“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.

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

by Nafis H.

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

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

Marx’s Labor Theory of Value

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Patients Limit Ballot Initiative

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes on 1” — A Socialist Campaign?

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

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

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

Next Steps

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

 

Only We Can Save Ourselves

A Boston DSA members marshal's at last year's counter-protests rally

By Edward P

“And there’s hope because we are going to save ourselves.” That was the message Sarah — a member of Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL), delivered as part of a panel discussion and town hall on anti-fascism in Boston on August 15th, in the lead up to the rally to counter-protest fascists in Boston on August 18th.

Organized by a coalition of groups dedicated to anti-fascism and chaired by Boston DSA’s own Peter B, the panelists, Chip Berlet, who researches the far-right, Martin Hanson, of Black Lives Matter Boston (BLM), Sarah, Kitty Pryde from Boston DSA, and Michael Fiorentino of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) spoke to a crowd of between 60 and 70 people in the basement of the Arlington Street Church. The panelists discussed the rise of organized fascist groups in the US, why we have to disrupt their organizing, the current tasks of the anti-fascist movement, and how we win in the long run.

Who Are We Fighting?

According to panelist Michael, Trump was a trojan horse into the mainstream for fascist groups. His candidacy and subsequent presidency gave them space within the political conversation to operate openly. In Boston, the far-right has coalesced around Boston Free Speech (BFS) and Resist Marxism (RM). Both groups paint themselves as being “moderates,” but that only seems to mean they have swapped Nazi Germany iconography for memes about Pinochet, according to Kitty. Despite the way they attempt to portray themselves to outsiders and the media, they are still definitely fascists.

The panelists pointed out the links between RM and other far right groups, including Patriot Prayer who held a violent rally in Portland on August 4th. Michael pointed out members of RM were among the heavily armored fascists at that rally.

Kitty spoke about how fascist groups love to ‘disavow’ other far-right groups when these other groups are caught engaging in outright violence or using extreme rhetoric. They seem to believe it’s a magic word that dissociates them from whatever behaviour or action the media has focused on. There are still deep ties between RM, BFS, and the organizers of the Unite the Right (UTR) rally where Heather Heyer was murdered. Kitty talked about how a UTR organizer spoke at RM’s first rally in New York.

Finally, as Martin reminded us, the far-right is not so far right in the course of American politics. Groups like the Klu Klux Klan have been around for decades, always present at the edges. Fascism was, for black people, also expressed in a variety of mainstream, pro-white institutions. For Martin, the police and prison system represent another kind of fascism. “The police officer putting a finger on the trigger of their gun as they talked to me is militant,” he said.

Why Must We Oppose Them?

To figure out why we must oppose the far-right, we have to think about why they are holding these rallies. Panelist Sarah discussed how these rallies were organizing opportunities for fascist groups. The rallies allowed them to meet each other and network as well as build camaraderie and shared sense of identity.

Chip talked about how the fascist narrative feeds into more mainstream right-wing politics. Right-wing populism is a form of scapegoating, blaming some “other” for the ills of society, and fascist rhetoric gives mainstream right-wingers targets for their scapegoating.

Michael pointed out that all of us turning out last August put a huge break on their movement’s momentum. After tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Boston, a whole swath of Islamophobic rallies were cancelled around the country. RM’s demonstrations have been consistently smaller, but, as he put it, it’s better to facedown 12 to 20 fascists than a couple hundred heavily armed ones like we saw in Portland.

Sarah also said that we can’t just ignore them. Fascist aren’t just fascists when they’re in the streets. They’re the people who go home and abuse women. They’re they people who gay bash. So if we can’t stand up to them now when they’re most obvious, where else can we stand up to them?

What Can We Do Right Now?

All of the panelists emphasized that it’s important to turn out on Saturday. Sarah mentioned telling all your neighbors and bringing 10 other friends with you. Chip talked about building the broadest possible coalition to the oppose fascists. We shouldn’t limit it just to people whose politics we agree absolutely with. In terms of talking to people, Chip spoke about asking people questions and really just letting them talk. Lots of people are distressed about the rise of overt fascism, but organizers need to start by building a connection to someone else before asking them to turn out. Martin spoke on the necessity of using different tactics to oppose fascists and said we should be ready to fight them in any way we can.

In terms of logistics for the weekend, Peter — the event’s chair — talked about the the large number of marshals and medics who have committed to help keep the counter-protest as secure as they can. In response to an audience question, he talked about showing up and leaving with a buddy because fascists have previously ambushed people as they go to and from counter-protests. He also said that if you didn’t have someone to go with, you could reach out to any of the sponsoring organizations, and they would help find someone to go with you.

How Do We Win?

Martin talked about how we could not defeat fascism without building an entirely new world. Fascism is ingrained in institutions like the police and prison system and until they are destroyed, we will never be entirely free from its threat. Martin talked about building new systems of solidarity and economic justice as a path to a new society and emphasized — in response to an audience question — that we need to educate ourselves about economics and how the world really works in order to talk about new systems with people and demonstrate how nonsensical fascist ideology is.

Sarah similarly talked about how a world without fascists is a world without police, prisons, or rape and we have to have hope it is possible. She had that hope because, as she put it, “we are going to save ourselves.” She spoke about taking anti-fascism out of just organizer spaces like the one we were in and getting community members involved. It is possible, she said, because we saw thousands of people turn up last August, to the Fight Supremacy counter protest, to say, “Fuck No.”

Come out on Saturday

Opposing fascism is part of our duty as people dedicated to acting in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, wherever they are. If you are able, please come out this Saturday to remember the life of Heather Heyer and tell the Boston Fascists, “Fuck No” again.

Unite and Fight the Far-Right: From Charlottesville to Boston

By Kitty Pryde, a member of Boston DSA

Content note: This post contains graphic descriptions of police and street fascist violence

Introduction

This past weekend, I spent August 11 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and August 12 in Washington, DC, as a street medic for protests countering the Unite the Right 2 rally and commemorating the previous year’s attacks. A year earlier, I had spent the same two days in Charlottesville, as a street medic for protests countering the original Unite the Right. Then I went home to Boston, where over the course of the next week, the Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and there was a fascist rally that was opposed by tens of thousands of counter-protesters. I attended a vigil at the Holocaust memorial, and provided protest health and safety training to counter-protesters ahead of the rally, in a building where we got word midway through that there were fascists lurking at the door with cameras.

The organizers of that fascist rally, Boston Free Speech, have always claimed that they were and are mischaracterized, that they are benign supporters of free speech who disavowed what happened in Charlottesville that weekend. This has always been disingenuous. One of the intended speakers for that rally was Augustus Invictus, an attendee of Unite the Right. A few prominent figures from the previous Boston Free Speech rally had themselves attended Unite the Right. The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, founded by Kyle Chapman, who spoke at Boston Free Speech rallies, and founded the fascist umbrella organization, Resist Marxism (that Boston Free Speech was an original coalition member for), is a defendant in a lawsuit over the events of Unite the Right. It is a myth that Unite the Right was only the most overt nazis, though they were certainly there. Jason Kessler, the organizer, is a Proud Boy, from the portion of the far-right that tries to present themselves as ideological moderates. Anticom, the Pinochet-loving organization with a strong presence at Boston Free Speech’s first rally, was highly visible on both August 11 and August 12. ThinkProgress has documented both Boston fascists’ ties to more overt wings of the far-right, and the connections between them and the larger movement that produced Unite the Right (UTR) and Unite the Right 2 (UTR2) rallies. I write this both to provide a useful account for my comrades of UTR/UTR2, and to remind us of the importance of continuing to fight the far-right where we live, including this Saturday, when they march in Boston and other cities against “far-left violence.”

Charlottesville

On August 11, I wandered downtown Charlottesville with my medic buddy and his partner. Police had turned it into an armed camp with security checkpoints. They searched bags and argued about whether I could keep my blunt-tipped first aid shears. I got to keep mine, but some other medics weren’t so lucky. We visited the memorial at the spot where a nazi drove a car through a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. I wandered through the stretch of the road, looking at spots where I had kneeled to provide first aid to the wounded, and standing for a time on the precise spot where Heather had been given CPR.

We took a break after that, and visited the group from Jewish Solidarity Caucus, of which I am a member, that was displaying an anti-fascist banner outside the synagogue and attempting to provide solidarity and reassurance to people leaving Shabbat services. Then we went to the University of Virginia campus, to get oriented with the area before that night’s planned student rally. I had been there before, but not in daylight, or in circumstances that lend themselves to getting oriented.

The police had barricades up blocking off the entire Lawn and Rotunda area, including the plaza where the rally was scheduled for and where last year’s fascist torchlight rally on August 11, 2017 had surrounded and attacked a group of mostly students. I had been a medic then, trying to track the progress of the march with the rest of my trio because I didn’t know when or where counter-protesters were going to show up and possibly need a medic. That part of the UVA campus, full of arch-covered outdoor quasi-hallways, is like a maze, and I described that confusing scramble through it to my companions, a year later, as “Nazi Pacman.” The scramble culminated in arriving at the plaza right before the torchlight march did, sitting down on a bench trying to look innocuous, and then being trapped there by the march’s decision to circle the counter-protesters at the statue. I was trying to look innocuous some more while they passed by us a few feet away, shouting epithets, giving nazi salutes. At one point, in response to one marcher yelling “You leftist pieces of shit!” at the three of us, another passing marcher, looking at us, yelled “Let’s kill some commies!” and other passing marchers watched us and laughed. I hoped they would stay in their formation, and given that their formation was circling the students, I felt craven, even at the time, for hoping it. As the attacks started against the students, we were able to get behind a bench, and wait for an opening to bolt through the increasingly chaotic crowd and get to where the injured people were gathering, where we treated them until the police, who had stood back during all of this, suddenly decided that they wanted to clear the plaza of the remaining few counter-protesters and medics, and advanced on us while we were treating a woman in a wheelchair.

A year later, the same police who had stood by and watched fascists attack, until they became the aggressors themselves, had made it so that I couldn’t go in and reacquaint myself with the place where it happened, in a low-key, well-lit setting. In the name of safety. I became increasingly angry and unhappy as we walked around the campus.

That night, the student survivors of 8/11/17 who were running the rally, refused to abide by the terms – only small clear bags allowed, only a specified number of people allowed, everyone must go through a checkpoint – that the university and the police had set, and started to hold their rally in a nearby field on the campus. A few fascists who showed up were run off, without physical altercation. Police declared the rally an unlawful assembly – on the students’ own campus! – and lined up in riot gear. The students marched, and found an amphitheater in which to rally. More police lined up in the amphitheater. Someone noticed that police were gradually surrounding the rally, so it turned back into a march, which turned into multiple marches.  The one that we were in went downtown. We needed to drive to DC that night, so we left before the end, where police confronted and shoved marchers. The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how unnecessary all of this was, how the police could have just let student survivors lead a rally on their own campus! And how much more vigilantly they were responding to this, than they did to nazis marching through the campus, beating people with torches, pepper-spraying them, throwing tiki torch lighting fluid on them. I’ve heard some “well they were criticized last year for not doing anything, what do you expect them to do?” comments. If, as defenders of the institutions of policing usually claim, they were there to protect people’s safety, then I would expect them to prevent nazis attacking people, and to not bother a benign student rally. But defenders of the institutions policing are wrong in this claim.

DC

In DC, we started out at the large coalition rally, providing aid to crashed skateboarders and people with heat exhaustion. Then we joined with the large march, working our way to the front to make sure that it had medic coverage. A contingent from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), just behind me, chanted to drumbeats, “Black! Latino! Arab, Asian, and White! Unite! Unite! Unite and fight the right!” The energy of the crowd was palpable.

The march arrived uneventfully at Lafayette Park. The Unite the Right 2 rally was being kept far away, by its protective guard of police. As usual, I have trouble imagining any leftist action, even a permitted one, being treated with the bells and whistles that fascist rallies get from the state. A few fascists were escorted away by police, and followed by portions of the crowd. I briefly saw a small group including a man with a canteen and a surgical mask, that I didn’t look closely at in the rain, but that I learned later, through photos, were part of a fascist “European heritage” organization from New Jersey.

My team eventually went around to the side of the park, where a number of unmasked Black activists and a racially diverse black bloc had assembled. I found out later that this was because this was where UTR2 organizer Jason Kessler was expected to enter. The group eventually started marching. Police started to follow it. My medic buddy and I had both been there on the day of the Inauguration protests, though neither of us had been swept up in the J20 arrests and prosecutions, and we became increasingly nervous about the possibility of a kettle and mass arrest. We walked on the edge, and when a large number of police on motorcycles approached the group from behind to box them in, we fell back.

There was no mass arrest, but I became alarmed and said so out loud, as the large group of police on motorcycles, only feet away from the protesters, started ostentatiously, threateningly, revving their engines, while pushing forward. I’ve seen a lot of awful behavior from police as a street medic, but I was still slightly stunned that they were threatening to hit a crowd out to counter Unite the Right 2 with vehicles, on this, the anniversary of the car attack at Unite the Right. Instead, they pepper-sprayed numerous people. We wrapped around the block and found people, some of whom had been pepper-sprayed, fleeing the area.

While all this was happening, I saw word that back in Charlottesville, police had prevented a march of mourners from getting to Heather Heyer’s memorial site, and that they had attacked a handful of community members. All of those security theater police precautions were implemented in Charlottesville in the name of safety. But whose safety were they meant to be promoting? Clearly not that of the people who had been the most affected by the lack of safety the year before. They were the ones being attacked!

People sometimes criticize anti-fascist work for being focused on street fascists rather than on institutions and structures, such as those of policing and deportation. But I don’t know anyone who does anti-fascist work who doesn’t understand that these are inseparable issues. Street fascists make all leftist organizing more difficult and dangerous. Institutions and structures both directly abet street fascist organizing, and oppress communities on a day-to-day basis. Street fascists seek access to institutions, to the levers of power.

Onward

Unite the Right 2 was a flop for the fascists, with the main issue being police response. And as a result, I have already seen similar commentary to what I saw after Boston’s and Berkeley’s large counter-protests a year ago. That there weren’t really any fascists, that their movement is pathetic and dead and unthreatening. Demonization of antifa. Assertions that when nazis rally we should walk by and laugh rather than countering them, because they are so small and pathetic.

But the primary issue, when it comes to the current wave of street fascism, has never been a few people throwing nazi salutes – as I said at the start of this, the wing of the far-right that publicly admits to being straight-up nazis was never the only show at Unite the Right, nor the original organizing force behind it. And since Unite the Right, we’ve seen the rise of the “‘Patriot’ Pinochet fans pretending to be benign moderates” wing of the far-right, the wing with plenty of fascist ambitions and nazi ties, and a taste for both street fighting and access to the political mainstream, which is able to draw in more people, and create situations like that in Portland on June 30 where they sent several counter-protesters to the hospital, precisely because they’re a big tent and people don’t understand what they are, what their organizing strategy is, how extreme their own views and their connections actually are underneath the “benign patriot” front rhetoric; how strong their ties actually are to infamous events like Unite the Right. The people providing the commentary seem to think that Unite the Right 2 was made small and pathetic by magic, or lack of interest in fascism, rather than by many hundreds of hours of organizing work behind the scenes, by consistent work against street fascists around the US over the last year, and by fascists’ understanding that thousands of people would show up to oppose them.

Oddly, even as they want to present themselves first and foremost as strong, contemporary fascists also have an interest in presenting themselves as small, a heroic underdog fighting off the vast leftist hordes against incredible odds, and also something that will play into mainstream “just ignore them” narratives and allow them to build. That has certainly been the narrative that they had promoted about the August 2017 Boston Free Speech rally. On June 2, at the Resist Marxism rally, a speaker from Boston Free Speech stated, among other things, that the counter-protesters would never have the courage to face them down badly outnumbered, as he had, if the numbers were reversed. When he said that, I thought about the Unite the Right torchlight rally, and the Nationalist Front charging through an anti-fascist line with bats and shields during Unite the Right, and the gloating over anti-fascists having been injured in Portland on June 30 of this year, and the constant, hungry, Pinochet-fanboy rhetoric. Indeed, I do not want those who oppose fascists to be outnumbered by fascists. We’ve seen how that plays out.

This Saturday, August 18, the fascists who were countered last year, in the wake of Unite the Right, by tens of thousands of people, are holding an anniversary march in Boston, as part of a national “march against far-left violence” happening in several cities throughout the US. They have tried to distance themselves from the Unite the Right rallies. I would encourage people of good conscience to come oppose them.

If you are interested in learning more about standing up to the far-right in Boston, Kitty Pryde will be speaking about fighting the far-right in Boston at a Town Meeting at the Arlington Street Church at 7pm on August 15th. You can find that Facebook event here.

There will also be a counter protest against fascist hate on August 18th at the State House. Details can be found here.

I’m a Postal Worker. Bernie’s Plan Won’t Save Us.

Green mailbox. The old green mailbox on the wall with big shadow.

By A Rural Carrier Comrade

I work as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA) with the United States Postal Service. RCAs (and our city counterpart, City Carrier Associate, CCAs) are casually known in the service as “subs” because our main purpose is to cover a regular carrier’s days off. We learn multiple routes, work on-call, and rack up to 60 hours a week.

In this job, I experience more unpredictable scheduling than my time in the food industry; the physical exertion and hours rival my past farm labor; and management practices are more exploitative than my past private sector jobs. Ten-hour days are normal, twelve-hour days are common.

I was thrilled to get the job initially. A union job with decent pay and actual benefits providing a valuable public service sounded like the perfect solution to my unending series of alienating service jobs. The reality is I’m unable to make plans or appointments for my life outside work. I look at the schedule every day before I leave, hoping no one penciled in my name in an empty slot when I wasn’t looking. Every inch I drive and step I take is monitored by a tracking scanner. I’m told to behave as though I’m “always on camera, because you probably are.”

And I’m still in my trial period—which is 90 worked days or a year, whichever comes first—which limits my benefits and exposes me to abuse by supervisors. Without the same protections as regular carriers, I have to answer every call, work every shift asked, and be terrified of calling out sick or requesting a day off. I feel like a hostage.

So when I hear Senator Bernie Sanders’ new plan to fight privatization of the USPS doesn’t include a plan to save postal workers—I know it’s bullshit.

In Bernie’s letter to Steve Mnuchin outlining his proposal to reform the postal service, he bemoans the “slower mail delivery” and proposes restoration of speedier practices as one of his solutions. Meanwhile, postal workers are working six days a week or more, often 10-12 hours a day, just to barely manage their workload. Our supervisors already demand faster and faster delivery while parcel volume steadily climbs upward. Another sub said our postmaster recently told her, “You’re supposed to be getting faster, not slower.” She had just returned to work after treatment for a life-threatening illness.

One of my city comrades detailed his experience with the inhumane demands of postal service employment in his “Letter from a Red Letter Carrier,” including a story about how one woman had to sleep overnight in the office with her young child because of the outrageous hours. He also writes about the physical toll of the demands for speed:

The number one rule for CCAs was, ‘don’t get hurt.’ You may not read about it in the news, but USPS is number one for non-fatal work injuries, mainly from trips and falls…They work carriers to the bone, which drives them to work unsafely, which leads to injuries, but they then fire the carriers for ‘injuring themselves,’ in order to not pay compensation!

The USPS contract with Amazon accelerated the deterioration of working conditions. The USPS added a seventh day—aptly branded as “Amazon Sundays”—which was made possible by the introduction of a new position. Assistant Rural Carriers (ARCs) are non-career employees hired specifically to deliver Prime packages on Sundays and holidays. Without caps on days worked in a row in our union contracts, city and rural subs are often forced to join them. We could potentially work two weeks, a month, several months, without a day off.

It wasn’t always like this, my older coworkers tell me. “I used to love this job, before Amazon.”

We’re expected to be grateful to Jeff Bezos for saving our jobs and our salaries from the irrelevance brought on by digital communication. Unsurprisingly, some workers are grateful—capitalism has crushed the capacity of many wage laborers to collectively organize for creative demands by purposefully limiting our time and energy. We are dehumanized, driven to physical and psychological exhaustion, until imagination is replaced by the tired choice between irrelevance and a broken back.

Another component of Bernie’s plan for the postal service is the introduction of public banking services and, in a real stroke of innovation, gift wrapping. His letter is filled with references to “business,” “revenue,” and the need to “become more entrepreneurial.” This, all the while criticizing those who would wish to privatize the postal service.

But we are, essentially, private. The profit motive has already degraded what could be a public service, and adding new products or services will not save it.

Politicians in both parties talk about the USPS as though it’s a public entity struggling for relevance against private forces, but this is a misleading characterization of the entire distribution industry. The USPS is as completely dependent on private companies, as private companies are on the postal service. We have a contract with Amazon; we pay Fedex to fly our packages; and the USPS provides the “last leg” of delivery for many UPS parcels. As in other industries, the rhetoric of competition is a facade for the inextricable business interests of capitalists.

The postal service also has no federal funding. It is funded through postage and other services, not taxes, and is therefore private by any practical definition.

Politicians do not want to secure the future of a public service as much as they want to privatize it in a neoliberal, cynical fashion. Without challenging the unspoken, bipartisan agreement to withhold public funds, the “public” aspect of the USPS will further deteriorate. Without collective investment and subsidization, and truly democratic accountability to workers and the public, the postal service will continue struggling to maintain relevance within a volatile market.

The postal service, and postal workers’ conditions, will not improve through progressives’ continued fetishization of the service as a symbol of a well-functioning government. Even leftists are known to cry, “It’s the most popular government agency!” in defense of social democracy as a concept. But this service was built on the backs of exploited labor and capitalist practices, so adding duties without eliminating the existing pressures of profit is a temporary patch on a crumbling foundation.

Bernie is correct in his assessment that the right-wing plan to fully privatize the USPS would “devastate rural communities,” and that policies like the pension-funding mandate have obliterated the USPS budget. But instead of gift wrapping our way to the top of the distribution market, we need to opt out of the competition entirely.

Postal workers themselves must acknowledge the collective power we have to create a humane, public service. We need to revitalize the militancy of our union and challenge contracts that bargain for pensions but ignore the working conditions of RCAs and CCAs. We should make radical demands of our employer and state. Those demands should include federal funding — which would make the capitulation to Jeff Bezos unnecessary —, an end to constructed staffing shortages, predictable scheduling, a return to fewer delivery days, and a renaissance of the 19th century demand for real weekends.

USPS unions also need to join in solidarity with our co-workers in Amazon, UPS, and FedEx who experience similar (or worse) working conditions.

Our hands deliver medication, food, rent, and paychecks. Those same hands can stop cooperating with capitalist distribution systems if the ruling class, on both sides of the aisle, try to write our future without us.

You need to get in touch with your comrades and fellow workers and to become conscious of your interests, your powers and your possibilities as a class. You need to know that you belong to the great majority of mankind. You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are. You will be exploited; you will be degraded…You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor.

(Eugene V. Debs, The Canton, Ohio Speech)

 

Alex Vitale, Fatema Ahmad, and Samantha Calero on the End of Policing

by Corinna, for the PEWG Editorial Committee. Photography by Conor G.

On Wednesday night, one hundred and fifty people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear three speakers make a case for abolishing the police, an event organized by the Prison Abolition Working Group of Boston DSA. Professor and policing historian Alex Vitale spoke alongside two local activists: Fatema Ahmad, deputy director of the Muslim Justice League, and Samantha Calero, an independent consultant, facilitator and writer specializing in violence intervention and community-based trauma response. Fatema and Samantha work together in the activist organization alliance #BosCops, created to track and combat the violent incursions of the Boston police into the city’s communities.

Alex Vitale: The problem is policing itself

Alex set the stage with an exacting analysis of the carceral state, but over the course of the evening his attention, and the audience’s, turned to focus on the two other speakers. If his book is a history lesson—a narrative connecting the dots to make sense of an issue rarely explained in the media—their organizing efforts in Boston are, in his words, “the work of prison abolition.” They show what we can do today, as socialists, to address a problem often referenced but never seriously addressed by our politicians: the violence police perpetrate against the people they are allegedly bound to “serve and protect.” This violence is often blatant and bloody, but it can also be bureaucratic, operating as both institutionally and individually inflicted harm. For this reason, some of the brutal effects of policing are widely known and publicized, but the logic of the whole system—and how specific incidents of violence enact that logic—is invisible and often escapes analysis. All three speakers spoke about language, and the terms used to hide the violent realities of this normalized and celebrated institution, the police, from the public, both populations targeted by it and also those who are meant to be its beneficiaries. All three speakers confronted the liberalism we eat, drink, and breathe in Massachusetts, and the excuses it finds for the oppressive outcomes of punitive approaches to social problems.

vitale1
Alex Vitale at the event, photographed by Conor G.

Alex’s book, The End of Policing, describes the blunt instrument of policing through many different lenses, with chapters on topics including homelessness, sex work, mental health, the war on drugs, border control, and the school-to-prison pipeline. In different areas of American society, Alex shows how police—always armed, always using the same ugly tactics—are the only agents the capitalist state sends into communities when problems arise. The police are not just a repressive government body, they are a hypothesis: that social problems must be the result of individual and group moral failures. Alex argues that any efforts liberals make to end police violence will fail, because even if they are ready to condemn the grisly outcomes of police violence—killings of young black and brown men, of the mentally ill, of the poor—they accept that same hypothesis. They must accept it because the only alternative explanation is that social problems are in fact the result of market failures—of capitalism.

The liberal response to police violence is always to call for more information: more trainings, more investigations, and more technology (like body cameras) to monitor and correct. Politicians and city councilors stand alongside the victims’ families one day, promising action, and the next go into office and vote for policies that find endless money, endless weaponry, and endless patience for police misconduct. These same politicians point to reformist measures like “implicit bias trainings” to show they are taking action. This comes from a fundamental misreading of politics which believes that the laws that created the police and now regulate their conduct are somehow neutral, and, if enforced and enacted by professionals, will generate outcomes without prejudice. It sees racism as a problem of individual behavior, not a structural feature of a white supremacist state—one enforced and perpetuated by police through violence. This misreading ignores the history of slave patrols that American police emerged from, as well as their historical role as a tool to suppress black radicalism and activism. Rather than being somehow an impartial ingredient of a peaceful society, Alex argues that the terms of policing have always been set by politicians pandering to a white and white-nationalist audience, from Nixon’s racially-coded calls for “law and order,” to “broken window” policing tactics that criminalize poor communities for their poverty.

Fatema Ahmad: This didn’t start with 9/11

After Alex built a case for police abolition, Fatema explained how police abolition already exists for some. The police protect property, and suppress the poor, but first and foremost they are a weapon of white supremacy. White populations can walk down the street and not fear arrest or harassment for their occupation of space. They can exist in American society without provoking suspicion and surveillance. She started from Boston, where the FBI piloted their Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which rebrands frequently and currently goes by the name “Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment” (PEACE) in Massachusetts. She began with an exercise, asking audience members to raise their hands if they had ever grown a beard, ever worn cultural or religious clothing, traveled to another country where their religious background was the majority, or protested US wars or Zionism. Nearly the whole room raised their hands for the last question, and there was scattered laughter when she told us the verdict: she should, by State Department guidelines, report us, to recommend therapy of some sort to deal with our radicalization, or after-school programs, or mediation meetings with law enforcement. Quickly, she commented on our laughter—this, of course, was a ridiculous thought, that we would all end up on a list. Only the black and brown people in the room would be targeted by programs like CVE.

This reality, that we are not targeted equally, and not situated equally to experience and understand these kinds of violence, informs Fatema’s work with #BosCops. Working towards police abolition means taking the lead from people who understand the violence of this system from having experienced it. The surveillance and criminalization of Muslims as radical Islamists in America did not start with 9/11, and the criminalization of black youth through discriminatory drug prosecuting is decades old. The infamous COINTELPRO surveillance program was based on a previous program observing “Racial Conditions in America,” which targeted the Nation of Islam and other Muslim groups in the 1930s and 40s. Before Obama‘s policies of deportation and incarceration, Bill Clinton proposed a “National Weed and Seed,” encouraging communities to report and “weed out” problematic youth, while “seeding” these communities with social services. This idea that, in Fatema’s words, black and Muslim communities only “deserve social services because we’re ticking time bombs” gets to the heart of the existing political consensus, which seeks to impose austerity at all costs while beefing up the means to control and suppress the disenfranchised populations austerity creates.

#BosCops is a response to the Boston Police Department, organizing around the violence they perpetrate locally, but their work has national implications. Fatema’s experience with a CVE initiative targeting Somali youth in Boston had directed her attention to the constant, insidious collaboration between local and federal forms of surveillance. Marty Walsh can call Boston a sanctuary city without a single legal result—if someone is booked in the city of Boston today, that person’s fingerprints will still be sent to the FBI and ICE. #BosCops, as a coalition of many activist groups sitting down to talk together, is in a unique position to recognize connections like these, and to fight them. They created a questionnaire for the 2017 state and mayoral elections, demanding answers from politicians about massive overtime budgets for policing, and well-documented incidents of police disproportionately stopping people of color to search and harass. They also created a toolkit to publicize these issues, and raise wider awareness of the tactics police use, and the nature of local-federal collaboration. #BosCops’ focus on the BDP allows it to connect different local struggles—the BPD’s gang database, for instance, connects immediately to the lists created by CVE programs—and unite activists working across different areas.

Samantha Calero: Weaponized systems of care

Not only are police meant to act in lieu of social infrastructure, but existing social services are completely entangled with policing. Samantha’s work at the Youth Advocacy Foundation shows the extent of this collusion. The #BosCops campaign #AllEyesonBPD exposed conditions at East Boston High School, where the school resource officers (SROs)—police officers stationed in public schools to surveil and punish teenagers—colluded with teachers to stalk and observe unaccompanied minor immigrant students. The reports these officers make, highlighting small incidents — talking to a known gang member, for instance — accumulate “points” which eventually add up to “gang affiliated” status for the students under scrutiny. The list these students are added to has no transparency, with no way to find out your own status before you are charged, and served to push many students into ICE custody and out of the country via deportation. The school is now the site of a class-action lawsuit, which Samantha’s work with the Committee for Public Council Services supports. This kind of appropriation of public services for immigration and drug enforcement is common, with professionals like therapists and social workers often serving as the front line of attack for the criminal punishment system. Samantha explained how systems of care can criminalize survivors of violence. For youth who commit acts of violence, that act is never their first encounter with violence. They have always experienced it first from the other side, as a victim or observer. Her work with community-based trauma response begins to imagine an alternative means of responding to violence, outside of police intervention, which seeks to short-circuit these self-perpetuating cycles of neglect, harm, and violence.

The night ended with questions for the speakers, the first of which asked what we can do instead: who we should call when we feel the need to call the cops. Instead of subjecting vulnerable people in our communities to threats of state intervention, we must work to develop alternatives. Who are the people in our communities who have the skills to help us, skills which the police do not and cannot have? Alex offered an existing model for inspiration: in the UK, the National Health Service’s mental health crisis services provide someone else to call, an alternative to inviting a police officer to the scene of a mentally ill person in crisis, and thus endangering that person’s life. Fatema gave some troubling context for this model: NHS mental health services are in fact used as a tool in the Prevent program, an “anti-terrorism” effort established by the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015. Therefore, under this legislation, someone seeking mental health treatment via the NHS could be “screened” for signs of radicalization, and reported at the discretion of the healthcare worker.

As a closing thought, Samantha reiterated a premise of Alex’s book: that we cannot wait for politicians to continue fiddling at the edges of the carceral state with their liberal reforms. Instead we must oppose the police wholly as an institution—one that defends patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism—and fight to overcome it.

 

Electoralism Won’t Shift the Overton Window On Socialism: Art Will

*This contains minor spoilers for “Sorry to Bother You”

By Jibran M

The Democratic Socialists of America are currently at a curious cross-roads. As membership numbers swell along with nominally socialist politicians such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez gets mainstream attention, what role should DSA play in endorsing, running, and electing candidates? As Kim Moody has already argued at length, “The specter of the past that haunts DSA, however, remains the Democratic Party.” As a socialist, and as an anti-capitalist, I fervently believe that we must revolutionize politics from below. Socialists must prioritize building power amongst the working class; not by endorsing the power structures that inspired our action in the first place.

As any cursory search on Twitter can tell you: a big reason people are excited about these mainstream candidates endorsing socialist policies (but equivocating on socialism itself) is that it “mainstreams” socialist ideals and shifts the “overton window,” that is, the window of discourse that is perceived as palatable within the public sphere, towards a more palatable socialism. Although it might seem cool that “socialism” is getting air-time on the likes of CNN, is the working class truly in possession of the discourse? Proselytizing socialism requires our collective attention. We must seize the means of the production of those ideas themselves.

Leftist ideals can and should permeate not through the mouths of elected officials that are easily bullied by bourgeois machinery, but through empowering the discourse itself through revolutionary art and culture.

Paul Klee: <i>Angelus Novus</i>, 1920
Paul Klee’s Angelus Novus, a favorite of German Marxist, Walter Benjamin and the subject of his 1940 essay, “Theses on the Concept of History

While we cannot create an objective science of art, we can discuss how art can be a vehicle for ideology; it is therefore subject to its own scientific critique. French Marxist Philosopher, Louis Althusser once argued, “all ideology hails or interpellates concrete individuals as concrete subjects.” If we are to define art as an artist’s representation of an idea (their subject) then we can follow that we are the subject of an ideology, which the bourgeois has spread through art and propaganda. For centuries, the elite have interpellated their subjects with their own ideology. From ideology that justifies the continued imprisonment of Palestinians, to memes that legitimize atrocities towards “illegal” immigrants, the elite materialize ideology - through the power they wield - to maintain authority. In fact, bourgeois philosophy and art itself continues to live through denying the status of any alternative:

The real question is not whether Marx, Engels and Lenin are or are not real philosophers, whether their philosophical statements are formally irreproachable, whether they do or do not make foolish statements about Kant’s ‘thing-in-itself’, whether their materialism is or is not pre-critical, etc. For all these questions are and always have been posed inside a certain practice of philosophy. The real question bears precisely on this traditional practice which Lenin brings back into question by proposing a quite different practice of philosophy.

This different practice contains something like a promise or outline of an objective knowledge of philosophy’s mode of being. A knowledge of philosophy as a Holzweg der Holzwege. But the last thing philosophers and philosophy can bear, the intolerable, is perhaps precisely the idea of this knowledge. What philosophy cannot bear is the idea of a theory (i.e. of an objective knowledge) of philosophy capable of changing its traditional practice. Such a theory may be fatal for philosophy, since it lives by its denegation (emphasis mine).

Louis Althusser, 1971 – Lenin and Philosophy and Other Essays

In other words, the denial of status of Marxist thought is crucial for the survival of the ruling class. Elite capitalists sees their own world view as universal. Things that are accepted as universal - such as the Earth being a sphere - are beyond partisan reproach and ultimately, beyond scientific analysis. Unlike the dimensions of the Earth, ideology isn’t objective. Because of this, any attempt to meaningfully critique a bourgeois ideology is met with ridicule and sometimes, violence.

How often have we seen films such as Mission Impossible: Fall Out, that glorify the exploits of the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA)? What about documentaries such as Ken Burns’ Civil War that attempts to rehabilitate Robert E. Lee’s reputation from someone who had virulent views toward black people to a kindly, conflicted war hero? If you dug really deep into my own Tumblr archives, you could see that even I admired Lee thanks to what I saw in the Ken Burns documentary at the highly impressionable age of 18.

It’s clear that the bourgeois has been able to permeate its ideology through art and culture. However, if art is a vehicle for ideology, and if we are subject to the ideology embedded in the art we consume, the bourgeois are only in control of that vehicle for the moment. But, if socialists can engage in their own promulgation of truly revolutionary art, then there lies hope to truly shift the “Overton Window” into a more favorable direction.

We’ve already seen success with this through the smashing success of self-avowed communist, Boots Riley’s groundbreaking work, Sorry to Bother You. It is absolutely crucial that political movements have their own signifiers. And, as Briahna Gray stated so succinctly for The Intercept, “The connection between art and a political movement is what makes Sorry to Bother You feel revolutionary.”

Riley, in an interview for Vulture, discussed how his entire movie “deals with performance.” This is painfully evident in a pivotal scene where a white audience yells at the protagonist, Cassius Green (played by the remarkable Lakeith Stanfield) to “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!” as the CEO of the richest company in the world glares at him.

What Riley is trying to highlight with this scene is that in America, we are subtly coerced through philosophy, through ideology, and through art to perform for the benefit of those in power.

Sorry to Bother You – with its critical and commercial success – gives people an opportunity (just look at the people Boots Riley is retweeting), to perform anti-capitalism. Through a medium such as blockbuster art, Boots Riley has equipped people with a framework to discuss the everyday societal ills reinforced by capitalism such as isolation from our loved ones thanks to professional stress, the tension between solidarity with our colleagues and striving for our own individual success, and the fact that maybe we can, in fact,  strive for fair wages for all.

Sorry to Bother You, hopefully, is but a small yet deliberate ripple. As socialists, and as good comrades, we must do our best to champion - whether it be through RTs on Twitter or through Patreon support - art from our peers that is beyond culturally significant, but revolutionary.

Mass Movements aren’t built through personalities but they are built through symbols. Revolution is not built by milquetoast platitudes such as “all men are brothers!” but through forceful memes. Here’s one you might be familiar with, “Workers of the world, unite!”