No More Pinkwashing – Capitalism and Cancer

By Nafis H

The month of October has been designated as National Breast Cancer Awareness Month. To celebrate such an occasion, hundreds of men and women will walk or run to raise money for more research, talk about their or their relatives’ harrowing brushes with this disease, share courageous stories of breast cancer survivors on social media, and maybe even resolve to live a healthier lifestyle like signing up for SoulCycle, or getting on a detox program followed by a juice cleanse.

The narrative that has been constructed around breast cancer is one of individualism, one where the disease “is a consequence of personal rather than societal failings”. The scientific evidence presented to uphold this narrative is one of reductionism and determinism – we are told that cancers are caused by aberrations in our DNA and these aberrations are mostly due to our “bad luck.” The treatments for this disease, arising from chemical agents used during World War I, increasingly rely upon targeted destructive measures upon one’s body, and are described using military vernacular such as “magic bullets” and “battlespace vision”. The prices of cancer treatments keep increasing at a faster rate in the US compared to any other country, without significantly increasing patient quality of life or overall survival.The scientists and physicians are complicit in this endeavor – the academic field is rife with fraud, irreproducible data, researchers raking in money and not disclosing financial ties with biotech startups, and physicians making recommendations to the FDA oncology advisory council without needing to disclose their relationship to companies that do not yet have a drug on the market.

The bourgeois government has encouraged public-private partnerships since the 1980s with the introduction of the Bayh-Dole Act, the FDA’s Critical Path Initiative in 2004, and more recently the Cancer Moonshot Initiative in 2016. Over the years, more and more money has been allocated to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and the National Cancer Institute (NCI), especially following the publication of the human genome sequence, which is believed to hold the secrets to curing all diseases, not just breast cancer.

However, this privatization has worsened the situation. As evidence shows, privatization has provided perverse incentives for researchers, and ultimately, created the current chaos that reigns in cancer research today. The current state of research shows an ailing system with spawning of predatory journals, transparency issues in established medical journals, sham conferences, plethora of reproducibility issues in basic research, corruption among scientists and abuse of public funds for personal gains. This reflects the “quantity over quality” approach where scientific trainees (graduate students & postdoctoral scholars) are often exploited in a tight budget climate.

Not that more money had resulted in better research — when NIH’s budget doubled between 1997–2003, the growth was mainly observed in ancillary markets such as reagent companies, expansion of universities, and number of NIH contractors. Although there exists a host of scientific literature on the environmental causes of breast and other cancers, only 15% of NCI’s budget in 2008-09 was dedicated to studying such causes rather than focusing on individual genes. In the meantime, independent scientists are fighting uphill battles to get chemicals, such as Bisphenol A that have shown to cause breast cancer in laboratory rodents, off the market. The regulatory agencies and government policies favor the evidence presented by the manufacturing companies and ignore the myriads of evidence that independent scientists have provided. This has also allowed profiteering entities to continue exploiting vulnerable populations, while building social capital by sponsoring biomedical research.

The neoliberalization of cancer has also pushed for creating niche markets that are aided by non-profits. The mantra “early detection saves lives” has successfully brainwashed the public into believing that it actually prevents cancer deaths effectively — in one study, 68% women thought that mammography lowers their risk of getting breast cancer, 62% were convinced that screening decreased the rate of breast cancer by half, and 75% thought 10 years of screening would prevent 10 breast cancer deaths per 1000 women. Unfortunately, this mantra has allowed non-profits such as Susan Komen Foundation to balloon, with less and less of the raised money going to supporting actual research and more into maintaining the foundation itself.

The burdens of breast cancer, and the neoliberal approaches to fight it, falls disproportionately on people of color in the US – African-Americans have the highest mortality from breast and other cancers, and native Hawaiians have the highest mortality from breast cancer in the US across all ethnicities. These disparities were originally attributed to a lack of diagnosis and the cancer being at a more advanced stage at the time of diagnosis in these non-white populations.

However, adjustment for stage of cancer at diagnosis did not solve the discrepancies observed. Even as mammography screening for breast cancer became equivalent nationally among Black and white women of all ages, these disparities persisted. This has been supported by epidemiology studies that suggest that disparities in outcome by race/ethnicity have not improved over time. In fact, between 1975–2000, disparity in death rates from all cancers combined between Black and white, men and women, increased.

While much of the blame was put on the differences in biology between races/ethnicities (e.g. — Black women have a higher risk of developing a more aggressive form of breast cancer), it appeared that the racial gap in outcomes was prominent among breast cancers with good prognosis (hormone-receptor positive, multiple treatments available). This essentially led to the conclusion that “biological factors cannot explain all of the racial disparity in morbidity and mortality.

While socioeconomic status (SES) has been put forward to explain such disparities, again it cannot be understood without a framework of historical racism in this country. In fact, as the prominent public health scholar David R. Williams states, “race is an antecedent to and determinant of SES.” The fact that non-white populations experience greater poverty just shows the success of discriminatory policies in the US. The 2010 U.S. Census found that Black populations are living in poorer quality housing, have higher exposures to toxins and pollutants in residential and occupational settings, and have less access to healthy food and quality healthcare — conditions that are cancer risk factors, or as more eloquently put by Dr. Samuel Brodar, NCI Director (1991), “poverty is a carcinogen.” Consider that Black women are 4–5x more likely to experience treatment delays and less likely to receive cancer-directed therapy for breast cancer, even when they have similar tumors to those in white women. Black and Hispanic women suffer more often from inadequate pain management; between 90–91, data from outpatient centers that treated predominantly minority patients show that these patients were 3x more likely to have inadequate pain management compared to patients seen elsewhere. When compared with the findings that patients across ethnicities, when treated equally regardless of SES, have equal outcomes, the rampant racism present in healthcare becomes very clear.

Cancer is a deadly disease – there is no doubt about it. Just as capitalism alienates the individual from the environment, reductionism alienates the disease from the body it manifests, essentially “other”-izing it and pitting the patient against their own body. This alienation promotes individualism through the language of “survivorship,” where the victim has beaten their own body into submission using “potent chemical weapons.” The “War on Cancer” is waged not in laboratories, but on the bodies of patients undergoing surgery, radiation treatment and chemotherapy. There is nothing to “win” here – one cannot fight their own physical manifestation of their existence and expect to achieve victory. But the popular narrative of “winning over cancer”, shaped by an imperialist, capitalist government, the pharmaceutical companies and neoliberal non-profits, distorts one’s perception of cancer treatment and their own body.

None of this is to say that we should give up on trying to prevent and/or treat cancer. In order to do so, however, we need to radically revise how we understand cancer and how we can best prevent it. Consider that the biggest curb in cancer mortality in the US was achieved by public health measures such as tobacco control – why isn’t there more money in prevention of other cancers through public health measures? Why aren’t we stemming the endless flow of chemicals and pesticides into our environment that have shown to cause breast and other cancers? Why are we so focused on studying the intrinsic factors that supposedly cause cancer when research shows 85% of cancer incidence risk can be explained by extrinsic factors?

Ultimately, all of this points to the fact that the “War on Cancer” cannot be won unless the racist and capitalist system is dismantled. Sociologist Catherin Bliss notes that “the relationship between scientific knowledge and state power has been dialectical” and public policies govern the course of scientific research. We cannot expect a capitalist government to instate policies that will hold corporations accountable for poisoning our environment, or to regulate drug prices to make treatment available for all and to end racism in healthcare. We cannot allow the pinkwashing of corporations, which burden vulnerable populations with both physical and financial toxicity. Awareness about breast cancer should be a priority; however, awareness will not achieve anything unless it is framed in the context of how capitalism propagates this terrifying disease.

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.

___________________________________________________________________

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).

Collective Reflections on the Boston Housing Struggle

By Edward P

On Thursday, September 6th, 2018, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) and the Political Education Working Group (PEWG) held a discussion about housing strategy in Boston DSA at the Democracy Center in Cambridge. The goal of the meeting was to talk about how to organize around housing issues to further the anti-capitalist cause.

The Story So Far

The event began with the HWG co-chairs Rose L and Mike L talking about the 13-month history of the working group. The HWG has, to this point, mainly coordinated canvasses of tenants in buildings identified as being likely to organize with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU). CLVU is a 45-year old organization that began as a socialist feminist collective that consciously reshaped itself into a movement-oriented non-profit in order to better serve their base in Jamaica Plain and East Boston.

Their relationship with CLVU started small — just sending people to regular weekend canvasses. As they earned the trust of CLVU’s long-time organizers, the HWG was able to operate more and more independently, planning an anti-eviction canvas based on public court records and attempting to organize tenants in the Seaverns-Brown building after tenants were hit with a large rent increase.

But neither of those efforts has been an unqualified success. Organizing around anti-eviction is difficult when cases are geographically spread out, and gaps and delays in the court records sometimes meant canvassers were arriving too late to help people. Likewise, with the Seaverns-Brown building, while HWG members made great progress in getting people to move towards creating a tenant union, they had arrived too late to get people together before the large rent raises hit.

Next Steps and Differing Visions

After the presentation from the co-chairs, the meeting attendees went around the room to the introduce themselves and talk about why they were there. The introductions were followed by a  breakout session of small groups and then a full group discussion.

A few major points of contention emerged across these discussions, such as how should the DSA handle its relationship to CLVU? Several attendees expressed concern that Boston DSA was not attempting to build something independent of another organization, citing Philly Socialists and their Philly Tenants Union project as an example of how a socialist organization could use tenant organizing for “base-building”. Others pointed out the necessary work CLVU did to help keep people most threatened in their homes and speculated on our ability to be similarly successful at helping people in need.

Some attendees also argued for concrete policy proposals the HWG could pursue. Members of Socialist Alternative were on hand to talk about the work they had done with Boston City Councillors to try to get more non-profits to pay into the Payment In Lieu Of Tax (PILOT) program. PILOT asks otherwise tax-exempt organizations, such as universities, to pay part of the property taxes they would have otherwise paid. Others talked about Somerville’s low home ownership rate (34.7% vs 64.2% as the national average) and if socialist policies could change that especially policies encouraging cooperative home-ownership.

Other people talked about the need for housing organizing to have a revolutionary perspective. One member made the point that any program must be focused on “serving the people”. For them that meant going directly to people who are hurt by the capitalist system and organizing around their needs. Others elaborated on this idea an argument for why we have to build independent power, saying an important question for the group was whether DSA should be serving as a source of canvassers for other organizations or building something of their own.

What can we do?

Throughout the discussion, members kept coming back to one question in particular — not what should we do, but what can we do? What are our capabilities? In the absence of any kind of national campaign from DSA, we’re relying on ourselves and what we can learn from history and work others have done to figure out an effective organizing strategy around housing issues.

This discussion lead to some practical thoughts about what a housing program would need, whether it was organized independently or not and whatever its political goals were. First, it needed to make realistic promises; we can’t talk about how great socialism is and make commitments we don’t have the ability to keep. Second, it needs to based on building community and solidarity. We have to be able to meet and talk to people repeatedly, share food, and get to know each other. Finally, any program needs to be flexible; we have to be able to constantly re-evaluate what we’re doing in order to find what works.

Self-Reflection and Moving Forward

While the different arguments presented at the meeting, independent work vs coalition work, working for reforms vs serving the people, seemed to represent opposites, the actual discussion, and general feeling of camaraderie and respect at the event, helped show that wasn’t the case.

Any program needs to take into account the practical lessons learned by the HWG over the last 13 months of organizing. It needs to find ways of organizing people around their needs, immediate ones like eviction defense and longer term ones like housing cooperatives. It can both work with established coalition partners and work toward independent power.

Most of all, events like this are important to developing any kind of program. As socialists, we have to engage in constant experimentation and revaluation of our methods on the road to finding a practice that moves the balance of power toward working people. When we meet together and discuss what is and isn’t working about our practice and debate ways forward, we’re engaging in the critical work of finding that way forward.

Silence Is Betrayal

Photo with two signs in black and red reading "End ICE Terror"
Photo from an anti-ICE protest taken by Olivia D.

By Families for Freedom

A group of people detained by ICE in Massachusetts—some of whom were on hunger strike last month—co-wrote a lengthy letter to us detailing their perspectives on detention: the conditions inside the jails, the exploitation of the incarcerated, and the hypocrisy of American values.

Below is a reproduction of the majority of that letter (some details have been changed for privacy):

The Silence is Betrayal!

It is always my intention to stand up for those issues that are the most important to me and those who have no voice. I try to follow my moral compass, even when it may have conflicted with the realities of the moment.

I have lots to say about this system. What we need in here is the support from people and organizations on the outside to help us raise our voices to denounce the system. We’ve been kidnapped. We need people to go on TV stations, radio, and social media. We need people to use every tool they might have at their disposal to help us that have been kidnapped by ICE for years to stop the virus that has spread all over the USA. I sometimes blame those of us who have been in there and got a chance to go home and did nothing after, even having witnessed the atrocity, the treatment, the unhealthy food…

In County Jail we are detainees with other inmates, without having committed a crime. We live in the same building, we share the bathroom. We share the living conditions. Unsanitary bathroom shared by 80-100 detainees/inmates, inmates/detainees. There is no privacy here. Flies, bugs all over our faces while we are in the shower or the bathroom. When we use the bathroom the next person could be right up to our face brushing their teeth. There’s one toenail clipper per one hundred who live here. Nothing is sanitized. We are not entitled to extra clothes, things that are supposed to be there for no cost are being sold in the commissary. The items are so expensive that we can’t even buy them.

Detainees are scared to complain. And when we do, or when we go on strike, nothing happens. Instead, we end up in isolation for weeks or months after that, or they ship us to a new jail. Not only have been kidnapped by ICE, they take away our rights, strip us of our freedom. We are being confined against our will. Some detainees do not have any family in the US, and some who do can’t even make a phone call because they are too expensive. ICE picked them up in a store, at work, or while they were in the streets. It is very scary and disturbing, the most painful thing that I have ever been witness to in my life. Where human lives are being trafficked by so-called peace officers or law enforcement.

We cannot truly complain because we are immigrants. We do not have any rights in this country—that’s what we are told. Some of us were picked up in state prison after doing time, and were brought here to Bristol County. We have been punished twice: for committing a crime; and punished again by ICE. We’re labeled vicious predators and violent criminals. Why does ICE consider us more dangerous or more of a threat to society when we’re only here to work, to go to school, to provide for our families? Why should we be treated like we aren’t human? Why can’t there be a path to citizenship for us? Any time we try and do something right, here comes an ICE officer to arrest us.

Our human rights are at stake. We are not allowed to be in the dayroom when the nurses do meds. We as detainees/inmates are not allowed to use the phone when they do canteen. We as detainees/inmates have to do lock up and miss our time outside. They strip search us any time they want. Locked down after each meal.

Some weeks ago a group of “rookies” came to the unit, destroyed our cells, and spent three hours to take apart our foods that we bought in the canteen with our money. Treated us like an animal. Why do we have to endure all of these senseless things? A lieutenant comes to scare us every night. Once when he saw people praying in a cell he opened the door in the middle of their prayer and stopped them, tell him them to get out. One of them said: “We were praying,” and he said “I don’t care, I don’t give a fuck. I hate you all.”

The laws say that everyone should be treated as equals, but the interpretation of the laws is different. We could be assisted by the government, but they won’t do it. Instead, they’ve organized themselves in a mafia group to make money off of us. Like human trafficking.

Please pass this on.

Thank you,

Detainees/Inmates at Bristol County

sign reading "FUCK ICE" being held against the windows of the jail at Suffolk County during an anti-ICE rally on June 30
Sign reading “FUCK ICE” being held against the jail cell windows by incarcerated people at Suffolk County Jail during an anti-ICE rally on June 30.

 

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The Housing Crisis Is a Displacement Crisis

By Nafis H.

On Wednesday September 5, Stand Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) organized a teach-in with City Life/Vida Urbana’s (CLVU) Lisa Owens for Boston area housing justice activists. The event took place at Hope Central Church in Jamaica Plain and around 30 people spanning a wide age range and different neighborhoods in the Greater Boston Area attended the event. The focus of the teach-in was the current housing crisis in Boston and its disproportionate effects on people of color (PoCs), and CLVU’s work and its significance in the wake of the YIMBY movement.

CLVU has been organizing low-income tenants and homeowners (often referred to as “bank tenants” since they essentially pay their rents to the bank) for the last 45 years in the city of Boston. Their goal is to unite the common interest of the marginalized, especially people of color, and gain community control of land and housing. CLVU envisions a world where we have collectively changed the political, economic, and social system that creates intersecting oppressive systems, of which housing is only one piece. Their work is based on their core values that 1) housing is a human right, 2) the people most impacted must lead and 3) land and housing should be collectively controlled by communities and sustained for future generations. CLVU also heavily invests in political education for activists and tenants alike, upholding their belief that a historical analysis is necessary to understand the housing crisis.

A History of Violence

The housing crisis is not new. It has existed for years and has been called many names, but it is the framing of the narrative of the crisis that has dictated proposed solutions. The framing of this narrative is in itself a “political act,” as Lisa Owens argued. The historical narrative of PoCs, especially that of African Americans, is one of displacement when it comes to housing, and therefore the housing crisis in major American cities should be described as a crisis of forced displacement and forced confinement. To completely understand why African Americans are fighting to stay in their homes and how they ended up in the inner cities, a historical analysis post-Reconstruction America is required. Lisa presented such an overview with vignettes of newspaper cuttings on the projector and vocal participation from audience.

The year 1890 marked a moment of significance in the history of African Americans in the U.S. — the state of Mississippi changed their constitution to disenfranchise African Americans and effectively end their status as citizens. In the era when backlash against Reconstruction was strong, and the fear was pervasive among whites, along with rampant racism, that Black people were going to replace them, other Southern states quickly followed suit. This led to the establishment of “sundown towns,” where African Americans were not allowed after sunset but were allowed to work during the day. The founding of these towns created violent and gruesome spectacles, replete with public lynchings and running Black families out of towns. These practices were usually justified through the alleged criminality of the Black population — often, a Black man would be accused of sexually assaulting one or more white women. The federal government was passively and actively complicit in these events, condoning the white vigilantes and enforcing ordinances set up through local policy.

Between 1890 and 1968, sundown towns cropped up not only in the South but also in the North and the West. Since emancipation and during Reconstruction, African Americans who were originally agrarian workers traveled as far as Montana and the Dakotas to live. In some cases, alliances grew between certain Christian denominations and the African American migrants. However, after the watershed moment in 1890, the national backlash against Black people took the form of violent racial terror; segregation and disenfranchisement once again became commonplace despite the 14th and 15th amendments, respectively (see Sundown Towns, Slavery by Another Name, and The Condemnation of Blackness for more details). As a result of this violence, and their eviction from residences and communities, African Americans started moving into the cities in the North and were confined in slum-like conditions, overly policed, given little access to housing beside overpriced tenement apartments, and denied access to a full range of employment. Thus, African Americans became a largely urban population in part through forced displacement and confinement.

Suburbia and Systemic Racism in Public Housing

During the Great Depression, the New Deal proposed by Roosevelt contained provisions for federally funded public housing, albeit including racial segregation; it should be noted that segregation was the liberal position, while the conservatives preferred to not provide any public housing to Blacks at all (see When Affirmative Action Was White). After the end of World War II, the federal government decided to construct subsidized housing for war veterans across the US, including construction on open track farmland (e.g. in Long Island, as the film Race, the Power of an Illusion shows). This subsidized housing took the form of single family homes to reduce the overcrowding experienced in cities, and was largely made available to white people; white veterans were also given low-interest loans, and 30 year mortgages to make it easier for them to become homeowners. Additionally, to incentivize white people to move out to the suburbs, away from their workplaces, the federal government invested in highways to make commuting easier. Overall, there was a massive investment by the federal government to create the American middle class and the myth of “The American Dream.”

At the same time, the Federal Housing Authority (FHA), the precursor to US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), ranked different areas for development based on risk, with the color red representing high risk. These were the same areas where the majority of PoCs lived, and thus they were deprived of the subsidized housing by “redlining.” Moreover, mortgage companies did not provide the same incentives to PoCs as they did to white folks based on the set of recommendations and guidelines given by the federal government. Incidentally, the financial collapse in 2008 also revealed the systemic racism Black homeowners faced in their mortgages compared to their white counterparts, as detailed by Jackie Wang in her book Carceral Capitalism.

Today, white suburbia amounts to close to $1 trillion in generational inheritance, and African Americans are deprived of such wealth due to the continued systemic racism that pervades government policies. The intentional distortion of history by the right wing repressed the expulsion and eviction of PoCs from collective memory. It typecast African Americans as residents of Harlem and Chicago, Chinese Americans of Chinatowns in major US cities, and other ethnicities into specific enclaves, without recognizing that these confinements were the result of the eviction of these populations by white people (see Lies My Teacher Told Me for more details).

The Paradox of “Affordable” Development

The city of Boston has the 4th highest rent among metro cities in the U.S. The housing crisis in Boston is intensifying — people are being displaced, and are even forced to live in rental units illegally even as recently built luxury condos remain empty. As event attendees attested, multiple development projects across Mattapan, East Boston, and Jamaica Plain have been approved; in Cambridge working class families are being displaced to make room for luxury apartments or “affordable” units such as inclusionary zoning units, with “fun sized appliances” targeted towards temporary residents, who tend to be tech-savvy millennials. Affordability is in fact plummeting, and the city proposes tackling the crisis using a supply-side argument of more development, an idea echoed by developers and YIMBY groups as well. However, as history shows and CLVU organizers have learned over the years, building more doesn’t make housing affordable, but can instead worsen the situation. For example, when City Realty buys one property, the rent in the entire neighborhood increases; similarly, when investors dropped $10 million to build luxury condos in East Boston at the waterfront, the rent in the entire area went up dramatically. Even speculation of underdeveloped land raises rent, e.g. the city of Boston received promises of major luxury development in the Suffolk Downs on the rumors that Amazon might build their second HQ there, which would definitely raise rents along Route 1.

At the same time, the housing justice movement is gaining momentum and there is a lot of energy around organizing for affordable housing. Lobby groups that view the housing crisis as a supply side problem, such as the YIMBY movement (who advocate for deregulation and changes in zoning and planning processes to facilitate development) have joined the cause and are looking to create alliances with already existing housing justice organizations like CLVU. One such example is the Smart Growth Alliance, who have expressed interest in meeting with CLVU. However, the approaches and goals of the YIMBY groups may differ radically from the interests of organizations like CLVU. For example, in California YIMBY groups backed the SB 827 bill that stood in direct conflict with the interests of low-income communities, primarily composed of PoCs. In the city of Cambridge, the YIMBY group A Better Cambridge has been pushing for the aforementioned affordable units which are not suitable for families or elderly members of the community. The Cambridge City Council has not been much help in solving this problem, as an attendee who had experienced the problem first-hand attested.

In this tricky situation where alliances are drawn and redrawn, CLVU aims to control the narrative to uphold the interests of PoCs, who are the most impacted by luxury development and this displacement crisis. CLVU’s goal is to keep people in their current homes, build housing that people can actually afford, and ensure that tenants and homeowners can decide on the type of development entering their neighborhoods. To that end, CLVU evaluates any potential housing movement collaboration on the following grounds:

  1. Housing as a human right
    • Does this policy stop displacement now?
    • Does it create displacement pressure?
    • Does it increase quality housing for us that we can afford?
  2. People impacted must lead
    • Whose interests does this serve?
    • What benefit does it provide our movement?
    • Who made this proposal? Who gets to decide?
  3. Community control of land and housing
    • Does this policy create true affordability so that people in the neighborhood can live there?
    • Does it create housing that is affordable permanently or long term?
    • Does it create community-controlled housing?

Organizing to Build Power

CLVU’s long term goal is community control of public housing, and requires tenant organizing to achieve that. In the Q&A period, Lisa described the previous successes tenant and homeowner organizing had during the foreclosure crisis in Boston — homeowners organized together to create a land trust in Roxbury, the Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative’s community land trust, which allowed the foreclosure of only one home in 20-odd years. While non-profit-owned affordable housing is not considered fully community-controlled, it can serve as a step towards that future. Given that communities rarely have the financial capacity to buy property and transfer it to a land trust, community development corporations (CDCs) could help move us towards community control through a land trust. On the question of whether organizing tenants can conflict with low-income homeowners’ interests, Lisa pointed out that the interests converge on the foreclosure cases — homeowners and tenants will organize together to fight for the common cause. She did stress that this is an ongoing question and more can be done by advocating for policies that would relieve the pressure on the low-income homeowners.

CLVU is not anti-development because they recognize that the people need housing. However, they want the development to occur on the terms of the people in the neighborhood where it is going to take place — with specific transit improvements, access to jobs in case of commercial development, mixed affordability, etc. They have already been able to take hold of the narrative and bring the displacement crisis from the shadows to the forefront of political platforms; the city authorities cannot deny the displacement anymore. CLVU also promises to hold Boston City Councilor Lydia Edwards accountable on the promises she made during her campaign regarding affordable housing.

CLVU is also looking to collaborate with other housing justice organizations and is part of The Right to Remain Coalition. This coalition is hosting a Homes For All Boston Assembly to discuss a people’s plan for good development, and to end displacement, on Saturday, September 22, 12-4 pm, at 10 Putnam St., Roxbury, Unitarian Universalist Urban Ministry. CLVU also holds weekly meetings on Tuesdays at 6:30 pm, at the Brewery Complex, Amory Street, Jamaica Plain, for anyone interested in organizing tenants or in CLVU’s work.

¡Viva Allende! ¡Viva La Revolución Bolivariana!

Union Members demonstrating for Allende

By the Political Education Editorial Committee

On this day in 1973, the Chilean Military, with the support and assistance of the US Government, overthrew Salvador Allende, the democratically-elected Marxist president of Chile.

Declassified documents show how US intelligence agencies had been plotting against Allende even before the 1970 election that brought him into power, including identifying and cultivating a relationship with General Augusto Pinochet. Pinochet, the contemporary object of hero-worship by fascist groups of the U.S. alt-right, was responsible for the torture of over 30,000 Chileans and the execution of thousands according to a Chilean government report.

President Allende’s moves to nationalize Chile’s copper mining industry, to reform agrarian land ownership, and to maintain close contacts with revolutionary Cuba caused the US to move to restrict Chile’s access to international credit and foreign aid, leading to an economic crisis. This crisis created the conditions that would lead to Pinochet’s coup against President Allende on September 11, 1973.

In the months following the coup, 320 people were summarily executed by Pinochet’s forces with the knowledge of US intelligence agencies. None of the US leaders, including President Nixon, who ordered the CIA to foster an overthrow of Allende, President Ford, and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, would ever be held accountable for their crimes against the Chilean people.

Image of Salvador Allende from a 1973 Soviet Stamp
Image of Salvador Allende from a 1973 Soviet Stamp

The imperialist policies that led to the tragedy of the Pinochet regime continue to the present. The Trump administration has recently had meetings with members of the Venezuelan military who oppose President Nicolas Maduro and the Bolivarian Revolution and has issued threats to the International Criminal Court over attempts to hold the U.S. and Israeli governments responsible for war crimes.

Socialists must understand that imperialism — the domination of other nations in the interest of the U.S. bourgeoisie — is a necessary component of capitalism, and all efforts by the U.S. government to interfere in the self-determination of other nations must be opposed.

Ultimately, the only way to ensure the peaceful existence and cooperation of all nations is worker-control of the state and the means of economic production.

Presented below is President Allende’s final speech delivered at 9:10AM, shortly before his death:

My friends,

Surely this will be the last opportunity for me to address you. The Air Force has bombed the towers of Radio Portales and Radio Corporación.

My words do not have bitterness but disappointment. May they be a moral punishment for those who have betrayed their oath: soldiers of Chile, titular commanders in chief, Admiral Merino, who has designated himself Commander of the Navy, and Mr. Mendoza, the despicable general who only yesterday pledged his fidelity and loyalty to the Government, and who also has appointed himself Chief of the Carabineros [national police].

Given these facts, the only thing left for me is to say to workers: I am not going to resign!

Placed in a historic transition, I will pay for loyalty to the people with my life. And I say to them that I am certain that the seed which we have planted in the good conscience of thousands and thousands of Chileans will not be shriveled forever.

They have strength and will be able to dominate us, but social processes can be arrested neither by crime nor force. History is ours, and people make history.

Workers of my country: I want to thank you for the loyalty that you always had, the confidence that you deposited in a man who was only an interpreter of great yearnings for justice, who gave his word that he would respect the Constitution and the law and did just that. At this definitive moment, the last moment when I can address you, I wish you to take advantage of the lesson: foreign capital, imperialism, together with the reaction, created the climate in which the Armed Forces broke their tradition, the tradition taught by General Schneider and reaffirmed by Commander Araya, victims of the same social sector which will today be in their homes hoping, with foreign assistance, to retake power to continue defending their profits and their privileges.

I address, above all, the modest woman of our land, the campesina who believed in us, the worker who labored more, the mother who knew our concern for children. I address professionals of Chile, patriotic professionals, those who days ago continued working against the sedition sponsored by professional associations, class-based associations that also defended the advantages which a capitalist society grants to a few.  

I address the youth, those who sang and gave us their joy and their spirit of struggle. I address the man of Chile, the worker, the farmer, the intellectual, those who will be persecuted, because in our country fascism has been already present for many hours — in terrorist attacks, blowing up the bridges, cutting the railroad tracks, destroying the oil and gas pipelines, in the face of the silence of those who had the obligation to protect them.  They were committed.

History will judge them.

Surely Radio Magallanes will be silenced, and the calm metal instrument of my voice will no longer reach you. It does not matter. You will continue hearing it. I will always be next to you. At least my memory will be that of a man of dignity who was loyal to [inaudible] the workers.

The people must defend themselves, but they must not sacrifice themselves. The people must not let themselves be destroyed or riddled with bullets, but they cannot be humiliated either.

Workers of my country, I have faith in Chile and its destiny. Other men will overcome this dark and bitter moment when treason seeks to prevail. Go forward knowing that, sooner rather than later, the great avenues will open again where free men will walk to build a better society.

Long live Chile! Long live the people! Long live the workers!

These are my last words, and I am certain that my sacrifice will not be in vain, I am certain that, at the very least, it will be a moral lesson that will punish felony, cowardice, and treason.

Santiago de Chile, 11 September 1973

“One Weird Trick” to Building Socialism

Barge Haulers on the Volga
Barge Haulers on the Volga by Ilya Repin, 1870.

By Frank Little

Whenever I get angry about some particular strain of left-wing thought or discourse, I’ve found it’s helpful to remember that I live in a country where a decent chunk of the population have been bombarded with the idea that politicians like Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer are socialists. I think it’s good for people to know what their political beliefs are and even argue about them a little bit, but the internet is perfect for arguing and bad for every other part of organizing so it’s important to keep a level head when it comes to discussing political ideologies.

That being said, if socialism really is as “on the rise,” as various opinion columnists would have us believe, it’s important to consider what socialism would mean in an American context. To that end, I’d like to offer a response to a policy paper published by Matt Bruenig at the People’s Policy Project outlining the case for establishing a social wealth fund. In the paper, Bruenig makes the case for a social wealth fund in America along the style of the Alaska Permanent Fund or those managed by the Norwegian state as a means of tackling wealth inequality. While Bruenig doesn’t explicitly call his proposal a socialist one, he traces the history of the idea back to market socialist ideas whereby a sovereign fund could serve as a way “to collectively own, control, and benefit from the wealth of the nation.” The idea of a social wealth fund was also outlined in a column by Ryan Cooper entitled “The Dawn of American Socialism.” Since Cooper also wrote the script for a video for Bruenig’s policy paper detailing the Alaska Permanent Fund,it seems safe to assume that establishing a sovereign wealth fund is to play a major part in creating in “an economic system for the many, not the few,” the goal of the People’s Policy Project .

The central problem with the sovereign wealth fund described in Bruenig’s paper is that it fails to contend with the fact that capitalism is a dynamic system of producing and distributing commodities. That is to say, it does more than dictate the distribution of wealth in society. Of course, capitalism does create an ever-widening gap between rich and poor and between owners and laborers. But making the distribution of wealth generated from the circulation of commodities more equitable doesn’t necessarily upend commodity production, distribution, and consumption.

Why does this matter? Well, for me it matters because understanding the ways that commodities are produced, exchanged, and consumed is central to understanding how capitalism operates and to creating something that could actually replace it. That’s why Marx begins his three volume critique of capitalism and bourgeois political economy with a long discussion of the nature of the various kinds of value which, under capitalism, are inevitably turned into commodities. Much to the chagrin of many people who begin reading the book, it’s something he spends much more time talking about than he ever does outlining what socialism is really meant to look like.

Identifying and carrying out the steps needed to get from a capitalist mode of production to a socialist mode of production is probably the defining disagreement between the various ideologies typically grouped together as “the left.” For proponents of sovereign wealth funds, the fact that they seem to offer a smoother transition from capitalism to socialism with less disruption of existing systems is a positive. Financial instruments like index funds and sovereign wealth funds are proof of concepts for market socialism and would address what seems to be  the main problem with capitalism: private ownership of capital and the inequality and exploitation it brings. If the dividends of capital were socialized, as Bruenig has previously argued, it would spread the benefits of rallying financial markets to all people rather than the small group of very wealthy people who get the benefits now.

It’s certainly true that this kind of system would redistribute wealth in this country and go along way towards reducing inequality in the U.S. Making citizenship a requirement for collecting benefits means that the roughly 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country wouldn’t see much benefit, despite facing many additional obstacles to building wealth and particularly egregious working conditions. However, the problems with this proposal run deeper than just who is included within the US population.

The problem with this view is that it ignores the aspects of capitalism today that are fundamentally opposed to socialism. Because I want anybody reading to understand where I am coming from, I’ll lay out how I understand socialism, albeit in broad terms. Under socialism, the goods that any society — capitalist or otherwise — has to produce to sustain itself would be made and distributed in a way that provides a stable and fulfilling life to all, and one that doesn’t result in further irreversible destruction of our natural environment. A socialist system would distribute goods according to need rather than ability to exchange for them, and that production would be done in concert with nature rather than in opposition to it. It also would entail an end to the wage system, or at the very least the recognition that labor by people is what creates value, and that they should not have that value taken from them by the owners of businesses. Finally, there would be an end to the imperial power, exercised through corporate, military, and financial organizations, that the United States has tried to wield as the superpower left standing after the Cold War.

Marx is careful to distinguish between the production of different goods by different people (“the division of labor”) and the production of those things as commodities (“commodity production”). The former is necessary for all society unless we are to revert to a chaotic “grab-what-you-can” existence, while the latter is essential for capitalism specifically. This distinction is important to keep in mind when we examine the potential of current modes of production as potentially useful under socialism.  

In his paper, Bruenig discusses the two Norwegian social wealth funds: Government Pension Fund-Norway, which holds investments in Norwegian companies, and Government Pension Fund-Global, which exclusively invests outside of Norway. These two funds do hold a substantial portion of wealth in Norway. As Bruenig puts it, “gpf-Norway controlled assets equal to 7 percent of Norway’s gdp [and] gpf-Global owned assets equal to 241 percent of gdp.”1 Between these two and the enterprises owned by the Norwegian state outright, the Norwegian government owns 59% of the country’s wealth (76% if you exclude private home ownership). In 2017 gpf-Norway generated a return of 26 billion kroner in 2017  while gpf-Global garnered about 1.3 trillion kroner, which using current exchange rates comes to about $3,100,799,000 USD and $122,600,822,000 respectively. If that wealth had been paid out as a dividend to Norwegians, it would come to about $25,500 per person.

Bruenig is right to conclude that “the idea that a society could collectively own three-fourths of its non-home wealth through social wealth funds administered by a democratically-elected government without any negative economic consequences would be rejected as preposterous by most political and economic commentators in America today.” While this may be true,  I’d like to hold a proposal for a sovereign wealth fund to a slightly higher standard than that if it is to be a means of transitioning from the destructive and outdated capitalist system to socialism.

Below are some of the companies that the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund invested in during 2017 along with their investment in U.S. dollars. 2 Ask yourself: does the continued financial success of these companies have any place in whatever your idea of socialism is?

A B
Company
Invested (USD)
Apple $8,072,652,444
Alphabet $5,855,268,978
Amazon $4,472,071,992
Facebook $3,638,348,980
Berkshire Hathaway $3,269,196,109
JP Morgan Chase $3,157,074,018
Exxon Mobil $3,089,045,340
Wells Fargo $2,644,000,481
Verizon $2,029,754,082
Pfizer $1,956,054,146
UnitedHealth Group $1,849,331,576
Nike $670,398,515
Starbucks $665,126,579
Goldman Sachs $589,736,281
Aetna $576,133,911
Time Warner $570,858,233
Raytheon $523,952,347
Monsanto $393,028,228
Target $367,489,697
Tesla $252,531,626
Tyson Foods $175,547,276
Gap $149,406,029
Equifax $100,204,878
Wendy’s $28,714,688
Total $45,095,926,434

These represent about 18% of the U.S equities that gpf-Global has in its portfolio. I would guess that any American fund would be more heavily invested in these companies since they are large American firms which have consistently generated mostly positive returns over time. Even if they weren’t, I don’t think its controversial to say that the profits and dividends generated by the firms I’ve listed above are some of the most oft-cited examples of capitalist exploitation, of both workers and the environment, and rent-seeking behavior. As such, many of them have a vested interest in preventing moves towards more sustainable or equitable systems of production. That exploitation leads to their increased profitability, which is why for many of the companies shown here, the fund has maintained or increased its investment in them year after year.

Conditions set by both the executive branch and federal reserve following the recession in 2008 have led to particularly high returns for U.S. equities. Low borrowing costs set by the Federal Reserve have allowed these and many other corporations to borrow money cheaply. Cheap credit, combined with the bonanza from the recent tax cuts, have led many corporations to buy back large amounts of their own shares to reduce the number of shares available and, thus, drive share prices higher, further inflating a corporate debt bubble. This has been good news for the fund in terms of dividends, since their equity investments are concentrated in the U.S., but it is likely bad news for most working people, who have seen little of the benefit of this stock market rally, and the environment, which is heating up in ways that are quickly outpacing existing models.

The only way that this sort of policy can offer liberation is if your version of socialism is predicated on the idea that current levels of consumption in America are fine, it’s just that not enough people can get in on the feeding frenzy. I believe providing adequate food, shelter, and security to most if not all people on Earth is feasible. That is a grandiose goal and probably the hardest thing in the world to accomplish, but I wouldn’t bother with politics at all if I didn’t think it was possible. But if it is to become reality, it will be at the expense of the consumer culture in which I was raised and that I currently participate in, along with many others. As the late Samir Amin wrote in his 2004 book The Liberal Virus, “the idea that capitalism could adapt itself to liberating transformations, that is, could produce them, without wanting to, as well as socialism could, is at the heart of the American liberal ideology. Its function is to deceive us and cause us to forget the extent of the true challenges and of the struggles required to respond to them.”3

Certainly wealth inequality is a key challenge, though it is one among many. A report from Oxfam entitled Reward Work, Not Wealth, published in January 2018, elucidates another one of those challenges: the immiseration of the global working class. As they state at the very beginning of the report:

All over the world, our economy of the 1% is built on the backs of low paid workers, often women, who are paid poverty wages and denied basic rights. It is being built on the backs of workers like Fatima in Bangladesh, who works sewing clothes for export. She is regularly abused if she fails to meet targets and gets sick because she is unable to go to the toilet. It is being built on the backs of workers like Dolores in chicken factories in the US, suffering permanent disability and unable to hold their children’s hands. It is being built on the backs of immigrant hotel cleaners like Myint in Thailand, sexually harassed by male guests and yet often being told to put up with it or lose their jobs. 4

Though the report doesn’t say for sure, Dolores could very well be working in a chicken factory for Tyson Foods. Fatima could very well be making clothing for Target or Gap. Crackdowns on immigrants both here in the U.S. and elsewhere in the imperial core make an already precarious workforce all the more likely to be exploited. While capitalism has continued to develop and expand since Marx published Volume 1 of Capital in 1867, stories like those laid out in the Oxfam report show that its expansion and development have been fueled by its oldest and most reliable source of energy: extracted labor power from immiserated workers.

Some might say I’m singling out the wealth fund when plenty of workers saving for retirement or who are receiving a pension are likely also invested in these companies. Of course that is true. But pensions are not socialism, nor do they claim to be. What I’m saying is that building a welfare state or distributing a straight dividend to citizens that is built on the continued success of these companies as capital investments is not really a model for socialism either.

Since Bruenig’s paper is primarily aimed at an American audience, it’s understandable that global inequality isn’t really addressed, but as a socialist in America I think it’s important to keep a global perspective. Pew Research found that about 56% of the world’s population is considered low income, meaning they live on between $2 and $10 a day. 15% of the world’s population is considered poor, living on less than $2 a day. Nearly all the countries with a majority of their population either poor or low income can be found in Africa, South America, and Asia. Sub-saharan Africa has more of these poor countries than any other continent, likely because of global capital’s consistent and rapacious interest in seizing the continent’s mineral wealth for itself.

By contrast, about 56% of people in America are considered high income, meaning they live on more than $50 a day. Norway’s percentage is even higher, coming in at 77%. Globally about 7% of the world’s population is considered high income, with most of the majority high income countries concentrated in Western Europe and the British Commonwealth, along with the U.S.

There are problems with these kind of income designations. Moving from  poor to low income is often used as a measure of global improvement, but this seems specious at best. Similarly, grouping everyone above $50/day as high income seems to miss a key aspect of the world economy, which is characterized by astronomical wealth concentrated in the hands of an absurdly small group of individuals and corporations, something Bruenig has written on extensively. Nevertheless, this kind of disparity reinforces the need for addressing global inequality, not redistributing imperial plunder more broadly within the core.

Uncle Sam needs that extra shovelful / F. Sindelar Help Uncle Sam to win the war by following these directions: 1. Fire small amounts of coal often. 2. Keep fuel bed even by putting coal on thin spots. Avoid raking and slicing. 3. Keep fuel bed about six inches thick. 4. Look out for air leaks in brickwork. 5. Increase or decrease steam pressure by opening or closing draft damper in uptake. 6. Clean fires well when the demand for steam is small, and while cleaning have the draft damper partly closed.
Uncle Sam needs that extra shovelful, by F. Sindlear for the United States Fuel Administration, 1917. via Library of Congress.

I would suggest the Cuban system, at least in terms of its organizational structure, is at the very least much closer to the ideal I have laid out than Norwegian-style market socialism. According to the mathematician and ecologist Richard Levins, Cuba emerged from the 1992 UN Conference on the Environment and Development determined to take the resolutions of that conference and put them into practice without sacrificing developmental progress. These resolutions included a mandate to systematically examine patterns of production, encourage the development of alternatives to fossil fuels, and address the imminent shortages of water. Writing in ReVista in 2000, Levins asserts that integrating these resolutions into their development plans “represents the final recognition that despite society’s commitment to a rising standard of living, natural limitations will not allow a world-wide consumer society with consumption of energy and materials at Euro-North American levels.” Instead of expanding the scale and scope of that consumer society, development should instead be focused on “quality of life, cultural development, education, and people taking care of people.”

Cuba has injected this ecological thinking into their model for development in spite of near-constant attempts to undermine the communist government there. As someone living in the center of the empire behind that aggression, it is important not to whitewash the tremendous pressure this has put on Cuba to forgo an ecological focus in development. Adding ecological factors into decision-making was and is the subject of fierce debate, especially given the many challenges to survival which face a favorite imperial target. However, Levins describes one local Communist Party nucleo as presenting the case in one such formal debate that “far from ecology being ‘idealist,’ it was the height of idealism to suppose that we could pass resolutions and have nature obey.”

The  sovereign wealth fund described in the PPP paper suggests a kind of “one weird trick” path to socialism, as if simply redirecting the flow of capitalism’s spoils will change where they came from. It’s a seductive idea, but calling it socialism does a disservice both to the history of radical left action, such as the struggle for independence by formerly colonized people, and to the ongoing realities of imperialism and settler colonialism that built this country and maintain its hegemony today. I am willing to admit that I can’t conclusively lay out the path to socialism, but I think that socializing the benefits of investment in the global economy as it exists today is more likely to further entrench the most egregious abuses of capitalism rather than eliminate them.

It may well be that establishing a public stake in the private wealth currently being directed almost straight upwards could play a part in the transition from capitalism to socialism, perhaps as a means of ensuring liberation for those who have difficulty working. But it is important not to forget that the returns to an American sovereign wealth fund, without significant and concurrent changes to global supply chains,management structures, and reliance on fossil fuels, would continue to come at the expense of the people whose extracted labor power creates value in the first place.

In 2017, the wealth of world billionaires increased by $762 billion, which Oxfam estimated would be enough to end extreme poverty seven times over. This suggests that wealth redistribution, in addition to greater labor protections and higher wages globally, might not be mutually exclusive. However, steps taken to mitigate even just the most extreme abuses, like slave and child labor, in global supply chains of companies like Nestle or Kellogg would have a direct and negative impact on the returns that any sovereign wealth fund would get on investing in those companies. What about if we wanted to focus on not just ending slave and child labor and extreme poverty but also help those considered “low-income”?

Even if a sovereign wealth fund was committed to using its voting power as a shareholder to influence corporate policy, enacting changes that go against the fundamental incentives of capitalism would require enough voting power to overrule every other large investor who isn’t burdened by any such scruples about where their returns come from. Where would that number of shares come from? If they would have to be purchased rather than created by the firm, where would the money come from?

I want socialism because I want a different and better world, not just for me but for people in Haiti, El Salvador, India, Congo, and Palestine too. Building that different world means reckoning with how the one we have was created. It means recognizing that America’s consumer-driven capitalism, supported as it is by dollar hegemony and a massive, seemingly constant military mobilization, robs oppressed working people both here and abroad of the things they create and, more importantly, their lives. But in addition to these more pressing concerns, it robs even the wealthy capitalist of their connections to the natural world and to each other, replacing them with competitive consumption, social entropy, and ecological collapse.

To return to the mandate of the People’s Policy Project, if we want to build an economic system for the many not the few, who constitutes the few? Who constitutes the many? The scale of wealth inequality globally does not mean that inequality in the U.S. can’t or shouldn’t be addressed. What it does require, however, is a more nuanced understanding of not only wealth inequality, but how the wealth was created in the first place.

Bruenig would have US citizens turn into socialists by becoming shareholders in Uncle Sam’s index fund. If that’s what “American socialism” is, I guess I’m gonna have to find something else to call myself.

Frank is a member of the IWW in the Midwest active in the Incarcerated Workers Organizing Committee. Unlike his namesake, he is not a tough guy, just a humble librarian.


Footnotes:
1. Side note: I’m not sure why it’s supposed to be staggering that the much larger fund that exclusively invests outside the country would hold assets greater than the GDP of just that country.
2. Find the portfolio of gpf-Global here: https://www.nbim.no/en/the-fund/holdings/holdings-as-at-31.12.2017/
3. P. 27.
4. https://www.oxfam.org/en/research/reward-work-not-wealth

Libertarian Socialism and the LSC: An Introduction

by the Boston Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Introducing the Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Members of Boston DSA are currently working to form a Libertarian Socialist Caucus (LSC) chapter. The central goals of the caucus include ending capitalism, horizontalizing power structures, and replacing vanguardist, centralist approaches to organizing and ideology with decentralized, consensus-oriented decision-making systems.

The LSC advocates a radical, revolutionary approach to anti-capitalism. For libertarian socialists, the revolutionary counter-power against the capitalist class and bourgeois political system must be directly controlled by the totality of the working class—not representatives, and not party leaders. The revolutionary movement and the future modes of organizing must always put power into the hands of those affected by the decision-making process.

Creating structures and cultures of direct control over our lives through cooperative and mutual decision-making is both the goal and the general strategy. We strive for a world without bosses and a revolutionary movement without party leaders or self-appointed political visionaries.

The final major goal of the LSC is to broaden the appeal of the DSA in order to increase membership and build more anti-capitalist power. Our socialist comrades oriented toward libertarian socialism and similar tendencies may not feel that there is a space for them in DSA’s big tent. Our hope is to prove that there is a definite place for libertarian socialists within this organization.

Libertarian Socialism and the DSA

Libertarian socialism is an umbrella term that covers various political philosophies, including syndicalists, anarchists, cooperativists, council communists, and libertarian Marxists. One unifying feature is a total rejection of authoritarianism, especially in the structure and culture of the revolutionary movement. Power is always distributed as widely as possible, to every person affected by it. The emphasis is always on giving the working class and ordinary people direct power over their lives.

The most famous contemporary libertarian socialist, Noam Chomsky, claims that libertarian socialism rests on two fundamental principles. First, no form of power or authority can be legitimate without both the real consent of those affected by it and the possibility of immediate revocability of that power. The second principle is a skepticism of all ideas propagated by any system of power whatsoever, from the capitalist system, to bourgeois governments, to hierarchical and authoritarian attempts at replacing those systems.

Rosa Luxemburg, one of the most influential thinkers historically associated with libertarian socialism, advocated spontaneity of organization. This emphasizes the grassroots nature of real class struggle. The proletariat will not follow some abstract revolutionary science handed down from above. They will engage in class struggle, and “learn to fight in the course of their struggles.” The working class will organize themselves according to the revolutionary needs that they recognize at the time. No esoteric law of history can tell them what the battlegrounds of their political life will be like. They must use their own eyes and minds. And power.

We have seen again and again that no cadre, no party can be trusted to lead the working class. It is worth noting here, though, that libertarian socialists sometimes do pragmatically endorse engaging in party politics to end immediate harms that would not otherwise be promptly stoppable and to foster solidarity with anti-capitalist allies who have different political visions. This goes especially for supporting marginalized groups here and elsewhere, who face forms of oppression that we may not ourselves face — far would it be from libertarian socialists to impose a revolutionary vision on a group who is marginalized or dominated in ways that we are not. With maximal care to respect extant power relations (especially those of which we might be unaware, as privileged people of one sort or another), libertarian socialists endorse the principle that only the working class can ultimately lead the working class, toward a world without bosses without bosses.

Liberal capitalism has ingrained deeply into us the counter-revolutionary notion that we need leaders to organize society. We must excise this lie from our thoughts and practices.

The LSC hopes to realize these principles of direct self-organization both within the DSA and in the broader society through principles of freedom, solidarity, and democracy. The National LSC website defines these terms as such:

FREEDOM refers to the positive capacity of all individuals and communities for self-determination. We believe that the freedom enjoyed by individuals is an inalienable social good and can only be strengthened through solidarity and democracy.

SOLIDARITY refers to the understanding that all oppressed people—both the economically exploited and the politically marginalized—share a common struggle towards a free and equal society. We aim to organize our movements accordingly, providing mutual aid and support to one another and deferring to the initiative of those most affected by decisions, on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all.

DEMOCRACY refers to collective decision-making free from hierarchy, domination, and coercion. Democracy is a social relation between free individuals that should not be reduced solely to institutions or elections. We believe that democracy is always a “work in progress” to be altered or improved by communities according to their needs.

Our particular vision of a libertarian socialist society—and the specific path we intend to take to get there—will emerge out of the discussions and activities of the LSC itself. We believe radical democracy is an ongoing participatory process of deliberation, renegotiation, and collective self-determination. It is for the people themselves to decide what the world they wish to live in is to be. Our inability to describe the precise contours of the liberated society is rooted in the simple fact that democracy is inherently a work in progress, continually created and recreated by its participants.

In short, wherever domination exists, we seek to replace it with equality, cooperation, and mutual respect. Ours is a vision of total liberation, not just in some far-flung revolutionary future but here and now.

Want to Learn More? Come Meet Us!

We will be holding an ice cream social for anyone curious about libertarian socialism or the newly forming Boston DSA-LSC chapter. Please join us at Joan Lorentz Park (in front of the Cambridge Public Library) on Saturday, September 22nd from 2pm to 5pm. See the event here.

Our first official meeting will be the LSC Convention, where we will begin to vote in our system of bylaws, set an agenda for the group, and get this chapter off to a running start toward creating a world based on common ownership of the means of production and total self-determination. The LSC Convention will be held on Saturday, October 14th, from 12-2pm, at the Democracy Center. See the event here.

To join the caucus, please email bos.dsa.lsc@gmail.com with your DSA dues-paying receipt email from National or your local DSA chapter. If you no longer have the email, let us know if there’s someone already in the LSC who can vouch for you. The welcoming email from National DSA to your address is enough for us to make sure that all our members are DSA members.

For more information, feel free to find us on Twitter, email us, or follow us on Facebook.

The Woodstock Conservatism of Lana Del Rey

By Kumars Salehi

In January, pop star Lorde responded to pressure from advocates for Palestine by canceling a scheduled concert in Tel Aviv, prompting outrage (including an Israeli lawsuit against activists in her native New Zealand). Lorde joined a growing list of music artists — from Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli — who have refused to violate the cultural boycott of Israel demanded by the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

On September 9, Lana Del Rey is scheduled to perform in Israel for the first time at Tel Aviv’s Meteor Festival, and it is regrettably unlikely she’ll join that list. The list of headliners, meanwhile, also includes Pusha T, the former Clipse rapper and president of Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, who has already demonstrated his willingness to compartmentalize politics for the sake of professional relationships when he distanced himself from the substance (if it can be called that) of Kanye’s recent statements about Trump and slavery.

Like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Lana has responded to pressure to cancel by pro-BDS fans and other activists by doubling down. First she tweeted a twopart statement of rationalization, “I understand your concern I really get do [sic]. What I can tell you is I believe music is universal and should be used to bring us together. We signed on to the show w the intention that it be performed for the kids there and my plan was for it to be done w a loving energy w a thematic emphasis on peace. If you don’t agree with it I get it. I see both sides.”

This isn’t the first time Lana has faced calls to boycott Israel, but it’s the first time she’s felt compelled to respond. In 2014, during the Israeli Defence Force’s month-long massacre in Gaza dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” her scheduled show in Tel Aviv was postponed indefinitely, ostensibly for safety reasons. Ticket holders were told their tickets would be honored, but nothing further came of it — until now.

A second statement, posted to Instagram, finds Lana in a defiant mood: “My views on democracy and oppression are aligned with most liberal views,” she writes, “I just wanted to let you know when I’m in Israel I will be visiting Palestine too and I look forward to meeting both Palestinian and Israeli children and playing music for everyone.” She even refers to Waters’s direct appeal to her with a revealing bit of misinterpretation that is, if not callous, then sincere in its ignorance: “Also Roger Waters, I read your statement about taking action even when you believe in neutrality, I totally understand what you’re saying and this is my action.”

I take Lana at her word when, instead of taking action despite her supposed ideological neutrality, she serves up a steaming side of wacky spiritualism: “But could a person as good intentioned as I,” she replied to a fan account on Twitter, “not perhaps with my presence bring attention to the fact that something should change and that a singer with a loving energy can help shift the energetic vibration of a location for the higher good even if it’s just for a minute?”

The new-age sentimentality of Lana’s anti-boycott statement is consistent with her trajectory as a nominally apolitical musician. In 2014 she responded to criticism of her artistic embrace of traditional gender norms and a passive, subservient femininity by declaring that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”

Her music has only recently started to feel the pull of U.S. pop culture’s now explicitly political center of gravity. Beyond the sultry vocals, gorgeous hooks, and the sonic melange of orchestral pop and hip-hop production that accompanies them, the thematic appeal of her music is a brutally romanticized negativity. This negativity isn’t a superficial “negative energy” that can be dispelled with positive thinking, as Lana’s spiritualism might explain it, but the gaping lack of being pulsating with loneliness and frustration in the core of her being. It’s the feeling of lack that pushes us away from a waking life in which we have no power and towards a fantasy in which we never needed it.

Lana’s is a self-absorbed interiority that drowns its anguish by immersing itself in the nationalistic and patriarchal tropes of the American imaginary, even making it her signature to perform and pose for pictures with an American flag in the background. Only with Trump in office did the flag start to represent something more sinister than romantic for Lana, as she told Pitchfork in a 2017 interview:

It’s certainly uncomfortable. I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.

Trump has even moved Lana to political action, prompting her participation in the mass hexing of the president. Yet it may not be obvious from this newfound political engagement why Lana Del Rey in particular is unlikely to be moved on the issue of the cultural boycott of Israel, which is styled after the cultural component of the boycott that in the ‘80s led American stars like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, and Bruce Springsteen to boycott the Sun City luxury resort — apartheid South Africa’s equivalent of a concert in Tel Aviv.

If you asked Lana about her political views, based on her reference to her “liberal views” on “democracy and oppression,” it sounds like she would tell you she’s a liberal. And yet, perhaps not atypically for white Americans who describe themselves this way, but certainly more spectacularly, Lana’s work and image are even now shot through with the reactionary implications of her preferred tropes.

. . .

Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to a millionaire internet entrepreneur in Lake Placid, New York, Lana Del Rey graduated with what she describes as a “degree in metaphysics” as a philosophy undergraduate at Fordham University. Metaphysics, the arcane-sounding subfield of philosophy concerned broadly with the nature of being, may partly explain the ethereal clichés Lana calls upon to deflect criticism of her politics, but her appeals to the power of an abstract universal love ring hollow.

The thematic gaze of her work is turned inwards, towards almost exclusively romantic feelings and interactions, the drive towards self-destructive hedonism, away from the problems of the world: the interior monologue of a modern subject caught in a vicious cycle between a frustrated but unending search for pleasure and the death drive, the aggressive and indeed self-destructive instinct that Sigmund Freud posited as the countervailing force to our erotic, social inclinations towards gratification and acceptance.

The death drive is the unconscious impulse of our tortured, riven psyche to return to inertia. As Freud points out in his 1932 letter in reply to Albert Einstein, who had consulted him on the topic of war on behalf of the League of Nations:

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies. But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

That our will to live is opposed by a will to nothingness is clear for Freud when we act out aggression against ourselves and others even against our own apparent interests. Lana’s death drive, with the rare exception that finds her shooting down paparazzi helicopters, is very introverted.

“I wish I was dead already,” Lana once told The Guardian, prompting Kurt Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain to publicly reprimand her, tweeting that “the death of young musicians is nothing to romanticize.” Lana clarified only that the discussion of her suicidal thoughts was unrelated to her music idols, blaming her interviewer for “hiding sinister ambitions and angles,” but it’s clear that for Lana the tropes of romantic self-destruction and self-objectification are the bedrock of her thematic engagement with the world. Even on her first (now scrubbed from the internet after a rebrand) studio album, Lizzy Grant AKA Lana Del Ray [sic], an uncritical fixation on abusive and asymmetrical relationships with clear references only to landmarks of American culture should be familiar to fans of her later, revamped persona: “Come on, you know you like little girls / You can be my daddy,” she sings on “Put Me in a Movie.”

Developed to staggering effect on her next two studio albums, 2012’s Born to Die and 2014’s Ultraviolence, as well as in the highlights from her 2015 album Honeymoon, Lana’s brand of Americana pulsates with death drive, rushing headlong into the dark night of the soul. Sexualized fantasies of domestic abuse and toxic relationships (“Video Games,” “Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry”), suicidal thoughts laden with references to tragic celebrity deaths and Los Angeles landmarks (“Born To Die,” “Summertime Sadness,” “Heroin”), ambiguously tongue-in-cheek manifestos for the gold-digging femme fatale (“Off To The Races,” “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls”), odes to drugs dripping with listless disdain (“Cruel World,” “Florida Kilos,” “High By The Beach”) are all set to haunting minor-key melodies that make a retreat into the nostalgic dream of 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood aesthetics sound like the answer to our suppressed, primordial drives.

Her strongest work to date assembles and presents these themes in a way that’s both ominously distanced and wistfully earnest, like an airbrushed David Lynch vision of America — the first two thirds of “Mulholland Drive,” the nightmare lingering just below the surface of the nostalgic desire for a lost past. The eroticized motif of the patriotic patriarch, the father figure who guarantees meaning and pleasure in national and gender identity, promises to make things right — but only as long as Lana conforms to the impossible shape of the girl of her man’s dreams, makes herself the object of a distinctly American male gaze.

This motif shows up throughout Lana’s oeuvre from “American” on the follow-up to Born to Die, the Paradise EP, to “Lolita,” the Born to Die cut that betrays at best a misreading of the Nabokov novel, to “Ultraviolence,” which finds Lana pining after an abusive lover: “Jim raised me up, he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that, loving him was never enough.” Lana says she no longer performs the most controversial lyric in that song (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”): “I sing ‘Ultraviolence’ but I don’t sing that line anymore.”

An equally iconic song from the Paradise EP has also become untenable for Lana, so much so that she has stopped performing it entirely. Lana explains that the single “Cola” was partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein, which makes sense when you hear the lyrics:

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

My eyes are wide like cherry pies
I got sweet taste for men who’re older

It’s always been so it’s no surprise
Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds and it’s making me crazy
All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby

“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” she told MTV a month after the first of the Weinstein revelations had broken. “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now.”

Trump and Weinstein can force her to rethink some of her aesthetic choices, to describe censoring her setlist as “the only right thing to do.” But Lana doesn’t consider that it’s not just the big-name associations that reflect poorly on the underlying worldview behind the hypersexualized, reactionary dreamscape she evokes. The second verse of “Cola” starts, “I fall asleep with an American flag, I wear my diamonds on skid row / I pledge allegiance to my dad, for teaching me everything he knows.”

. . .

Maybe now the American flag is gone too, but it hasn’t been replaced with a sense of political responsibility so much as a fear of seeming impolitic. Her most recent album, Lust for Life, announces Lana’s arrival in a wax museum of the late-60s counterculture, in some instances trading reactionary, solipsistic despair for a vague liberal concern. The more upbeat, almost triumphal melodies and numerous ham-fisted stabs at social commentary confirm our image of a revisionist Lana, no longer willing to sneer and give the finger to the idea of social responsibility, nor to present her music exclusively through the filter of her tortured interiority. Now, for the first time, there are an array of featured guests: The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky (twice), Playboi Carti, Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks — all of whose tracks sound like they were more fun to record than listen to and add little to the album but embarrassment.

“Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” Lana asks on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” It is not clear which war she is taking as a model, but the titular motif already showed up in the lead-up to her album release when she debuted another track, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” In a now-deleted instagram post, Lana digs deep into the well of her positivity and comes up with virtually the same answer she gave her fans and Roger Waters on BDS:

I’m not gonna lie—I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount. I find it’s a tightrope between being vigilantly observant of everything going on in the world and also having enough space and time to appreciate God’s good Earth the way it was intended to be appreciated….I just wanted to share this in hopes that one individual’s hope and prayer for peace might contribute to the possibility of it in the long run.

Once again Lana’s commentary on issues outside of the Woodstock in her mind, her private Hollywood Neverland, is limited to trite and feckless sentimentality. What was in reality the death knell for ‘60s radical counterculture is, against the backdrop of her conservative fatalism, itself the most beautiful triumph of aesthetic enjoyment and good intentions. Asked about her previous political apathy, she doesn’t just suggest that the 2016 election and Trump made her rethink the importance of politics in her music, but rather that politics itself simply became more important: “It’s more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe. It was a good time. We were on the up-and-up.”

Now Lana struggles to reconcile the nationalist and anti-feminist imagery she draws inspiration from with her impression that not everyone she knows feels safe in Trump’s America. As she told Elle, one of the musical highlights of Lust for Life, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” is a reference to the state of women’s rights under the threat of a Trump administration: “It would be weird to be making a record during the past 18 months and not comment on how [the political landscape] was making me or the people I know feel, which is not good. I wrote God Bless America before the Women’s Marches, but I could tell they were going to happen… I realized a lot of women were nervous about some of the bills that might get passed that would directly affect them.”

The overarching shortcoming both of Lust for Life and of Lana’s newfound interest in politics is that it’s glaringly obvious that she has no skin in the game and nothing but clichés to draw on: The mournful darkness of nostalgia gives way to caricature and sentimentality. She shares the basic assumption of the conservatives and liberals who have united in the #Resistance that the Trump presidency is an aberration and a departure from America’s innocent past.

If Lana Del Rey did a full accounting, she would find that her entire oeuvre is implicated in the outrage, not over Trump and Weinstein, but over the culture and institutions that created them — including the themes and soundscapes that gave her inarguably haunting voice its power and allure. The menacing distance that comes across in Lana’s best work, in both its hip-hop and orchestral pop inflections, comes in part from a sense that the identifications she derives meaning from in life and art are impossible to sustain, because in each case she gladly identifies as the object, not the agent, of whatever arcane myth sustains her.

What allows Lana to surrender her agency to the providence of traditional authority even in the very act of protest is her abstract identification with the mysterious negative, the secondary role carved out for her in a fairy-tale society that exists only in the fantasies of reactionaries. Songs like “Sad Girl” are painful to listen to in part because they speak to a fatalism that transcends mere passivity: “Being a bad bitch on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you / We’ve been around when he gets high, it might not be something you would do / But you haven’t seen my man.”

What Lana has yet to discover is solidarity beyond the shunning of disgraced personalities, beyond the over-identification with the existential embrace of powerlessness that makes “neutrality” in the case of Israeli apartheid seem like a liberal position, and makes a spiritual kumbaya seem like all the action a person who believes in “neutrality” can take. Freud called the energy created by the pleasure instinct, the pro-social instinct, the libido — Lana Del Rey has indulged its counterpart, the lust for death, on far too structural a level to really grasp the inadequacy of her “loving energy” to counteract the material darkness that lurks behind every myth, every great man.

It isn’t that Lana (or Lizzy Grant) was ever a self-identified conservative — her earlier immersion in reactionary nostalgia, and the indifference it engendered, were no less characteristic of millennial liberalism than her post-Trump politicization. Lana’s “Blue Jeans” paints her AWOL lover as a spitting image of James Dean: What could be a more conservative, stereotypically American form of rebellion than a rebel without a cause?

If the new Lana has a cause, it’s clear that it ends with the removal of a despised figurehead and a return to normalcy. While she censors the most explicit line of a song romanticizing domestic violence, far more innocuous lyrics from the bridge speak volumes about what Lana would prefer to do  when faced with radical choices — to return to the neverland of an idyllic America: “We could go back to New York / Loving you was really hard / We could go back to Woodstock / Where they don’t know who we are.”

While Palestine advocates should not waver in their demands on Lana Del Rey, Radiohead, or other artists who have crossed the international picket line, the challenge of appealing to Lana for solidarity is a valuable case study in the ideological obstacles that remain before Americans who think like her are reachable. Deeper than Lana’s statements of concern about the Trump administration is her own reliance on nationalistic and patriarchal imagery that leaves no political avenue for resistance but that of passive, sentimental nostalgia — a Woodstock conservatism that can never go home again.

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.