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.

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.

 

Degrowth: Building People Power to Oppose Capitalism and the Climate Crisis

by Karry M

There is a widespread problem in capitalist nations within the Global North, of conflating GDP with “standard of living”, and equating possessions and access to technology with personal well-being. Economic growth, in practice, means growth for the few privileged individuals and growing inequality for the rest. It is an obvious moral obligation to mitigate the destruction wrought by growth-induced climate change for vulnerable communities and future generations. We must rethink the modern meaning of the words “needs” and “well-being” in order to imagine a revolutionary post-growth future.

Examples of unnecessary waste caused by the growth obsession are all too common in our daily lives: consider phones that must be replaced every couple of years, single-use coffee cups, endless empty luxury apts, Amazon one-day delivery, and rush hour traffic. Cities, in particular, are centers of growth. With the rise of globalization, the carbon footprint of our collective consumption has grown exponentially, as consumer goods and the raw materials used to create them are shipped around the world. This necessitates a cultural shift as well as an economic and political shift. It challenges our deeply-entrenched Western ideals of individualism, property, and economic prosperity, which we name “success”. It is predicated on resisting the neoliberal “TINA” (there is no alternative) paradigm.

Decoupling, the eco-modernist idea that economic innovation can overcome the rapidly growing carbon footprint of economic growth, has no basis in truth. It is becoming more and more obvious that resources are finite, and that a few individuals and corporations consume FAR more than they need at the expense of the many. As the environmental justice movement has taught us, indigenous and traditionally marginalized communities are known to suffer the worst effects of this unchecked growth. Truly sustainable development under capitalism is a myth, availability of resources simply can’t keep up with cycle of unending growth and competition demanded by capitalism. Consumption will inevitably overtake any energy resources provided by “clean” green energy technologies, which are not even completely clean and green because they require huge swaths of land to create enough energy to meet current demands, and rely on manufacture, maintenance, transportation, that in turn require mining and fossil fuel consumption. In order to scale up production of wind, solar, and other renewable sources of energy to levels necessary for continued growth, space required for the necessary infrastructure will eventually force displacement of people and may require destruction of forests, which act as carbon sinks. Forests, which mitigate climate change through natural processes that require little to no human intervention, should be preserved and expanded if at all possible. Another possible factor in the energy savings calculation is Jevon’s paradox, which postulates that increases in energy efficiency will drive down cost, and thus increase use in a proportional manner, resulting in no net change in energy expenditure. As of yet, there are no climate change mitigation technologies that can save us from the damage that growth has already created. Solar geoengineering, for example, may seem appealing to some as a potential inexpensive solution, but its merits are unproven, and experts warn that implementation may cause an increase of droughts, flooding, and dangerous natural disasters in areas that are already hardest hit by climate change.

Degrowth, which stands in contrast to ecomodernist solutions to climate change, is an international academic and activist movement. It is also a rapidly growing branch of discourse emerging in popular ecological academic circles around 2001 (though it was first defined by French intellectual André Gorz in 1972) which aims to create a society that consumes less, so that there is more to share with those who already have less, while simultaneously decreasing total consumption. This may be accomplished at a large scale, through government and corporate controls, as well as on small community and individual scales. The Latin American concept of Buen Vivir or Sumak Kawsay, an idea that incorporates indigenous traditions of living cooperatively, with respect for the surrounding land, has informed the degrowth movement. There have been a number of degrowth conferences in Europe since 2008, and the movement is starting to spread to the U.S. Degrowth emphasizes “well-being” as defined by more equal human-to-human and human-to environment relationships. The degrowth movement can be seen as an ally to the environmental justice movement. Dismissed by some as utopian, because it requires such a dramatic shift of so many established systems in our society, degrowth requires rethinking “needs” as they currently are defined, and realizing which of these are not needs, but desires incubated by the capitalist culture of growth; “Degrowth is a deliberately subversive slogan1.

Degrowth puts forth the radical idea that we should have more free time, time best spent appreciating and caring for one another, and our natural surroundings, rather than constantly working, driving, or consuming energy as a means of entertainment. Many of us on the left already realize that true happiness may be more easily achieved by decreasing work time, and instead of using all of it to pursue individual pleasures, using a portion to act for the mutual benefit of ourselves and others around us. These are the very foundations of the ideas of solidarity and comradeship. Think about things we do and enjoy that require little to no consumption—playing outdoors with children and animals, backyard gardening, hiking trips, reading groups, playing board games, listening to live music, and creating art. In an ideally degrown economy, we would have more time to participate in these activities because we would need to work fewer hours to meet the consumer needs of others. Degrowth is a voluntary, democratic, equitable set of ideas and practices that will build mutually supportive local communities in order to turn economic growth on its head.

Simply delineating the vision of a degrowth economy is often enough to get other left-leaning ecologically-minded individuals on board, hoping, plotting, and scheming with us. There is no universal consensus on how to achieve these goals, but degrowthers are a democratic bunch, and welcome the sharing of new ideas. In fact, sharing is the main point of degrowth. Advocates of degrowth believe in pooling our resources and sharing them as a community, instead of focusing on individual accumulation and ownership of property. This type of sharing, rather than competing for necessities, could be imagined to have a positive impact on mental health, as the oppressive pressure to endlessly perform and produce would be lifted. A deeper appreciation for our natural resources could develop while getting our hands dirty, through gardening, hiking, building, and expanding the do-it-yourself movement. Learning the skills to create the things we need causes us to respect their value and use them wisely.

There have been various theories about how best to get the degrowth movement off the ground. To begin, there have been proposed changes in the workplace, including universal basic income and/or maximum income, and a jobs guarantee with reduction in each individual’s work hours to help ensure jobs for more people. Some have suggested that job growth be more focused on public services such as education, public transit, libraries, and healthcare. The military and prison industrial complexes, which use almost unimaginable amounts of money and resources that many of us would deem unnecessary, could be slowly phased out. Global corporations, and the advertising industry, may also be scaled down and eventually abolished. We may replace private banks with public banking, and use funds raised by these banks to meet public needs. This could be paired with a widespread debt jubilee to eliminate the interest-as-growth dynamic.

An important step toward strengthening local communities is the reestablishment of the commons, a traditional structure of collective stewardship of resources outside the purview of the state or the capitalist economy. In a commons, resources are managed in a manner that ensures that everyone gets what they need, and no one person takes more than their fair share. The process of establishing a commons is essentially the opposite of privatization or commodification. For example, common goods such as water, seeds, and land could be shared by a community. The commons could then eventually replace industrial farms, creating agricultural spaces that use resource management techniques mimicking self-sustaining natural systems, such as those used by indigenous peoples. Public ownership of resources may make it possible to create local self-reliant communities that render growth even more unnecessary. Building local communities, which function through social connections to ensure the well-being of all members, is much more important than building local economies.

Empowerment of degrowth communities may also include the expansion of public housing, and community child-care associations. Local economic structures may include more worker-owned co-ops that utilize profit-sharing with their worker-owners. Time banks, in which community members trade their skills with others who are in need of those skills without using capital, are another potential facet of a degrown economy.

Less popular, but probably necessary, are individual actions include decreasing the use of cars, which would become easier as most jobs become localized. Another individual degrowth choice would be switching to a less carbon-intensive, more plant-based diet. Degrowthers would likely also encourage use of second-hand clothing and shoe repair. People would not be asked to give up consumer goods altogether, but we would place emphasis on creating goods made to last, and caring for them. These individual actions alone, however, are simply unable to create a significant economic shift of the type we need to combat climate change and loss of biodiversity; they must be paired with community- and large-scale actions.

As we can see, the degrowth transition could combine a number of bottom-up and top-down strategies. Recruitment of advocates and willing participants would be much easier to achieve if anti-capitalist and ecosocialist ideas become widely popular and gain traction. But even among leftists, we must concede that this is not the fully-automated luxury space communism we were promised. A major goal of degrowth is establishing a general sense of well-being and empowerment created by the ability of communities to function autonomously outside of traditional capitalist economic structures. Degrowth must become a large scale movement against the dominant capitalist agenda in order to achieve success. We have the power to seize this momentum, to rethink our collective lifestyles and values now, and avoid being forced to change by ecological collapse.

Successful models of degrowth require complex thinking far outside the proverbial box, which can be very challenging for those who have been taught that such ideas are utopian and unrealistic. If we are utopian, we are also pessimists when addressing the ideas of green growth and technological climate change mitigation, and realists when it comes to the scale of changes needed to achieve our aims. The planning stages of a degrowth transition require input from experts in environmental science, and political science, as well as economists, and anthropologists. Degrowth advocates realize that is is more essential than ever for the intersection of these fields of study to be understood and accepted by experts and lay people, and for everyone to comprehend what is at stake in order to make the truly democratic large-scale changes that are necessary for the transition. Optimally implemented, degrowth will result in true equality, sustainability and prosperity.

For more on Degrowth, check out this zine

On Gun Violence

by Cam W. 

According to the online Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks all gun-related activity in the United States, there has been 37,000 shootings and deaths in America thus far in 2018 alone. While this number in itself is absurdly high, gun violence is only a culturally relevant discussion topic after mass shootings. Think of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, and, most recently, Parkland. The public discourse is always the same, with conservatives defending gun rights from any legislative action, while liberals demand gun control. Something needs to be done to address mass violence, but conservatives (embodied by the Republican Party) do not care and only make vague and meaningless gestures to addressing mental health issues. Thus, our attention will be placed on liberals, embodied by the Democratic Party, and their ideas.

In the buildup to the 2018 primaries, and even since the election of Donald Trump, liberals and centrists alike have been flooding social media with calls to vote. One of the main problems voting will fix, they emphasize, will be gun control. But, presupposing voting will solve or even address gun violence, who will we vote for? We assume they mean to vote for the Democrats, but will the Democrats disarm the police state in America, where the police essentially have military-grade weapons, so that people of color don’t have to fear for their lives everyday? How would gun control, which simply bans weapons only for citizens, affect the lives of those like Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and so many others who have felt the cruel and fatal effects of police brutality? Furthermore, would the Democrats, who sanction and support imperialist wars, suddenly turn back and denounce these same policies, which violate the autonomy of the global south and leave them constantly subjected to death, starvation, and Western domination? The Democratic Party’s history, past and present, tells us that they will address none of this. Inserting new individuals into the system, when the system itself is the issue, will not fix anything.

Thus, when people command us to vote to end gun violence, it is clear to us that they only mean ending gun violence for a specific class of people, in specific areas of the country. As socialists, we recognize that as long as capitalism exists, the culture of violence in this country will not be addressed. Capitalism necessitates imperialism, which includes wars and sanctions. It also necessitates that the repressive apparatus (the police, courts, etc.) reinforce the relations of production (bourgeoisie and workers). This is why the bankers that destroyed the economy in 2008 were never prosecuted and were actually bailed out by Obama. This is why those that have been murdered by the police have yet to find justice, and police officers are rarely ever held accountable. This is also why women who have been raped or sexually assaulted rarely find justice. In other words, overhauling the justice system, is unbearable to the ruling classes because it entails a radical change in society which would hold those in power accountable and fundamentally change the social order in America.

Of the 37,000 gun incidents thus far in 2018, only 241 of those have been mass shootings (the Gun Violence Archive qualifies a mass shooting as a gun incident where at least five people are injured). That leaves almost 36,800 gun incidents in this year alone that were not mass shootings. We must shed light on the real victims of gun violence. Every year, about 45,000 Americans commit suicide, and in half of those cases, the victims use a gun to end their life. Thus, about 22,500 people commit suicide every year in the U.S with the help of a gun. Every month, about 50 women are murdered with a gun by their partner, and in total almost one million American women alive have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Furthermore, in 2018 alone the police have shot and killed 798 people in the state’s campaign to terrorize the masses and people of color and leave them in a state of fear. Thus, the major gun incidents in everyday life are suicides, domestic violence, and police brutality.

While we believe the change that we need cannot happen under capitalism, this does not mean we will sit idle and do nothing. Now that we’ve shed light on the major victims of gun violence, we can begin to look for real solutions that go beyond banning the tool that enables this violence.

To address gun violence, we must address toxic masculinity and many other conditions that lead to domestic abuse. Toxic masculinity creates the patterns of abuse that women must endure, but part of the reason women can’t escape these abusive environments is that they would have nowhere to go. Due to the capitalist system in America where rent is very expensive, fleeing toxic situations would often mean becoming homeless or living in a precarious state. Thus it is understandable why many women have to endure abusive relationships. There is also the fact that there is little accountability or punishment for abusers. As we have seen in the case of Judge Kavanaugh, the justice system protects abusers and doesn’t believe women even when they do come forward.

To address gun violence, we must address mental illness, alienation, and the consequences of an individualistic society where many people have no support. This means enacting universal healthcare to ensure that any person can receive adequate treatment for mental illnesses. This means rejecting capitalism’s toxic individualism that enforces the idea that if you don’t succeed in the system, whether it be socially or financially, that it is your fault and not of a system that only rewards a small class of people. Furthermore, this means building relationships in our communities, where we support each other and a build a collective strength to make these changes. It also means eliminating the economic conditions that lead so many to have to struggle to survive, and where suicide can appear to be the only way out of a dreary existence. The victims of suicide encompass our entire society, with middle aged white men being the most common, and indigenous peoples being the second highest (a whole other issue that can be discussed elsewhere). There are so factors that can lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts, but fundamentally humans are social beings that thrive off the support of each other, but capitalism eats away at these relationships.

To address gun violence, we must address police violence, where police killed 1,147 people in 2017, and 25% of the victims (about 300) were black despite comprising only 13% of the population. We must not only hold the police accountable (they are rarely ever prosecuted for their crimes), but we must also work to demilitarize and abolish the police itself. The police has grown into a domestic military force, which is evident any time a protest (think Ferguson) breaks out and riot squads are called in. In order for there to be meaningful gun control, the police and military (who we haven’t even talked about here) must be considered in the process.

Real gun control would address the class positions and culture that create gun violence in the first place. Real gun control would address the nature of U.S. imperialism, police brutality, and the justice system. Socialists must address gun violence in a meaningful way by confronting all of these issues. Interestingly enough the only time gun control was ever bipartisanly supported was when the left, led by the Black Panther Party, advocated bearing arms. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her article on the Socialist Rifle Association, the left bearing arms has historically scared the Republicans and forced them into gun control measures. It’s clear that the state is only ever scared of guns when the groups who actually threaten power structures, socialists and communists, decide to use them.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Fenway Socialists blog. 

For Workers and Patients, not Greed and Profits: Vote Yes on Question 1

by Socialist Nurse

For 4 months now, we’ve been waiting for management to fill an open nursing position in our department. The word from the nursing manager is that there are “very few applicants” none of whom appear to be a “good fit.” Insert your bromides about the nursing shortage here, if you’d like, but be prepared to put your foot in your mouth: It is no big secret that the biggest chunk of any hospital’s budget is labor and, therefore, payrolls which are the first to see cuts when CFOs go looking for ways to trim costs. (For some reason, building a new half billion dollar campus is not a cost, but an investment. Pity they don’t value their workers in the same way as buildings or profit margins.) Just over two years ago, our hospital management decided that the best way to cut costs would be to get rid of the most experienced and, therefore, most well compensated workers via a buyout offer. The offer was extended to 9% of the total workforce. Two nurses on our unit decided to take the package: both were nearing retirement and, in part, were made to fear for their benefits if they did not accept. I had been hired to replace one of them: a nurse with almost a decade of experience replacing a nurse with nearly four decades under her belt. It took several months for the department to fill the other position. That person has since left the position as has another recently hired nurse. Both referenced the heavy workload and stressful conditions caused by chronic short-staffing as reasons for leaving. That’s four nurses–all well-qualified–any of whom could have filled the current position.

There is no lack of studies pointing to how more adequate staffing leads to both better patient outcomes and worker satisfaction (for example, see this study looking at effects of the nursing ratios implemented in California; for more, see here). What does short-staffing look like? Well, for me, it is mostly stress-filled days punctuated by an unending chorus of ringing phones with anxious patients on the line and a full waiting room of patients waiting to be seen. However, the stress and burnout that result from short-staffing also  negatively affects the quality of care my colleagues and I can provide our patients. If you speak to any nurse, they could recount numerous situations where either their safety or that of their patients have been put in jeopardy because of short-staffing. The mandate put in place by Question 1 would allow nurses to provide the safe, timely and compassionate care that we want and have been trained to provide our patients. As it is now, we are often forced to choose between our well-being and that of our patients–skipping lunch, working past our shifts or rushing through safety protocols to make sure that we can meet their needs. This, as you can imagine, negatively affects our ability to continue providing the kind of care we want resulting in a vicious circle of overwork and diminishing outcomes across the board.

In short, what hospital executives mean when they say there is a nursing shortage and that it is too costly for them to hire more nurses is that they value profits over both workers and patients. Full stop. They’ve even put a number on it: $19 million–that’s how much hospital executives have been willing to spend to defeat Question 1 through misleading and deceptive ads designed with the singular purpose of stoking doubts and uncertainties among voters about “rigid government mandates” or “closure of small community hospitals.” Neither of these are based in facts. For example, at present, nurses have no say in the type of care they provide nor do they get assignments based on their knowledge and experience. Rather than a rigid government mandate, Question 1 would require healthcare facilities to develop, in partnership with their nurses, tools for measuring acuity to help determine appropriate staffing per unit based on the needs and condition of patients. I think many people would be surprised to find out that such things didn’t already exist. At present, nurses have little to no say in what appropriate staffing levels should be or how much time and care our patients need. These decisions are decided by executives and administrators; in other words, by something even more rigid than any government regulation (hint: it’s profits).

Safe patient limits are both a public health and a labor issue. If Question 1 passes, it would result in dramatically improved patient outcomes and working conditions for nurses in Massachusetts. It won’t solve all the problems facing healthcare today but it will improve healthcare access and health equity in a largely problematic system driven by profit margins and corporate greed.

Environmental Justice is as Much Social as It is Scientific

By Jibran M.

For those that know me well, I spent a lot of time outside this summer. Although I grew up in Maine, it hasn’t been until recently that I’ve made an earnest effort at connecting to nature. However, at best I’ve only managed to scrounge up time for a few weekend sprints up 4,000 foot peaks, before being called back to work at the job that enables me to sustain my way of life, among other things.

However, a certain dissonance rings within me when I attempt to connect with nature. This discomfort stems simply from the fact of how I, and the majority of other folks in our society, tend to treat nature. For most, there is this vaguely romantic idea of “The Great Outdoors” as something of an escape, an event that needs to be “experienced” and documented as an “adventure” on Instagram, Facebook, etc. It’s as if our occasional sojourns lead us to some level of abstraction where we can extract ourselves from the mundanities of modern society to arrive at some profound conclusions about ourselves; a god’s-eye view or Archimedean Point, if you will. However, this is the planet we live on – surely place and experience aren’t commodities from which some value can be extracted? Why is it that we are so fascinated with nature?

The young Karl Marx investigated man’s relationship with nature in Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844. For Marx, the increased objectification of labor under capitalism leads to a “loss of realization for the workers objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation.” In other words: the product of a worker’s labor only serves further alienate them from their peers. Unlike in his later writings, young Marx includes thoughts on an estrangement from nature as well. Marx explains,

“The worker can create nothing without nature, without the sensuous external world. It is the material on which his labor is realized, in which it is active, from which, and by means of which it produces.”

While man cannot create without nature, he is separated from the immediacy of it by simply acting upon it,

“Thus the more the worker by his labor appropriates the external world, sensuous nature, the more he deprives himself of the means of life […] Nature is man’s inorganic body – nature, that is, insofar as it is not itself human body.”

We are only able to perceive the natural world through a filtered and processed lens through the labor we undertake. Our organic connection to nature is stripped from us.

Our fascination with the great outdoors is born from the fact that the natural world that surrounds us is as alien to us as the deepest reaches of the ocean or the furthest stars in space. This state of individual alienation is exacerbated by the fact that this condition is shared by all our peers, “every self-estrangement of man, from himself and from nature, appears in the relation in which he places himself and nature to men other than and differentiated from himself.”

With its intersecting alienations, capitalism not only demands competition between our peers, but it demands a contradiction between nature and society or culture.

Could this contradiction, this conflict between man and society contribute to a sense of dread concerning the state of the environment? Perhaps climate justice must not only proselytize the science behind impending peril, but must also lead a project to reconceive the relationship between man and nature to bring an end to this mutual alienation. Unfortunately, Marx pretty much ends his analysis there. Good thing we have Engels! For all the benefits the sciences have to offer, he argued, its microscopic dividing-up of nature has only served to reinforce our anxiety towards it.

As Engels writes in his Socialism: Utopian and Scientific, the analysis of Nature into its individual parts, the grouping of the different natural processes and objects in definite classes, the study of the internal anatomy of organized bodies in their manifold forms — these were the fundamental conditions of the gigantic strides in our knowledge of Nature that have been made during the last 400 years. But this method of work has also left us as legacy the habit of observing natural objects and processes in isolation, apart from their connection with the vast whole (emphasis mine); of observing them in repose, not in motion; as constraints, not as essentially variables; in their death, not in their life. And when this way of looking at things was transferred by Bacon and Locke from natural science to philosophy, it begot the narrow, metaphysical mode of thought peculiar to the last century.”

For decades, the popular discourse on the environment, thanks to neoliberalism, has been the domain of mechanistic thought, as opposed to the rigors of dialectical thought, which would serve to expose to the natural contradictions between society and the natural world. Examining ecological phenomena from a purely deterministic standpoint, or in purely physical terms, renders the outside world as a great “other” — in one sense, “primitive.” However, it is undeniable that the current state of the world, and its climate, is anthropogenic, chiefly originating from humanity’s exploitation of the Earth. Since humanity emerged we have always been, at least in the context of the development of western civilization, estranged from the planet itself.  As Engels brilliantly writes in his Dialectics of Nature:

“Man alone has succeeded in impressing his stamp on nature, not only by shifting the plant and animal world from one place to another, but also by so altering the aspect and climate of his dwelling place […] step by step with the development of the hand went that of the brain; first of all consciousness of the conditions for separate practically useful actions, and later, among the more favoured peoples and arising from the preceding, insight into the natural laws governing them.”

Essentially, the more great scientific discoveries are made, the more we are alienated from nature’s original context as our understanding becomes more microscopic. The more microscopic nature becomes, the more we are callously alienated from it.

The conditions for mankind to flourish require that we have a somewhat antagonistic relationship with nature. In order to survive and thrive, humanity must expropriate its bountiful resources. However, the way capitalism has presented itself, and how quickly it has spread like a virus throughout the world obviates the need for the proletariat to engage in the opposing relationship between the natural world and society through dialectical materialism, to think more carefully about the consequences of our actions. Marx and Engels highlighted the dangerous path humanity has progressed without this kind of dialectic,

The bourgeoisie, by the rapid improvement of all instruments of production, by the immensely facilitated means of communication, draws all, even the most barbarian, nations into civilisation. […] It compels all nations, on pain of extinction, to adopt the bourgeois mode of production; it compels them to introduce what it calls civilisation into their midst, i.e., to become bourgeois themselves. In one word, it creates a world after its own image.

Without a proper dialectic, nature is simply a problem to be conquered. When nature is simply something to be conquered, and when our understanding of it is microscopic and mechanistic, we seek to break it down even more with even bigger displays of expropriation. With the bourgeois firmly in control, a society has been built that subsists on toxic gas spewing automobiles; that is nourished on the sale of even more dangerous weapons. Even so, we can still sense how alienated we are and preserve “artifacts” of nature in zoos, museums, and natural parks. Theodor Adorno laments this in his Minima Moralia,

The more purely nature is preserved and transplanted by civilization, the more implacably it is dominated. […] . The rationalization of culture, in opening its doors to nature, thereby completely absorbs it, and eliminates with difference the principle of culture, the possibility of reconciliation.”

We participate in this grand illusion of uncritical domination through our dates to botanical gardens, our Instagram-worthy hikes, and our family camping trips. So, if we can’t forge a proper connection and respect for what’s natural through the integration of our current culture, does this mean the proper solution is to hike the Appalachian Trail for 6 months? Should we fully capitulate to nature? What I hope we’ve come upon through this analysis is to realize that there were various discrete historical events related to the development and spread of capitalism (from the so-called “enlightenment” and the industrial revolution, to the imperialism of Baconian science) which has brought us to this inflection point in the development of humanity and nature. The very fact that climate change is such a political issue necessarily exposes it to dialectical examination.

However, instead of pushing for milquetoast legislation such as “carbon tax credits” or an encouragement to simply regress to a “primitive” state, we must, as socialists, pursue a radical transformation not only of our social relations with each other, but with nature as well.

What we need is a global revolution which totally eliminates the very concept of “capital.” It is only then we have even a possibility of forging a more collaborative existence with the world around us. When we unite as the proletariat to forge the world according to our “own taste,” then we can have a better shot at saving the planet from climate disaster and finally “connect” with nature.

Having Children Won’t Fix You: A Socialist Feminist Response to Connor Kilpatrick

pewg_emilygoldman_1
Emma Goldman tells a mostly cis male crowd about birth control in 1916. Hey, if it was worth saying once, it’s worth saying again. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons.

By Amy Brown

Connor Kilpatrick’s recent essay for Jacobin, “It’s Okay to Have Children,” argues for having children by speaking on behalf of women As a cis woman, I’ll start this off with a personal anecdote, since accounts of or data from personal experience are notably absent from the essay. Then I’ll move onto a more general critique.

It’s September 2018, which means that it’s almost 20 years since I conceived my son, who is my only child. I did not “decide” to conceive my son: in fact, his conception was the accidental result of a one-night stand under the influence. Nor would I characterize my carrying the pregnancy to term as a “decision” so much as an inchoate impulse. I was raised Catholic, felt terribly lonely at the time, and believed on some level that a child would “fix” me.

At the time of my pregnancy, I made good money and had solid health insurance. By the terms of Kilpatrick’s argument, in which financial support is the main guarantee of happy moms and kids, this should have been true. Instead, I found myself completely undone by the prospect of spending most of my waking hours with a tiny, dependent human being. I discovered quickly that I had very little on the inside to give this child. Fearful of the rage that would result from being trapped in what looked to me like a domestic graveyard for 18+ years, and even more fearful that I would take that out on my son, I placed him in an open adoption. (Middle-class white ladies get to elect open adoptions; not everyone is as fortunate.)

The only thing I regret about the adoption is not being able to watch my son grow up, although I saw him twice a year for most of his childhood and adolescence. I am certain he was and is better off where he was. I know that I am certainly better off for having had freedom from family responsibility, which, even though I was born with a uterus, is decidedly Not My Thing. I was born and raised to be a thinker and writer. I’m not social at all; had I been born with a penis, I would likely been able to have had a partner and family too.

All of this runs contrary to the central threads of Kilpatrick’s essay. While that essay gives an occasional nod to legal abortion access and freedom from nuclear family structures in socialist countries, it makes the following poorly founded assumptions:

  • The vast majority of people who can get pregnant (referred to below as AFAB folks or cishet women) want at their core to bear (or raise) children at some point in their lives.
  • There is a prevalent social stigma against people who want to bear and raise children.
  • Child-bearing comes about via an individual and conscious decision as opposed to being primarily the product of biological determinism and social and economic forces.
  • Refraining from having children is in accord with the current capitalist hegemony, as evinced by present or future threats to state budgeting for health insurance and education.

Gender Essentialism and Social Pressure to Have Children

Using phrases like “the desires of women” (apparently, all women), Kilpatrick really seems to think that most or all AFAB folks want to bear and raise children.

To the contrary, many AFAB folks do not want to bear or raise children at all, regardless of economic circumstances. Cishet men, who bear less of the childcare burden, are, unsurprisingly, more likely to want children than their partners. Some of the reluctance of cishet women regarding children has to do with the anticipated perennial lack of reciprocity in cishet households around chores: guess who still does most of the (unpaid) work. I’ll say more about unwaged household work later.

The CDC study that Kilpatrick mentions (but does not cite) regarding the gap between the desired number and actual number of children borne by Americans, by necessity, does not focus primarily on the number of American AFAB folks whose desired number of children is zero. As many AFAB folks who don’t want kids can attest, talking or going public about your desire not to have any children is grounds for a wide range of signs of social disapproval, ranging from hurt-puppy looks to downright familial rejection¹:

  • If you are under 40 and want a tubal ligation (i.e. permanent sterilization), you can generally expect a fight or complete refusal from your gynecologist.
  • If you are bold enough to join a public support group for people who don’t want children, such as the NoKidding! group, you can expect public shaming and character assassination. This blogger had such a piece published and repeatedly republished in the Atlanta State Constitution.
  • Many cishet women who don’t want children partner with men who, while initially supportive at the outset of their relationship, back off and often dump them when they don’t change their tune as time goes on and the march down the aisle becomes more plausible.

It remains an act of social defiance, and quite a bit of work, for cishet women to refrain consciously from having children. Any “stigma” to the contrary seems to be confined to recent thinkpieces in the Guardian and New York Times and certain works of literary fiction, all of which are read mostly by wealthy white liberals. In other words, the stigma against childbirth that Kilpatrick mentions, if it in fact exists, would affect mostly white women.

Moreover, any preference to remain child-free today is quickly being mooted (again) by capitalist forces: the increased unavailability of safe, legal abortions and the cost of prescriptions and procedures for birth control threaten to make those who can get pregnant dependent on their children’s biological fathers (or on their extended families) on a widespread basis, just as their grandmothers and great-grandmothers were.

Pregnancy and Childrearing as a “Decision”

Kilpatrick really need not worry about most cishet women not bearing children at all or being forced into a “decision” not to get pregnant. If you have a uterus and ovaries, have sex (ever) with someone with a penis and active sperm, and do not have a biological impediment to fertility, odds are that sooner or later you will get pregnant, and eventually one of those pregnancies will come to term.

But what about birth control? Again, if you’re AFAB, have sex with people with penises, haven’t had your tubes tied, and don’t have another impediment to fertility, you probably will miss a birth control dosage eventually. There are more reliable, less error-prone BC methods, such as IUDs and longer-lasting hormonal birth control, but their side effects may make you have to discontinue them.² Birth control, by itself, does not make pregnancy and childbirth into a real “choice” for everyone.

Kilpatrick uses the word “decision” in connection with pregnancy and childbirth quite a bit. In the face of biological determinism, social pressure, and economic necessity, thinking about pregnancy and childbirth in terms of free will is a destructive fallacy. The teen moms Kilpatrick mentions whose “decisions” to bear and raise children are lauded by (white) academics and the chattering classes? Did anyone talk to those teen moms about the circumstances of their pregnancies and births? Perhaps they thought about having abortions but because of parental consent laws, were prevented from doing so. Another interesting question: how much unpaid support they’re getting from people outside their families of origin. (The burden of childcare for children of teen moms often falls on the grandparents, many of whom have full-time jobs and have already been through the childcare mill at least once.)

Stigmas and demonization, while destructive to their targets, simply do not prevent childbirth. A recent study by the United Nations projected that this planet will be home to 11 billion people by the year 2100, 82 years from now. Even more daunting: that amounts to an increase of nearly 9 billion people since the year 1950. Given that exploitative societies and systems combine to make life difficult at best for the vast majority of those billions living today, one wonders how any call for or encouragement of more human births can possibly be justified.

The Fate of People Who Bear Children in a Capitalist Society: 150 Years of Socialist Feminist Thought

Socialist feminists, from Marx and Engels onward³, have spent quite a bit of time thinking and writing about the many people who can and do get pregnant. It’s valuable when thinking about these issues to read what they’ve written. You can find an excellent survey of socialist feminist writing in Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

By the time the Industrial Revolution was well underway in Europe, the historical exclusion of cis women from the sphere of waged work was so pervasive, and so destructive to their freedom and autonomy, that Karl Marx himself remarked⁴:

However terrible and disgusting the dissolution, under the capitalist system, of the old family ties may appear, nevertheless, modern industry, assigning as it does an important part in the process of production, outside the domestic sphere, to women, to young persons, and to children of both sexes, creates a new economic foundation for a higher form of the family and the relations between the sexes…

Moreover, it is obvious that the fact of the collective working group being composed of individuals of both sexes and all ages, must necessarily, under suitable conditions, become a source of humane development; although in its spontaneously developed, brutal, capitalistic form, where the labourer exists for the process of production, and not the process of production for the labourer, that fact is a pestiferous source of corruption and slavery.

By the mid-twentieth century, Western capitalist society, with respect to labor of all kinds, consisted largely of two work realms: the waged workplace, whose inhabitants were primarily cis men (with the exception of gendered waged work such as teaching and nursing), and the household, where the (unpaid) cooking and cleaning work to help the husband maintain his job and get the children to school fell to the wife.⁵

It was this world upon which the socialist feminists of the 1960’s and 1970’s based their refinements of Marxist thought with respect to the role in a capitalist society of unwaged reproductive labor. To summarize: historically, as capitalism has taken hold, AFAB folks have been forced out of the waged labor market in favor of bearing and raising children and providing unpaid domestic support for their cis male partners.⁶ This made them economically dependent on those partners no matter how well (or poorly) those partners provided for their families. Unpaid reproductive labor enables capitalist enterprises to ensure the relative health and stability of their (cis male) labor forces without having to spend more money on them.

Over the last 40 years, socialist feminists, by and large, have proposed two main solutions to the problem of unpaid reproductive labor⁷:

  • Compensate unpaid household and childcare work with a wage. These ideas, the fruit of the 1970’s Wages for Housework movement, have given way to the far less radical notion of integrating AFAB people into the waged workforce on a grand scale.
  • Remove barriers to AFAB folks working for a wage. The last few decades have in fact seen a large uptick in cis women in the workplace, which has afforded them some independence and, in many cases, ability to choose work that suits them better than household or childcare work would do.

Availability of waged work to AFAB folks has done some of what Marx thought it might do: it’s given them some independence to choose work that might suit them and, in many cases, has allowed them to choose (or to leave) their partners without massive economic consequences.

It should be noted, of course, that much of the available work for cis women is still highly gendered and subject to other biases:

  • Should they prefer traditionally male work (such as programming or construction), they often face harassment and intimidation on the job with little or no help from their employers (or, often, their largely-male unions).
  • Ancestry and class background will often limit the jobs that are available.

Also, making waged work available to AFAB folks does not solve the problem of unequal responsibility for reproductive labor: in fact, they generally wind up doing more hours of work of all kinds per week than their cis male counterparts.⁸ In some ways, they are super-workers in a way that nineteenth-century capitalists could only have dreamed of: performing waged work often at a deep discount of a cis man’s wage, then sustaining their partners and children (laborers-to-be) with domestic work. If the household’s waged income is high enough, some of the domestic work is typically outsourced, many times to folks of color at a low wage. While this frees wealthy white cis women from some work responsibility, it simply shifts the burden to their sisters of color.

How, then, do we go about achieving gender parity AND a society in which people can do waged work (or not) AND bear and raise children (or not) as they desire? Kilpatrick alludes favorably to some circumstances that resonate with arguments made by autonomous Marxists like Kathi Weeks. It is these that I’ll turn to next.

Happiness and the “Refusal of Work”

Kilpatrick mentions a study that found that some of the happiest people in the world are Dutch women, many of whom, thanks to a robust welfare state, do not work full-time. While this finding could easily be construed as a reason to steer or coerce AFAB folks from waged work back into the kitchen and bedroom, it also happens to be a telling commentary on waged work.

The fact is that “the workplace remains the fundamental unfree association of civil society”⁹. Having to enter into a contract to sell your wages is bad enough, but the exercise of authority and hierarchy that follows on a daily basis is, if you’re paying attention at all, much more destructive to your well-being over time.

According to Kathi Weeks, orthodox Marxist and socialist feminist thought, especially of the Anglo-American variety, uncritically promotes an ethic that work, and lots of it, is good for the person and for the soul.¹⁰ For example, orthodox Marxism holds that organization at the industrial workplace will bring about a socialist revolution. This requires a workplace and a substantial time commitment at that place. Many socialist feminists see no problem with a substantial part-time commitment to waged work and a second shift of unpaid work, although they would like to see cis male partners take more of a share in that. That’s still…a lot of work, especially when commuting is figured in. All told, primacy is given to being very busy quite a bit in some recognizable way.

Autonomous Marxist thought¹¹ has given rise to the notion of “refusal of work” and a “post-work” world. Following this line of thought, Weeks (reiterating and restating the demands of the Wages For Housework movement) argues that universal basic income (UBI) would allow people a choice simply to do less. They could engage in “work” as is defined today that interests them or that needs to be done to support themselves and their families, and the dichotomy between “valued” labor for a wage and “unvalued” labor at home would disappear.

It’s important to note that “refusal of work” does not signify turning away from all life-sustaining labor, but rather refuses to valorize work as the superlative moral good of the world of Weber’s Protestant ethic. Food needs to be obtained, prepared, and stored; baby bums need wiping and changing’ leftist screeds must be written. What the “refusal of work” theorists say is that those activities are no inherently “better” than producing YouTube makeup how-to videos or birdwatching, and that yes, fewer hours per day of busyness than the Western tradition prescribes is probably better for most people overall.

The notion of our current neoliberal governments espousing anything like UBI is in fact controversial. To benefit most people, the authors of a UBI scheme would truly have to have the interests of most people at heart. The best chance of that would be with a socialist government. That being said, Weeks’ critique of unthinking replication of a “work makes you whole” ethic is on point, especially in the United States.

Conclusion

Kilpatrick does not mention UBI as a possible solution to overall economic and social inequality or the unhappiness caused by overemphasis on work. It’s unclear whose unhappiness he would like to reduce. Simply guaranteeing more money available for certain people to have and raise children will not help everyone: for example, it did not help me.

Gender-based beliefs about or prescriptions for behavior, or creations of anti-natalist bogeymen whose “scariness” just happens to coincide with some of capitalism’s more insidious forces against less privileged people, will not help us achieve a more equitable or happier society.

It’s also clear that the higher rate of population growth we’ve seen over the last few decades has not led to more people being happier or more free. In addition to a fair distribution of wealth, social attitudes and practices that create reproductive justice are a possibility. As enunciated by the international, multi-ethnic SisterSong movement, a society that honors the principles of reproductive justice would offer:

  • Freedom to have children, or not to have children, as you desire. This freedom includes the practices of birth control and abortion but is not limited to those practices.
  • Freedom to RAISE any children you bear in a healthy, happy environment. This includes support from the community (not just the biological family) in raising those children.
  • Sexual freedom for all, pointedly for non-men and for queer people. Sexual freedom encompasses the desire to be celibate: compulsory or expected sex does not have a place here.
  • Access to reproductive health services for all. Reproductive health services for trans folks who don’t intend to have children are very much part of this.

Donna Haraway’s intriguing book Staying with the Trouble: Making Kin in the Chthulucene adds an important point to the necessary element of reproductive justice: recognition that humans share the planet with nonhuman creatures and that any reproductive freedom for humans cannot be practiced with full justice unless successful co-existence with nonhuman creatures is continually taken into account. The human species cannot survive without its non-human counterparts.

We have some excellent ideas available to us to guide the way toward reproductive justice that aren’t just about having more kids. Let’s talk about those instead.

Amy E. Brown, socialist feminist, toils in Cambridge, MA and spins a few miles north of the city. She sells her labor by writing software documentation, and she does this and that to help build a socialist movement where she lives and works. When she’s not busy with all of that, she’s out on her bike, reading, or listening to podcasts like Jessa Crispin’s Public Intellectual, which is where she learned about Donna Haraway. Many thanks to John Reilly for his thoughtful review and comments.

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¹ I’m a member of several “child-free” channels on social media and can attest to the positive horror expressed to AFAB people who intend to prevent conception permanently. This is a social force that Kilpatrick either doesn’t know about or fails to mention.

² Interestingly, new birth control methods intended for use by AMAB folks tend to fail in trials because of side effects that, while the subject of legitimate concern, are no worse than those frequently endured by AFAB folks who use birth control. Because AFAB folks generally pay a higher price for pregnancy than do AMAB folks, however, they put up with it and continue to take birth control that harms their health.

³ It’s often a pleasure for a modern feminist to read Marx or Engels: some of their attitudes are typically Victorian, but in general they were friends to women in word and deed. Their critiques of the nuclear family, which is too often a crucible of misogyny, are particularly refreshing.

⁴ Karl Marx, Capital.

⁵ Kathi Weeks, The Problem With Work: Feminism, Marxism, Antiwork Politics, and Postwork Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2011), p. 28. Available at https://libcom.org/files/the-problem-with-work_-feminism-marxism-kathi-weeks.pdf.

⁶ Silvia Federici, Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation (Autonomedia, 2004), passim.

⁷ Weeks, p. 12.

⁸ Arlie Hochschild and Anne Machung, The Second Shift: Working Parents and the Revolution at Home (Viking Penguin, 1989), reissued 1997 and 2012, passim.

⁹ Michael Denning, Culture in an Age of Three Worlds (Verso, 2004), p. 224, cited in Weeks, p. 23.

¹⁰ Weeks, passim.

¹¹ “Anarchist Perspectives on Work and its Other,” Feminist Perspectives on Class and Work (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy).

Toward Radical Democracy: A Proposal for Internal Voting Reform in Boston DSA

by Kit C., Treasurer, and Evan L., Steering Committee

Democratic Socialists of America is an organization founded on the idea that socialism is inseparable from democracy. The democracy we envision is not one founded on the hollow institutions of liberal-democratic representative government, but a direct, radical democracy grounded in true collective liberation. We demand that each person has a fair say in any decision that affects them. In keeping with these ideals, the highest governing body in Boston DSA is our membership: When we must decide the direction of our chapter, all of us together set the course.

In practice, we determine our chapter’s direction by voting. But we also know that voting in itself does not necessarily produce truly democratic decision making — and that, unfortunately, is exactly where we stand at present. Our reliance on in-person and proxy participation at general meetings has led to the exclusion of many of our comrades from our deliberative process and votes. By failing to enfranchise all of our members, Boston DSA has fallen far short of the radical democracy to which we aspire.

We can and must do better. In response, we have proposed a bylaw amendment that will allow Boston DSA to develop a robust system of integrated online and in-person deliberation and voting. Only by ensuring that each and every one of our comrades in Boston DSA has the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy can we live up to our own socialist ideals.

Our Current Voting System
With a handful of exceptions (such as officer elections), all of Boston DSA’s chapter-wide collective decision making takes place at general meetings (GMs), usually held in the late afternoon on the third Saturday of each month. Members can either attend the two-hour meeting in person or participate via livestream by designating a proxy ahead of time who will vote on their behalf. If participating by proxy, a member must watch the livestream and, once the question is called, inform their representative of their vote via email or text message. Combined attendance at these meetings usually falls between 100 and 200 members, roughly 10% of our 1,500 member chapter. The general meeting reaches decisions by a ballot of those in attendance after an in-person debate governed by Robert’s Rules. Debate is generally limited to two speakers for and two against a proposal. Extensions to debate are possible through a motion, second, and majority vote. Each speaker has two minutes maximum to make their case.

Failures of Inclusion Are Failures of Democracy
Our current system bars anyone who is unavailable for those specific two hours — for any reason — from having any say in decisions that affect the trajectory of the organization as a whole. Each month we inevitably disenfranchise many of our comrades. Even worse, members whose time is most dominated by the demands of survival under capitalism — those whose schedules are the most inflexible due to their deprivation from so-called leisure time — are most likely to be excluded. Not all of us get to stop working after clocking out on Friday evening. Moving the time of our general meetings cannot adequately fix this problem, as it will merely shift the burden to other members who will not be able to attend the new timeslot.

Some have argued against implementing online voting on the grounds that if you aren’t “dedicated enough” or “active enough” to show up at a specific meeting, you don’t deserve a voice or a vote. We reject both the factual basis and prescriptive conclusion of this argument. A person’s availability during a specific two hour block is a totally arbitrary measure of their level of involvement in or dedication to our work. We know for a fact that many highly involved organizers have missed out on the chance to vote, many repeatedly. Other members, many of whom do participate in working group activities, have been unable to become as involved as they want to in chapter-wide decision-making because they have been consistently disenfranchised. (You can hear from some of them in their own words here.) Perhaps more importantly, we believe that we have no right to ask for anyone’s labor or commitment unless we remove barriers to their full and equal participation in our decision-making.

As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

Shift workers whose bosses control when they work; tipped workers who rely on more lucrative weekend and evening shifts; other workers (including organizers) who must travel frequently or work evenings and weekends; people who care for children or other loved ones; anyone surprised last-minute by an emergency, such as a funeral or sudden illness; people with disabilities, chronic illnesses, or forms of neurodivergence that disrupt their ability to use the proxy system: the current system of proxy and in-person voting disproportionately silences them all. As socialists upholding ideals of radical democracy, we must do right by these and all of our comrades and ensure we are all truly enfranchised.

The State of Our Debate
We also must ask ourselves how deciding everything solely by in-person and proxy voting at general meetings affects how we deliberate. Based on what we have observed over many months, we have concluded that constraining our formal debate to a period of less than an hour per issue — rigidly structured and artificially confined by the binary adversarial framework of bourgeois parliamentary procedure — does not facilitate substantive, considered, and comradely deliberation.

Those who object to absentee voting assert that the General Meeting should be our most important forum for deliberation, and that in-person debate is our most reliable medium for ensuring the broader membership is sufficiently exposed to a wide range of views on any given matter. We reject this premise. In fact, relying exclusively on in-person oral debate excludes many of our comrades and deprives all of us of the time and context required to make a fully considered decision. By limiting our official deliberation to oral debate in the format of two speakers for, two speakers against (or even four or six speakers for and against) and carefully worded points of information, we necessarily limit both the time available for deliberation, the range of views represented, and the depth and quantity of information presented.

Oratory is certainly lively and exciting, but as a medium it is not well suited for conveying complex arguments and the full context around them. Two to four minute speeches cannot provide sufficient room for speakers to make nuanced arguments, present in-depth information, or suggest alternative methods for accomplishing our chapter’s goals. The short-form debate format also unfairly amplifies the voices of those members who are already insiders in the chapter (by virtue of having access to unofficial discussion channels, and therefore having already explored the issue at hand) and those blessed with the ability to think on their feet and quickly and forcefully convey their ideas in speech.

How could it possibly be the case that time-limited in person debate is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

As it stands, the majority of our members are reduced to spectators as a handful of chapter insiders dominate the stage. Those whose strengths lie in other areas, or who simply do not feel comfortable or prepared enough to put themselves on the spot in front of a hundred or more other people, are effectively shut out of the discussion. Even if a member wants to speak, they are unlikely to get the opportunity to do so because there simply isn’t time for more than a tiny fraction of those attending to participate. Most members are silenced; they must satisfy themselves with hoping one of the few speakers recognized by the chair will represent their point of view. How, then, could it possibly be the case that this format is the best way to make sure all views on an issue — especially less widely-shared ones — are heard?

Even if enough time were available for wider-ranging and more in-depth oral discussion, our current process still unacceptably limits the time we’re allotted in which to come to fully considered and informed decisions. Most members must deliberate solely within the period for debate and voting — usually fifteen to thirty minutes. They lack the the time to verify the facts presented, seek out alternative views, self-educate on the broader context and history of an issue, ask questions, discuss the matter in more searching or open-ended manner, “sleep on it,” or use any number of other strategies they use to come to an informed decision in all other areas of their lives.

All of us deserve more time and space to fully consider the decisions we’re called upon to make. But right now, we force many of our comrades to make snap judgments about critical and complex issues based on brief speeches forced into a simplified binary framework of “for” or “against.” We certainly don’t give most members a chance to form a deep enough understanding of an issue ahead of time to propose their own alternative solutions or contribute amendments to existing proposals. Our reliance on general meetings as venues for collective decision-making has meant that most of our members are deprived of the opportunity to fully participate in our internal democracy. This failure demands our urgent action as comrades to repair it.

Our Proposal: Voting Reform for Full Inclusion
In response to this untenable situation, we propose creating an official online forum for both discussion and voting in order to create more a deliberative, inclusive, substantive, and therefore more fully democratic process for chapter-wide decision-making. We propose instituting a seven day window during which members have the opportunity to deliberate and vote. This new process would complement (not supplant) oral discussion at the general meeting with ongoing online discussion and online voting.

  • Three days before the General Meeting: Discussion online (summarized for GM)
  • Day of General Meeting: Oral discussion (recorded and shared online)
  • Three days following the General Meeting: Discussion and voting online

We do not propose a specific technical approach or detailed process here because doing so is both beyond the scope of this piece and would also be presumptuous. Any voting system must be democratically developed by our members. Doing so will require input and labor from multiple working groups, committees, teams, and individuals. In particular, we will need to prioritize designing an online space and voting process that fully accounts for the accessibility needs of disabled comrades (for example, compatibility with screen readers) and provides for full participation by members who lack consistent access to broadband internet, comfort with following web-based discussions, or voting online. We will need to find ways to share the substance of online discussions with those participating mainly in oral debate, and vice versa. We’re confident, however, that together Boston DSA members have the experience, skills, knowledge, and drive to build an effective, inclusive, and accessible process.

Any solution we devise should encourage considered, long-form, asynchronous discussion; maximize deep and broad participation by our members; and be easily discoverable by all members yet private enough that they feel comfortable speaking freely under their own names without fear of surveillance. All of the formal and informal discussion channels on which substantive debate currently takes place in this chapter lack at least one of these critical features. For example, both Medium and the Political Education Working Group blog are highly public and do not allow for back and forth discussion by multiple parties. Substantive discussion of pieces published in either venue almost always instead take place on Twitter or Facebook. In order to even become aware of these informal discussions, you must be friends with, or at least follow, the right people. Many members eschew these platforms entirely out of concern for their privacy or aversion to the sound-bite focused discussion style they encourage. Similarly, while Slack is useful tool for quickly organizing practical plans of actions, that’s exactly because it facilitates a rapid, short form, and relatively synchronous chatroom-style conversation.

This proposal, if implemented, will provide members unable to attend (in-person or online) a particular general meeting with the opportunity to fully and substantively participate in our democratic decision-making, not just to cast a vote. By extending our deliberative process into a flexible week-long asynchronous discussion and voting period, we will allow many more of our comrades the opportunity to educate themselves and each other and come to decisions they can be confident in. Instead of missing out if they happen to be unavailable during a specific two-hour period, members can log on during a break at work, once they’ve put the kids to bed, or simply whenever they’re feeling up to it. And when they do, they’ll have far more time to fully review others’ arguments, join the discussion if they wish, and seek out further information. A dedicated online forum will also help to level the playing field by surfacing perspectives from members who would otherwise go unheard. Instead of gambling that they’ll be lucky enough to get the chance to speak at the general meeting, each member has the opportunity to share their views when and how they see fit.

Here’s the root of the question before us: do you trust your comrades to make informed decisions based on their values and beliefs given the information available to them? If we do, we have the responsibility to fully enfranchise each and every member.

Toward Radical Democracy
Tinkering with the terms of our internal democracy cannot by itself fully resolve the central contradiction of socialist organizing: that those who need socialism the most often have the fewest resources (time, money, energy) left over to work towards its victory. Indeed, nothing short of abolishing capitalism, white supremacy, heteropatriarchy, and other systems of oppression can resolve this contradiction. But implementing an asynchronous online decision-making process is something we can do, right now, to help our organization better reflect our own values and the future we’re all fighting for.

If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

Is it right to say that if a member has a last-minute emergency, scheduling conflict, or health crisis, they forfeit their right to participate in collective decision-making in a socialist organization? If we want our fellow members of Boston DSA to deepen their involvement in our shared work, we must first show them that their involvement matters to us — that they are our comrades. If we fail to ensure that every member has the opportunity to participate fully in our work, how can we ask them to offer us their labor, time, and solidarity?

We’re presented with a choice. We can perpetuate a system of decision-making designed for a much smaller body of socialist organizers that fails to facilitate substantive, participatory discussion and prevents large portions of our membership from having any say in decisions which affect us all. Or we can take the opportunity to enfranchise vastly more of our comrades in Boston DSA. All that is required is the will to build a better system together and the courage to trust our comrades. To us, the choice is clear.

If you would like to sign on in support of this proposal, please click here. To date, over 100 members of Boston DSA have endorsed it. We also welcome support from DSA comrades in other chapters.

This piece was republished from Medium. Co-signatures, as well as a note regarding earlier drafts of the piece, can be found at the original post, which is being continuously updated as signatures are added.

MA Nurses Say “Yes on 1” and You Should Too. Here’s Why.

by Nafis H.

On Wednesday, August 15th, the Boston DSA Healthcare working group organized a panel on an ongoing crisis in the healthcare industry – chronic understaffing and overworking of nurses leading to poorer patient care. The discussion centered around Safe Patient Limits, a proposal that is appearing as Question 1 on the ballot of the Massachusetts primaries on Nov. 6 and would push for a new patient safety act. The proposed law would limit how many patients can be assigned to each registered nurse (RN) in MA hospitals and certain other healthcare facilities; the max number of patients per RN would vary by type of unit and level of care. More details of the proposed law can be found on the Safe Patient Limits website.

The panelists consisted of a few Boston DSA members, including co-chair Beth Huang, and Jared Hicks, a campaign organizer with the Massachusetts Nurses Association (MNA); MNA is leading the charge on the “Yes on 1” campaign that is pushing for the patient safety law reforms through the ballot question. MNA also put the issue on the ballot after collecting the 150,000 signatures needed to do so over the past year. The goal of the panel was to host a discussion on how the safe patient limits ballot initiative related to Marx’s labor theory of value, the opposition to the campaign by the bourgeois class and how helping the campaign can fit in with Boston DSA’s goal of establishing socialism and liberation of all people.

Marx’s Labor Theory of Value

As a Boston DSA member described, the origin of Marx’s labor theory of value can be traced to Adam Smith’s description of how a free market is supposed to work:

“The real price of every thing, what every thing really costs to the man who wants to acquire it, is the toil and trouble of acquiring it. What every thing is really worth to the man who has acquired it, and who wants to dispose of it or exchange it for something else, is the toil and trouble which it can save to himself, and which it can impose upon other people.”

In simpler terms, this basically says that the price (exchange value) of something is derived from the amount of labor (human effort) put into it; the labor includes both the immediate labor of manufacturing, transporting, marketing and selling the thing, and also the indirect labor associated with the equipment required for such activities. This idea is also applicable for non-physical goods, and thus can be extended to services as well, such as caring for patients.

Marx took this idea all the way to the end, assuming a perfectly functioning capitalist free market, and showed that at the core of this idea is exploitation. He asked that if labor creates all the value, then where does profit come from? Profit, in a nutshell, is the surplus value, i.e. the difference between the value of what a worker produces in a given time and what the worker is paid in wages for the same time period. From the capitalist perspective, it wouldn’t make sense to hire someone if no surplus value can be obtained from that action, and therefore, exploitation is inherently built into the capitalist system. Historically, the surplus value that workers have produced, generations after generations, across societies, has all gone into the pockets of a certain class of people, the rulers and the bourgeoisie, who have maintained this vicious cycle through a combination of law, tradition, and force.

Capitalism further exacerbates the exploitation of workers in the modern era by 1) alienating the workers from immediate means of subsistence (we buy everything we need from the market, a concept Marx termed “generalized commodity production”), and 2) fostering competition between companies in the global market that forces them to reinvest that surplus value constantly. The latter also contributes to a cyclical capitalist economic crisis and environmental destruction. The exploitation of the workers can take many forms in the modern era, but the most profitable ones seem to involve speedup of work (shorter deadlines), increased workload, extensions to the workday (longer working hours), and the blurring of the work-life balance (checking work emails at home or over weekends). Therefore, to paraphrase Marx, what determines a working day is essentially the result of the struggle between the capitalist and the working classes. The class struggle is the fight over control of the surplus value created by workers – we can fight back by demanding higher wages, shorter working hours, better working conditions and less intense working pace. And these tenets are all in accordance with the logic behind the Safe Patient Limits ballot initiative.

Safe Patients Limit Ballot Initiative

The next segment of the discussion was led by Jared Hicks, a fellow Boston DSA member and a campaign organizer with MNA. Jared described the chronic understaffing at hospitals across MA, a problem that has been continuing at least for a decade now. The MNA has been leading the charge in fighting for both nurses’ and patients’ rights, not only in Boston (eg. the Tufts strike last year) but also across the state in western Mass. Nurses are the caregivers that spend most time with patients and therefore, are also liable for their patients. The profiteering nature of the hospitals lead the administration to force more workload on the nurses, thus subjecting nurses to cut interaction time with individual patients and reduce the quality of care that they can provide for such patients. This, in turn, leads to poorer patient care quality, increased number of preventable readmissions, and overall higher cost of healthcare. A fellow DSA member present at the event, Gemma, described how a nurse had caught certain irregularities in her father’s health condition which the doctor hadn’t picked up on, and how that helped her father get earlier treatment and prevent future medical expenses for her family.

The Safe Patients Limit initiative proposes a revision of the Patient Safety Act, and has been written by nurses for patients. Under the new law, which will go into effect Jan 1, 2019, if passed, different limits on nurse-to-patient ratio will be set according to the needs of the units. For example, in units with anesthesia, a 1:1 ratio will be mandated for patients under anesthesia and a 1:2 ratio will be mandated for patients recovering from anesthesia. Also, if this initiative passes, MA will be the second state in the US to have implemented a limit on nurse-to-patient ratio; CA passed a similar law in 1999, which went into effect in 2004.

Of course, the healthcare industry’s “ruling class” is not sitting idly by as MNA gears up their campaign. The MA Health & Hospital Association PAC, under the name “Coalition to Protect Patient Safety”, have funneled money into their opposition campaign against MNA’s “Yes on 1” campaign. The top contributors to this PAC are mostly made up of CEOs and top executives of healthcare companies such as Gene Green (President and CEO, South Shore Health System, Inc.), Mark A Keroack (President and CEO, Baystate Health, Inc.), Bruce Auerbach (President and CEO, Sturdy Memorial Hospital) and Joseph White (President and CEO and Trustee, Lowell General Hospital) (info obtained through MA Office of Campaign and Political Finance). While the publicly available donation amount may seem meager, it is an open secret that ballot initiatives cost millions of dollars and there is a lot of dark money in play, as exemplified by the charter school ballot question from 2016. The PAC is also supported by the American Nurses Association (ANA), the Emergency Nurses Association (ENA), and a long list of Chamber of Commerce boards with a few other industry organizations.

The main arguments against the ballot initiative include increased cost of healthcare that might lead to closure of hospitals, a shortage of nurses, federally mandated nurse-to-patient ratios and not enough money to hire nurses. Some of these arguments have been already proved false by the situation in CA. A 2010 study looking at patient outcomes across different medical units showed that since enactment of the staffing law in 2004, unfavorable outcomes in CA hospitals have decreased compared to hospitals in states without such policies. Additionally, nurses in CA hospitals were less likely to receive verbal abuse and complaints from patients families, experience job dissatisfaction and burnout, and in fact, suffered 30% less occupational injuries. The CA hospitals also showed increased retention of the nurse staff, and the staffing increased at a rate higher than compared to other states. Contrary to fears that overall skill level of nurses would fall because of the law, CA hospitals actually saw an overall increase in skill level of nurses.

The argument that hospitals don’t have enough money to employ more nurses is an age-old boogeyman pulled out by hospital administration everytime the workers have demanded higher wages and better working conditions. Given that hospitals have been found to stow away money in offshore accounts in the Cayman Islands, and that hospital CEOs have been making more and more money every year, this is a laughable argument. The most egregious display of such lies is probably the allegations that Tufts Hospital administration ended up paying a similar amount of money to the temporary nurses they hired during the nurses’ strike which they would have paid to the retirement fund of a certain portion of nurses on strike. An attendee at the panel discussion, Sheridan, herself a RN, attested that temporary nurses can get paid up to $3200 per week plus accommodations, which can pay the salaries of two or even three full time nurses.

“Yes on 1” — A Socialist Campaign?

Following Jared’s talk on the ballot initiative, a discussion led by Steve Stone explored the connection between MNA’s “Yes on 1” campaign and larger socialist ideals. Attendees argued that nurses, belonging to the working class, are easily exploited by the profit-driven healthcare industry where nurses’ wages are the low-hanging fruit when it comes to cutting costs. The workers below the RNs in the hospital hierarchy, such as nursing assistants, are similarly affected, while nurse managers and hospital administrations are not affected as much, thus creating an inequality among the waged laborers within the same industry. On the question of where the surplus value goes besides the pockets of the CEOs, Beth described the intricate relationship between the healthcare industry and finance/banking sector where hospitals will often take out mortgages to construct state-of-the-art buildings to attract consumers and end up with huge amounts of debt. This is directly in line with how a free market operates – capitalism forces constant reinvestment of the surplus value into the market to retain a competitive edge.

Often times, the workplace hierarchy in a hospital runs along racial lines. For example, Gemma described that in Philadelphia, nurses were mostly white working class women, whereas the nurse assistants were mostly women of color. Historically, the ruling class has often incited hatred among the different races in the working class, and therefore a socialist campaign to uphold the interest of working class must also take into account such racial, and in cases, gendered issues.

On the question of whether this campaign is a non-reformist reform or a reformist one, Beth articulated that a non-reformist reform is one where one campaign lays the foundation for a future,more progressive campaign. She described while the issue itself is not the most transformative reform for everyone, it certainly is for healthcare workers, which would set us up for a bigger campaign such as Medicare For All (M4A). Additionally, given that MNA is a critical ally of Boston DSA (the local had supported the nurses strike in Tufts in 2017), the presence of DSA members at the picket line, as well as canvassing with MNA, will strengthen the partnership. Other attendees agreed that this would help set up for the M4A campaign that DSA National has been leading across the country and will also better the conditions of one segment of the working class.

Next Steps

The MNA will bring this campaign to the General Meeting on August 25 and will ask for a chapter endorsement. In the meantime, they are holding weekly phonebanking events at Jobs with Justice (375 Center St.) on Wednesdays, 5-8 pm. There are also canvassing events coming up in the next few weeks, so if anyone is interested to help canvass for this campaign as an individual, please contact the Boston DSA Healthcare working group at boston-dsa-healthcare@googlegroups.com.