Collective Reflections on the Boston Housing Struggle

By Edward P

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

The Story So Far

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

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

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

Next Steps and Differing Visions

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

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

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

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

What can we do?

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

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

Self-Reflection and Moving Forward

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

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

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

Silence Is Betrayal

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

By Families for Freedom

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

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

The Silence is Betrayal!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please pass this on.

Thank you,

Detainees/Inmates at Bristol County

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

 

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The Housing Crisis Is a Displacement Crisis

By Nafis H.

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

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

A History of Violence

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

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

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

Suburbia and Systemic Racism in Public Housing

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

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

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

The Paradox of “Affordable” Development

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

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

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

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

Organizing to Build Power

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

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

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

¡Viva Allende! ¡Viva La Revolución Bolivariana!

Union Members demonstrating for Allende

By the Political Education Editorial Committee

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History will judge them.

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

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

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

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

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

Santiago de Chile, 11 September 1973

“One Weird Trick” to Building Socialism

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

By Frank Little

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Libertarian Socialism and the LSC: An Introduction

by the Boston Libertarian Socialist Caucus

Introducing the Libertarian Socialist Caucus

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

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

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

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

Libertarian Socialism and the DSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Want to Learn More? Come Meet Us!

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

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

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

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

The Woodstock Conservatism of Lana Del Rey

By Kumars Salehi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

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

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

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

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

. . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.