by Jonathan K.
Do things that work.
Get shit done.
These two sentences are my entire political philosophy. All of my political positions, how I engage with politics, and the effort I put into political activism on a day-to-day basis all come down to these two sentences. I want to share these sentences and explain how they’re all I need for anyone trying to figure out which political organizations they might or might not want to join, for anyone wondering how to fight for the issues they believe in, and for anyone wondering what issues they should care about. The conclusions I reach might be different from the ones you do, and that’s fine. I have only one article of faith about this approach: You will find something that you can engage in with conviction and passion, and you will be able to make a difference.
Do things that work.
I first got this line from a darkly hilarious (and often problematic) webcomic from the G. W. Bush years called “Nobody Scores”. This strip in particular tapped into a deep-seated sense of frustration with, well, many things in my life and the world. It was an unlikely source for a political awakening, and ultimately I came to a different conclusion than the point the comic is trying to make, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized “do things that work” was a surprisingly powerful statement.
“Do things that work” applies at every level, from the most macro issues to the most micro. The key is figuring out what it means for something to work. That’s not a simple or straightforward question to answer, and it’s often one you can’t solve with armchair philosophizing, but it’s a way to make a start. Let’s start big.
What does it mean for an economic and political system to work? It should guarantee a basic standard of living for everyone in it, which would allow them to pursue the life they want to live. It should balance personal autonomy against communal safety. It should incentivize behavior that works for the common good. It should aim to propagate humanity and human civilization into the foreseeable, and unforeseeable, future.
This line of thinking brought me to an inevitable conclusion: Capitalism doesn’t work.
It is most obvious in domains like healthcare and education. Healthcare should be geared towards making people healthy. That’s incompatible with profit. The ideal capitalist vision of healthcare is one that makes you pay to maintain the bare minimum level of health required to produce value. That’s why pharmaceutical companies so often pursue treatments, rather than cures, for chronic diseases like cancer. A cure means you stop buying their product. If you rely on their treatment to survive, you’ll be paying for them the rest of your life, one way or another.
Most “developed” countries have figured this out in regards to healthcare at least (with one very big exception), but in fact, capitalism doesn’t work for anything. If you make a great product, capitalism incentivizes reducing its quality to a barely satisfactory minimum to reduce production costs and maximize profit. It incentivizes sabotaging people who would otherwise be allies, and disregards safety, privacy, sustainability, and basic human decency, because none of them maximize profit. No matter how much you regulate it, those fundamental incentives mean that capitalists will always try to find ways to undermine those regulations, and usually undermine the entire political system in the process, destabilizing the country and often the world. Capitalism doesn’t incentivize peace (except when war disrupts profit). It doesn’t incentivize happiness and well-being (satisfied people aren’t trying to buy their way out of unhappiness). Capitalism just doesn’t work, for anything.
“Do things that work”. So, I became a socialist.
At a slightly less macro level, the question then becomes, what kind of political activism works? Activism that acknowledges the world as it is, works to make the world immediately better, but nonetheless pushes for the world that should be.
There are many things about the world as it is now that are structurally awful. The American electoral system is broken. I don’t need to make that argument here – it has been made many times and better than I ever could. Doing things that work means fighting to fix the electoral system at every opportunity, trying to remove corporate money from politics, trying to tear down the two-party system, trying to create a system that actually incentivizes representation over fundraising. And yet, when election day rolls around, until any of those efforts succeed, ignoring electoral politics doesn’t work. At the end of the day, most of the time, the winner of an election will be one of two people (if it’s contested at all), and whoever wins will have substantial power to shape the well-being of a lot of people. There is such a thing as a lesser evil. Even if the best case scenario is not someone who will do things that work, that’s better than someone who actively tries to do the exact opposite.
At the same time, electoral politics isn’t everything, or even close. Elections can indirectly help people, but ultimately people help people. Collective action is powerful. Supporting a union on strike will help the members of that union improve their conditions, allow them to live better and happier lives, and often create safer and better work environments. That works. Standing in solidarity with marginalized communities, protecting them from police aggression and bigotry, and directly combatting fascist aggression preserve the basic human rights and well-being of all people. All of that works. Direct aid, providing food, shelter, healthcare, and general well-being to those who cannot acquire it for themselves, make the world a better place. That works. Advocating for a better world without proving, concretely, that you can improve the world as it is, doesn’t work.
But this is not a simple problem. The most dangerous aspect of this political philosophy is that you don’t always know what works, and confusing what should work with what does work can be disastrous. It’s easy to jump into something that looks like it should work without stopping to make sure that it does. It’s easy to try to help someone in a way they don’t actually want, or need, to be helped. It’s easy to miss what could actually work when it’s not obvious at first glance. Political activism that works must be able to make change, but also simultaneously carefully consider how those efforts fit into what it is working towards, and correct itself when it wanders astray.
“Do things that work.” So, in 2016, I joined the Democratic Socialists of America.
There are plenty of other socialist groups out there, but the DSA has three big advantages: flexibility, pragmatism, and size. There is no consensus within the DSA about grand strategy, beyond the long-term vision of a democratically socialist society. There is constant, lively, but (usually) friendly debate about how to achieve that goal. Best of all, those debates are often not abstract discussions in smoke-filled rooms, but going out into the world and seeing what works. DSA and its members engage in electoral politics, though there certainly is debate about whether that’s the best way or even an acceptable way to bring about change. DSA demonstrates and protests, joins and supports strikes, collaborates with organizations fighting for particular issues, never shies from showing solidarity with marginalized groups, and engages in many forms of direct and mutual aid. DSA tries to focus on things that have an impact now, that start making the world better immediately, but never without thinking about how those actions fit into a broader political program. In addition, DSA is bigger than the other socialist organizations in the US, and that size gives it the power to engage in these actions more effectively.
Even at the most micro, day-to-day levels, “do things that work” has power, and not just in political life. I’ve cut steps out of bureaucracies just by asking “what purpose does this step serve?” If it’s not serving any purpose, it doesn’t work. Choosing which issues to insist on in collaborative projects is always a matter of “does this make what we’re trying to do more or less effective?” If the answer is “neither”, I’m not going to die on that hill. I’ve seen plenty of projects break down, and whole organizations collapse, because of passionate disagreements over things that don’t change how effective something is. That doesn’t work.
Above all, never let personal get in the way of effective. Don’t hold grudges, or at least don’t let those grudges make you sabotage good ideas. Don’t take being wrong, or on the losing side of a debate, personally. When you are working on something you believe in, you personally winning is less important than the project as a whole succeeding. The goal is to get the work done, and done right. Everything else is details.
“Do things that work”. So, get shit done.
Get shit done.
Here again, there is a macro level and a micro level, but not quite in the same way. It’s probably more accurate to say there is an organizational level and a personal level.
At the organizational level, it means accomplishing what you set out to do. The goal of a single-payer campaign is that every single person in the USA has unrestricted access to the healthcare they need. When that happens, we will have gotten something done.
Then there are the intermediate steps. To get there, we will likely need to start by showing it can work at a state level, the same way the ACA was modeled on Massachusetts’s healthcare system (reluctantly signed by Mitt Romney, of all people). So, there are campaigns in many states for universal healthcare, but most vocally in MA and CA, which have universal healthcare legislation actively under consideration in their state houses. Getting those laws passed will get something done.
To accomplish that, we call, lobby, demonstrate, and vote, to create a legislative environment where such a law can, and does, pass through the legislature and be signed into law. Every time that campaign gets a legislator to sign on and commit to supporting the bill, it has gotten something done.
Those campaigns are not abstract, nebulous clouds. They are made of people doing simple, concrete things. Every time someone makes a phone call to their representative, especially if they hate making phone calls, they are getting something done. Even if that something is just adding one mark on one side of a tally in that representative’s office, it’s getting something done.
“Get shit done.” Political activism isn’t just about standing up for an idea. It’s about having an impact. It’s about making change. It’s about accomplishing that by taking tiny, individual actions and connecting them, channeling them, targeting them, and turning them into an irresistible force. This is the other reason I am in DSA, because as an organization, it gets shit done.
Then there is the personal level, and in my opinion, it is where “Get shit done” matters the most.
There is nothing you can do that is more damaging and frustrating to others than volunteering for something and failing to deliver. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Emergencies come up, things don’t work out as expected, the world is a chaotic place. You don’t always have control over it. You do have control over how much you take on, and you do have a responsibility to know what you can and can’t get done. Volunteering and then failing to deliver means not only that you didn’t get it done, nobody else did either, because you said you would.
I don’t volunteer to work on things in my DSA chapter as much as I would like to. That’s because if I say I’m going to do something, I am committing to it. It will get done. My professional and personal life simply means I can’t make that commitment as often as I’d like.
At the smallest level this can mean simple things like, “I said I’d send someone this link” or “I said I would bring the chips”. Sometimes it’s bigger things, “I said I would design this flyer” or “I said I would summarize this article”. Sometimes it’s huge, “I said I’d start this team” or “I said I’d lead this project”. I have done all of these things at one point or another. Every single one I committed to only after I thought about it, honestly looked at my capabilities, and said, “yes, I can get this done”. And I did. Not always as quickly as I had hoped, and not always to the highest standards I set for myself, but always well enough to do whatever it was required to do, and often better.
“Get shit done” means accountability. It means honesty. It means saying “I’m sorry, I really don’t have time for that”, or “I can only do this much, who else can do the rest?” That can be hard to say. To some, it creates anxiety that people will think that you are incapable or not committed enough. I can’t speak for anyone but me, but I like someone who says “I can’t do that right now” much more than someone who says “I’ll do that ” and doesn’t. Be the person who gets shit done, not the one who says they’ll do everything.
Each of these two sentences alone is powerful. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts.
For one, you need a mighty feedback loop. The personal level of “do things that work” plays a big role here. When I first joined DSA, I quickly figured out that what worked for me was listening. I’m not the first person to recognize the problems with capitalism, or the incredible difficulty of trying to change a massively flawed economic system while living in it. Even with the issues I had considered, there were problems layered on problems and interconnected in ways I would never have recognized on my own. Even as you are getting something done, you need to ask yourself if each step along the way works for your broader goal. If you’re doing it well, it gets complicated quickly. Here’s a toy example: You can’t campaign to imprison neo-nazis and say in good faith that you are in favor of prison abolition. Solving problems like this is not a solitary endeavor. If you want a solution you can actually apply, you need a diverse group of people to go over it, think about it, see how it all fits together.
These two sentences together also have a strong impact at a very narrow level. Your organization is renting a table at a local event, or putting together a list of the resources you need for a protest, or arranging accessibility for a meeting, or dropping off clothes at an aid program. The decision to engage in these actions is part of figuring out what works, but the administrative work of actually doing them is getting shit done. Even then, there are ways of dealing with these administrative tasks that work, and ways that don’t work. Let me close on one of those.
If there is one phrase I hate, hate saying, it’s “someone should do X”. When anyone says “someone should do X”, one of three things happen. Rarely, someone says “I can do that”, and it gets done. Often, if it needs to get done, it gets dumped on someone who is already doing too much, who has as little time as you do, and who ends up with the entire list of “someone should do” tasks. Frequently that person is a woman, racial or ethnic minority, or both. Most likely of all, it never gets done.
I long ago learned that when I say “someone should do X”, what I should have said is “I will do X”. If I can’t do that, at a minimum, it should be “can you do X”. There is ample psychological work on the bystander effect and distributed responsibility, and the cure is simple: You either make or elicit a concrete, individual commitment. If you want it to get done, step up yourself, or do the socially awkward thing of making specific demands of specific people.
Saying “someone should do X” doesn’t work. It won’t get shit done.
Do things that work.
Get shit done.