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.

Schools For Kids, Not Cops: An Interview with #NoCopAcademy Organizers

by The PEWG Blog

In February 2018, a visit to Harvard University by Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was met with protest by dozens of local students and residents, including members of Boston DSA. They had gathered, in part, to support a grassroots, youth-directed, adult-supported effort in Chicago called #NoCopAcademy. Here, the PEWG Blog talks with Caullen Hudson and David Moran of SoapBox Productions and Organizing about #NoCopAcademy, and about some organizing strategies, tactics, and lessons from the campaign. You can also learn more about #NoCopAcademy from this report released in the fall of 2018, which presents not only the results of the campaign’s grassroots public opinion research, but also rich self-documentation of the campaign’s history (an organizing lesson in itself). The conversation below has been condensed and edited for clarity.

PEWG Blog: What is #NoCopAcademy and what’s it about?

CH: #NoCopAcademy is a grassroots coalition fighting against Rahm Emanuel’s plan to build a $95 million cop academy in West Garfield Park. And West Garfield Park is a low-income black neighborhood that’s been disinvested from for decades. The coalition is a grassroots collection of groups formed to oppose the academy—and not only to oppose it, but also to give answers to where the money should go: that’s schools, that’s health clinics, that’s jobs programs, that’s the Laquan McDonald Wellness Center. We have answers for where the money should go. And the campaign is also pushing back against the lack of transparency in the City Council and in Chicago.

PEWG Blog: The campaign is a little over a year old now; how did it begin?

CH: So, Rahm Emanuel released his plan for the academy over July Fourth Weekend 2017—which was obviously very intentional, so that no one would know about it! There was a very quick, kind of rapid response to the plan. Quickly a lot of groups got on board, groups like For The People Artists Collective, Assata’s Daughters, Black Youth Project 100 Chicago—a lot of groups in the city. And they started organizing a coalition, started organizing against the academy. So that was mid-summer 2017. It really gained more exposure in November 2017 when the City Council had the first vote to buy land for the academy. That’s when Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was the only Alderman to vote against it. It was a 1-to-49 vote. So that was a bit more exposure then, and over the fall the coalition was kind of building; that’s when we at SoapBox hopped on. Chance the Rapper also spoke out at City Council and that got nationwide exposure.

PEWG Blog: What was it like as you both got involved?

DM: We ended up working along with a couple youth from Assata’s Daughters as well as from Whitney Young and Orr High Schools—because this cop academy is planned for across the street from a high school. And so we created a PSA for them, that was our initial entry point into it. It was really cool to talk to these kids and understanding that they’re the ones who don’t want it. The motto was: “Schools for kids, not cops.”

PEWG Blog: That’s a great line!

DM: Yeah, it was super sweet. And from there, we also have a podcast called Bourbon ’n BrownTown, and so we had on the podcast Ruby Pinto, who’s one of the organizers with For the People Arts Collective, and she also coined the term #NoCopAcademy. And we’ll be releasing one with some other organizers as well, like Debbie Southorn and Monica Trinidad, talking more about #NoCopAcademy [ed.: now available here]. Personally, my experience in the organizing world is still very new, very fresh. So it’s really wonderful to be able to see all the different organizations and how everyone is adding to the campaign and watching it grow. Because it’s still growing. We’re steady growing, and that’s because of the work that everyone has been putting forth.

PEWG Blog: How does the coalitional aspect of this work? What’s it like with so many groups working together?

CH: It’s definitely not easy! A lot of folks who are involved in this were also involved in the #byeAnita campaign, which was a similar kind of cross-organizational approach to unseating the Cook County State’s Attorney a couple of years ago—which was successful. Communication is definitely key. The last thing you want is someone to say that they’re going to do something—and it’s really important to the campaign, to the mission—and then not being able to deliver. So, being honest and transparent and creative, really.

DM: We have a research team, a communications team, and most importantly we have a youth organizing team. Oftentimes people don’t expect children to be in front of campaigns. But they actually have weekly meetings, so some of the adult organizers and the high school kids and kids from other youth programs will meet every week to talk. And then monthly meetings with us, with endorsers, are really more like, “Ok, look, the kids are thinking about doing a train takeover on Monday. Who can be there? Who can provide this?”

PEWG Blog: Something I really admire, watching the campaign from Boston, is the really important role youth are playing. I was struck by this phrase in the report that the campaign put out a few months ago, “youth-directed, adult-supported.” What can you say about the intergenerational orientation of the campaign?

DM: So there are specific adult organizers who work specifically with the kids. For example, with the train takeovers, the kids were like, “you know, I think we should go talk to people on the train because they’re just sitting there!” Being there and seeing them interact with the public, and the energy they have—one of the coolest things for me is to see these kids, from twelve- to eighteen-years old, putting time and effort in. Because they don’t gotta be there! They could be doing something else. Seeing the energy that they have is something that I think really helps fuel a lot of us adults.

CH: Going back to “schools for kids, not cops”, it doesn’t just sound clever, but also the fact is that the mayor has closed four schools since 2013 and can continue to do that in black and brown neighborhoods. The money that could have been used to have those schools open went almost directly to the Chicago Police Department; they even have CPD training within schools that have been closed. So looking at the contextual backdrop of what’s happening in the city, and who’s responsible, these decisions very much directly impact young people. They know about it, and they have some of the most sophisticated analyses I’ve seen of organizing and of the problems of our day. And they come to it on their own, they self-educate, and then we’ll hear about it and kind of shepherd them along. It’s such a cliché, but I’ve learned so much through working with the students as well as the adults coaching them—everyone’s growing in this experience. There’s a quote I love by Mariame Kaba that goes:

“Write yourself into history. Not because you’re vain, but because you’re important, your work is important. You’re building off the work of your ancestors, and someone will be building off yours.”

That just crystallizes the intergenerational aspect of this campaign.

PEWG Blog: An aspect that I think can be challenging about campaigns like #NoCopAcademy are the several levels of problems that have to be organized against all at once. So in your case, immediately there’s fighting the idea and funding and construction of the academy, but in a larger sense the project is about the violence of policing and racist patterns of investment/disinvestment more broadly. At the same time, you also have to struggle against the anti-democratic day-to-day tactics the mayor and city council use to enact these larger things. What have you learned about working on these several levels at once?

CH: Earlier we touched on the challenges of how you navigate having a coalition around an issue, but I think this is one of the big pros to it. There’s a lot of folks in our coalition, and a lot of folks from different spaces. And it relates to what Dave mentioned earlier about having different committees: around data, around whipping alderpeople, around branding, around fundraising. So that’s a huge benefit of having a coalition—to split the work up and then reconvene so that everyone has the same, not necessarily analysis, but the same rhetoric around it. And then some of it happens organically. I’ve been in so many spaces—either representing SoapBox or just as me being a person in the world—where I’ve brought up the cop academy. I’ll talk about these really specific things happening in Chicago right now, but I’ll use that to make an argument about how it connects to capitalism. What’s happening right now in the campaign is very much about money, allocation, how city council operates, but that’s happening against the backdrop of racist disenfranchisement in the city of Chicago, which isn’t a uniquely Chicago thing—it’s not even a uniquely American thing. We can talk about a lot of different issues and shed light on them using this specific example.

PEWG Blog: Finally, since you’ve both been especially involved in creating media for the campaign, what’s been the role of art and media in #NoCopAcademy?

DM: Media’s very important. From things like graphics to videos, we’ve been able to create a larger reach. And it also gives people the opportunity to express themselves—some of the kids have made some smart-ass signs, just really witty things. And then, on social media, there’s things like understanding consistency of hashtags and being able to tag each other—because we’re a coalition. For the train takeover, there were seven different organizations that were repping, so we were then able to use each other’s platforms and audiences to be able to push things out. The whole point is to try to get as many eyes on this campaign as possible, and then to create some sort of emotion.

CH: We mentioned Ruby, who we had on the podcast, and one thing she said, which I agree with wholeheartedly, is that art is a part of organizing. It’s not just, “oh, we’ll have some banners and signs and it’ll be cool, this will be nice to look at.” No. It’s integral. Art has to be done—it’s not a sideline, it’s necessary. Movements have always had art, but now, in the digital age, it’s so multifaceted and so much of a must. The short answer is: art is integral to our organizing, and we have to use the tools of our day in order to build on the work of our ancestors.

For a Truly Pluralistic, Big Tent DSA: A Response to Jared Abbott and Momentum

by Adam S, Bronx/Upper Manhattan DSA

The Monday before the Democratic congressional primary in New York, I slipped out of work early to make one final canvassing push for the long shot challenge to ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Getting off the train and heading down the stairs, past a notably unenthusiastic Crowley canvasser, I walked over to to the volunteer coordinator, my Queens DSA comrade Aaron, whom I had grown close to during the campaign. As the 7 train rumbled overhead, I saw the small clump of volunteers surrounding Aaron’s makeshift table: not just from DSA, but from other progressive groups who also had endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot bid for the House, as well as unaffiliated volunteers who were just inspired by Alexandria’s candidacy.

As the volunteers milled around, getting their turf assignments and chatting casually, none other than AOC herself showed up. She addressed the assembled supporters with a version of her stump speech I had heard numerous times before, talking about the need to get corporate money out of politics, Medicare-for-all, and a $15 minimum wage. As she wound down her pep talk, she individually shouted out the groups that supported her. She moved from Common Defense (a progressive veterans group), to Our Revolution, to Justice Democrats. Then, she turned to my red-shirted comrades and myself. “I’m so proud to be endorsed by a group like the Democratic Socialists of America; a group that is always on the ground showing up for people. Whether it’s immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or women’s rights, you guys are always there, in the streets, fighting for people.”

I think about AOC’s characterization of my NYC comrades often now as debates about the organization’s future unfold. What she identifies as crucial and special about DSA — the diverse nature of our work that cuts not just across issues, but also across the various leftist ideologies and tendencies within our big tent — is what I have grown to value as well. However, I have come to learn that this is not the vision shared by all corners of the organization — that some do not view our big tent nature and diverse array of member-directed work as an asset, but rather a distraction from what should be our core organizational mission. This essay addresses that centralizing tendency within the organization, and argues that while it may have been useful for a certain set of historical conditions, it is the wrong perspective for the current state of DSA.

A bit more about my own organizing history within DSA: Since Alexandria’s unexpected victory, I’ve pitched in on various work in New York as part of the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch, particularly the Save Allen Psych campaign, the organizing committee of our branch political education working group, and volunteering to be a mobilizer. What I found I enjoyed the most about DSA was the relative freedom to participate in the wide variety of campaigns afforded by the organization’s big-tent nature. In contrast to the electorally-oriented Alexandria campaign, the Save Allen Psych campaign was a lesson in community organizing. Through my mobilizing work, I helped new members plug into working groups and projects across not just the geographical space in the city, but also ad relatively wide left ideological spectrum within the organization. In the political education committee, we read a wide variety of texts (including a socialist feminist led reading group of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which to this day remains my favorite DSA event ever), and helped on a Currents in Leftist Thought forum, which sought to clarify at least a few of the major political tendencies within the organization’s big tent.

For personal reasons, however, my tenure in New York was to come to an end. The city had worn me down, so when my company floated the possibility of a transfer to Philadelphia, my wife and I jumped on it. This, of course, got me researching the Philadelphia chapter of DSA, about which I had only heard vague rumors. So, while visiting Philly, I went to a meeting of their Local Initiative, Local Action Committee (LILAC, for short), and found a small-scale replica of the way things looked like in NYC: people self-organizing around issues that they felt important in their community. They obviously had issues with their steering committee, but at this juncture I had not been following the back-and-forth of invective and counter-invective well enough to know besides the broad outlines of them getting censured for holding an unsanctioned reading group, which seemed exceptionally silly.

Regardless of my positive association with the LILAC folks, I sought to look at the Philly situation with an open mind. I am not an ideologue — I am happy to do electoral, community organizing/base building work, and mutual aid, and while anti-fascist counter-demonstrating, civil disobedience, and other direct actions are not necessarily for me, I’m more than happy that my comrades are willing to put themselves at risk to participate in those activities. In general, I take seriously the idea that DSA is a big-tent, multi-tendency organization, where one can protest the closing of a mental health ward in the morning, canvas for a candidate in the afternoon, provide mutual aid in the evening and build a tenants union after dinner, all while not becoming an anarchist, social democrat, or revolutionary socialist.

This is why I found the internecine fight going on in Philadelphia so alien: their way of running the chapter was in stark contrast to the more open local that I was familiar with. For example, to get the imprimatur of the chapter, be eligible for reimbursement, or to be included in bi-weekly membership blasts or get social media promotion, resolutions had to be approved in highly structured, quarterly general meetings. Unlike the working groups that could form on a whim in NYC by a group of interested in a particular campaign, get added to regular branch email blasts, collect funds, and generally work independently, committees in Philadelphia DSA could only be formed following a vote by a general assembly, and resolutions to form committees had to overcome quite a few hurdles. First they had to pass through a (closed, Steering-Committee controlled) Resolution Committee, then the SC-affiliated caucus would submit amendments oftentimes aimed at stopping those committees from undertaking campaigns (See: Amend 2018:11:06A on page 10, wherein a member of the SC affiliated caucus submitted a resolution to disallow the housing working group from being able to undertake its own campaigns), and then, if things did manage to make it to the floor, the SC-affiliated caucus would pass out literature whipping votes against resolutions they didn’t like.

It doesn’t stop there; while Robert’s Rules were used to run meetings, Philly’s Steering Committee had adopted a variation that prevented amendments from the floor, meaning that amendments had to be adopted or rejected wholesale, and one objectionable piece of language would ruin the entire resolution/amendment (and if it failed on the floor, better luck next quarter I guess). Without any chapter-wide communication platform (Slack, Facebook or otherwise), the debate had to happen entirely in these meetings, meaning that the stakes were incredibly high and that a great deal of power was given to the (SC-appointed) parliamentarian in shaping this debate. Lastly, the Steering Committee terms were two years long, with replacements for intra-term vacancies appointed by the Steering Committee, rather than elected (though their bylaws provided for an option to appoint or elect replacements, the SC had chosen the former option). Taken together, it definitely did not seem that there was a member directed, bottom up organization of heterogeneous political tendencies, but rather a relatively centralized, top-down structure where one tendency dominated and the others were sidelined. This was probably great if your politics generally aligned with the SC, but was likely to cause a great deal of frustration if they diverged.

This led me to ask the obvious question: why would a chapter choose to be run this way? It seemed silly that, with so many things to fight against with regards to the myriad injustices of our capitalism-dominated society, members should spend their time organizing internally against their comrades. Again, I sought an actual explanation, rather than assume bad motives, because I truly believe that assumption of good faith is essential to every interaction we have with comrades in NYC DSA. The Momentum-affiliated members on the DSA forums who came to argue with the (very vocal) Philly opposition were of no help in understanding the debate — they seemed to be speaking solely in terms of internecine conflict, of he-said-she-said interpersonal nonsense, assertions that everything was done “in order”; while the Steering Committee and its associated caucus was certainly allowedto take the actions described above, it seemed entirely separate from the central question of why the structure (which I viewed as the root cause, rather than individual actions of bad actors) existed in the first place.

As many may know, Philly’s steering committee is run by a caucus that is associated nationally with the Momentum Slate on the NPC. Members with the same ideological formation also comprise the leadership of East Bay (under the Bread and Roses slate), and many of their members work at the publication Jacobin. In a (laudable) attempt to make their vision for the organization transparent they’ve been publishing articles under The Call, with the purpose of starting a national, open caucus for members of their particular tendency. For the purposes of this essay, however, I’ll refer to them as Momentum, simply because I do not know what the Call’s caucus is going to be called. The thinking behind their ideal organizational structure (which aligns with the Philly local) is laid out in an essay titled “For a Democratic and Effective DSA” by Jared Abbott.

The article is long but the argument is as such: each chapter must balance out the need to be effective with the need to have members participate in decision-making, and this is done through members electing a steering committee to run most of the day-to-day organization, and voting on chapter-wide priorities that the chapter will be mainly focused on. All other high-level chapter business will be run through general meetings, which are very important, large productions because they are the main venue by which the general membership can exercise decision making power, but in the interim, the SC has a great deal of power and discretion compared to the rank and file (also, there’s a long digression about why you should cut leadership slack, but zero discussion of how to initiate meaningful oversight or transparency mechanisms, like a recall procedure, save for the suggestion that those unhappy with leadership simply wait their terms out).

Abbott sees the necessity of representative democracy to counter the “tyranny of structureless” wherein “leaderless” organizations devolve into informal leadership based on clique rather than transparent leadership. To hammer this home, he brings up the example of Occupy Wall Street general assemblies, where nothing got done because too much had to be run through direct democracy, leading to informal leadership hierarchies based on social status. (As an aside, there’s an irony in that the organizational structure proposed in the Jo Freeman essay is far more horizontalist than the structure advocated by Momentum. Read the “Principles of Democratic Structuring” at the end of the essay)

However, as the specter of Occupy fades, this structure has to contend with actually existing left formations, like the working group structure of my home NYC branch which has neither the level of power invested in the steering committee nor the bureaucratized democracy of a general meeting. Instead of “leadership,” we have a set of branch-level organizing committees whose responsibilities mainly include scheduling branch meetings, which mostly serve as educational events and pep rallies, with the odd candidate endorsement debate happening every once in a while. We have a Citywide Leadership Committee tasked with high level organizational decisions, but generally, they stay out of the way of the branch-level work. Our citywide convention sets priorities for the year, deciding who gets special resources like dedicated committees/working groups and extra funding, but working groups are able to to work independently on whatever campaigns they see fit. Pretty much all the actual “work” happens in branch and city level working groups, which make their own bylaws and elect their own leadership, and generally act as small-scale cells that allow for experimentation, both in terms of how they run campaigns, and how they choose to self-organize (Some, such as the Bronx/Upper Manhattan Political Education group, are themselves experiments in radical democracy). To get a sense of the wide variety of the work that goes on in our chapter: you can read our branch wrap up here and our working group wrap up here.

However, I find the charge that this “structureless” leads to tyranny and ineffectiveness to be puzzling. Far from being an ineffective, aimless organization, NYC has accomplished quite a bit, including electing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, and it is deep in the fight to push for stronger rent control laws in 2019. You’d be hard pressed to find people who feel tyrannized by our structure, as most people who want to can find their niche within the large amount of diverse and successful work that we are doing. There’s arguments and differences, sure (the debate to endorse Cynthia Nixon got quite a few hackles raised), but in general, the stakes of contested elections — positions on the City Leadership Committee, candidate endorsements, priority vs. secondary campaigns — are relatively low, so everyone can be relatively happy with the results of an election even if they lose it.

Regardless, the general meeting model does have a decent justification: as we grow, we should perhaps limit members from taking part in activities that would be detrimental to the organization as a whole (perhaps to head off the possibility of the DSA Class Collaborationist Working Group on one end and the DSA Weathermen 2.0 Working Group on the other), and GM’s can at least provide a referendum on those activities. However, that does not explain the hostility towards priorities that differ from those of the Steering Committee, as shown in Philly and East Bay, which seem extra-structural. After all, one could imagine a version of the GM model where pretty much every member-generated resolution sails through unless highly objectionable, which is what I believe is the structure of other large urban locals like MDC DSA, Chicago, and Los Angeles (my comrades in these cities can correct me if I’m wrong).

The answer is in The Call piece. In it, Abbott describes the necessity of focusing around a few, narrowly-defined demands.

“It is important to recognize both the considerable value of DSA’s character as a multi-issue, pluralistic organization and the fact that achieving our strategic goals as an organization requires significant concentration of resources and coordination. We only have so much capacity as an organization, so we must make difficult (often excruciating) decisions about which campaigns to prioritize. This is why it is crucial for chapters to develop a set of priorities, voted on by the entire membership, to serve as a strategic guide for the chapter’s elected leadership. Ideally these priorities will consider and significantly reflect the organizational priorities approved democratically by the most recent national DSA convention as well.”

Member-initiated work, however does not really constitute part of Abbott’s plans for a chapter:

“Committees and working-groups whose work falls outside the scope of the chapter’s democratically-approved priorities can serve the vital function of building solidarity with a wide range of social movement allies, but legitimately-elected chapter leadership must still oversee their strategy and orientation.”

This framing sketches out what I think is the most important point of divergence with my experience in NYC and the more closed structure of Philly and East Bay: the belief that narrow prioritization is essential for DSA’s success. Philly has had some great wins: good cause legislation, fair workweek, their near-miss in flipping Kristen Seale’s house seat, but so has New York, with far less restriction on member activity and less resultant organizational friction. This is also true of other medium-to-large urban locals: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco all have put some pretty great numbers on the boards, while maintaining a robust culture of member-directed work. How does the existence of wins in these cities square with the idea that the only way to be effective is to focus narrowly on a set of priorities? And, if this restriction on member activity is causing more friction and frustration with no discernible benefit to the organization as a whole, what purpose does it serve?

I do not think that Abbott’s ideas are necessarily bad, but I do think they’re misapplied to current conditions. I fully believe Philly and East Bay models may have been effective in a particular set of historical circumstances: if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, for instance, and DSA became a recruiting ground for disaffected Bernie Supporters/ex-progressives who realized the limits of liberalism and the Democratic party and became actual socialists. Chapters in the structure of Philly and East Bay would’ve been useful for waging a focused, protracted people’s war for demands like Medicare-for-all and a large scale implementation of the Rank and File Strategy and the Ackerman Plan; I could see this structure of leadership cadre + rank and file being an excellent way to push for a narrow set of socialist demands by riding off of Bernie coattails, and as part of a larger broad left movement of which DSA was one part.

However, these historical conditions are not true in a post-Trump-bump, post-Ocasio-Cortez world, and the justification of limited resources is a bad one: DSA is not the Bernie-to-leftism pipeline envisioned by Momentum, but rather, has accumulated members who fall all across the (wide) ideological spectrum of the left. As a result, DSA suffers not from a lack of focus and a limited amount of member enthusiasm, but rather, a large, unengaged membership; though we boast 55,000 members, we have a ton of paper or marginally engaged members who have already taken the plunge and given us their membership dues, we just have to get them involved. When you have a lot of campaigns — some big, some small, most of which are self-started by membership interest with as little friction as possible, free bureaucratic wrangling and obstruction — you have more opportunities to engage your paper members who may have paid their dues, and are on an email list or two, but just need to find the right campaign that gets their juices flowing (this is why mobilizing is so important).

Not only that, but by offering the membership the opportunity to take part in the day-to-day strategic decision making of small-scale, locally oriented campaigns, you both grow their capacity as organizers and deeper their commitment to the organization. Democracy is a process that extends far beyond voting at an infrequent general meeting and handing off those decisions to an elected representatives, it’s about exercising sovereignty over the structures that shape our society, including the organizations we are a part of. I did not sign up to DSA to simply be a footsoldier in Momentum’s Left-Kautskyite program, I joined precisely because there was no party line so there was less pressure to define exactly where my politics lie. However, it’s pretty clear that, if able to seize control of a branch (not to mention national) levers of power, Momentum’s ideal vision does not include the full spectrum of left politics, but rather, an organization singularly focused around their own priorities and ideology.

Which brings me to my own organizing history: what might have seemed like a long and self-indulgent diversion of my organizing experience earlier in this essay is illustrative of an important organizational point: by having multiple ways to plug in, you have far more openings to grow as an organization, both by bringing people in and by deepening the engagement of people already in it. As a mobilizer, I took great pleasure in following up with a mobilizee I hadn’t seen in a while, only to find that they were deeply involved in an entirely different part of the organization. The Save Allen Psych campaign did wonders for strengthening our connection to local community groups — we deepen our connection to medical students and the nurse’s union who were outraged at the closing of the psych ward, local progressive activists who found the work as a dovetail to talk about the New York Health Act, and DSA members from around the city, who had a personal connection to the importance of access to mental health services.

Allen Psych is an especially interesting counterfactual: it is my understanding that Save Allen Psych grew out of New York Health Act (our version of M4A) campaigns, because locally, the conditions were not right to canvass for NYHA (Our local state senator supported NYHA) and there was a pressing issue of the closing of a Psychiatric Ward in our backyard. If Bronx/Upper Manhattan was run the way Philly or East Bay was, would Allen Psych have gotten off the ground, or would we had to stay the course on the original canvassing-first strategy for M4A/NYHA? Would our political education working group been willing to try something new and run a fiction reading group, which brought a whole new set of paper members on the socialist feminist listserv, many of whom are now active DSA organizers? Would we have been able to run a political education event that highlights differing political tendencies, or would we be too focused on running a night school that focuses around a bibliography to highlight a particular political tendency shared by those in leadership?

As a final point of illustration, take my comrade in the anecdote in the beginning of this essay: Aaron, now on the Organizing Committee of the Queens chapter (congrats, Aaron!) has put his organizing skills built on the Ocasio-Cortez campaign towards the fight against Amazon’s HQ2 deal. The Queens branch has turned the skills and expertise built on a national campaign to bear on a local issue, and engaged the community in ways that electoral canvassing never could. This is the vision I want for everyone in DSA, the vision that Alexandria pinpointed as the special quality of the organization: to see the various manifestations of capitalist domination, and to engage our heterogeneous membership to join in solidarity with the local, on the ground fights against it. That’s not to say we should take our eyes off the prize of legislative and electoral wins, but rather, that we should reject the framing where these trade-offs need to be made in the first place. The labor and engagement of our members is not a finite resource to be parceled out among a narrow set of priorities, but rather, a pool that deepens and widens as their skills and commitment to the organization grows.

I hope that I’m not pissing on my chance to have a positive, comradely relationship with my future Momentum-affiliated Philly comrades by writing this essay — after all, the Call’s editors themselves have stated that they encourage clear, open, and principled debate within the membership and I feel like this essay has fallen within those parameters. I also do not want this to come off as an anti-Momentum sectarian screed; I consider members of Momentum and the Call to be my comrades, and I have done a lot of work to model one of our core community agreements of “assume good faith, but challenge” to give these ideas a fair analysis. I think that their focus on mass action and mass demands should definitely be part of our work within DSA, and perhaps could even form the backbone of our national organizational strategy (but with freedom to adapt to local conditions). But I what I strongly believe is that their perspective on how the organization should be run — top-down, centralized, with member initiative stifled by bureaucracy and decision making power generally taken out of the hands of the rank and file — is anathema to what made my experiences in organizing in DSA so great, and would impede the process of member development that turned me and many of my close comrades into the organizers equipped for the long term fight to secure a socialist future.

In conclusion, I quote Abbott himself:

“Given the limited experience most of us have with collectively building democratic spaces of a significant size of course, it’s no wonder that some of our democratic experiments are less successful than others, or that we sometimes proceed momentarily down paths that in hindsight might not have been the most productive.”

Indeed, the Momentum chapter structure was a noble idea and a worthwhile experiment but ultimately, its structure leads to organizational friction, member frustration, and, if left unchecked, complete foreclosure of the multi-tendency nature of the organization. I am glad for the work Momentum comrades put into the organization — I’ll probably even work with them on some of their priority campaigns. I consider them valuable comrades, and if the open caucus they are forming is oriented around connecting like-minded members and sharing best practices for those of their ideological and political tendency while still respecting the federated, big tent structure of DSA, then the development of their caucus in my view is a wholly positive one for the organization. However, if their caucus results in seeking out power in order to proliferate their vision for attenuated chapter democracy, and their internal organizing is aimed at imposing that vision on the National organization as a whole, then I fear it will irreparably hamstring our efforts to build a diverse, multi-tendency mass movement necessary to build our socialist future.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the author’s personal Medium – https://medium.com/@adamschlesinger1/for-a-truly-pluralistic-big-tent-dsa-a-response-to-jared-abbott-and-momentum-48cc12a6b500

The Coming Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks for Socialists

by Ben M

As we pass the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent descent of the world economy into the Great Recession, the horizon is once again darkening for capitalism. While economic forecasts often resort to little more than reading tea leaves, e.g.- the regular predictions of a “double dip” recession during the early 2010s that never materialized, the warning signs of new and potentially greater recession are getting harder to ignore.

The last few months have seen noticeably volatile stock markets (oftentimes set off by a Trump tweet) as well as the total collapse of the cryptocurrency market (set off by the fact it was always a bubble and only fools thought they could cash out in time). But the economy isn’t the financial and stock markets- they are just the turbulent foam on top of deeper shifts in the world economy; rather something longer term has started to errode the capitalist class’ confidence in their own ascendancy.

First is the paradoxical fear of growth. The economy has technically been growing continuously since June 2009 (though you might not have noticed), which is an unusually long time without what capitalist economists like to call “self correction”, i.e. the capitalist cycle of boom and bust,  kicking in. During that time over 85% of that growth went to the fabled 1%, something you may have noticed. This has created a highly “efficient” and massively topheavy economy of low wage workers working harder than ever to make things they can’t afford for an uppercrust of capitalists with more money than they know what to do with. The rich can only buy so much, and with most of Americans sinking more and more of their paychecks into just paying off loans and for the essentials, there is a rising fear of what would happen when a glut in consumer goods occur. The extent of how far overproduction has oriented itself for the needs of the rich can be seen in the absurd scenario of the explosion in construction of empty luxury condos, helping to fuel the housing crisis.

On the macro side, the China vs Trump trade war, combined with the massive payout to corporate America through Trump’s tax cuts, was meant to fuel some form of nationalistic re-industrialization. Instead of this MAGA pipe dream, something very different has emerged. Major capitalist enterprises has re-invested their tax cut windfall not into expanded domestic production, but rather buying back their own stock, hitting records not seen since right before the last recession in 2007. At the same time General Motors (GM) has announced the closure of three plants and the layoff of 5,600 industrial workers, to help create the “lean” overly automated and disposable workforce for the future. Combined, these look like companies battering down the hatches for the economic storms to come.

While these problems alone could potentially set off a recession, changes to the US financial sector could have a bigger impact. The last decade of economic growth for the rich has been financed in part by dirt cheap loans at super-low interest rates set by the US Federal Reserve. Essentially this means the Fed has been printing money for a decade to keep the cost of the loans that keep the economy rolling low, but that is soon to change. With the Fed expected to raise interest rates to something more close to reality, the overly leveraged financial markets are freaking out that the days of easy money are gone. At the same time the International Monetary Fund is saying that they don’t have the resources on hand to meet a financial crisis when it hits.

Short term Treasury bond rates are closing in on the long term rates, meaning long term outlook isn’t looking good from the financial markets’ perspective, a typical early sign of a recession. Demand for raw materials is holding steady for now, though we are starting to see a flurry of bankruptcies in principal industries impacted by Trump’s trade war, an apparent slowdown in some manufacturing sectors, and lower homebuilder confidence. It is still difficult to perceive through the noise to the deeper trends, but once we start to see slacking demand for the raw materials and capital equipment needed to expand production, then we will know we are in trouble.

So what does this all mean? To help situate us and begin to see through the fog of often contradictory economic data, we can start with the classic theory of capitalist crisis first outlined by Marx and Engels as early as the Communist Manifesto,

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells… It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

What Marx and Engels are talking about here is capitalism’s inherent drive to over expand, to overproduce. Individual capitalist companies are in fierce competition to take over greater segments of their market or else risk falling by the wayside. Since there is no coordination between them, and their outlook is purely short term, there is constant habit of “supply to overstrip demand” to use the mainstream economics speak. Capitalism isn’t producing for human demand necessarily, they are producing to achieve profits. So there is a deep irrationality to production, seen for instance in the explosion of luxury condo construction that house no one because the housing costs are too high.

Simultaneously, there is a drive within capitalism to forever reinvest in production in such a way that undermines capitalism’s ability to realize the profits it is after to begin with. To stay competitive, capitalist enterprises since the early days of the industrial revolution have had a strong incentive to find ways to replace more and more workers with automated machinery to help lower costs (see GM’s recent announcement to layoff thousands of workers while still aiming to meet similar if not high production quotas). The structural problems hit when you start laying off and underpaying the working class to such an extent they can’t buy your products anymore. This drive to ever automate and an ever increasing pool of precarious workers with bullshit jobs was first called out by Marx when he said capitalism, “dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer … it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his [sic] hands his means of subsistence, … to make him [sic] superfluous. [T]his antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

These factors of overproduction for a consuming workforce that have been edged out of their sources of a livelihood inevitably and recurrenly explode into a full economic crisis. As the late Marxist economist and historian Chris Harmen said, “Thus what makes sense for an individual capitalist—investment in new technology—plants the seeds of crisis for the system as a whole. Eventually the competitive drive of capitalists to keep ahead of other capitalists results in a massive scale of new investment which cannot be sustained by the rate of profit. If some capitalists are to make an adequate profit it can only be at the expense of other capitalists who are driven out of business. The drive to accumulate leads inevitably to crisis. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.1

Growth itself, paradoxically, then becomes the biggest threat to capitalism’s continued expansion.

Attempts to mediate these structural tendencies of capitalist growth through the financial market – using it as something of an emergency cushion – have mostly made had the effect to kick the can down the road. As Marxist economist Ernest Mandel details, the production cycle does interact and impact the financial markets, but often the two are autonomous. “Marx visualised the business cycle as intimately intertwined with a credit cycle, which can acquire a relative autonomy in relation to what occurs in production properly speaking. An (over) expansion of credit can enable the capitalist system to sell temporarily more goods that the sum of real incomes created in current production plus past savings could buy. Likewise, credit (over) expansion can enable them to invest temporarily more capital than really accumulated surplus-value … would have enabled them to invest … But all this is only true temporarily. In the longer run, debts must be paid.” Sooner or later the costs of capitalist over-expansion and overproductions come home to roost.

Looking at more historical examples, we see how and when each ‘boom’ is in a way creating the conditions for the next ‘bust’, that each recession is in part the creation of capitalism’s inability to fully “fix” the prior recession. The Great Recession came from world capitalism’s shift to the US housing market after the dotcom bubble and the wider financialization of capitalism as a means to address the stagflation of the 1970s. Too many eggs in one overproduced basket of the housing market, and a too highly leveraged financial market led to a spectacular bust. The 70s recession originated from the failure of Keynesian economics to overcome declining rates of profit in a period when the US was facing increased international competition. Keynesian demand side economics was adopted as a way to pull world capitalism out of the Great Depression of the 1930s but it would take a World War and the construction of a permanent arms economy to pull that off. And so on and so on.

The coming crisis in capitalism likely will have its origins in how the Great Recession was temporarily overcome by the capitalist class. The strategy the capitalist class pursued after 2007 largely followed the, “[t]raditional methods for the restoration of profits,” identified by Marxist economist Joel Geier at the time, of, “cheapening the elements of capital (plant and equipment, raw materials) and labor costs; using the reserve army of the unemployed to raise the rate of exploitation on the job; destroying inefficient capitals; and the healthier capitals buying up their distressed rivals on the cheap.” In other words, in order to return profit rates the capitalist class oversaw the total amelioration of the world working class through austerity to lower labor costs, combined with the massive influx of pure additive cash liquidity by capitalist governments to grease the wheels of corporate centralization. The temporary overcoming of what can be called the “Neoliberal Recession” of 2007 required the single greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class in human history. The current economy is a castle built on sand.

So when is the recession going to hit? No idea, and anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan. It could be 3 weeks, 6 months or 4 years before these contradictions start to hit. Many economists are talking about 2020, but that just speculation. The final economic trigger could be anything, but will likely be something ridiculous and petty in one of capitalism’s weak links, cause that’s just the times we live in. We don’t know when it will hit, but we know, due to the fact that capitalism is crisis-prone by its own profit motive fueled nature of perpetual growth, that it eventually will. By then we need to be ready.

We can already predict what Trump’s response will be – the wholesale destruction of what remains of the social safety net and a jingoistic campaign of divide and rule like nothing we have ever seen in the US (and that’s saying something). While it’s too easy to fall into hyperbole, we have already seen this monster erect kiddy concentration camps and deploy armed forces to the border to gas mothers and babies. Now imagine what he is capable of with a mandate from his fanatical base for a “final solution” to the sudden economic woes. Even if the crash happens after the new Democrat controlled House takes office, the logic of what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”, combined with the history of the Democrats’ legendary spinelessness, indicates they will likely go along with the worst of what Trump comes up. “Bipartisanship” in the face of this crisis and this president will mean Democrats’ complicity in ethnic cleansing.

But it is the energy this will give to the fascist alt-right which is the most immediate threat. These killers who have shown their true intentions from Pittsburgh to Charlottesville will jump immediately on the opportunity to spread their nativist poison. We must prepare to confront the right at all cost. We can’t sit passively and hope people will naturally take anti-capitalist conclusions from the coming crisis. The right is perfecting its methods of taking the disenchantment of downwardly mobile pople and turning it towards fascism. But the same crisis that empowers the counter-revolutionary right can empower the revolutionary left. It all matters who is the best organized and the most bold. We must think of ourselves as actors, not just reactors to the titanic forces of world capitalism.

We will need to seize the initiative and capture the narrative of the coming crash. Protests, rallies, pickets, and organizing then is our first responsibility. Blog posts, videos, media spots, “memes” that articulare a anti-capitalist message are our next. There is an answer and alternative to more years of amelioration, austerity, unemployment, and low wages. The rich don’t have to get away with it this time. We can build a new world without borders, unemployment, debt, pollution, or crisis, and it is called socialism. And we can be ready this time to win it.

Now we have a left that has learned much in 10 years of post recession political struggle. Occupy taught us the importance of organization. The Obama wars taught us the value of anti-imperialism even in time of liberal warmongering. Black Lives Matter showed us a shining vision of uncompromising politics of human dignity that could seize the streets. #MeToo made clear that we either make our spaces accessible, safe, and intersectional, or we are little better than our enemies. And the strike waves of teachers from Chicago to West Virginia has proven again that workers have the power to bring this rotten system to heel.

For all of its room for improvement, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is in the best position to synthesize the past lessons, take advantage of the coming crisis, and go on the anti-capitalist offensive. It membership may be learning largely by building a mass socialist movement by the seat of our fucking pants, with a shoestring budget and prayer, but it is happening here. Our elected members are front and center, our protests are in your face, our message is spreading, and we are already shifting the “politics of the possible.” It is heady and confusing times, but by some strange decree of fate, whatever comes next in the American working class struggle will likely have its foci in part in the Democratic Socialists of America.

It is the job of every socialist to invest their time in analyzing the current political-economic climate and to figure out how to intervene in it. To that end there are number of steps the DSA and our local chapters need to prepare for the coming crisis built around the old Industrial Workers of the World tinirity: Educate, Agitate, Organize.

First we must deepen our political education. Comrades need to understand how capitalism works and how it doesn’t, why economic crises happen, and prepare to articulate this knowledge to a mass audience. With this knowledge we need to be thinking about how to prepare our agitational media. We need to be able to rapidly deploy our anti-capitalist  narrative through all means, from our elected members in Congress to our members holding placards at rallies, in order to counter and smash the fash right’s.

This, then, becomes a basis for our organizing. We need to take this time to deepen our relationship with local activists, our community neighbors, fellow socialists and progressives, all to prepare for a united left wing offensive. We must center and expand our labor organizing and immigrant solidarity work as our blood and air. In doing so we must be ready to flex our muscles and our direct action and protest organizing abilities. With 55,000 members, but only a fraction regularly engaged, member mobilization is critical. Chapters should be exploring all means to better activate their membership and get people out to protests, strike solidarity, ICE blockade actions, etc. Please forgive the pun, but real politics happens in the streets not the tweets.

And above all else, we must be adaptable, flexible, and our eyes fixed firmly to the political situation. As can be seen in France, things can rapidly accelerate in times of political and economic crisis. Shifting political winds can give opportunity or risk, and the ability for an organization to turn on a dime with tactics and strategies as the occasion dictates is no easy task. A lot will come down to local chapters and individual comrades making the right call on the fly as things progress. Preparing ourselves for the potential struggles ahead could help to make the difference.

 

Remembering the Centennial of the German Revolution

Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg on a 1949 Stamp issued by the German Democratic Republic

By Ben M

(Remarks given at November General Meeting for the Boston Democratic Socialists of America)

This month we commemorate not just the ending of World War One, but also the revolution that brought about that peace. A week ago, the 11th, marked the centennial of the signing of the armistice that ended 4 and a half years of unmitigated carnage and destruction. Nearly 10 million soldiers died in the Great War, as well as millions more civilians, all essentially for nothing. There was no great cause, no great meaning to their sacrifice, just the callous interests of empires and capitalists re-carving the world. Trenches, bombing of civilians, mustard gas, tanks, genocide, and artillery barrages characterized this the great meat grinder that they thought to call the Great War. And those aforementioned capitalists and imperialists had every intention to continue the carnage till nothing remained of Europe but ruins if it weren’t for what Trotsky would call, “the forcible entrance of the masses into the realm of rulership over their own destiny.”1

Last year there was a lot of talk and discussion about the centennial of the Russian Revolution, we here in Boston DSA had some reading groups and discussions ourselves. One of the many features of that event was it took a revolution, technically two revolutions, to pull Russia out of World War One. Truth be told it wasn’t the best of exits, Soviet Russia would be made to suffer for its willingness to obtain peace at any price, but it set the stage.

For in all of the mainstream articles and talk this past week about the centennial of the end of World War One, a particular fact is often absent. It wasn’t the diplomats, politicians, kings, presidents, emperors, generals, admirals, or well-meaning liberal journalists that finally ended the war. It was the soldiers, sailors, and workers of Germany who ended it by throwing down their weapons and refusing to die anymore for the Kaiser. In doing so, to quote Chris Harmen, “the Prussian monarchy had reigned for hundreds of years. It ruled the whole of Germany for half a century. Now it collapsed in a few short days and hardly a shot was fired in its defense.”2

So I am not going to give a quick play by play run down to the end of the Prussian Monarchy and World War One, and the start of the German Revolution 100 years ago this month:

In the weeks prior to the revolution, socialist and communist (technically the Independent Social-Democrats and the proto Spartacus League, respectively) had been agitating and even preparing for an uprising to bring to the end the war and empire. But it was at the German naval base in Kiel on November 3rd where 20,000 sailors refused to fight any longer for a pointless war that couldn’t be won. The German Navy, which had largely stayed out of the war till now with the exception of the U-Boats, decided it was time to go down fighting. Literally, the admiralty thought it was best to send the fleet out to certain death at this stage, going down in the blaze of glory, which, interestingly enough, would involve no admirals getting killed. The sailors thought this was a terrible idea and mutinied in the 10s of thousands.

The sailors and dock workers quickly formed elected councils of soldiers, sailors, and workers to plan the revolt. Socialists and Communist joined the movement. With the fear of reprisals, again they were all mutineers at this point, the only choice was to spread the revolt and by November 7th sailors were travelling along the railways freeing prisoners and recruiting more soldiers and workers to the cause.

The City of Bremen fell to the council of workers, sailors, and soldiers on the 9th, Kiel on the 7th, the provincial capital of Bavaria also on the 7th, City of Efrut on the 8th. To quote Pierre Broue, “The news from every part of Germany on the night of 8-9 November confirmed it: here the sailors and there the soldiers organized demonstrations, whilst workers came out on strike. Workers and soldiers councils were elected. The prisons were attacked and opened. The red flag, emblem of world revolution, floated over the public buildings.”3

On the November 9th revolution came to Berlin. To quote E.O Volkmann, “the day Marx and his friend desired all their lives had come at last. The Revolution was on the march in the capital of the empire. The firm tread, in step, of the workers battalions echoed in the streets.”4

Some army officers tried to organize resistance at the universities, libraries, and the Reichstag building, but they were all swept aside by the crowds without firing a shot.

At the Imperial Palace, now taken over by the crowd, Karl Liebknecht, the revolutionary socialist who was a parliament member but was sent to jail and then the front, spoke from the balcony to the crowd, proclaiming a German Socialist Republic. He said; “The rule of capitalism, which turned Europe into a cemetary, is henceforward broke. We now have to strain out strength to construct the workers and soldiers government and new proletarian state, a state of peace, joy, and freedom for our German brothers and our brothers throughout the whole world.”5

But at that same moment, just a 27-minute walk according to google maps away at the Reichstag building, the moderate and pro-war socialist Friedrich Ebert had just reluctantly proclaimed the “German Republic.” Not a socialist or workers republic, just a regular republic.

This contradiction, between the vision of a workers socialist republic, and a more moderate “normal” republic, would battle for the soul of Germany for the next five years through multiple mass strikes, aborted revolutions, attempted coups, and more. In the end it would culminate not with a republic of any form, but the rise of Nazi totalitarianism.

But that is a longer story. Regardless, on November 10th the Kaiser had already abdicated and was in exile in the Netherlands, on the 11th World War One was over. It took all of a week from the first mutiny to bring the whole war and the whole war making edifice down.

For those who want to read more on this subject I would suggest:

And with that I will give the last words to Rosa Luxemburg: “The great criminals of this fearful unchained chaos – the ruling classes – are not able to control their own creation. The beast of capital that conjured up the hell of the world war is incapable of banishing it, of restoring real order, of insuring bread and work, peace and civilization, justice and liberty, to tortured humanity. What is being prepared by the ruling classes as peace and justice is only a new work of brutal force from which the hydra of oppression, hatred and fresh bloody wars raises its thousand heads. Socialism alone is in a position to complete the great work of permanent peace, to heal the thousand wounds from which humanity is bleeding, to transform the plains of Europe, trampled down by the passage of the apocryphal horseman of war, into blossoming gardens, to awaken all the physical and moral energies of humanity, and to replace hatred and dissension with internal solidarity, harmony, and respect for every human being.”

Fundamentals of Ecosocialism

by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H

On Ecosocialism

On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.

Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism

Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.

Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).

madeira capitalism
Courtesy: https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/

So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)

Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).  

Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles

From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.

Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).

Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).

There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.

Environmental Ideologies

There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.

Liberal environmentalism

Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.

In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.

Ecomodernism

John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”

ecomodernism
Source:http://www.ecomodernism.org/

Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.

Ecofascism

Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.

The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].

ehrlich book

Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.

Ecosocialism through degrowth

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)

In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.

In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.

Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.

How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?

The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example, Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.

mazaskatalks
Graphic showing major financial investors in three key pipelines in North America (courtesy: mazaskatalks.org)

A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.

#NationalizeGrid

ProvDSA NG
Image Courtesy: Providence DSA

More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.

Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies: address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).

The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.

To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.

DSA_ecosoc