank’s voicemail asking when their propane will be delivered. Without the drivers’ labor, Strickland can’t run his business. Without Hank and his leadership, Strickland had no hope of keeping the drivers on the job.

This “Snow Job” episode (S02E12) is an outlier, in that Hank pushes back against Buck’s exploitation. Normally, Buck can count on Hank, and more passively the rest of his staff, to acquiesce to his meetings in the men’s room, his stealing from the safe to go to the strip club, his affair with employee Debbie Grund, and all the humiliating schemes he makes them work through.

Buck at one point holds the entire staff of Strickland Propane hostage at the office overnight to indulge him in playing board games, and tortures them by making anyone who voices any protest wear a wet blanket (S10E12). If a private individual did this to a random group of strangers he would be a criminal, but because a boss is doing it to his workers, Hank and the rest of the employees at Strickland Propane are acculturated to accept Buck’s egregious demands.

JOE JACK: I won’t wear the blanket again, honey. I swear I won’t.

HANK: I hate it, too, but you can’t argue with Mr. Strickland. Not when business is up. (S10E12)

Under capitalism, a lot of abuse is totally excusable (or even unassailable) so long as “business is up.” In order to keep business on the up, capitalists have to keep making increasing demands on their workers.

The only question is how much their can increase those demands, and for how long, before the workers revolt. Joe Jack might have followed through on his desire to “throw a blanket over his [Buck’s] head and do what feels right,” had Hank not intervened (S10E12).

Not all bosses are alike, and by lack of skill or circumstances, not all of them succeed at striking the delicate balance between labor exploiting and loyalty inspiring. Hank’s neighbor, Kahn Souphanousinphone, usually a white collar “systems analyst,” gets to try his hand at being the boss in “The Year of Washing Dangerously” episode (S10E09). It does not go well.

When Buck farms out Hank as day labor to Kahn’s car wash scheme1, Kahn (a petit-bourgeoisie striver to the core) abuses and humiliates Hank beyond his limits. What’s more, he exploits the customers, jacking up the prices and cheating them on spray time. As we learned from the Snow Job episode (S02E12), if there’s one thing Hank can’t abide, it’s screwing over customers. Kahn then accuses Hank of stealing:

KAHN: You trying to steal from me? Empty your pockets!
HANK: I’m not going to empty my pockets.

KAHN: Something to hide, huh?
HANK: Kahn, get away from me.

KAHN: Ah! A quarter! I knew it. Thief!
HANK: That is my personal quarter. I brought it from home. (S10E09)

For Hank, this is an embarrassing and intolerable questioning of his integrity. For the rest of us, we can see the absurdity of a boss like Kahn accusing a man like Hank Hill of “stealing” a measly quarter. Kahn thinks as the owner he is entitled to every quarter he can wring out of Hank and Scrubby’s, but that’s the capitalism talking. We know that Labor is entitled to all it creates.

When Hank inevitably quits, Buck takes Kahn aside and, exasperated, explains the scheme to him. Buck, like all successful capitalists, knows from where his wealth derives in this system. “I got my own little success secret,” he says. “A business thrives on customer relations and back-breaking hard work. And that’s the guy that gives it to you. Hank is the golden goose.” (S10E09)

Kahn’s failure here was not that he exploited Hank, or even that he exploited him too much. In context, the work Buck makes Hank do, and the humiliations he makes him suffer, are manifold. Buck regularly makes his employees take meetings in the restroom while he sits on the toilet. He makes Hank skip date night with his wife to go kill the Emus on his failed Emu farm, because they were no longer profitable. Most egregiously, Buck tries to frame Hank for murder (S04E14).

For 15 years Hank puts up with Buck’s bullshit, only flirting with quitting in the most egregious of circumstances and never following through, but he only lasts two days with Kahn. Why does Hank know his worth and the power of withholding his labor in this case, but not in any other?

The difference between Kahn’s clumsy petit-bourgeois exploitation and Buck’s professional capitalist version is that Kahn rubbed it in. He couldn’t help but laugh in Hank’s face and proclaim him a monkey. Insecure with his position as a member of the managerial class, Kahn reasserts his dominance over Hank at every opportunity. Buck, by contrast, named Hank employee of the month for 14 years running, and constantly reminds his staff that Strickland Propane is a “family”2. This helps maintain the illusion that the boss has a vested interest in his workers as people instead of just as commodities from which he can extract more and more labor, and thus more and more profit.

There’s an intersectional component to this too, that Kahn is a Laotian immigrant and Buck is a white man. It’s clear that, as a character trait, Kahn Soupanusinphone strives to achieve the bourgeois lifestyle he perceives as the American dream—personified in Ted Wasonasong (country club membership, giant house with a pool in a gated community, consumer luxury goods). He’s taken in by the get rich quick schemes of Asian telemarketer Doctor Money, but Kahn will never achieve the promise of the American bourgeoisie. Try as he might, he will never be admitted to the club—neither Nine Rivers Country Club nor the capitalist class3.

Hank, meanwhile, doesn’t see anything wrong with a social order in which he is the property of a white man like Buck Strickland, but cannot abide his neighbor Kahn in the same position.

HANK: I left Jeans West to work for one of the most admired men in Arlen business: Buck Strickland. Not a lazy idiot who doesn’t know what the hell he’s doing. (S10E09)

Throughout the series, it’s implied that Buck was once a formidable businessman, but considering we rarely see Buck do anything even approaching business acumen (with the notable exception of hiring Hank),it’s more likely that’s a myth that Hank tells to justify his current cognitive dissonance. “Lazy idiot” describes Buck perhaps even better than it does Kahn but Hank steadfastly ignores any such comparisons.

“I know the secret to success: hard work,” Hank lectures Kahn (S10E09). This is at once trite received knowledge and extreme naivete.

Hank fetishizes hard work for its own sake, an attitude that he certainly did not get from either of his parents. He tries to impart this lesson to his son Bobby on many occasions, but the depth of his work ethic is so ludicrous it always comes off as a joke. For example, when Bobby becomes the towel manager of the football team and is assigned to clean every jockstrap after a game, Hank says:

HANK: Looks like you’ve got some hard work ahead of you. Enjoy it because you’ve earned it. (S07E06)

Like Hank, many people in the real world come to the conclusion that hard work is the answer to every problem. This is deliberately instilled in us through a lifetime of capitalist ideology that permeates every aspect of our existence. The promise goes like this: work hard, and you will succeed. The corollary is if you don’t succeed, you’re not working hard enough.

Of course the Bucks of the world want the Hanks to work harder, in all circumstances. The more labor Hank puts in—to the car wash or to the propane dealership—the more profit the boss can extract from his labor.

One of the reasons that Hank remains loyal to his boss despite it all is that, far from feeling exploited when he has to go the extra mile, Hank takes pride in the fact that he works hard. But for what? The reward for all this hard work can’t be more money, or less work (both of which cut into the boss’s profit), so it becomes either a bromide like “satisfaction in a job well done,” or a passive sense of superiority over those who have less capacity or willingness to work. There is no better motivator than a strong moral compass, even if it points you in the wrong direction.

It’s a running gag over the ten seasons of King of the Hill that Hank doesn’t take any time off, and doesn’t know what to do with himself when he is forced to take a break from work. Work is not just a paycheck to Hank, it’s his identity. Even in situations that have nothing to do with work, he introduces himself as “Hank Hill, Assistant Manager, Strickland Propane.”

Hank’s identity as a worker is sewn up so tight that when he injures his back so badly that he can’t even stand up straight, the idea of taking worker’s comp is anathema to him (S08E20).

DOCTOR: Just have your office send over your workers’ compensation forms and I’ll sign off on them

HANK: Workers’ comp? Do I look like a hobo to you? No sir, I’m not going on welfare. (S08E20)

Even when Buck gives him the go-ahead to take time off, Hank’s work ethic supersedes his misplaced loyalty in his boss.

BUCK: Slow down old top! If you go on workers’ comp I can have Joe Jack’s cousin fill in for you for half the pay. And still have some left to buy my new lady some studio time.

HANK: Mister Strickland, as long as I’m breathing, I’m going to do my job. (S08E20)

Hank’s productive power is formidable, and capitalist ideology has taught him that he had better maintain that quality (and thus his value), or else what use is he? To admit that he can’t work, or needs accommodation, even for a 100% legitimate reason, is a blow to his self-concept.

When he is assigned to feed Strickland’s hounds in the Snow Job episode, Hank faces one more humiliation, from the new boss Vickers.

HANK: He had the nerve to give me flex time! That’s what they give pregnant women and other disableds. (S02E12)

Under capitalism, those whose productive power is diminished beyond what is useful for a capitalist to extract from their labor are considered “disabled”. That pregnant women are included in this inferior group is no accident—even though the labor they are doing is the most productive of the entire human race. The gender politics of work in KOTH are too vast to get into here, but suffice to say, Hank rails at the idea of being thought of as womanly in any way in part because his concept of masculinity is to be a worker with enormous capacity.

Hank can toil as hard as he wants, for as long as he wants without end (“Breaks are for guys on disability” Bobby parrots in S08E08), but in the end he’ll be right back where he started, and all he will have achieved is making the capitalist who owns his labor power richer.

If hard work guaranteed success, Hank would be manager of Strickland Propane, instead of assistant manager. Without the interference and sabotage from Buck, Hank could run Strickland Propane in his sleep. He could decide he has had enough of working for a boss like Buck, go out on his own (like M. F. Thatherton did)4, and run every other propane concern out of town5. The only advantage Buck has in this situation is that he owns the means of production. But under capitalism, that is the crucial advantage, and the difference between the bosses and the working class, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat.

“The place runs itself,” Buck says of the restaurant he owns (Sugarfoot’s). “The help makes the barbeque, I make the money” (S04E13). This is a particularly succinct statement of how wage labor works under capitalism. All of Buck’s wealth is created by the hard work of his employees, Hank especially.

Considering all this—that Buck brings nothing to the table, and is open about how he opportunistically extracts wealth from his workers and customers alike while trying to avoid any semblance of actual work—it might seem puzzling that Hank doesn’t push back, given his strong conviction in the morality of hard work. Instead, Hank actively works to prop up Buck’s authority, in increasingly hilarious ways. Whether he’s being Buck’s character witness or breaking the drivers’ strike, Hank consistently insulates his boss from the consequences of his actions.

You don’t have to be the beneficiary of the capitalist system to work to uphold it. Many people who do not directly benefit from capitalism are the most loyal enablers of the system. Some because they believe (like Kahn) that the capitalists will someday admit them to their club. Some because they imagine they are in a zero-sum game, pitted against their fellow workers for scraps. Hank does it because he has constructed an identity around work, and because he desperately wants Buck to be his surrogate father (in the next installment we’ll cover how capitalists exploit the family dynamic to maintain control over workers, and how Hank is particularly susceptible to this as the product of an abusive home).

In the same episode where Buck humiliates Hank by assigning him to feed his hounds, Hank bails Buck out of hot water yet again. The drivers’ strike threatens to put Arlen out of propane during the cold snap, and Buck out of business. The drivers know their power, in part because they have class C licenses to transport hazardous materials, but also because, as we find out earlier in the episode, they have a union. They want the tattler boxes out of their trucks, so they withhold the most valuable thing they can give to Strickland: their labor.

This is a sound strategy, but like all labor actions, they were vulnerable to scabs and class traitors. Hank breaks the drivers’ strike by hooking up the bobtails to tow trucks, so that they can deliver propane without needing the labor of drivers with class-C licenses. He does this even though he agrees with the workers’ demands, and knows this problem is entirely the work of his nemesis Lloyd Vickers (S02E12).

Towing the bobtails is presented as a can-do solution to a crisis which gets the people of Arlen their propane in a rare snowy cold snap, but the real solution would be to remove the tattler boxes and invite the licensed drivers to come back to work. By caving on his stand against Buck’s harsh treatment (and worse, by scabbing against his fellow workers) Hank loses any chance he had to make gains for a better workplace. He is only setting himself up for another 15 years of wage slavery and exploitation.

The bobtail incident is not the only time Hank scabs while workers are on strike. In the episode “A Fire-fighting We Will Go” (S03E10), Hank and the gang knowingly cross a picket line in order to live out their childhood fantasy of being volunteer firefighters. They are not paid for this labor, but no one seems to care so long as they can drive around in the fire truck and posture about their new “occupation.”

The episode itself is critical of Hank’s choice to cross the picket line, reminding us of the paid workers that they are displacing, and making it extremely clear that their scab labor is disastrously incompetent. They burn down the entire firehouse, in fact. But none of this matters to Hank.

HANK: They’re striking? Well sir, fires don’t go on strike, I tell you hwat (S03E10).

When there’s work to be done, Hank is there to do it. He feels no remorse for any of his scabbing. Hank works hard, uncritically, because he has been indoctrinated not to think about who his hard work is serving—or hurting. For many people, capitalism is an uncritical good, and for Hank it is inextricably linked to being an American (nationalism is another way ideology solidifies the ruling class’s power over workers’ labor).

HANK: This is wrong, Mister Strickland. You’re the greatest American I know. If anyone can fix this, you can. (S12E11)

Hank is an extremely loyal person: to his country, to his friends and family, and to his boss. He cares deeply about his customers, and (foolishly) about the propane business that he has built his identity around. But he doesn’t have the sense of solidarity with other workers that is so crucial for building the labor movement. Without class consciousness, Hank will always put the interests of capitalists above his fellow workers. He will work like a dog to maintain the status quo that he knows and loves, because Hank is above all a man who plays by the rules. In America, the rule is capitalism over all.

At the end bumper of S05E01, the 2000 election episode, Hank and Bobby break the fourth wall and make a public service announcement that viewers should register to vote. “You’ll be eligible to win these valuable prizes,” Hank says: “Freedom. Civic Pride. And a brand-new President.”

If Hank had a smidgen of class consciousness, he might consider “freedom” the freedom to tell his drunk, debaucherous boss Buck Strickland where to shove it. He might finally recognize the ways Buck exploits him and extracts value from his labor beyond any returns Hank could ever imagine. He might even recognize his own power to join in solidarity with his fellow workers.

Hank Hill will never do any of these things. Not just because he’s a TV character, but because he is the consummate worker. Unlike Kahn, who futilely seeks to join the bourgeoisie, Hank is content to work hard every day at the propanerie, never rock the boat, and remain Assistant Manager forever.

The Case for Ecosocialism: Polluting Plutocracy vs. Prosperity

Gracie Brett

A near total consensus has been reached amongst scientists: climate change threatens life on Earth, and it is caused by human actions (FitzRoy & Papyrakis, 2010). Essentially, the release of greenhouse gases (GHG) into the atmosphere traps heat, thus warming the planet. The implications of this are myriad and devastating. Sea levels will rise, swallowing most major cities across the globe — creating mass population displacement. Extreme weather events will become more frequent, taking lives, and requiring expensive relief and rebuilding. While the coasts will suffer from stronger storms, the interior areas of the globe will likely endure incessant droughts, threatening water supply and agriculture. Widespread starvation and thirst will ensue. Obviously, the climate crisis can no longer be ignored. But, how will humans avert this planetary catastrophe and their own extinction?

Scholars, scientists and policymakers have debated this question for decades. A fascinating proposition to address this crisis has emerged out of neoliberal thought: green capitalism. Green capitalism is the idea that the market is the best means to combat climate change. Some “green” market solutions include cap-and-trade, carbon taxes, green consumption, and the development of clean technologies by benevolent billionaires in the private sector — just to name a few. Free market liberals assert that these schemes can preserve the environment while perpetuating the capitalist system (Pearson, 2010). Yet, I contend that capitalism, even when regulated and manipulated by market schemes, is wholly incompatible with planetary health. I argue that socialism is the only form of political economy that can maintain democracy and ecological stability simultaneously.

Why Capitalism Will Not Work

Historically, industrial capitalism has been causally linked with earth-warming carbon emissions (fig. 1). As the capitalist system has expanded, emissions have risen. This is not a controversial point: the more fundamental disagreement is if capitalism is predisposed to environmental destruction, or if this linkage can be decoupled. Ecosocialists disagree with the latter by declaring capitalism the principal driver of ecological collapse.

GB_ecosoc_Fig1

Figure 1

An integral reason Ecosocialists maintain this argument is capitalism’s requisite for infinite economic growth. Capitalism, by definition, seeks profit. For capitalists to accumulate more profits, they must keep capital circulating. They can do so by reducing reinvestment into labor and the environment. The incessant need for capitalism to circulate capital and expand has been described as “an accelerating treadmill” that must consume increased labor and resources to survive (Robbins et al., 2014). Yet, the resources of Earth are finite; humans cannot exploit and expand indefinitely. Eventually, growth must cease.

In the book What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism, the authors explain, “No-growth capitalism is an oxymoron: when accumulation ceases, the system is in a state of crisis.” Previously, any time growth has stagnated, devastating economic implications followed — as observed in Japan currently, and the United States during the Great Depression. The conception that capitalism can exist without growth is historically contradictory.

Green capitalists counter this critique, arguing that capitalism could exist without growth theoretically — functioning as a capitalist steady state economy as outlined by the Solow Growth model (fig. 2). There are a litany of unrealistic assumptions the model makes: no government, no international trade, no technological change, and an unchanging labor force. Yet, the most problematic assumption the model makes is that capitalist firms can be satisfied and operate with the same profit returns each year.

GB_ecosoc_fig2

Figure 2

The zero-growth idea is wholly incongruent with the nature of capitalism. Firms accumulate capital so they can invest and create more capital. The Solow Growth model reflects an exchange process in which a commodity C is traded for money M to purchase another commodity, expressed as C-M-C. In this equation, M is simply a means to acquire a commodity. But, I argue that this is a fallacious representation of the economy. A more accurate formula is, as outlined by Marx and Keynes, is M-C-M, in which money is invested to produce a commodity to yield more money (Bellamy Foster & Magdoff, 2011).

Capitalist businesses function using the M-C-M model: goods and services are primarily produced for profit, not need. Although neoclassic, mainstream economists insist that markets operate within simple supply-and-demand linear models,  in reality, the economy is more complex. Demand does not solely dictate supply. For example, drugs for male baldness receive more funding than diseases like Malaria. Although malaria is a fatal disease (those infected need medicine to survive), it is not as profitable as producing hair growth drugs, thus attracts less capital. Capitalists invest in what is profitable rather than what is needed or demanded by the public. In the case of malaria drug funding, capitalist billionaire Bill Gates conceded, “our priorities are tilted by marketplace imperatives” highlighting the “flaw in the pure capitalistic approach.”

A similar “flaw” manifests in the housing market. In the United States alone, there over half a million homeless people, while there are an estimated 5.8 million vacant homes. Numerically, there are enough homes to shelter every citizen; but this does not happen because it is not profitable. Rather than invest in sorely needed affordable housing, developers build lucrative luxury real estate. Housing markets have financialized, functioning as a tool for the wealthy elite to grow their capital. Luxury condos and apartments in American cities are purchased not for living, but for speculative profiteering. All the while, low and middle-income needs are neglected, resulting in an affordable housing and homeless crisis. The drug and housing markets demonstrate that capitalist firms produce in order to accumulate more money, rather than providing a commodity: representing M-C-M, not the neoclassical C-M-C assumption. Thus, the crux of the Solow Growth model is unrealistic.

Capitalism necessitates growth for another reason — debt. The capitalist economy, “is in debt, dependent on future growth, owed by future producers and consumers; the current income of capitalists and workers is drawn on a generational IOU; the entire system must keep growing or it will collapse” (Blackwater, 2014). Banks and bond holders lend because they anticipate the loan will be fulfilled with interest, thus rendering a profit. For the borrowing firm to fulfill its obligation, it must expand. For example, when a start-up company secures a loan, they use the funds to produce goods and services that otherwise did not exist; to repay the loan, the start-up must begin production. As capitalism financializes, debt-induced growth becomes more relevant. The entire stock market is driven by the promise of future profitability: one purchases stock with the singular motive of receiving a higher return at a later date. For a firm to fulfill such expectations, it must expand production.

Further, some growth advocates assert that economic growth can be decoupled from greenhouse gas emissions and environmental ruin. There has been relative decoupling in Western nations like the United States, but not absolute (fig. 3). Moreover, decoupling in the Global North is often a product of outsourcing; in the cases of Japan and Germany, resource-intensive production occurs abroad, then imported for consumption; this is also spreading to the East, as evident in China’s Belt & Road Initiative. The United Nations’ report on decoupling concedes, “The conceptual framework for decoupling and understanding of the instrumentalities for achieving it are still in an infant stage.”

GB_ecosoc_fig 3

Figure 3. 

Additionally, the decoupling of growth and emissions faces another hurdle, known as Jevons Paradox. The paradox maintains that as energy efficiency increases, effectively making energy cheaper, consumption will increase. This can negate “more than 100% of the [energy] savings achieved by the original innovation.” The absolute decoupling of emissions from economic growth proves to be impossible.

Society cannot simply replace fossil fuels with renewable energies and continue business as usual. Despite technological advancements, most evidence indicates that renewable energy cannot support the American level of consumption. The ecological footprint that is considered sustainable is 1.67 global hectares per person ;the average American’s ecological footprint is about 2.7 meaning it would require about 4 earths if everyone lived like the United States population. This is a baffling level of consumption, and continuing this path is impossible and unsustainable. Further, as the nations of the Global South develop their economies, their ecological footprints will grow, putting greater pressure on the planet. It would be unfair and immoral to force the Global South to cease development in order to preserve the Global North’s extraordinary consumption and growth.

Not to mention, renewable energy technology still imposes significant burdens on the environment. To construct a wind turbine, immense amounts of steel (and coal in the production process), copper, plastic, and concrete is required. Alexander Dunlap writes in End the “Green” Delusions: Industrial-scale Renewable Energy is Fossil Fuel+

“The construction and placement of wind turbines requires the creation of roads that clear trees and animal habitats and compact soil. They also require the creation of wind turbine foundations that range, depending on the site, between 7-14 meters (32-45 ft.) deep and about 16-21 meters (52-68 ft.) in diameter. The foundations require the filling of ground water with solidifying chemicals before filling them with steel reinforced concrete. Then, during operation, leaking oil seeps into the ground where animals graze and into water wells where people drink. And this leaves aside the effects of concrete production, as well as the violence involved in building wind or other renewable energy systems on Indigenous territory. On top of all this, each wind turbine only has roughly a 30-40 year lifespan before it needs to be decommissioned and, hopefully, recycled, which is currently done at an unsatisfactory rate over all.” 

Renewable technology and efficiency cannot continue at such a dramatic and continuous rate eternally. There are practical limits in technological advancement, as illustrated in the transportation sector. The United States’ is extremely dependent on oil, as 41 percent of end energy use is transportation, while only 5 percent of transportation is powered by non-oil sources. Electrifying the vehicle fleet is a proposed solution to decarbonize transportation; electric vehicles can be powered by renewable energy. This solution is wholly unsuited for heavy road vehicles, ships and aircraft. Liquid fuels cannot simply be substituted by electrification, as larger forms of transport would require batteries too large to be practical. There are some alternatives to electrification, but none are sufficient to satisfy current and expanding transportation needs. For instance, sails and kites can greatly reduce fuel use on ships, but with notable limits. Sail and kite power would significantly reduce ship speed, while requiring boats to have to wait for the right currents, tides and winds.

Biofuels could be swapped for gasoline in heavy vehicles and airplanes, but again, there are restraints. Considerable amounts of energy must be used to produce biofuels; in the United States growing, harvesting, transporting and distilling ethanol is extremely energy intensive. It requires about 70 percent more energy to produce ethanol than the energy ethanol contains. Further, an immense amount of land is needed to grow enough biofuels for air travel. To meet present-day aviation needs, 1.11 million square kilometers of land must be dedicated to raising biofuel crops, or about 2.5% of current agricultural land. This is unattainable, and would only become more difficult as the aviation industry grows. The environmental impacts, costs and scalability of biofuels imposes serious limitations on future mobility.

Thus, if transportation cannot be maintained or expanded in a renewable future, what happens? Stated plainly, society will be less mobile. Industries reliant on transportation and machinery will be circumscribed; global trade will decrease, tourism will slow, and industrial agriculture output will lessen. Gross domestic  products of nations across the globe will stall, as these sectors drive economic growth.

Such obstacles are not intended to eschew the renewable transition — that transition is indisputably necessary. In highlighting the limitations of the renewable world, I illustrate the inability to completely decouple energy use and economic growth. Clearly, present consumption in the United States cannot be preserved in a renewable economy. If America’s (and generally the Global North’s) consumption is already extraordinary, then expansion is obviously impractical.

The Ecosocialist Project

As described, capitalism requires infinite growth and exploitation of resources. Because this is unsustainable, I argue that the future must be socialist. The current political economy must be overhauled and replaced with a system that prioritizes the planet over profit. Critics highlight the history of previous socialist projects, asserting that socialism was attempted before and failed. For instance, the Soviet Union and Mao-era China are notorious for its environmental destruction. The USSR experienced heavy pollution, declining freshwater supplies, while China deforested large swaths of pine forests. Not to mention, there were egregious human rights violations and acts of violence committed by the authoritarian governments. The difference between these regimes and a future socialist society is clear:  socialism, in its true form, has never existed.   Self-proclaimed socialist states such as the USSR and China can be considered state capitalist, in which the state seizes the means of production and replaces the capitalist. Effectively, little changes, and the state makes a profit off of workers instead of private businesspeople.

This prompts the question: what is real socialism, and why is it an integral component of combating the climate crisis? Essentially, socialism is a political system where the economy is democratized. This means that workers, rather than capitalist, own the means of production. This is otherwise understood as worker cooperatives in which workers vote for their leaders within a company, rather than the current (and certainly undemocratic) system where boards decide business decisions void of worker input. Most of the time, a CEO’s interests are diametrically opposed to that of the common worker. This is because the capitalist seeks the highest profit possible; as little else matters in the capitalist system, like labor and the environment.

In the socialist workplace, the profit motive is removed — a firm must only remain solvent. Wealth is distributed more equitably among all workers, as opposed to mass profiteering by CEOs and other high-ranking executives in the capitalist system. Currently in the United States, CEO pay is 361 times greater than the average worker. This egregious wealth inequality leads to a lack of empathy and moral decision-making. Several studies indicate that wealth leads to decreased compassion and empathy. Thus, a privileged elite like a corporate Board of Trustees is less likely to make empathetic and morally just decisions than a worker cooperative where wealth is distributed. This is illustrated in the cases of Volkswagen’s emission fraud scandal, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and Love Canal. How could such a nefarious fraud and environmental destruction continue on a fairly regular basis? I argue that the extreme wealth accumulation of the capitalist system encourages immoral and callous decision making. A cooperative, socialist workplace that operates equitably and democratically must replace capitalist firms to avoid further ecological disaster.

Consequently, Ecosocialists are not advocating for an authoritarian central bureaucracy that imposes carbon rationing. In fact, communists maintain that this system could operate without state intervention entirely: as communism is the abolition of both private property and the state (Mann & Wainwright, 2018). This vision contradicts the socialism as practiced in previous “socialist” regimes that consist of authoritarian rationing by the state rather than decentralized economic democracy. The climate crisis, socialists argue, is not to be addressed with rations per se, but with an overhaul of the political economy that would not be motivated by profit. Below, I outline how profit is produced, as described by Marx (Burkett, 2014):

GB_ecosoc_fig 4

As observed, the highest profit is extracted by investing as little as possible into labor and resources. Thus, the capitalist system is built upon imposing environmental externalities onto society like pollution and greenhouse gas emissions. Even if a firm decided to invest enough money to replenish the environment properly (such as cleaning up pollution, replanting deforested trees, and replacing fossil power with renewable sources) labor must be exploited to maintain profit. This is what I call “green barbarism,” a society that preserves the environment, but maintains extreme inequality — for example, a company produces solar panels with sweatshop labor. Socialists argue that capital should be removed from this equation to adequately compensate labor and resources.

Although many environmentalists recognize that the capitalist system is incompatible with the preservation of Earth, they claim it is quixotic to advocate for socialism. More moderate, mainstream environmentalists are sympathetic, yet ultimately critical of the Ecosocialist vision. In his review of This Changes Everything, environmental scholar Daniel Fiorino remarks, “A global anti-capitalist revolution does not appear to be in the offing,” justifying a more incremental approach to climate action. Yet — I question such centrist rationale.

Throughout history, the privileged and professional classes have failed to foresee political change. One of the latest examples is the election of President Donald Trump. For most pundits, pollsters, and political professionals — Trump’s victory came as a complete surprise. The vast majority of polls predicted a victory for Hillary Clinton; at some points in the campaign, pollsters asserted that there was a single-digit likelihood that Trump would win the presidency. In the mainstream political and media realms, there was a consensus that Trump would lose the election, including President Obama, George Clooney and the Simpsons TV show. Previously, few could imagine a modern president that brags about sexual assault, vilifies the press as “the enemy of the people,” and heaps lavish praise on dictators. President Trump incessantly contradicts the norms established by the ruling elite, yet they continue to be surprised by his supporters’ loyalty and the dearth of political backlash. Similarly, many denounced Bernie Sanders’ presidential bid in 2016 because he identifies as a socialist. Sanders’ rise and legitimate challenge to Secretary Clinton’s pursuit of the democratic nomination surprised elites.

These recent cases demonstrate that political “truths” held by scholars and elites are often out of touch with the working-class zeitgeist. Those within the political and academic establishment may hold that a complete overhaul of the political system is out of the question Yet, history indicates otherwise. Previously, extreme wealth inequality has only been lessened by catastrophes like plagues, wars, and revolutions. Deepening inequality cannot expand endlessly, and it appears that the United States is nearing the limits of inequity. Inequality is often measured by the Gini coefficient: scoring total egalitarian societies as 0 and completely unequal ones as 1. Currently, the United States scores at a jarring .81. There is no precedent for resolving such ingrained inequalities without a dramatic event like a revolution. In these hyper inequitable times, a socialist revolution and upheaval of capitalism is not far-fetched. In fact, it may be a more probable outcome than limitless continuation of current economic barbarism.

Building a Different (Socialist) World

As Marx predicted in his crisis theory, it is inevitable that global capitalism will eventually collapse. There are two possible causes of collapse. One is the ecological annihilation to fuel the incessant growth requisite of capitalism: meaning the end of a livable planet and the human race that exists in it. The second option for collapse, which I advocate for, is a socialist revolution to force the end of capitalism.

Without a doubt, Ecosocialists have significant work ahead to realize a revolution. Policies and actions pursued should combat climate change, while also politicizing, radicalizing, and building working-class power. For example, advocating for free and expanded public transportation achieves both of these goals. Improved public transportation would slash greenhouse gases, while simultaneously improving quality of life for those at the bottom who cannot afford cars. Similarly, low-carbon affordable public housing achieves the same goals. Both of these initiatives could be part of a “Green New Deal,” like the plan proposed by Congresswoman-elect and Democratic Socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. An ecosocialist Green New Deal would radically restructure the U.S. economy away from carbon, create jobs, and expand the welfare state.

These policies seem unimaginable and unattainable in the neoliberal era. Thus, many market liberals argue that environmentalists must compromise their ultimate goals, instead favoring incremental approaches to curb warming, like cap-and-trade and venture capitalism. But this approach is precarious. Such market approaches only entrench the present economic system — allowing capitalism to perpetuate itself by expanding into spaces like carbon markets. For instance, the European Union Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) was created in 2005 to comply with Kyoto Protocol standards. Since the program’s implementation, though, there has been little change in emissions. In 2006, the price of carbon plummeted, allowing for polluters to make windfall profits (FitzRoy & Papyrakis, 2010). This initiative did the opposite of its original intention: awarded polluters. Even if the price of carbon was increased by governments, companies that stockpiled cheap credits after the market bust can continue business as usual. It would take many more years before these polluters feel the tightening of cap-and-trade, and begin developing cleaner technologies. But, we have no time to waste.

I argue that market schemes like cap-and-trade do not provide the radical shift away from fossil fuels required to avert a global crisis. In fact, carbon markets give large polluters an easy out to perpetuate the status quo, rather than forcing them to invest in carbon-free technology. Emitters can purchase cheap offset credits from others, often in the Global South, rather than create a green infrastructure in the heavy-polluting Global North. For example, China’s newly built hydroelectric plants sell their extra carbon credits on the international market; essentially providing the Global North with a stable, inexpensive way to continue polluting. These hydroelectric plants were planned before the installment of ETS; therefore, no environmental gains are made, and massive amounts of money is wasted. Furthermore, although hydroelectric energy is not carbon-intensive, it still has devastating effects on local environments, like deforesting massive swaths of land to then flood.

Green New Deal policies prompt citizens to question the neoliberal austerity they have become accustomed to, and expect the state to provide more. Americans (and increasingly, citizens of other nations in the global north) have accepted deteriorating public services at the behest of deficit hawks. Private enclosure, individualism, and atomization has been prioritized over public commons. Ecosocialists challenge this narrative by prioritizing public spending, whether it be for increased taxes on the rich, or the total rejection of deficit politics by use of Modern Monetary Theory. Ecosocialist policies that expand the commons of transit, housing, and public space embolden citizens to pursue a politics of collectivism that sows the seeds for uprising against the status quo. 

 These actions illuminate a brighter vision for the future, sowing the seeds for uprising. Violence is not requisite for this revolution; mass, nonviolent strikes could be more effective than armed conflict. A critical mass of workers withholding their labor can bring the entire capitalist system to a grinding halt. If workers in the food production system went on strike, grocery stores would be barren. Airline workers could stop all air travel. Teachers could cease education: as they recently did in West Virginia, consequently having their demands fulfilled. There are myriad possibilities.

In conclusion, Ecosocialists argue that capitalism is simply unsustainable. This economic paradigm produced the climate crisis by exploiting Earth for profit; as it burns fossil fuels that warm the planet, fails to absorb destructive externalities, fights environmental regulations, and encourages overconsumption and limitless growth. Capitalism must be abandoned in favor of a system that prioritizes society and the Earth over profit. Ecosocialism means expanding democracy into the economy, rather than enlarging the state or turning to eco-authoritarianism.

The alternative to the unequal and ecologically poisonous system of capitalism is compelling. Ecosocialism is an economic system that serves all, favoring people over profit. Naomi Klein writes in This Changes Everything,

“Because, underneath all of this is the real truth we have been avoiding: climate change isn’t an ‘issue’ to add to the list of things to worry about, next to health care and taxes. It is a civilizational wake-up call. A powerful message spoken — in the language of fires, floods, droughts, and extinctions telling us that we need an entirely new economic model and a new way of sharing this planet. Telling us that we need to evolve.”

A beautiful and thriving planet without war, famine, and oppression is achievable. Although critics may claim this vision is quixotic, I argue that the only barrier to reaching an egalitarian, ecological democracy is political imagination. Environmental justice advocate Ashish Kothari urges for society to “dare to dream another future” by imagining a utopian vision for the future, returning to the present, and then creating a plan to get there. Environmentalists must create a climate action plan that clears a path for political-economic revolution. Another world is not only possible, but now necessary.

Bibliography

Bellamy Foster, J. & Magdoff, F. (2011). What Every Environmentalist Needs to Know About Capitalism. New York, NY: Monthly Review Press.

Blackwater, B. (2012). Why do capitalist economies need to grow? Greenhouse Think Tank. Retrieved from https://www.greenhousethinktank.org/uploads/4/8/3/2/48324387/why_capitalist_economies_need_to_grow_-_for_green_house_-_10_10_14.pdf.

Burkett, P. (2014). Marx and Nature. Chicago, IL: Haymarket Books. 

 

DiLorenzo, T. (1992, Mar 1). Why Socialism Causes Pollution. Foundation for Economic Education. Retrieved from https://fee.org/articles/why-socialism-causes-pollution/.

Fiorino, D. (2016). Can We Change Everything? The Politics and Economics of Climate Change. Public Admin Rev, 76: 970-974. doi:10.1111/puar.12668

Fitzroy, F. & Papyrakis, E. (2010). An Introduction to Climate Change Economics and Policy. London, England: Earthscan.

Helm, D. (2012). The Carbon Crunch. London: Yale University Press.

Henry Ford Quotations. Retrieved from https://www.thehenryford.org/collections-and-research/digital-resources/popular-topics/henry-ford-quotes/.

Klein, N. (2014). This Changes Everything. New York, NY: Simon & Schuster.

Pannekoek, A. (1936). State Capitalism and Dictatorship. International Council Correspondence, 3:1. Retrieved from https://www.marxists.org/archive/pannekoe/1936/dictatorship.htm.

Pearse, R. (2014). Climate capitalism and its discontents. Global Environmental Politics, 14(1), 130–135. doi:10.1162/GLEP_r_00217

Pearson, C. S. (2011). Economics and the Challenge of Global Warming. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Robbins, J. & Moore, S. (2010). Environment and Society. West Sussex, England: Wiley-Blackwell.

Rull, J. The Solow Growth Model [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from https://www.sas.upenn.edu/~vr0j/econ10205/lectures/grow5_solow.pdf.

United Nations Environment Programme [UNEP]. (2011) Decoupling Natural Resource Use and Environmental Impacts from Economic Growth. Retrieved from http://www.ourenergypolicy.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/decoupling.pdf.

 

Insights on Tenant Organizing from Stonybrook Village: A Conversation with Boston DSA Housing WG Comrades

Boston DSA housing working group comrades, along with City Life/Vida Urbana folks, have been actively canvassing residents of Stonybrook Village in Hyde Park since last August. After close to a year of hard work, the Stonybrook Tenants Union held a public rally against the abusive management on June 2, drawing over a hundred people. PEWG blog sat down to talk with comrades Evan L, Adam H and Ben S from the housing working group on effective strategies to organize tenants. 

PEWG blog: Can you speak briefly about how you decided to canvass at the Stonybrook village?

Evan L: The decision to canvass at Stonybrook for the first time was similar to a lot of other buildings we’ve canvassed – City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU) told us that this was a building that might be experiencing a clearout; it had been sold a few months previously for ~12.5 million dollars to Lincoln Ave Capital, a company owned by the Bronfman family (heir to the Seagram liquor fortune). But we had canvassed at a lot of different buildings before through CLVU or using our own scraper data for similar reasons. Maybe what’s more relevant here is what made us decide to commit to organizing in the building. I think that was a combination of feeling a little bit more confident in our abilities after around a year of plugging into other CLVU work, and the initial canvases that we went on where we heard about the issues that people were experiencing at Stonybrook. 

PEWG blog: How were the first months of tenant canvassing at this location? How would you compare your experience here with that in other properties you have been to, such as Fairlawn in Mattapan?

Evan L: In the first few months we were really just trying to build relationships with folks and understand what they were dealing with. The broad issues were made obvious when talking to people: mold, pests, flooding, rent increases. These were all consistent issues, and one issue that began to stand out more and more over time was the relationship of the tenants to the onsite manager. All the tenants agree that she is rude and very difficult to deal with, and she is often retaliatory towards tenants that get on her bad side. She has had the cars of multiple tenants towed even when they had parking passes, has given out rent increases to tenants who she got in a fight with, and has made recertification of the lease a harrowing experience for everyone as she demands many obscure documents from tenants which were never required before. At the beginning of our canvassing, people were describing these issues to us, but they didn’t really trust us enough to organize with us. Compared to organizing at Fairlawn, I think the broad issues are very comparable. I think we generally agree though that early canvassing was tougher at Fairlawn than it was at Stonybrook. Tenants were in general more mistrustful, and getting into the buildings was just physically harder because you had to be buzzed in, whereas at Stonybrook all of the doors to the apartments are on the outside. 

Ben S: An additional challenge was that the management sent a letter to the tenants after our initial canvasses saying that we worked for management. This added to the general barriers that organizers experience as individuals not from the community. Organizing at Stonybrook has been easier for me than organizing at fairlawn because I’ve gotten to know the tenants while working here. 

PEWG blog: Do you think there was one particular aspect of your canvassing that convinced the tenants to organize into a union?

Adam H: I think when we showed up there was a lot of dissatisfaction and anger directed at management, but there was also very little trust for us as tenant organizers. Of course, this was to be expected, but it was also because management sent around misinformation and told the tenants that we were working with them! Two tenants in particular who later became leaders in the union, independently told us that they had not trusted us initially partly due to misinformation put out by management. Later, when management targeted them for eviction — in both cases as a retaliation for complaints about poor housing conditions — one tenant contacted CLVU for help with his eviction case. By a very lucky coincidence, we were at housing court for the hearing, and we bumped into the second tenant’s family as they prepared for their own defense against eviction. During these protracted legal fights, which they eventually won thanks to the legal support of Harvard Legal Aid Bureau and CLVU, both tenants were harassed by the management company with cynical, petty requests for various unnecessary forms and documents, which would only be replaced by new requests as soon as the tenants frantically produced them. Organizers from CLVU and DSA Housing working group showed up for these tenants again and again, which I think, built the core of trust that was the foundation for forming the union.

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Stony Brook Tenants Union Represent!

PEWG blog: What are the main difficulties you have faced in organizing at Stonybrook? And in general, while canvassing?

Adam H: Each building has its own advantages and disadvantages for organizing. At Stonybrook, all of the apartments have their own outward-facing door which means organizers can directly knock on a tenant’s apartment, while at other buildings, we have to first gain entry to the complex, which can be difficult in the early stages of organizing a building (as we build relationships with tenants, it’s less of an issue). Another challenge is management’s attempts to hinder our work, such as sending out misinformation to the tenants and telling organizers to leave if they encounter them. At other buildings, management has put up ‘No Trespassing’ flyers and installed security cameras. We usually interpret these actions as signs that the landlord is worried, and while they can be intimidating, they are therefore also encouraging.

The biggest challenge we face is to help the tenants feel a sense of ownership and leadership of the union. Many tenants work extremely long hours and face the disproportionate burden of hardship caused by the structural inequities built into capitalism. So it is naturally difficult for them to take up the fight against their landlord. But we have seen in our organizing at Stonybrook that as tenants engage in this struggle and experience how much power they have as an organized collective, they increasingly link their struggle to other working class fights — for example one tenant realized the parallels to the strikes of the Stop & Shop workers that were going on — and feel empowered by and committed to their union.

Ben S: What Adam said. Also there’s the constant challenge of knowing what issues will galvanize people into action. You’d think it might be raising rents or failure of management to fix things, but sometimes people have accepted those as just the way it is. At Stonybrook, the rudeness of the onsite manager was the main issue, that then connected in to the other issues the tenants are facing. At Fairlawn, it’s the fact that kids aren’t allowed to play outside that can get people talking at the door and interested in fighting back. 

PEWG blog: Following up, what are some ways tenant canvassing can be made more effective?

Evan L: Our main focus is always getting the tenants themselves to be the ones doing the canvassing and organizing. They are so much more effective than we could ever be, because they live in the building and they know exactly the issues that their neighbours are experiencing, and they have credibility when they talk about them. When we were canvassing to get 50 signatures on the list of demands, we tried to make sure that we were with tenant leaders on every single canvass. This made the work a lot easier and more effective, and of course was great for getting the tenant leaders to feel more ownership over the project. In future organizing efforts, it would be good to get the leaders from Stonybrook or Fairlawn to go on those initial canvases with us. They could connect the struggles between their building and whatever building we are organizing at in a way that would be really powerful. 

PEWG blog: Now that you have made tenants aware of their organizing power, what or how else can you work on building a class consciousness? And how would that tie into a “base-building” strategy?

Evan L: I think that the raising of class consciousness is a pretty integral part of organizing in your building, and we haven’t had to do all that much intentionally. To give an example, I was talking to one of the tenant leaders to set up a meeting for the next week, and right before we got off the phone she said “Oh wait, I’ve been meaning to talk to you about this, isn’t what we’re doing at Stonybrook exactly like what’s happening at Stop and Shop?”. Engaging in collective struggle is itself a transformative experience, and the breakdown of some of the atomisation that we experience in our daily lives means that people begin to identify with the people around them in opposition to the things that are causing their shared problems. That being said, we have certainly tried to highlight the fact that this is a class struggle, and especially the fact that the landlords of the building are literal cartoon villain billionaires. And we want to continue connecting the struggle at Stonybrook to broader struggles against gentrification and displacement in our discussions with tenant leaders. 

Ben S: Evan’s point about collective struggle being a transformative experience is key. Connecting this struggle to the broader struggles in the housing justice movement and the struggle for liberation at large is more difficult, but that’s why we organize the tenants. 

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Two of the core tenant union organizers spoke about the abusive management at the rally in Stonybrook Village

PEWG blog: What are some of the next steps the housing working group are looking to take in regards to tenant organizing?

Evan L: We would love to start organizing another building; at this point it’s a question of capacity. Stomp Out Slumlords in DC goes on biweekly canvasses to people facing eviction both to give them know your rights material and encourage them to go to court, and also to identify new buildings to organize in. We have done similar canvasses in the past, we have the data to do them, and we would love to reinstate them as a regular thing so that we can keep identifying new buildings to organize in. We just need someone to bottom line making that happen.. So if anyone reading this wants to volunteer let us know!

Ben S: Come to a housing WG meeting (third Mondays of every month)! Or one of our tenant organizing trainings – the next one is on Monday July 8, 7-9 pm at the Democracy Centre (45 Mt. Auburn St, Cambridge). Or just post on the slack asking to get involved. Or email us at boston-dsa-housing@googlegroups.com! We always need people, and we started this having no idea what we were doing, so it’s always a collective learning process. We want to do this but more, which requires building up our capacity.

PEWG blog: What’s next for the Stonybrook Tenants Union? How can Boston DSA members keep supporting them?

Evan L: This is a little up in the air right now. We are starting to see some reactions from management after press coverage came out about the rally – the CEO of Lincoln Ave Capital replied extensively in the Boston Banner piece. They are denying a lot of the issues, especially around large rent raises, but according to the tenants some of their behavior is starting to change. Two of the tenant leaders reported that they got their lease renewal notice and didn’t get any rent increase for the year. Management has also started making a few cosmetic changes to the building, like repainting the stairs. That being said they still refuse to acknowledge or meet with the union, and that ultimately is our goal. The tenants are prepping for a meeting with two politicians on July 2nd – Sonia Chang Diaz and Michelle Wu are planning to come to Stonybrook to meet with the union. We’re also talking about ways in which we can continue to pressure management and to grow the union. For the latter point, the tenants want to host a more low key social event over the summer, like a potluck, where tenants who have been hesitant to get involved can come and talk to their neighbours and learn more about what’s going on. 

Ben S: What Evan said. Boston DSA can support them by being ready to show up when needed. Or by plugging in to our housing work. Like we’ve said, we always need more people and everyone is welcome.

 

 

A Timeline of Fascist Activity in Boston, 2017-Present

by Solidarity Against Hate – Boston

Last month, a group calling itself “Super Happy Fun America” announced that it was planning to host a “Straight Pride Parade” in Boston at the end of August. This idea was so extremely stupid that it went viral, becoming the butt of many jokes on social media. Most people hadn’t previously heard of “Super Happy Fun America,” mostly because they didn’t exist under that name until they announced this event. However, the individual organizers that make up this “group” are well known to antifascist Bostonians: Mark Sahady, Chris Bartley, and John Hugo are all involved with a white nationalist group called Resist Marxism, part of a network of right-wing street fascists that have been trying to make trouble in and around Boston for more than two years. While these groups officially form, disband, rebrand, and otherwise try to run away from their terrible reputations with a frequency that can be confusing, they’re basically the same far-right goons engaging in the same far-right goonery over and over again, with the faux-respectable “alt-lite” white nationalists giving cover to the more openly fascist ones.

Fascism is a pervasive and festering threat. We can tell ourselves that it ended with World War II, but it never really went away. It can metastasize anywhere, even in what we think of as safe bastions of liberal values like Boston. Fascist organizing in relatively liberal areas pretends to support American values such as free speech and comes cloaked in the stars and stripes. But make no mistake, groups such as Boston Free Speech, Resist Marxism, and Patriot Front are fascists, and no less dangerous because they hide behind an American flag.

In Boston, our antifascist community has worked diligently to prevent these fascists from building a platform and recruiting people to their cause. Regardless, these groups attempt to disguise themselves and hide who they really are. Here’s a brief timeline of what they’ve been up to over the past two years:

May 2017

At a fascist rally in Berkeley, CA, that leads to hours of street fights, fascists announce Boston as one of the next cities on their list. Soon after, a newly formed organization called Boston Free Speech, whose organizers include members of such groups as the Proud Boys and neo-Nazi-linked Anti-Communist Action (Anticom), declares a rally on Boston Common. Between 100 and 200 fascists (including California’s “Based Stickman” Kyle Chapman) attend, some donning sticks and body armor, and are met by a similar number of counterprotesters.

August 2017: The “Boston Free Speech Rally”

Boston Free Speech schedules a second Boston rally for the week after Unite the Right in Charlottesville, VA. After Heather Heyer is murdered and dozens of others are injured while counterprotesting Unite the Right, a counterprotest to the BFS rally, led by Fight Supremacy, brings 40,000 people out into the streets to oppose fascism.

November 2017: “Rally for the Republic”

Resist Marxism is founded by “Based Stickman” Kyle Chapman, with Mark Sahady as day-to-day local leader. It forms as a coalition of several fascist groups, including Boston Free Speech, Portland, Oregon-based Patriot Prayer (which recently attacked a May Day 2019 celebration at a Portland bar and seriously injured a woman), militia groups, and American Guard New Hampshire. It holds its first rally under that name on Boston Common, where it is counterprotested by Fight Supremacy, a coalition of progressive Jewish groups, and area socialist/anarchist/antifascist groups. With Resist Marxism becoming the leading fascist umbrella group in the area, Boston Free Speech turns toward developing a militant street crew, with some members wearing blue masks and clothing. This is eventually called the “blue bloc.”

December 2017: Mark Bray book event

Three Resist Marxism rally attendees — Straight Pride organizer Chris Bartley and wannabe “commie puncher” Matthias Thorpe representing Anticom, as well as Boston-area Patriot Front leader Chris Hood — attempt to disrupt professor Mark Bray’s reading from his book on antifascism at the Harvard Coop. They post on social media about how excited they are to go “commie bashing”; later that evening, after Thorpe sustains minor injuries, they post about how they were viciously and unprovokedly attacked by wild leftists while quietly minding their own business. Later that month, the Boston Free Speech blue bloc and Chris Hood protest the Coop for having hosted the book reading.

December 2017

Resist Marxism rallies and marches for deporations and against undocumented immigrants, using murder victim Kate Steinle as a pretext.

January 2018: Women’s March

Resist Marxism attempts to disrupt the 2018 Women’s March in Cambridge, and is surrounded and chased out by antifascist and community groups, and many other Women’s March attendees.

January 2018: Justice for Siham

Resist Marxism attempts to disrupt a rally in support of deported asylum-seeking North Shore mother and activist Siham Byah. The Resist Marxism group includes Straight Pride organizers Mark Sahady and Samson Racioppi, Proud Boy/Boston Free Speech organizer John Medlar, and Boston-area Patriot Front leader Chris Hood.

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Resist Marxism at Justice for Siham rally, January 2018

March 2018: M4OL

Resist Marxism rallies against the March for Our Lives on Boston Common, their largest locally oriented rally yet, attended by members of the Proud Boys, Patriot Front, Kyle Chapman’s Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, American Guard, militia groups, and other far-right groups. They are counterprotested in turn by antifascists, but are escorted to a prime viewing area on the hill by Boston police.

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Resist Marxism at March for Our Lives, March 2018

April 2018: Proud Boys Patriots’ Day rally

Proud Boys rally in Concord, MA, for Patriots Day, and are counterprotested by local high schoolers and other Concord community groups, as well as leftist and antifascist groups. The Boston Free Speech “blue bloc” and 2019 Fash Bash organizer/former Brooklyn Proud Boys president Jovi Val attempt to cross the field and confront the counterprotest, and are intercepted by antifascists.

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Proud Boys rally, April 2018

May 2018: May Day

Resist Marxism organizer/spokesman Michael Moura, other Resist Marxism affiliates, and members of the Boston Free Speech “blue bloc” disrupt the annual May Day rally on Boston Common, and follow it when it turns into a march.

June 2018: “June 2nd for the 2nd Amendment”

After a ThinkProgress article comes out detailing Resist Marxism’s ties to neo-Nazis and fascists with a history of violence, Resist Marxism’s 2nd Amendment rally is smaller than expected, and counterprotested by almost two hundred people.

June 2018

Resist Marxism spokesman Michael Moura and the Boston Free Speech blue bloc attempt to crash the pro-immigrant Families Belong Together rally. They are surrounded and kept away by, primarily, members of socialist organizations that are attending the Families Belong Together rally. Police prevent them from following when the rally turns into a march, but they later attempt to crash the march as it passes by Boston Common, and are again surrounded and kept out.

July 2018

Resist Marxism marches in Cambridge and Boston, and attempts to crash a Boston DSA general meeting shortly after sending a photo of themselves at the State House to Boston DSA. They are repelled by DSA members, and later harass a DSA member who is going to their car.

August 2018: Providence, RI 

Resist Marxism rallies for about twenty minutes at the Providence, RI state house, before being shut down by counterprotesters. Police forcibly escort a portion of Resist Marxism past the antifascist crowd, then escort them back after realizing that most of Resist Marxism is still on the other side, and eventually line up to protect the Resist Marxism event.

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Photo: Uprise RI

August 2018: Boston, MA

Boston Free Speech hosts a “National March Against Far-Left Violence” rally at City Hall Plaza. Initially intended as the flagship rally in a set of simultaneous rallies in several cities across the country, infighting and grifting within the movement in the weeks beforehand lead to about half the rallies being canceled. Boston is one of the six cities to have a rally, and a few dozen fascists — including several members of the New Hampshire, Connecticut, and Rhode Island chapters of American Guard — assemble at City Hall, protected from a couple hundred counterprotesters by a line of bike cops.

October 2018: Providence, RI again

Resist Marxism rallies in Providence again, this time bringing Joey Gibson from Portland’s Patriot Prayer (a member of the original RM coalition) and Gibson’s then-bodyguard, Proud Boy brawler Tiny Toese. A large number of Proud Boy and American Guard “security” brawlers arrive at the rally with Toese, and attack counterprotesters, starting a large fight, with other Proud Boys and American Guard members joining in. Police declare the entire area an unlawful assembly, forcing everyone to leave the area.

One of the Proud Boys who attacked counterprotesters at that rally, Max Hare, is currently facing criminal charges of assault and rioting for having started the infamous mob attack outside the Metropolitan Republican Club in New York City a few days later (another one, Billy Shepard, was photographed at the scene of the attack). Those Proud Boys are only facing any charges at all because antifascist activists went through tons of video shot at that event to identify masked Proud Boys. Proud Boys and Resist Marxism have attempted to organize events in Providence since this rally (see below), and the court cases have contributed to their fizzling out.

October 2018: Trans youth rally

In response to various anti-trans moves by the federal government and the attempts of conservatives in Massachusetts to roll back legal protections for trans people in Massachusetts, trans youth hold a mass rally for trans people and allies. A group of seven Resist Marxism affiliates attempt to crash and disrupt the rally. The rally security team, consisting of members of local leftist organizations, corrals them at the back of the rally, where they are eventually joined by others shouting Resist Marxism down.

November 18, 2018: Boston Anarchist Bookfair

The Boston Anarchist Bookfair is an event to distribute left-wing books and zines. Five masked members of Patriot Front attempt to crash the venue, but volunteers and attendees surround them and chase them off. They are led by Chris Hood, who has consistently attended both large and small Resist Marxism actions before the ThinkProgress article on Resist Marxism. Hood and Patriot Front will reappear at the Berklee immigration debate the following month (see below).

December 2018: Berklee immigration debate

A Berklee student libertarian club invites Boston DSA to participate in a debate on immigration at Berklee. The inviter has attended Resist Marxism rallies, so Boston DSA declines. A few days later the club announces a debate in which the anti-immigration side is represented by Resist Marxism and Boston Free Speech members, to be “moderated” by Straight Pride Parade organizer Samson Racioppi. The pro-immigration side is represented by a journalist, a Libertarian Party official, and members of Harvard’s libertarian club, who back out after learning the nature of their opposition, leaving RM/BFS to debate themselves (and to attempt to goad leftists into showing up to protest them, causing leftists to suspect a trap). Lacking a location on Berklee’s campus, they decide not to publicly state their venue. Attendees meet a Resist Marxism member at another location and are escorted to the debate. RM’s livestreams show that the location is the Bebop, a local bar on Boylston St, but in response to alerts from community members about the nature of the group, the bar asks them to leave. Patriot Front arrives shortly before RM is kicked out of the bar, and the two groups meet and mingle in friendly fashion on the sidewalk at length before leaving.

January 19, 2019: Boston Women’s March

A small group of Resist Marxism organizers, as well as Patriot Saints, attempt to disrupt the Boston Women’s March, attacking attendees who got in their way. Police eventually form a protection line around them near the stage, then escort them out through Beacon Hill when the rally ends and the march starts.

April 2019: Failed Providence rally

Resist Marxism plans a rally for Providence six months after the last one, once again with a group of mostly Proud Boys for “security.” The rally was canceled after concerns from Proud Boy leadership that it could damage Proud Boys being prosecuted in New York City for mob attacks in October 2018. The Proud Boys’ chat logs were later leaked to the Huffington Post. The leaked chats show the fascists planning to commit violence, discussing how to maintain plausible deniability, and fantasizing about which left activists they would most like to target.

April 2019: Free Assange rally

Boston Free Speech calls a rally at the UK consulate in Cambridge, MA, after the arrest of Julian Assange, which includes two members of the blue bloc. The rally is counterprotested and shouted down by a larger group of counterprotesters chanting, among other slogans, “Free Chelsea, fuck the fash!”

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Resist Marxism affiliates at March for Life, June 2019

June 2019: March for Life

Several Resist Marxism affiliates, including Straight Pride Parade organizers Mark Sahady, John Hugo, and Samson Racoppi, attend an annual anti-choice rally and march on Boston Common. They spend the rally attempting to goad pro-choice protesters, sticking their cameras in people’s faces, and schmoozing with anti-choice protesters.

While some of these events contain elements of humor —and while it’s always good practice to make fun of fascists, because they hate it — it would be a mistake to dismiss any of these groups or individuals as being too buffoonish to be dangerous. Resist Marxism/Super Happy Fun America isn’t the same organization as Patriot Front, but the Boston “alt-lite’s” history of working closely with overtly fascist groups, and the history of both types of groups deliberately escalating violence in New England and elsewhere, means that anyone who wants the full picture of who’s behind the Straight Pride Parade — and who’s likely to show up to it — should look at the network of hate groups operating in New England as a single (fractious, incompetent) “scene.”
Solidarity Against Hate – Boston is a coalition of local groups that works to counter fascist organizing in Boston. They are currently organizing Straight Pride Is Hate Pride, a counterprotest to the Straight Pride Parade. Please follow them on Facebook for updates on when and how to keep Boston fash-free.

Delinking Innovation and Access: Decommodification of Lifesaving Medicines

by Karry M and Chris Noble 

It’s 2019. We’re living in the age of peak medical innovation yet people are dying of curable diseases because of profit mongering and the unquenchable greed of capitalists and the resulting medical industrial complex.

Graduate students committed to the quest for medical innovation, often inspired by family members and loved ones living with conditions they know in their heart can be cured, underpaid and overworked and often found scavenging the department’s free lunch seminars, are suddenly pulled into a talk with the technology transfer office because, Eureka! They’ve made a discovery! The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funded laboratory they’ve committed years of their lives to have finally struck gold: balanced bioactivity and low toxicity of the possible drug they have been investigating. What else could a biomedical researcher ask for? But suddenly there are new faces in the lab using foreign jargon like “non-exclusive licenses” and “intellectual property”; all of the forms that seemed like standard boilerplate from Human Resources office are flashed on the table. It turns out that the innovation, and, in fact, all of the innovations developed in the university’s labs, have always been predestined to be private property of the university. In an instant, the life-saving cure that was destined to change the world for the better and save countless loved ones, and which inspired many to conduct biomedical research in the first place, and has had dedicated to its discovery innumerable dedicated young adult years, becomes another commodity to be sold to the highest bidder. Rather than being made as accessible as clean air or the water we need to live, this medical innovation will undergo an economic analysis to determine “what the market will bear” aka what consumers are capable of paying that hits the economic sweet spot of just enough catastrophic health expenditures to stay profitable.

But pharmaceutical companies need to keep their prices high in order to finance the highly costly research and development of new life-saving therapies, right?? Wrong!

A recent study from the non-profit biomedical research organization, Drugs for Neglected Disease Initiative (DNDi), has shown that a drug can be developed from lab bench to manufacturing floor for a little as $200 million. This is orders of magnitude cheaper than the industry fueled propaganda conducted by the Tufts Center for the Study of Drug Development (CSDD), that most recently presented a figure of $2.8 billion. The difference between these two rational, evidence based calculations is the intention of the report. The CSDD study intended to show at the very maximum what the research and development of a new blockbuster medicine would cost by not including the amount of research financing that is subsidized by publicly funded NIH grants or other alternative finance mechanisms such government subsidies, tax credits, and the financial benefits of publishing and using open access journals. The CSDD study also included the costs associated with redundant trials from trial failure and the high per-patient clinical trial cost assumptions which were never economically justified in the study’s methodology. The intention of this study was to inflate the cost of research and development to its highest, most economically inefficient value so any rebuttal to the subsequent high priced medical innovation will be mute. This begs the question of the intentions of modern medical innovation: is it to cure diseases and save lives or is the research industry simply for the purpose of more research? Why would a company ever be incentivised to actually find a cure in this economic system? One Goldman Sachs analyst recently even mused, “is curing patients a sustainable business model?”.

In addition to the expensive research and development process, drug companies have been spending more and more on marketing for the past 20 years, increasing to over $20 billion in 2016, according to a recent study in the Journal of the American Medical Association. As of 2013, all but one of the top 10 drug companies actually spent more on marketing than they did on research and development. They also make more in profit than they do on research and development, according to Marcia Angell, former editor-in-chief of the New England Journal of Medicine and author of The Truth About the Drug Companies: How They Deceive Us and What to Do About It (2004). Much of the marketing done by these companies is to providers who assist with clinical trials of their drugs, and then prescribe them once they are approved. Influential doctors are often given expensive special treatment by these companies in the form of speaking deals, board appointments or patent or royalty arrangements. Companies spend huge amounts on “educational” events that meet doctors’ continuing education requirements and also promote specific drugs.

Additionally, much of the research and development that is done by these companies is used to develop “me-too” drugs, or drugs that have nearly identical counterparts already on the market, because they are projected to bring a high return on investment. Consequently, research and development of necessary drugs such as antibiotics and vaccines for neglected diseases is too often ignored. Effective regulation of research and financial relationships with healthcare providers could save billions by preventing wasteful spending on marketing, and focusing on necessary drugs instead of redundant me-too products. The goal of pharmaceutical research and development regulations should be to foster a system that prioritises high quality research for needed innovations rather than high quantity investments with little actual impact on patients’ lives.  

In a time when people are dying because their financial limitations don’t allow them to have access to necessary medicines, we need to start finding ways to ensure that drug development doesn’t come with an enormous price tag for patients. How can we begin changing the system so that pharmaceuticals are treated as a public good? Is it best to start with regulations at the state or federal government level, or to create alternative institutions to take down the pharmaceutical industry from the grassroots? Is it even possible to make such a drastic transformation?

Government regulation

Before 1980, research that was performed by universities, nonprofits and small businesses that were funded by the federal government resulted in the inventions being owned by the government, which would only grant non-exclusive licenses. This caused a delay in bringing products initially discovered through federally funded research to market, because there was no incentive to be the first company to take the financial risk of performing the necessary clinical trials without the guaranteed reward in the form of exclusive rights to the profits. In 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act allowed drugs and other inventions that are funded by federal research to be patented by the universities, nonprofits, and small businesses that perform the initial research, who then license exclusively to companies in order to avoid the previous stalling. For a while, the profit motive this introduced resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of new drug applications to the FDA. March-in rights were added as a safeguard in the Bayh-Dole Act stating that if there is a barrier in bringing a product to market, the federal government can step in and assert its rights to remove the barrier. The government literally has the right to “march in” and license the product to a third party if it has not been brought to market in a reasonable time period or on reasonable terms, if the owner has not made efforts to ensure “practical application” of the product or when needs of the public relating to safety and health are not being met. It’s important to note that these rights have never been used, but have been threatened once before during the anthrax scare of the early 2000’s when the government was seeking to stockpile ciprofloxacin from Bayer Pharmaceuticals, but was unwilling to pay their high prices. In response, Bayer reduced its price by 50% immediately. Despite the fact that unreasonable prices are an obvious barrier to public access, these rights have never been utilized. The stance of the NIH seems to be that if the product is publicly available, they cannot exercise march-in rights. Health justice advocates know that march-in rights are a potential way to put pressure on big pharma, and they are asking the NIH to reconsider its stance.

State governments have introduced their own initiatives to lower drug prices. For example, Maryland has recently introduced the use of a prescription drug affordability board. In April, they were the first state to pass legislation to appoint a committee to study prescription drug pricing and after a year of such study they will make recommendations to the state’s Legislative Policy Committee on how to go about reducing the payment required to purchase them. The bill was originally written to apply to all Maryland residents’ health insurance plans, but it was scaled down to apply only to state and county government employees. They are expected to face pushback from pharmaceutical companies and pharmacy benefit managers, but the legislations’ backers hope to return with a more universal bill in 2024. Massachusetts and Maine are learning from the forward progress made by Maryland and elsewhere with the support of National Academy for State Health Policy (NASHP), and are adapting their initiatives to pursue even stronger legislative strategies. All interested parties can join the MA Prescription Drug Affordability Coalition to join in on these initiatives here in Massachusetts.  

Generic drugs are generally 80% cheaper than their brand name versions, but even generic manufacturing is not immune to price gouging. Drug company executives from 20 companies are currently facing charges from 44 states that they colluded to increase prices of over 100 generic drugs through anti-competitive agreements. According to court documents, the prices of some of the drugs listed in the case were increased over 1000% in a timespan of less than two years. Legislation has been proposed to prevent such price hikes for generics. Senator Elizabeth Warren wrote a bill to nationalize the manufacturing of generic drugs or contract them to be manufactured by a third party, ensuring that they are offered at a fair price. This addresses the problem of generic monopolies, which have driven up the price of generic drugs and restricted their supply. Senators Bernie Sanders and Ro Khanna also wrote legislation addressing the same problem, titled the Prescription Drug Price Relief Act, and it is actually pretty simple in its mechanics: if the US price for a medication is higher than in other developed countries, the drugmaker’s monopoly would be ended and generic competitors could enter the market to sell alternative versions of the drug at a lower price.

True universal single-payer healthcare would effectively solve the problem of high drug prices. The federal government would be the only purchaser of medications for all of its citizens, allowing it to have massive bargaining power with pharmaceutical companies. Even when prescription drug purchases are not themselves nationalized, as is the case in Canada, the federal government generally has oversight of pricing plans. Currently Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland provide universal drug coverage with no copays, coinsurance or deductibles, while keeping costs significantly lower than the U.S. and Canada. Representative Doggett in Texas has proposed a bill titled, Medicare Negotiation and Competitive Licensing Act, that would give Medicare the authority to issue compulsory licenses to generic manufacturers when fair prices are negotiated with pharmaceutical companies. This initiative has over 125 cosponsors in the house and is an initiative to stay aware of. If Medicare For All becomes a reality, this initiative will set the stage for an effective, efficient, and most importantly, affordable single payer health care system.

Physicians for a National Health Program (PNHP) has drafted a plan for pharmaceutical regulation in a national healthcare program in order to ensure an efficient process of drug research and development. They suggest creating a formulary of necessary drugs, and eliminating funding for unnecessary “me-too” drugs that serve an identical purpose to drugs already on the market. The government may then negotiate prices with drug companies, and in cases in which negotiations over prices of patented drugs fail, PNHP recommends that the government offer up rights to develop generic versions, or create new versions themselves. Publicly funded drugs created by public entities should remain patent-free, suggests PNHP. The FDA should be completely free of financial conflicts of interest. These initiatives would eliminate the billions of dollars that pharmaceutical companies spend on marketing their products to providers (free samples, anyone?) who serve double duty as regulators of the drug industry. Consumer advertising could also be scaled down significantly, in order to save companies money that they could pass along to their customers.

Open source medicine and nongovernmental regulation

In the past few decades, various other innovative methods to create necessary drugs at a lower cost without involving the government have begun to spring up. International nonprofit institutions and so-called “biohackers” are using creative tools to solve the problem of inadequate access to necessary pharmaceuticals in the U.S. and abroad.

One of these is DNDi, a patient-centered non-profit research and development collective working to meet the needs of those with diseases not addressed by the for-profit pharmaceutical companies, especially potentially deadly diseases common in the Global South, such as malaria, trypanosoma, and pediatric HIV infections. Because these are diseases endemic to economically disadvantaged areas, companies do not have a financial incentive to move potential treatment candidates through the costly development pipeline. Companies often discover drug candidates for these diseases, as their importance is well understood but development is usually stuck at the publication phase. DNDi works to develop treatments and vaccines for these illnesses, using open source drug discovery and partnering with pharmaceutical companies (which often lend out their molecular and compound libraries), research institutions, national disease control programs, and universities. They create or enhance clinical trial centers, train clinical trial personnel, and support the use of appropriate technology in areas where the diseases are endemic. They aim to delink the cost of research and development from the cost of the product, and promote financial transparency. They actively work to ensure that the drugs they develop have the widest possible access with the goal of pharmaceuticals as a public good/commons, mostly publicly funded. Intellectual property laws are seen as secondary to equitable access to treatment by vulnerable populations in this model. Intellectual property rights to the drugs that are developed are often waived, and they can then be given out for free or at a deep discount.

Doctors Without Borders/Medicins Sans Frontieres (MSF) works with DNDi, and has its own Access Campaign which aims to lower the price of drugs, stimulate development of generics, and act as a corporate watchdog for pharmaceutical companies. The Access Campaign speaks out for the needs of neglected populations to advocate for research into neglected diseases and bring back into production necessary drugs that are no longer produced due to lack of profit.

The price of insulin has skyrocketed in the past 20 years due to the limited number of patents available. The Open Insulin Project is creating recipes for “homebrewers” to create their own insulin and sidestep patent laws. The FDA currently doesn’t regulate such instructions if they do not make explicit health claims. The project was started at Counter Culture Labs in Oakland in 2015 by a group of self-proclaimed biohackers, some of who use insulin personally, and has been taken up by DIY bio labs around the world. Similarly, OpenAPS has made DIY Artificial Pancreas System technology available to the public at no cost, so that anyone with a compatible glucose monitor and insulin pump can make their own closed-loop system.

The Medicines Patent Pool initiative (MPP), has allowed pooling of patents in order to increase access to high-quality generic HIV medication for over 10 years. In 2008, most low income countries in areas such as sub-saharan Africa, only had access to first-generation HIV medications, which had dangerous long-term side effects, and to which patients could develop resistance. Because of these patent pools, newer and safer treatments have become more affordable in these areas. Now MPP has begun to expand into other necessary medicines for diseases like tuberculosis and hepatitis.

Methods such as open sourcing, flexible intellectual property laws, shared access to compound libraries, development of non-financial incentives, and international cooperation are all recommended by the World Health Organization to promote drug discovery to benefit developing countries. A collection of these alternative financing mechanisms can be found on the website http://altreroute.com/ developed by the student lead advocacy organization, Universities Allied for Essential Medicines (UAEM). These methods, if used correctly, could also be used to decommodify the U.S. pharmaceutical industry and create a human centered incentive system that truly puts people before profits.

Karry M is a member of Boston DSA Healthcare Working Group. Chris Noble is a member of Right Care Alliance, a grassroots coalition of clinicians, patients and community members working to hold the healthcare institutions accountable and put patients over profits. 

A Socialist Approach to Mental Health and Well-being: Medicare for All and Beyond

by Andy Hyatt

While the state of the healthcare system in the United States is poor all around, our mental health system is its own particular brand of horrible. Even in a city like Boston, a supposed healthcare mecca where we have more therapists and psychiatrists per capita than almost anywhere in the country, it can be almost impossible to find a clinician you can afford, who takes your insurance, or with whom you feel comfortable (let alone all three at once); people are often paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket to see a psychiatrist to refill their depression or anxiety meds four times a year or waiting months to see a therapist who takes Medicaid. The situation is even more grim in smaller cities and rural areas, where there is even less access than in cities. This all comes at a time of veritable mental health emergency, as the toll from opioid overdose, suicide, and other “deaths of despair” continue to rise, and overall life expectancy is falling for the first time in nearly one hundred years. In short, mental health services are poorly planned, underfunded, inaccessible, and unaffordable for many people in our communities at a time where need has never been higher.

How did we get here?

In order to understand how to fix the shambles we’re in, it’s important to understand how this mess came to be in the first place. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization, persons with mental illness often lost support they would traditionally get from extended kin or village networks, and could be locked up in poorhouses or sent to live on the street. Even today, rates of mental health distress and disability are higher in industrialized areas compared to more rural or agrarian societies.

Modern efforts to improve the treatment of people with mental illnesses began in the 19th century, sparked by horrific conditions at hails, poorhouses, alhouses, and other institutions of social control that incarcerated people with mental illness and disabilities1. Middle class reformers focused on treating people struggling with mental illness with dignity by founding asylums and publicly funded state hospitals to treat individuals away from unsanitary 19th century cities, and advocated for treatment of people with mental illness by medical staff in hospitals as opposed to untrained police, prison guards, and other non-clinical personnel. Unfortunately, these efforts largely ended in failure due to underfunding, overcrowding, and usage of mental health infrastructure by elites to marginalize and control deviant populations without a focus on rehabilitation or support. Psychiatric hospitals became custodial holding environments where individuals were afforded shelter, food, and other basic necessities, but not dignity or support in efforts to live meaningful lives.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of the community mental health movement, which despite its shortcomings, showed glimmers of what a just mental health system could look like.  It emphasized treatment in the community in a person’s existing social context rather than removal from society, and its greatest victory was the 1963 Community Mental Health Center Act, which envisioned a publicly funded, universally accessible community mental health center in every community in the country.  A local example of this was the Cambridge/Somerville Community Mental Health Center (CMHC), which met individuals for treatment wherever they were most comfortable, offered opportunities for socializing and forming meaningful relationships, and helped with job placements. The CMHC even owned its own cooperative apartments for people receiving its services. All of this coincided with a steady decrease in state hospital populations, and it was hoped that instead of locking people up for their entire lives, comprehensive social support would allow individuals to live meaningful, fulfilled lives in the community.

All this is not to idealize the community mental health movement, which had several flaws. Most importantly, clinicians and health systems could be overly paternalistic, often substituting what they thought of as “best” for individuals without truly consulting with the communities affected. These biases were challenged by the recovery and consumer movements, which emphasized individuals’ understandings of their own experiences and their own desires for purpose and meaning over biomedical concepts like “symptoms” and “illnesses.” By giving individuals agency over their own recovery, the consumer movement sought to place the concerns and values of mental health service users first, and let them direct the course of their own lives and their own recovery.  Unfortunately, given that the consumer movement arose in the 1980s and 90s, in significant ways it reflected the neoliberal turn of that era, and its vital emphasis on individual dignity and autonomy also prefigured a greater capitalist turn in mental health care.

The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the brutal regime of austerity that we are still living with today gutted continued funding for mental health services and halted federal spending on new community mental health centers. Laying the groundwork used for welfare reform in the 90s, Reagan cut and block granted funds meant for mental health and turned them over to the states to use as they saw fit. States (including Massachusetts) privatized vast swaths of the mental health treatment system, turning it over to a hodgepodge of private organizations and cut the community mental health centers off from their communities. Individuals now had more “choice” in which providers they could see (if they could afford to see anyone) while centers that served the community were starved of funding and became slowly more like other players in our corporate healthcare system

There have been some recent positive developments, although the scale of the crisis remains vast. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), especially through its Medicaid expansion, helped many people with mental health needs get access to health insurance for the first time. Unfortunately, large deductibles and copayments limit the utility of many insurance plans and people on Medicaid have an extremely difficult time getting access to adequate psychiatric treatment due to extremely low reimbursement of providers. The other positive development was the passage of federal mental health parity legislation in the late 2000s. This prohibited formal discrimination against people using mental health services, but unsurprisingly corporations still found ways around regulations to discriminate against mental health and increase their own profits.  Recent reporting has shown how insurance and managed care companies are flouting mental health parity laws and preventing their beneficiaries from accessing treatment.

Where to go from here?

For any reader that has made it this far through a detailed history of community mental health in America, I am grateful for your fortitude! While we cannot simplistically pine for an overly idealized past (as we on the US Left are tempted to do when remembering the New Deal or Great Society), I do believe that in studying past movements we can discover the seeds of a better future. In my opinion, recovering the best elements of both the community mental health and recovery movements can shed light on what a socialist mental health and wellness system should strive for. In learning from the community mental health movement, we can aspire to easily accessible medical and psychological services, embedded in the communities where people live, with a vision of care incorporating social needs like housing and employment. From the recovery movement, we learn the vital importance of giving mental health service users both agency in their individual recovery and a central role in leading the development of comprehensive freely accessible services for all.

Concretely, the fight for mental health justice is broad, and intersects with many of our other struggles in the Left. Ahead of the 2020 election, grassroots groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other advocacy groups are forming coalitions to press candidates on forthrightly addressing suicide, substance use, and other aspects of the mental health crisis. Thus far they have not suggested any concrete policy goals, but the following could be a good start. Most obviously, mental health services should be de-commodified and made free for everyone at the point of use.  A good first step would be a true single payer, Medicare for All system, which would eliminate onerous deductibles, co-pays, and other unjust forms of cost sharing that discourage use of needed medical care. As a part of this, it is essential that as many providers as possible be brought into the government health insurance system, as the current glut of exorbitant cash-only practices places services out of reach of all but the wealthy. Equalizing wages for clinicians who work with low and high income patients will alleviate some of this, as will a dramatic reduction in the infuriating regulatory and paperwork burdens many clinicians face today. Moving forward, given the complex service needs of some mental health service users as well as the vital importance of coordinating healthcare with other social services, there is a strong argument to be made that the Left should be arguing for a true national community mental health service along the lines of the UK or Sweden. This must include true leadership by both front line service workers and by mental health service users, with the end goal of a truly democratically run health services. As the rallying cry from the disability rights and recovery communities goes, “nothing about us without us.”

While improving, decommodifying, and democratizing healthcare systems is a necessary first step to improving mental health, I don’t want my clinician biases to blind me to the vastly greater importance that structural factors have on the health of communities. Fundamentally, societal improvements in mental well-being have to stem from the lived conditions of communities and the restructuring of our societies to place human needs above market ones. While improving the mental health of communities intersects with nearly every area of our activism, I want to point out a few particularly important areas we should be mindful of. Firstly, we must fight against displacement and for truly affordable homes for all people, through rent control, community land trusts, and social housing. Not living in constant fear of displacement is of course good for one’s mental well-being on its own, but it also helps build the supportive fabric of communities and starts to reverse the incredible fragmentation of our society. We must also fight against all forms of oppression and the violence society inflicts to impose its forms of domination on the basis of race, gender identity/expression, sexuality, country of origin, religion, and more. These forms of domination cannot exist without the widespread traumatization of oppressed communities, and no amount of counseling will fully heal a depressed young girl who spent a year in a border concentration camp waiting for asylum or a person of color traumatized by police brutality and murder.  Finally, the fight for a livable climate and a just transition to a decarbonized economy must be central to our organizing, as there can be no mental health without hope for survival and a livable future.
Locally, Boston DSA’s healthcare working group is base building for healthcare justice by working with low-income communities saddled by medical debt with City Life/Vida Urbana. This Saturday (June 15), we’ll be canvassing in the North End to get conservative Democrat Steven Lynch to sign on to the federal Medicare for All bill (which would fully cover mental health care without any cost sharing). If you’ve been looking for a way to get involved, we’d love to have you join us!

Andy Hyatt is a member of the Boston DSA Healthcare Working Group and a psychiatry resident at a local hospital. 

DADS Team Statement

Recently, members of the Direct Action, De-escalation, and Security Committee of Boston DSA—better known within the chapter as DADS—have witnessed and been informed of a number of incidents within DSA that indicate the need for greater organizational solidarity around antifascist activism and the potential for internal political education on the subject. In the interest of demystifying what we do and why we do it, DADS members have authored this document.

One of the major wake-up calls for our team on this subject was the “How To Fight the Far Right” debate at the New England regional DSA conference, which several authors of this document witnessed or participated in, and which took place shortly after an incident at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Conference in which this same portion of the debate programming resulted in some delegates leaving the room. At the New England conference, the debate was divided into three subtopics chosen by the delegates: building class consciousness, confronting the fascists in the streets, and preventing the right-wing indoctrination of adolescent boys. While starting positions like “confronting fash in the streets” and “building class consciousness” need not be in conflict, the debate format encouraged people to treat them as adversarial. Perhaps predictably, the sub-debate on confronting fascists in the streets was the most heated, and revealed fundamental divisions among delegates. While we would like to reconcile these divisions, which is part of why we’re writing this, we feel strongly that the antipathy and distrust shown by some comrades towards antifascist organizing makes our work more difficult and our communities less safe.

GET INTO THE STREETS

While we don’t want to institute any litmus tests for participation in a democratic organization, the fact remains that comrades have wildly differing levels of experience with antifascist work, and individuals with less experience don’t always seem aware that they lack critical knowledge. We regularly see situations in which comrades have said, more or less, “I’ve seen antifa at protests” to establish credibility over other speakers, which clearly suggests that the other speakers must have even less personal experience than that—implying that opposing voices are just going off cool-sounding stuff they saw on the internet. This, unsurprisingly, is galling to comrades who have significant hands-on experience with antifascist organizing, both in the streets and behind the scenes.

There is much to discuss regarding how best to stop fascists from building power, and the comrades doing antifascist work constantly have these discussions on tactical, strategic, and ideological levels, with greater depth than a 90-second debate volley can convey. What are the fash trying to accomplish in a given action? How might certain tactics backfire? What is the role of public or media perception in a situation? All of these are important questions—and they must be asked again and again, because the answers are situational and constantly changing.

Taking an adversarial approach to such a sensationalized, misrepresented subject as antifascism is harmful to people who have experienced far-right violence, which unfortunately includes members of our committee and our chapter. Far-right violence is hardly unique in this regard; there are a number of issues where it’s harmful to victims of and witnesses to violence to have to politely listen to people for whom it is a completely abstract concept “debate” it by reiterating whatever myths and misinformation are floating around our dominant culture. Instead, as socialists we should attempt to build supportive structures around each other in fighting our common enemies, such as capitalism, nationalism, racism, and misogyny, rather than engaging in abstract thought exercises removed from the situation on the ground.

How to fight the far right should be a matter of discussion, not debate. Being able to talk calmly and rationally about difficult subjects is an important political skill, but debate and discussion are not the same thing. Looking at differing political ideas as a zero-sum game, whether within the constraints of a formal debate or as merely as a habit of mind to approaching political questions, can seriously deform a conversation where no up-or-down decision actually needs to be made. The “debate” approach encourages distinctiveness of opinion, rather than quality. Especially in a debate (formal or informal) that has no judges, no fact-checking, and no final decision being made, there’s very little in either the structure or the information at hand to incentivize finding consensus or even establishing commonly shared facts—but rather just to distinguish your remarks from the ones preceding. It is unfortunate that the debates and “debates” in which people air uninformed, insulting views tend to detract from less inflammatory, more productive discussions where knowledgeable comrades may disagree constructively. If the purpose of debate is, as it is so acclaimed in Western rhetoric, to develop our understanding of and sharpen our thinking around challenging topics, less artificially adversarial formats might allow for more creative thinking and better respect the variety of experiences comrades have with this subject.

THE ART OF FIGHTING WITHOUT FIGHTING

We particularly oppose the common mischaracterization of all antifascist organizing as reckless street brawling. While adventurists running around with no strategy is a risk at any mass action, the implication that that is the totality of antifascist street mobilization, masked or unmasked, is an insult to the comrades who have put hundreds of hours into the emotionally and intellectually difficult work of reading and analyzing fascist materials, providing security for DSA and other events, organizing street protests across broad coalitions of often mutually distrustful leftist groups, developing plans and contingency plans to minimize risk, facing down not just fascists but also police consistently more hostile towards us than towards fascists regardless of behavior, providing jail and court support to comrades who are arrested following an action, and of making space to debrief and comfort each other after a tense or fraught action. Much antifascist organizing, as with a lot of direct action organizing, takes place outside of public view for security reasons, which can lead casual observers or disinterested parties to buy into false equivalencies. Given the low level of common understanding of antifascism we have seen displayed in DSA, we ask comrades with limited familiarity with this work to speak with care and remain open-minded when weighing in on it. DADS members are always happy to educate comrades about antifascist work, but as it’s a large and complex subject, it can be extremely difficult to give an accurate portrayal of antifascist work in a soundbite to someone primarily informed by media misinformation.

Antifascist and security organizers within DSA should emphatically not be the Thin Red-And-Black Line—we are not a cadre separate from comrades. Rather, we are committed to skill-sharing and capacity-building through political education and low barriers to entry, advocating popular antifascism, and integrating with the overall work of building socialism. This is why we, as a committee, support many areas of direct action, and from our founding we have held training and education for all comrades as one of our primary missions. As with all areas of socialist work, some people will focus more on protecting our organization from fascist disruption than others, and we value being in an organization where comrades are engaged in, and have the opportunity to learn about, many areas of work. Those of us who do community self-defense work, whether as the primary focus of our organizing or as a small portion of it, have every right to expect our comrades to have our back, rather than impeding our work by denouncing it as “stunt activism,” as was the case at the Mid-Atlantic regional pre-convention, or intimating that antifascists are the moral equivalents of Nazis.

THE VIOLENCE INHERENT IN THEIR SYSTEM

We are also perturbed, especially as there are A11/A12 survivors on our committee, by the argument made in the New England preconvention debate that the Left has so far been “lucky” that antifa hasn’t killed anyone at a protest like James Fields killed Heather Heyer. For starters, the far right’s body count is much higher than just Heather Heyer—note, among many other examples, the recent massacre of at least 50 Muslims at two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand, and the Tree of Life synagogue massacre in Pittsburgh, PA, by Nazis. This is because fascist ideology is explicitly united across factions by a belief, grounded in nationalism, that violence against “the other” is redemptive for a nation, consciously driving fascists to do more of it in service to their supremacist ideals. In Charlottesville, Heather Heyer was killed, and dozens of others wounded, deliberately, because that’s the point of fascism. It was not an accident, and it was not incidental. Violence is what they’re after; it’s not what we’re after. Furthermore, “both-sidesing” fascists and antifascists is a common centrist trope used to delegitimize the Left—a rhetorical tactic hardly limited to this one issue, but which has been weaponized in mainstream media and which is especially disheartening to hear from DSA comrades.

Fighting fascism requires different tactics and building solidarity across organizations and communities. While we are committed to confronting fascists in the streets, facing them down is not synonymous with throwing punches. Black bloc (or other masked appearance) and unmasked presence, small tactical groups and mass mobilization all have a role. DSA members can play many roles at street actions, antifascist and otherwise, including but not limited to: communications, medics, legal observers, marshalls, security, jail and court support, noisemakers, and behind-the-scenes planners/organizers. Beyond the streets, there is always day-to-day work to diminish fascist ability to organize in public to begin with; to spread security, de-escalation, and direct action skills throughout DSA and among allied organizations; and to keep ourselves, partners, and the community safe, at events and elsewhere. Regardless of any given comrade’s abilities or comfort level, everyone can contribute in some way to the fight against resurgent fascism.

One thing is clear: If we do not stop them from building power in the streets, then they will build power in the streets uncontested. It’s not as if the fash will just get bored and go home if antifa don’t show up—they’ll instead harass passers-by, especially those in targeted groups, and attack leftist and liberal events, as they have done previously, unimpeded. Attempts to hide behind respectability will not prevent them from targeting DSA; whatever it is that we do, they will hate us for it, because we are doing it as socialists, and in a comparatively high-profile organization. As many comrades are aware, DSA was on the “hit list” of Christopher Hasson, the Coast Guard lieutenant who was recently arrested for plotting massacres. This was glossed over in the press, but discussed by DSA members on social media, in an example of DSA members sharing information for mutual safety.

In the short time since the DSA membership bump in 2016, it has already racked up a significant history of fascist disruptions and infiltrations of events, both in Boston and around the country (such as Portland, OR, and Louisville, KY). The Boston security team was especially large at our pre-convention because of the expectation that local fascists, including people who have attacked DSA members, would be assembling within a few hundred feet of our Saturday location (and some did; fortunately, they did not spot us), and because of recent instances of physical violence against chapter members and targeting of Boston DSA for harassment. Some members of our committee declined to be pre-convention delegates because we knew that adequate staffing for the security team would require some people to take lengthy shifts, and some who were delegates gave up a couple of hours of their delegate time to do shifts. This again highlights the need for antifascist solidarity and a robust, participatory security culture, as having only a small subset of members continually standing guard can impact those comrades’ ability to fully participate in other chapter business. As socialists, we know that many hands make light work, and we know that we can and should all share in the responsibility to keep our organization safe.

While we have been upset to hear our work devalued by our comrades, knowingly or otherwise, we nonetheless remain optimistic about the potential for deepening our chapter’s understanding of antifascist issues and working collaboratively to smash fascism. To that end, the DADS team has been working with the Political Education Working Group to hold a reading series providing an Introduction to Fascist and Reactionary Thought, with the next series being held May 25th at the Rosa Parks Room of the Democracy Center in Cambridge, 4 p.m.-6 p.m. Please join us and work to more fully engage with the history of opposition to fascist thought and the lessons we can take from it into the future.

Activism in the surveillance state: A follow-up with Leslie James Pickering

Leslie James Pickering (LJP), former Earth Liberation Front spokesperson and current owner of the radical, independent bookstore Burning Books in Buffalo, NY, was recently invited to give a talk by the Boston DSA PEWG and Ecosocialism WG. The event was co-sponsored by the Grassroots Infrastructure Charitable Foundation and was held in the Cambridge Public Library (Central Sq branch) on April 9th. A video recording of the event is available here

Leslie has been giving lectures across the US about government surveillance/repression of leftist/environmentalist social movements. He has been giving talks about his experiences as an activist and bookstore owner being surveilled, and how he has used Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to obtain the FBI files on his bookstore and fight back against the surveillance of activists in Buffalo. PEWG blog followed up with Leslie after his talk to discuss further the surveillance state and its effect on the communities, and how to dismantle it.   

PEWG blog: Hannah Arendt had famously described “the banality of evil” – your experience with the state surveillance apparatus seems to reflect a similar pattern in post-9/11 USA. Can you comment a bit on whether you think this is the case? If not, then what do you consider to be the ultimate motive behind surveillance programs?

LJP: The ultimate motive behind the surveillance state is repression of efforts towards social change.

Social movements that struggle to change society in ways that challenge the power structure, and/or the ability for private profiteering at the expense of the public good, tend to be primary targets of the surveillance state. While there are variants, and personal motives/vendettas, the surveillance state tends to mostly operate mechanically, defending its power and interests.

Traditional law enforcement, even while selectively executed, is only one tone in a spectrum of ways to repress these social movements, which means that surveillance has many powers beyond solving crime and aiding legal prosecution. Surveillance provides intelligence essential for every form of state repression, even becoming a form of repression in and of itself at times.

While there should be disgust and outrage in response to the existence and intrusions of the surveillance state, it’s much more important to recognize that the ultimate purpose it serves is to prevent social justice movements and activists from gaining success – to thwart efforts for social change initiated by citizens and grassroots organizations. In this context, surveillance is intended undermine “by the people, for the people,” “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and similar notions which are said to be foundational to America, and indeed even the common perception of American democracy. More significant and universal, surveillance is an essential tool oppressors use to subjugate the oppressed.

PEWG blog: In the last decade or so, the extent of surveillance carried out on US citizens and residents are coming to light thanks to whistleblowers. However, it appears that these violations of privacy are not taken seriously by the general public after a short period of outrage. Why do you think that might be the case considering how much the Americans favor privacy? And how can you make people care more about such issues?

LJP: Innovations in media and technology, including social media, link acceptance of surveillance with fulfillment of social and emotional needs. In order to resist surveillance collected by cellular phones and social media platforms, individuals largely need to abandon these technologies. This is a challenge, because our social lives have become increasingly tied to these technologies. To give up your cell phone and social media accounts for many is to be, if unintentionally, increasingly left out of social networks and interactions, and socially isolated.

People don’t tend to appreciate their personal lives being spied upon, but largely seem to be willing to accept it in exchange for the fulfillment of social needs that these technologies tend to provide. A convenient (and thoroughly flawed) settlement is reached in many people’s minds that if you’re not doing anything wrong then you don’t have anything to worry about. This concept is only logical under the circumstances of a benevolent surveillance state. In America, with its countless false and malicious prosecutions, its history of frame-ups and covert violence against social justice movements and activists, surveillance provides intelligence needed for repression.

If more people were aware, concerned, and active on social justice causes there would likely be more pushback against the surveillance state. Privacy would then have a value worth fighting for. As it stands, social justice is the realm of a marginalized minority and therefore privacy loses much of its worth in American society.

PEWG blog: After your experience, do you think your views on state security and surveillance apparatus have changed? If yes, how so?

LJP: My experience has mostly sharpened my views on the surveillance state. The basic concepts about surveillance and state repression that I learned at the early stages of my activism, and before I was involved in activism in several cases, have largely held true and solidified. The experiences of being personally targeted over many years, and learning many of the particulars, has fine-tuned my understanding.

Surveilling and repressing movements for social justice is simply wrong. A just society would put its resources towards bringing about positive social change rather than spying on and attacking activists. The more I’ve learned about the surveillance state and state repression, the more blatant the injustice of this system has appeared to me, and while at times frightened, the more determined I become to struggle against it.

One objective of the surveillance state and state repression is to frighten off activists and to make us feel that our cause is hopeless. If we fall for that, then it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that the state puts such enormous resources into managing dissident movements because we have a such strong potential to topple existing power structures and bring about more equality and justice. Rather than reacting with fear we should struggle to react with intelligence and bravery. What’s wrong is wrong, no matter how powerful those perpetrated it are.

PEWG blog: What does your vision of a world devoid of state surveillance look like and how do we move towards such a future? Are laws like FOIA adequate to reach that goal?

LJP: The existing Freedom of Information and Privacy laws on state and federal levels are extremely inadequate. Under the federal Freedom of Information Act, numerous exemptions exist to block our access to federal documents (including an exemption that essentially states that if we don’t have proof that a file exists then the government can act as though it doesn’t exist to keep it secret from the public), and there is literally no oversight. So if the FBI says it only has a few pages of files on you, or that a large percent of the pages you’re requesting are exempt from release, there’s nobody looking over their shoulders to prove that they’re not lying. By filing a federal FOIA lawsuit, you may succeed in motions to have the presiding judge look at sample of exemptions that the government is claiming to verify their validity, but that’s it.

If it weren’t for whistleblowers and leakers, and especially the 1971 burglary of an FBI office by the Citizens’ Commission to Investigate the FBI, the thin layer of transparency that exists in America would be painfully thinner. We freedoms that we do have aren’t “self-evident” and aren’t ours because of any altruistic nature of this state, but rather because of the long line of people and organizations that have struggled and sacrificed for justice, equality, freedom and autonomy against an inherently authoritarian and exploitative state. We need to follow in that tradition and take it to the next level.

 

Reportback: How We Win by George Lakey

by Sam Jaffe, Boston DSA

On March 30, Boston DSA along with other activist organizations in the area co-sponsored a talk by George Lakey on nonviolent direct action training. Lakey has been involved with nonviolent direct action campaigning for decades, starting with the Civil Rights movement. He helped lead a successful campaign by the Earth Quaker Action Team to get big banks to divest from mountaintop removal coal mining. The workshop on Lakey’s latest book was designed as a culmination of his sixty years experience in grassroots organizing. The advice he gives comes from a variety of Nonviolent Direct Action (NDA) campaigns he has participated in and helped mentor. And he passes on this advice through his methods of Direct Education, which have been adapted and used in some of the most celebrated NDA campaigns, including the Mississippi Freedom Summer.

The workshop itself was split into three parts. The first was an Introduction to Lakey’s own thinking and experience with NDA.

Intro to Nonviolent Direct Action

Setting his work in the context of today, he shared his belief that the extreme polarization of today’s society holds tremendous opportunity for change. Sharing recollections from his younger years, he stated how he had inaccurately “thought that increased polarization was a problem”. Further research revealed this to be the opposite, as political progress both in Scandinavia and in the US followed moments of great polarization. Lakey pointed to the two periods in American history of great polarization to prove this point, citing the progressive economic change of The New Deal in the 1930s and the radical social change that brought civil rights legislation into being in the 1960s.

He then turned to the four factors of successful campaign:

  1. Being pro-active and driving political agenda
  2. Clear demands
  3. A clear target for these demands
  4. A set of escalating tactics

 

Benefits of NDA Campaigning

The second part of the workshop focused on creating small-group brainstorms on the benefits and needs of nonviolent direct action campaigning.

These could be broadly summarized into:

  1. Creating different levels of participation and responsibility, allowing for people to join at the level they felt comfortable.
  2. The self-empowerment of carrying out nonviolent direct action
  3. Creation of public spectacle by crossing social boundaries, encouraging media amplification and forcing people to take sides in a public conversation
  4. Nonviolence makes a campaign more supportable because of credibility given by grounding it in a history of successful nonviolence
  5. Creating fun practices and inclusive planning procedures
  6. Creating tactics that respond to the political moment and attract necessary coalition partners

 

Campaign Planning

The final part of the workshop was a larger group campaign planning session, with groups looking at free mass transit, media coverage on renewable energy, and an ongoing anti-gentrification campaign in Dorchester to prevent the housing development Dot Block.

Using Lakey’s formulation, the anti-Dot Block group created a rough campaign plan, which for strategic reasons makes sense not to explicitly describe. This session then ended with a brief Q&A with George, which started with a question on how we might create fundamental change under the context-driven time pressures.

Speaking from his experience in North Philadelphia, George emphasized the need to build in multiple forms of justice within any campaign. By making an explicitly environmental issue also an issue of economic and racial justice, it could unite different movements and constituencies, helped further by the inevitable repression these movements will face.

Only through the creation of multiple campaigns and multiple movements would the sort of equitable change be created. In this he emphasized the need for two qualities- small step-oriented goals and effective facilitators and conflict resolvers which would work to maintain moral and keep different movements united.

The Book

In case you’re keen to find out more, here’s George’s book which was the basis for this workshop. If that tickles your fancy also note there will be a repeat of this workshop on May 7th.

Losing Politics: A Proposed Definition of Base-building

By Ben S. 

In Brief

In this essay I define base-building as political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders.

First, I provide some background on my understanding of base-building work, and the impulses behind it. I also explore its goal as a strategy of the Left. I then list some theoretical assumptions that are key to my understanding of the operation of base-building but are not directly connected to Left organizing strategy. After that I try to formally define base-building and also discuss tactics that have been described as base-building that I feel don’t fit the description. I then address two of the potential obstacles I see to implementing base-building as described. Following that, I describe hypothetical campaigns addressing two issues: an eviction from a medium sized apartment building and a campaign against a centrist city councilor; I describe a non-base-building approach and a base-building one for each of these issues. Finally, I propose open-ended questions around base-building that I feel are necessary for the Left to address.

Background

Base-building is the hot new term on the American Left. My first exposure to the term was through the writing of Sophia Burns, Tim Horras, and others (this packet, assembled by DB Cooper, served as my first formal exploration of the subject). The phrase “organizing the unorganized” is used as a pithy explanation of what the tactic consists of. The most formal definition of base-building I have seen comes from a piece published in the Philadelphia Partisan, in which Tim Horras describes base-building as work intended to produce “new and more experienced militants” and sketches out possible means for that to occur. This tactic, despite clear connections to historical organizing tactics, was exciting and seemed fresh in the face of the previous tactics of the Left (see Sophia Burns’ Four Tendencies for a good summary of some of the past tactics and issues with them). In DSA circles and elsewhere, the concept of “organizing the unorganized” made sense; it felt right. Base-building was how we could win. Projects described as base-building garnered more attention, and drew more people in to help organize. However because of this, everyone wanted their project to be a base-building project. Base-building became (and remains) a buzzword. It began to lose its meaning.

My understanding of base-building is that it is based on an acknowledgement of the absolute weakness of the modern US Left. The Left as it currently stands is a small, marginal group. Even the largest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists (DSA), has only 55,000 members on paper. I have no evidence for this except my own experience, but I would put a generous cap on the number of people who have attended more than two DSA meetings since 2016 at 10,000 nationwide. For reference, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had 50-60 thousand members in 1919 immediately after its split from the Socialist Party. Given our numbers, our ability to make change is limited. We can consistently get the same couple of hundred people out to protests. But without masses of people behind them, our demands hold no weight. If the Left wants real change, the Left must be built. I believe that base-building is the way forward for the Left. But in order to be used, the tactic must be more formally defined. Words without meaning are useless.

Given the weakness of the Left, it is no surprise that we frequently fail in our campaigns. Personally, I have taken part in a losing BDS campaign, a losing city council campaign, and seen the most meager of reforms watered down and rejected by “progressive” law makers. To quote the Labor Notes book Secrets of Successful Organizers: “people are power”. “There’s more of us then there are of them” is the underlying theory of how any socialist project hopes to win and maintain power. So where are the people? The Left must build up revolutionary power, build up people’s understanding of themselves as part of a collective, build up broad, true solidarity. To refer to the organizing bullseye model, people must be pulled from being indifferent to being supporters; people that are supportive must be made into activists; and those activists who can must be given the opportunity to develop into core organizers, into leaders. I believe there is no more radicalizing experience than the experience of fighting for change in the capitalist system. There is no better way to learn how to organize than by just doing it. I believe that the definition of base-building proposed here provides a way to allow people to organize, to fight, and maybe, just maybe, to win.

Underlying Theoretical Assumptions

This section covers some ideas that inform my definition of base-building. These ideas won’t be explored or defended here, but are intended to serve to help explain my line of thought.

  • People have an inherent understanding of their conditions, although the language they use may not match that used by others. Paolo Freire’s discussion of “emergent themes”, the idea that in the process of working with people the manifestations of oppression will become clear and that a path forward will come out, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed influences my thinking here.
  • The state under capitalism is a tool of bourgeois oppression. Legislation from capitalist parliaments will never fulfill the needs of the working class. However, elections and the state can be used for propaganda purposes, and socialists in power can take actions to help lift the boot up a bit off of people’s necks.
  • The Democratic party and the Non Profit Industrial Complex are the structures through which left dissent is dissipated while leaving capitalism as a system intact. In order to preserve the possibility of a revolutionary horizon, the working class must be able to express itself outside of these institutions.
  • All of the Left’s analyses and theories are at best approximations of the actual processes and structures of society and revolution. There is currently no visible vanguard. The vast majority of the explicitly socialist Left (in the form of political parties and registered as non-profits) as it currently exists is separate from the working class and cannot claim to fully represent the working class.
  • The most likely way in which radical change will occur is through crowd events like the Gilets Jaunes, the bus fare protests in Brazil, or a large scale version of Occupy. Masses of people flooding in to the streets in a statement of “no, enough”, preventing the functioning of capitalism and demonstrating that another world could be possible (see Jodi Dean’s Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party for more information) create a space in which a socialist hegemony can emerge. These events are vulnerable to fascist entryism and co-optation (e.g.- in  France, or Brazil). Organized structures of the working class that can claim to speak for the crowd are necessary to prevent fascist cooptation of the crowd moment and ensure that the ensuing change moves towards a socialist horizon.
  • The end goal of socialism is democratic control of society and production by the people, and the elimination of all forms of oppression. The current goal of the Left should be to build up the capacity of the working class to self-organize and express its demands.

The independent structures created through base-building work provide a means for the concerns of the working class to emerge, and for an understanding of the working class’s collective interest to develop and be expressed. They can both provide for the working class’ immediate needs and make demands on the system as a whole. A network of these institutions could form the seeds of a revolutionary mass working class party, fit to claim the mantle of leadership during a revolutionary crowd event. In the event of a Left capture of state power, assuming that these institutions remain independent of any leading party, they can serve as a check on the power of those claiming leadership. As George Ciccariello-Maher’s description of the comuneros under Chavismo in his book Building the Commune  shows , even successful Left movements are vulnerable to bureaucratism, which can be corrected only by the assertion of democratic decision making on the part of the working class.  

Base-building: Fighting to Win, Planning to Lose

The guiding question for my definition of base-building is “What do we as organizers want to have remaining/standing if/when our campaign fails?” Too often, after a failed campaign, all that organizers can say they’ve built or achieved are strengthened friendships and connections among people already involved in political work. A new person or two may have found their way in to the organizing meetings through coalitions or social connections, but all that really remains are tired organizers, improved understanding of campaign tactics and local conditions, and an organization/affinity group at best one or two members bigger.

To further inform a definition of base-building, this is a non-exhaustive list of tactics I have seen described as base-building that I feel do not fit the description:

  • Awareness Campaigns
  • Protesting/Direct Action
  • Recruitment of members to an ideological organization/a front group of an ideological organization
  • Electoral Work
  • Mutual Aid

These are all valuable forms of work and can either be part of base-building tactics or undertaken as a base-building campaign, but in and of themselves these are not base-building activities. If any of them fail to achieve their explicit goals, there are no new organizers or organizations to strengthen future work.

So if these are not base-building activities, what are? Base-building activities are political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening of existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders. This work can either be the explicit goal of a campaign, or intentionally pursued as part of a campaign around an agitational issue. The work we do must be pursued in such a way that at the end of the campaign the initial organizers can disengage, and have the work be self sustaining. Socialism is a collective project, anything relying on the long term presence of a single individual is doomed to fail.

Why democratic and independent? What is meant by those words here? The created structures must be vehicles for self expression of the working class. Without democracy, or with explicit or de facto control by separate political groups, the new structures will treat people as foot soldiers of a pre-decided cause rather than organizers of equal standing. The horizon of socialism is a stateless, classless society, it is the people in power. As organizers we must trust the people who we are organizing with to find the best path forward. We should not hide our radical and revolutionary politics, but neither should we expect the people we are organizing with to fall in line with our beliefs. We are working to create a means for the working class to express itself as a “class for itself.”  Direct democracy is the only means available for the working class to fully express itself, with all of its contradictions and complexities fully represented.

What does it mean to be a “mass” organization? In terms of formal structure, all it means is open membership. In practice this entails working to ensure that what is created has a mass character, that the membership of the organization is reflective of the complexities of the working class. This means approaching our organizing with an understanding of intersectionality and working to avoid recreating the issues of simply being a more organized vehicle for the “scene” to express itself (as described by Sophia Burns here). Despite its open membership, the DSA distinctly does not have “a mass character”, as described in the recent article on racial issues in the DSA. There is no way to guarantee a mass character, but working towards truly representative organizing likely takes the form of minimizing outside organizer presence in mass meetings, actively addressing racism, and engaging in coalition work with other organizations that have a mass character.

Under the above definition base-building is not inherently tied to any single issue, although some issues are easier to organize around than others. The ideal issue is one that directly affects the lives of those being organized and has an initial solution that feels achievable enough that someone not currently involved in political work would be willing to give their time to the project. As a revolutionary socialist, I believe that we cannot reform our way to socialism, but that is a belief based on study of theory and organizing experience. People may not share that belief, or they may feel that revolution is impossible. Knocking on someone’s door and directly advocating immediate revolution likely won’t be effective. But asking someone to join with their neighbors to fight the landlord, or discuss how to make change in their neighborhood seems doable. And if the structures created last until the revolution comes, they can provide a way for the people to express and organize themselves more effectively than they could based on spontaneity alone.

Obstacles

Legitimacy, Resources, and the NGO Trap

Canvassing is often a large part of most (if not all) base-building campaigns. In the case of DSA, this takes the form of primarily mid to late-20s college-educated, middle- and upper-middle class white men knocking on people’s doors. Someone like that knocking on your door is more likely to work for the landlord than want to help you fight them.

Adding to that, with the exception of members of labor unions (and most of those aren’t anywhere near democratic) most people in the US have no experience being in an organization of the type that base-building hopes to create. Especially when a base-building project is just starting up, and there isn’t much past success to point to, convincing someone that their participation in the project is worth their time is difficult. Coalition work with NGOs can provide a short cut to legitimacy, as well as access to resources when mutual aid is a portion of the project. However, most NGOs with resources are unlikely be supportive of the creation of autonomous structures with a revolutionary goal. I do not draw a hard line against ever working with NGOs on base-building work, but I think coalition relationships and partner orgs should be carefully studied, and the organizing focus must remain on building autonomous structures. The risk of a project drifting towards a charity and service model should be kept in mind.

Classism, Racism, and Patriarchy

Base-building organizations are made up of people. Without constant work, they will reproduce the structures and prejudices of capitalist settler-colonial heteropatriarchy. Sexual harassment will probably occur and will need to urgently addressed. Racist and classist statements may be made by individuals and will also need to be addressed. Groups may also choose to undertake projects that enforce systems of oppression, for example a tenants union choosing to take on a project of changing the behavior of “problem tenants” rather than identifying the landlord as the real target. Redirecting these frustrations towards better targets (landlords, bosses, etc.) is difficult to do while maintaining the democratic and independent nature of base-building, and the best way to handle this is an open question.

Hypothetical Example Campaigns

Tenant Organizing

Problem: Jane Smith’s landlord wants to convert her apartment in a ninety unit building into a jacuzzi room for the landlord’s son and files a no fault eviction of Jane. Other tenants in the building have issues with mold and water damage, as well as difficulty getting things fixed. Rents in both the building and the city as a whole have been steadily going up for years. The building is a mix of section 8 and market rate tenants.

Individual Aid Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and make contact with her and offer to provide assistance. The organizers recommend and assist in calling a legal aid service to provide legal assistance (If the service identifies Jane as having enough need, assistance is provided). If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Organizers recommend and assist in contacting city agencies to assess facts of the case/state of Jane’s apartment.

If Jane wins her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane stays in her apartment!
  • A relationship was built between Jane and the organizers (although she has no direct means of influencing future organizing work, short of joining the organizers political group).
  • Jane hates the landlord (more?).
  • Jane’s neighbors are likely unaware of the struggle, and may still not understand how their landlord operates.
  • No fault evictions are won by indicating that the landlord hasn’t held up their end of the lease to provide a habitable living space. This is typically shown by getting record of housing code violations (which most apartments have). If the landlord addresses these issues, the case could be refiled and the process started over again.

If Jane loses her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane contacts local public assistance agencies + NGOs for help finding additional housing (with the assistance of organizers), is homeless in the short term, potentially has to leave her neighborhood and community.
  • Jane only has her previously existing support structure of friends and family to rely on and the resources of assisting organizers.
  • No one outside of Jane and her immediate contacts are aware of the situation; other tenants are in danger of similar future treatment by landlord with no support.

Tenant Organizing – Base-building Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and identifying her building as a target for organizing. On the initial canvas, organizers knock on all doors in her building, and inquire about ongoing issues. Agitation is done around common conditions issues, rent raises, and general gentrification. If individuals are interested, tenant unions are mentioned as ways to fight back. Contact information is gathered. Contact with Jane is made, organizers assist with her case in a manner similar to the advocacy model, and provide court support while also working to unionize her. If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Canvasses are repeated; tenants showing interest are invited to help canvas. Agitation is done around Jane’s case, identified issues, and around the general issues of the area. An initial meeting is planned either in an apartment in the building, if a tenant is willing to host, or a nearby public space. Over a series of meetings, demands are articulated around conditions and Jane’s case. The tenants circulate and sign a letter that announces the formation of a tenant association and iterates their demands. This letter is sent to elected officials and the landlord. If similar tenants unions exist nearby, the tenant union is connected to them. The union takes democratically decided on actions as appropriate in pursuit of its demands, which would typically include dropping Jane’s eviction case. These actions can include forms of direct action, public pressure campaigns, or rent strikes.

If Jane wins her case:

  • She stays in her home!
  • She continues to work with the union to achieve their other demands.
  • Jane is connected to her neighbors, and there is greater awareness around her struggle/experience with the state when people are in conflict with landlords/capitalists generally.
  • The union continues to exist as a vehicle through which future tenant issues can be addressed, and its members gain organizing experience.

If Jane loses her case:

  • The union is in a position to provide material and emotional support, in addition to the existing assistance agencies.
  • The union can engage in direct action or a public pressure campaign in support of Jane, without relying on the legal system.
  • In the event of a future eviction, the union is in place to take action around that eviction.

Groups operating this way: City Life Vida Urbana (with Boston DSA) – Boston MA, the Philly Tenants Union and Philly Socialists, the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) in the Bay Area, the LA tenants union, etc..

An Electoral Campaign

Problem: In Brockhampton, MA (pronounced “wooster”) – a gentrifying suburb just north of Boston has elected Tony Baloney, a cop loving pawn of real estate developers and landlords, as city councilman of Ward 3 for the past 20 years.

Data Based Voter Contact Approach:

Two or more years out from the election, organizers identify and target the seat. They choose a progressive local activist to run for the seat (the candidate may or may not self-identify as a socialist). The campaign managed by small number of staff people and highly active volunteers. Endorsements are sought from local progressive and socialist organizations. Likely and registered voters indicated by a voter information management service (such as Votebuilder) are canvassed. Usually voters receive two visits. First, an informational canvas, informing voters of the election, discussing issues of concern chosen by the campaign. Canvassers record if voter plans to vote, and ask if the voter would like to volunteer with the campaign. The second visit is a get out the vote canvas immediately before the election, canvassing voters who indicated they would vote for the candidate to remind them to vote.

If the candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice on city council.  Passing progressive or socialist legislation without compromise is unlikely, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The remaining infrastructure is primarily campaign staff, volunteers, who are likely personally invested in success of candidate. Some connections to endorsing organizations may persist as well.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged and heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The campaign staff and volunteers have more experience in running a campaign and have gained some social connections to the endorsing organizations.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Proposed Base-building approach:

This is based on adaptation of tenant organizing model to electoral issues. I have no personal experience in planning electoral campaigns, so this is very much a hypothesis. This differs from the models of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in that it does not rely on non-profits getting together to form a coalition focused on a pre-decided election or set of elections. It is most similar to the Cooperation Jackson model of neighborhood assemblies and allowing those assemblies to guide to organizing.

The campaign has a goal of organizing neighborhood constituent assemblies, who may elect one of their own to the city council seat. Two or more years out, the seat is identified as a potential organizing opportunity and canvassing begins. Canvassing is done for issue discovery and agitation around discovered issues and the general state of the city government. All residents are canvassed, regardless of their voter registration status. The initial canvassing ask is for attendance at a constituent assembly. Organizers can mention potential of challenging council member – but with an emphasis on that the selection of a challenger/decision to run will be made by constituent assemblies. Repeated conversations/relationship building through repeat canvassing of individuals are key. The long term vision and intent of the organizers can and should be shared with people who ask as well as being presented at the constituent assemblies, described as a way to amplify the voices of the residents. The strategy should not be a secret. The constituent assemblies are run democratically, with a structure decided by the assembly. All of the meetings are open. Initial organizers are present as individual members of the assembly, with no special privileges. The meetings serve three main purposes: community building (food and child care should be present at the meetings), issue discussion with participants sharing stories and frustrations, and discussion and planning of actions that could resolve identified issues (this is where challenging city councilman or other electoral work such as ballot question campaigns could be proposed). Only a small number of outside organizers should be present (aim for ~4, regardless of meeting size). Geographic area represented by the assembly is variable, dependent on local conditions. Organizers should work to develop leaders, and make the assemblies self-sustaining. If other assemblies/similar groups are present, organizers should work to connect them to the assembly being built. Who should the organizers connect to? Small d democratic, open, mass character orgs. NGO involvement is not an inherent stop, but careful study is needed if NGO involvement is in place in the other organization. Does the NGO leadership choose priorities then just mobilize the organization’s members or are members clearly in control? What is the connection to the Democratic Party (its progressive or establishment wing)?

If the Assembly chooses not to engage in the election:

  • Organizers continue building it until it is self sufficient/capable of engaging in its own recruitment/agitation canvasses.
  • Initial organizers mention recreating similar structure nearby, potentially request organizing assistance from the current assembly.
  • Initial organizers maintain involvement and communication with the assembly, maybe continuing to place the option of electoral work on the table.

If the Assembly chooses to engage in the election:

  • The assembly elects an individual to run for seat.
  • Campaign strategy decisions are made in open democratic meetings run through the assembly.
  • All formal campaign staff positions are filled by election as well (primarily spokespeople given permission to speak for the assembly).
  • Electoral canvassing operation should be done in a way that works to bring more individuals in to the constituent assembly. Fewer repeat visits are acceptable due to the need for additional contacts, but canvasses should still include registered voters and those who can’t vote.

If the Candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice (connected to the mass organization) on city council. unlikely to win legislation without compromise, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed (including placing pressure on the elected candidate, in the likely event of co-optation/mission drift), or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the Candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged, heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed, or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Groups operating this way: Cooperation Jackson. I believe the Cat Brooks campaign in Oakland may have come out of a similar structure as well.

Future Questions

My hope is that by proposing a more formal definition of base-building we can advance conversations around organizing tactics on the Left as a whole. If we accept the definition of base-building as the organization of mass independent democratic structures in the course of a broader organizing project, we are faced with a number of questions as to the applications and limits of this strategy.

Most directly, strategies for working through the obstacles mentioned in this piece, (and others I am unaware of) are not yet apparent.  These will require hard work, hard thought, and likely many failures on the part of organizers to be discovered. How can we as organizers work through the challenges of bringing people together? How can we build mass solidarity?

Next, this definition was developed out of my experience working in tenant organizing projects and on a municipal BDS campaign (not to mention countless conversations with comrades). The only concrete examples of campaigns proposed are a tenant organizing campaign and an electoral campaign. What would an ecosocialist base-building campaign look like? A prison abolitionist one? An anti-imperial one?

Thirdly, base-building campaigns are best suited to smaller scale local projects. But socialism is an international project. This piece is being written in the US, the current seat of capitalist empire. As leftists in the US, we have a duty to actively oppose and undermine the functioning of the empire. Where does base-building fit in to this context?

Finally, as all leftist writing should remember, we are living in the anthropocene. We now have only eleven years to prevent the complete collapse of the climate. Petro-capitalists and the bourgeois state appear to have made the bet that they have enough money and guns to survive the post climate change world. The scale of the problem is massive. Yet base-building projects are best suited to small scale patient work. How can we fight against something with the scale and urgency of the climate? We are faced with an updated version of Rosa Luxembourg’s question: Ecosocialism or Ecofascism? The world is clamoring for an answer, and time is running out.