A Case for Safe Staffing Limits

Baystate Franklin nurses mount second strike at Greenfield hospital in 2017

Katie J. & Brad B.

The fight for health justice in the United States is gaining momentum, including rapid take-up of single-payer healthcare as a basic premise of left political platforms and as a rallying point for resistance to the gratuitous inequality of our economic system. Alongside wealth redistribution, health redistribution has become increasingly central to leftist visions for a just world.

However, the fight will not be easy, nor will it be won be overnight. While a majority of Americans support such demands and a Medicare For All Caucus is emerging in Congress, our corporate- and Republican-controlled government has stymied the most egalitarian proposals.

For these reasons, the Healthcare Working Group of the Boston Democratic Socialists of America agreed unanimously in June to endorse the Patient Safety Act, which establishes nurse-to-patient limits across different fields of care. In emergency rooms, for instance, one nurse could be assigned no more than five patients. It will be Question 1 on the Massachusetts ballot in 2018. We understood our endorsement as one component of a broader strategy for achieving health justice, bookended on one side by our mutual aid project to relieve the ravages of medical debt in local communities, and on the other by our continued support for a national single-payer healthcare program.

The Patient Safety Act could be brushed aside as a reformist reform. Its success would not directly call into question the entire system of for-profit medicine in the United States. But to disregard the fight for staffing limitations on these grounds would do a disservice to the workers, particularly organized nurses, struggling to make better care a reality. It would also understate the implications of a possible triumph.

Nurses in the United States face some of the most difficult, often brutal, working conditions in the country. A spate of recent articles have laid out the basic dilemma: salaries have risen marginally, but nurses in the United States are more and more overworked, which has resulted in immense burnout and lower quality of care. Cost-cutting at hospitals and an emphasis on maximizing the extraction of surplus value wherever possible have led to reductions in staffing, which has in turn shifted the psychic burden of care onto fewer and fewer individuals. This occurs alongside the violence and disrespect that nurses experience daily. Public health scholar Jason Silverstein put it bluntly: “We’re working nurses to death.”

This situation must change. America’s nurses have, for many decades, represented one of the most powerful voices of the working class. They have been at the forefront of left politics, particularly the fight for an egalitarian healthcare system. Recently, nurses in Vermont went on strike to demand a model of care that emphasizes patients rather than executive compensation. [https://jacobinmag.com/2018/07/vermont-nurses-strike-safe-staffing-ratios] One of their demands was reasonable patient limitations. The Patient Safety Act would represent an important victory for organized labor against the corporate care industry, particularly at a time when labor more broadly is threatened by right-wing politics and union-busting.

Tellingly, opposition to the Patient Safety Act has been led by wealthy hospitals, executives, and a powerful medical lobby. A campaign of disinformation — both in Massachusetts and in other states where staffing limits have come up for debate — has spread apocalyptic claims about the dangers to patient safety and about exorbitant costs. These groups emphasize fear over phrases like “government mandates” and “top-down control,” claims that have long served as bogeymen against left interventions. In some situations, they have resorted to rhetorical blackmail, threatening that hospitals will leave rather than hire additional staff.

It is not simply that these sorts of arguments have been repeatedly disputed, nor that nurses have made their perspective clear (77% of MA nurses believe they are assigned too many patients, with as many as 36% reporting deaths directly attributable to the problem). It is also the case, as Suzanne Gordon recently argued, that the “cost control” model, with its underlying assumption that profits should determine care, has entrenched our unwieldy and exorbitantly expensive healthcare system. The commodification of health has grown steadily alongside its devaluation. However, a consciously planned system with a more egalitarian distribution of health is possible.

Better care from nurses means better hospital experiences for patients, particularly poor and minority residents who cannot afford expensive hospitals and clinics. Throughout history, it has been a common tactic of the dominant to keep workers just healthy enough to work, but not enough to resist or live comfortably. Nurse staffing limitations would increase personalized care where and when it is needed most, shortening stays, lowering readmissions, and decreasing medical errors. Staffing limitations would ensure rested and supported nurses who respond within minutes, rather than hours, to the blinking of patient call lights. In the most difficult times for many families, this kind of care is critical for healing and well-being.

The campaign by Massachusetts nurses has received support and endorsements from groups across the country (only California currently has a staffing law). One important reason is that victories in the Commonwealth have historically spilled over to successes elsewhere. Success for organized nurses here could galvanize the national movement for safe patient limits.

At the same time, it is important to recognize that health provision in Massachusetts will remain unequal. We live in the shadows of Romneycare, the ultimately conservative reforms that led to the Affordable Care Act. The dream of just healthcare in Massachusetts remains unrealized, medical debt continues to afflict residents, and hospitals place the needs of managers over nurses and patients. That dream will require energy and determination beyond present the battles.

Victory against the forces of corporate care would bolster efforts by working class organizations to transform the structure of American healthcare. It would allow nursing unions, occasionally bogged down in staffing battles, to direct their energy fully toward other struggles. Success in support of the Patient Safety Act would send a strong signal that justice and dignity should determine our health, not the needs of for-profit hospitals and the health insurance industry. And it would strengthen the coalition of left political organizations and unions that is fighting for the most significant transformation of them all: free health care, for all, no matter what.

 

Bios: Katie is a registered nurse and member of Boston DSA. Brad is co-chair of Boston DSA’s Healthcare Working Group and a PhD candidate in History of Science at Harvard.

The Healthcare Working Group usually meets on the third Monday of the month at 7pm, and any changes will be indicated on our Facebook page

Communism in Hollywood: On the Satire ‘Sorry To Bother You’

by Conor G.

Warning: this essay contains (somewhat vague) spoilers.

In their essay “Black Like Mao: Red China and Black Revolution” from 1999 [PDF], historians Robin D.G. Kelley and Betsy Esch reflect on a peculiar trend in hip-hop: the revolutionary thought of Mao Tse-Tung. The authors show how the lyrics of Boots Riley—frontman and main rapper of the communist Oakland-based group The Coup—restore Mao to the “pantheon of black radical heroes.” Kelley and Esch unfurl the hit opening track of The Coup’s debut 1993 album Kill My Landlord, “Dig It”:

The Coup refers to its members as “the wretched of the earth,” tells listeners to read The Communist Manifesto, and conjures up revolutionary icons such as Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh, Kwame Nkrumah, H. Rap Brown, Kenya’s Mau Mau movement, and Geronimo Ji Jaga Pratt. In classical Maoist fashion, the group seizes on Mao’s most famous quote and makes it its own: “We realize that power is nickel-plated.”

Mao, according to Kelley and Esch, “gave black radicals a non-Western model of Marxism that placed greater emphasis on local conditions and historical circumstances than canonical texts.” From the Marxism-Leninism of W.E.B. DuBois and the Black Panther Party, to the revolutionary black nationalism of Harry Haywood and Stokely Carmichael, to the urban rebellions around the Rodney King riots, after which the Bloods and Crips wrote a “Plan For The Reconstruction of Los Angeles,” Maoism flowed as an undercurrent through African-American political movements since the 1949 Chinese Revolution. It extended into the Black Arts Movement, too, especially the poetry and theater of Amiri Baraka.

Baraka articulated ideas on art in a work called Hard Facts, building off of Mao’s own Talks at the Yenan Forum from 1942. (“The first problem is: literature and art for whom?” Mao asked. “This problem was solved long ago by Marxists, especially by Lenin. As far back as 1905 Lenin pointed out emphatically that our literature and art should ‘serve the millions and tens of millions of working people.'”) Rebuking cultural nationalism, Baraka urged artists to “jettison petty bourgeois attitudes and learn from the people, taking ideas and experiences and reformulating them through Marxism-Leninism.” By exposing the bullshit, conveying everyday struggle, and laying bare class exploitation through dialectical analysis—only then can artists convey a revolutionary art that serves the people.

The Hard Facts pamphlet, published in 1975, includes a prime example by Baraka—a poem called “A New Reality is better than a New Movie”:

trying

to survive with no money in a money world, of making the boss

100,000 for every 200

 dollars

you get, and then having his brother get you for the rent, and if

you want to buy the car

 you

helped build, your down payment paid for it, the rest goes to buy

his old lady a foam

 rubber

rhinestone set of boobies for special occasions when kissinger

drunkenly fumbles with her blouse, forgetting himself.

If you don’t like it, what you gonna do about it.

Or

Rockefeller is your vice president and yo’
  mama don’t wear no drawers.

Kelley and Esch conclude that Maoism—as it flourished in the United States between the 60s until Mao’s death in 1976—was on the decline (save for a few peculiar references in 90s pop culture, like The Coup). That historical trend has not changed, at least in the US context—save for a few promising formations such as Serve The People-Los Angeles and the Maoist Communist Group based in NYC. That’s what makes the release of Sorry To Bother You, a radical satire written and directed by Riley of The Coup, such a pleasant surprise. Riley takes the pastiche style and politics of “Dig It” (which Boots has since described as too on-the-nose), and infuses it into one of the funniest, most original, and empowering stories about militant organizing.

Boots Riley spent years hustling to get this movie made. It was, as the New York Times observed, a kind of “infiltration.” (Someone joked on Twitter that the Times profile of Riley was probably the paper’s first positive portrayal of a communist.) Riley hadn’t made a movie before but wrote a script in 2012, and shopped it around until it got the attention of liberals like the actors David Cross and Patton Oswald and the producer Forrest Whittaker. From there it got the approval and financial backing of the indie cinema circuit, including Dave Eggers and Sundance executives—and the Annapurna production company1 has been pushing a wide release. It’s now playing in 1,050 theaters.

As science fiction, Sorry To Bother You offers viewers a new movie and a new reality. It stars Lakeith Stanfied—the wiry actor who memorably uttered the title phrase in Jordan Peele’s Get Out—as Cassius Green, a telemarketer who climbs the corporate ladder by mastering an inner White Voice, overdubbed by Cross. The joke never gets old. Halfway through the movie, Cassius and his manager (played by Omari Hardwick using Oswalt’s whiny White Voice), stand in a Kendall Square-style open office (“White Voice at all times here!”) discussing the sale of slave labor. In the universe of Sorry To Bother You, the contradictions of black capitalism are a dark joke and ever-present theme.

Omari Hardwick plays “Mr. _______” with the help of Patton Oswalt

Like Robin D.G. Kelley himself, Boots Riley seems to has pivoted, somewhat, from a hard materialism towards Surrealism, “a body of political thought that recognizes that oppression is often rooted in capitalism, but that unleashing the imagination and being able to see beyond one’s immediate circumstances is a big part of being free.” What better venue than blockbuster science fiction, then, to explore the darkness of US capitalism in the era of Trump and Bezos? Riley’s imagined Oakland is fictional, but not unbelievable: conditions are only somewhat exaggerated, so that when a CEO named Steve Lift—the main villain, played brilliantly by real-life multi-millionaire Armie Hammer doing a mix of Steve Jobs, Travis Kalanick, and the neoliberal gene hacker George Church—tells Cassius of his plan to mutate manual laborers at his worker detention sites into a submissive, subhuman species, it doesn’t seem all that far off. “This isn’t irrational!” Lift cries, when Cassius protests. Given the history of race-making among imperial states, he’s not wrong.

The real star of the movie is Tessa Thompson, who plays Cassius’s girlfriend, a radical installation artist and secret member of the underground black-bloc style group (and lowkey protagonists of the film), Left Eye.2 Her name is Detroit, and she is the steadiest and most vocal anti-capitalist of the film—speaking plainly about how U.S. imperialism was built on the enslavement of Africans, while Cassius, tired after a long day at work, listens but ultimately just wants to get high. Detroit, like Cassius, is guilty of using her own White Voice (Lily James’s effete British accent) to sell art, but she is unwavering in her worldview.

Detroit features in one of the film’s “plays within a play”; one of the more complicated and funny scenes includes a piece of her performance art, where she stands nearly naked, except for underwear made out of black rubber gloves, and tells her audience to throw bullet casings, cell phones, and water balloons full of sheep’s blood at her while she recites lines (in her White Voice) from the kung-fu movie The Last Dragon. It’s a play on fluxus art of the 1960s—something like a gorier, anti-imperialist version of Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece (1964), meant to shed light on exploitation in the Congo—but Cassius, like a lot of us, doesn’t get it, seeing it only as masochism (self-humiliation is a pervasive theme in Riley’s portrayal of capitalism, as Khury Petersen-Smith has pointed out) and tries to stop the performance mid-way. Detroit becomes increasingly impatient with Cassius, who at this point has sold out—lured to the top of the telemarketing chain as a so-called Power Caller.

It’s at this juncture that both characters seem confused, in their own ways, as representative members of the petty bourgeoisie. They are specialists and artisans who, in various ways, constantly fluctuate between struggle and the enticements of the capitalist class.

Citations from “Black Like Mao” by Kelley and Esch, 1999.

Steven Yeun plays Squeeze, one of the steadiest and most loyal comrades in the film. We learn he’s a “salt,” a professional organizer who goes from workplace to workplace organizing fights against bosses and spreading political education about the struggle. He appreciates Left Eye, but is not a member like Detroit is; his preferred strategy is trade unionism. He organizes a work stoppage among the lowest-paid employees of the telemarketing company, which culminates in a weeks-long battle outside the office and, finally, clashes with police.

It’s in these scenes that we see the clues of Boots Riley’s radical message, himself as an artist exploring the limits of trade unionism: in the moments when police start swinging the billy clubs, the cinematographic style switches from one of mirages, overdubs, and animations, towards a rough, documentary-style realism. Suddenly, this is no longer satire or science fiction. It is the reality of working-class Oakland.

For all its plot twists and surreal imagery, Sorry to Bother You has a straight-forward political message about black capitalism, identity, labor, masculinity, gentrification, the police state, and, above all, race. It’s important to note that in the Sorry to Bother You universe, there are no major white heroes. “Whiteness” itself is a myth, a socially-constructed American Dream, the fantasy of the neutral, upwardly mobile, and carefree middle class. “White Voice is what white people think they’re supposed to sound like,” says Cassius’s co-worker Langston, named in an homage to the communist poet Langston Hughes, perhaps, and played by Danny Glover.

“The whole movie deals with performance,” Riley has said. “The idea that race, and its definitions, are mostly performed.” Where it is certainly not performed is among the proletariat: for the mutant underclass, race becomes not just “the modality in which class is lived,” per the Stuart Hall maxim, but a stomach-churning, embodied fact. Under capitalism, Riley reminds us, white supremacy is not merely the justification of exploitation—by identifying non-white groups as lesser or sub-human—but the very engine of its existence.

One of the final and most indelible moments in the film comes after when Cassius Green—whose politics are, at best, ambivalent and contradictory—tumbles out from the world of the bourgeoisie (after a clarifying and horrifying moment, when a crowd of rich white people demand that Cassius raps, just because he’s black, chanting: “Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap! Rap!”). He’s thrust into the back of a police van, after being knocked out by a cop. Day turns into night. He wakes up and gazes outward, seeing a surprising and fantastical display: comrades from the newly-formed mutant underclass successfully beating back the riot officers. Squeeze’s crew has disappeared, outside the frame.

The political insight here—that “the withholding of labor,” as Boots Riley likes to say, and the militancy of violent rebellions are both necessary in the mass struggle—is reiterated in the final moments of the film. Same struggle, same fight.

As a communist, Riley rebukes both reformism (Cassius refers to Martin Luther King, off hand, as a “fake leader”) and also left adventurism—the performance of radicalism without connection to the masses—throughout the film, often in subtle and funny ways. Detroit and Left Eye make political art that is illegible to the public. Cassius, early in the film, finds himself the star of a viral video when, while crossing the picket line, he’s hit on the head with a can of soda (the meme is an homage to Riley’s old protest tactics as an organizer in college). The publicity gives him a platform to go on television to urge a wide audience: “Call your Senators!” he cries. But nobody’s listening and nothing’s changing. “People know that won’t work,” Squeeze concludes.

But will Squeeze’s tactics work? In perhaps the most biting line in the film, Cassius, during an argument with Detroit, shouts: “What’s Squeeze gonna do about fucking slave labor?” Trade unionism, it seems, doesn’t make much of an alternative to electoralism.3

In an interview with LA Times, Boots Riley expanded on this political stance. Asked whether this is “a system you’d ever take part in by running for office,” he replied, “No,” since the seat of power is among “the 1%” and “not in the elected office.” Riley elaborates: “The ruling class was afraid of an actual movement, perhaps a revolutionary movement happening, and because of that, we’ve got the New Deal… So if we’re looking for extreme changes like that, and we want elected officials to make big changes like that, we’ve got to stop focusing only on elections, because then we’re going to get caught in this cycle.”

In the fight for international proletarian revolution—against white supremacy—elections may be fruitless and the labor movement may have “lost its bite,” to quote a song by The Coup. But, Riley urges viewers, we have to start somewhere. If just because the sun will one day explode.


1Important to say that Annapurna is owned by Megan Ellison, daughter of Larry Ellison (Oracle co-founder and third-richest man in the US), and she produced the CIA propaganda film Zero Dark Thirty. Clearly some compromises were made during the production of this film. One of the tougher, unresolved questions for socialist viewers is: How much is Boots Riley using his own White Voice to make the movie amenable to a mainstream audience?

2As a background note, Boots Riley portrays anarchism in an interesting way throughout the film. Left Eye follows tactics of rioting, destruction of property, and art (converting, in one memorable example, a billboard for a mega-corporation into the famous Huey Newton throne photograph). Detroit herself could be an anarchist (it’s unclear). But same time, Cassius’s direct supervisor and manager—one of the most laughable characters in the film—has an anarchist symbol tattooed on his neck.

3When I asked some Maoist comrades what they thought of Sorry to Bother You, they went further, rejecting the film as “communist” especially because of its ambivalent portrayal of trade unionism: “Capitalism itself contains the premises for a fraction of the working class to constitute itself as a revolutionary class, organized in its Party. To be a revolutionary class is (1) to gain mastery of the social process of knowing the society of which the masses are victims; (2) to organize itself for the continuous destruction of that society in stages. The key historical premise for the construction of the Party is the appearance of permanent worker organizations—trade unions—which, in their very first historical phase (the 19th century) are able to participate in the subjective, political identity of the working class. However, trade unions are only a historical premise, entirely distinct from the Party itself, and today they are nothing more than a simple bourgeois instrument of incorporation that divides the working class from politics (i.e., the question of power and the state). Trade unionism is a bourgeois trend in the working class. As Maoists, we must combat it—and all the more fiercely because of the illusions it sows among the working people… The bourgeoisie, as a political class, can only be defined as the political force that is opposed, in an antagonistic and protracted manner, to the revolution. This definition is something other than defining it as ‘bosses’ from whom one can ‘withhold one’s labor.'”

I Got Arrested and So Can You

Police in front of the South Bay dentention facility

By Joey Peters

On June 30th, massive demonstrations erupted across the nation in hundreds of cities. Demonstrators were protesting the inhumane actions of the Trump administration and its treatment of undocumented immigrants, kidnapping children, sending them to concentration camps and holding them hostage. Even for an evil and corrupt government, this has been a particularly depraved course of action.

In Boston there was a massive march from Government Center to the State House. Thousands of people clogged the streets downtown. A few hours later there was another demonstration, this one organized by Cosecha, a grassroots immigrant rights group. It began with a rally by the Mass Ave Orange Line Station and was followed by a march to the South Bay Detention Center. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts has a contract with ICE to house immigration detainees in a few county jails, and this was one of them. The police must have figured out our destination because by the time we reached South Bay, dozens of prison guards surrounded the main entrance to the building. They were decked out in full armor and wielded billy clubs.  

Twenty of the marchers broke off and placed ourselves in front of the guards, with the hope of blockading entrance to the building. From there the rest of the marches began a rally. Undocumented immigrants told their stories, of why they left Brazil or Guatemala and why they came to America. They talked about their loved ones and the pain that our nation’s influence elsewhere has had, and the pain we inflict on  them here. There was chanting. There was singing. The inmates at the facility wrote messages in toothpaste on their windows.

After a couple hours the police were fed up. They arrested us and whisked us off to jail.

Twenty of us offered ourselves up for the civil disobedience part of the rally—the prison blockade. We had very different reasons, but I think all of them basically came down to a desire to fight injustice and build a better world. We were brought into the protest through different paths. For me, the call went out among the Direct Action, De-escalation and Security committee from Boston DSA. The call was kind of vague, but by reading between the lines it seemed to be some kind of ICE blockade situation, and the risk of arrest was explicitly explained as being extremely high.

I’m a very privileged person. I’m a cisgendered, straight white male. In most situations I’m just given default respect for no other reason than the the privilege afforded to me because of these identities. Once it was pointed out to me, it became impossible not to see. Since then I met and married a Mexican woman, and now there’s this huge wing of my family that gets treated differently from how I do. When I think about everything my little nieces and nephews have to deal with, I am filled with deep moral sickness. So when the call came out from some comrades to participate in civil disobedience with Cosecha I couldn’t justify not going along with it.

When the time came to arrest us they did it fairly slowly. One by one they stood us up and zip-tied our hands, then led us to one of two vans, one for the people the police assigned as male and the other for who the police assigned as female. The van they placed the people they assigned as male had ample room to move and the air conditioning was functional. I note this because the van they placed the people assigned as female in did not have air conditioning. To me this was pretty galling because the people assigned as male were all young and able bodied. I would have been more than happy to sit in a hot van for the half hour or so it took to arrest all of us separately, especially when you realize that a significant portion of the people assigned as female in our  group were of advanced age or had other physical issues.

Ultimately they took us to separate jails. The protesters they assigned as male went to the Roxbury police station. I’m not sure where the arrestees assigned as female went. The judgments of the police weren’t perfect, though (big shock).

Once at the jail the police placed most of the arrestees assigned as male  in a holding cell. They took one of us for processing, but it took very long. One of the other arrestees assigned as male could kind of poke his head into the opening and see what they were doing, but he couldn’t really see much. Later on, from conversations with the arrestee who was processed first, I learned that because they don’t identify as male, but were taken with the arrestees otherwise assigned as male, the corrections officers didn’t really know what to do with them. They were groped by the corrections officers andgenerally mistreated. The process ended up taking over an hour.

In that time one of the other arrestees assigned as male started to have issues with their zip cuffs. Their arm was held in a painful position. We as a group communicated to the guards that they should process him next, just to get him out of the zip cuffs. But they continued to struggle with the first prisoner’s identity for a very long time. Meanwhile the other arrestees assigned as male muddled through and tried to keep our spirits high. And when they finally came to get the next prisoner it was me. In retrospect they seemed to have processed us in order based on our ages, and I being the oldest got picked first.

The process of getting processed wasn’t too bad for me. Given that I’m a privileged white male, I didn’t really have any issues. I just had to give the guards information about myself and try to get everything done with as soon as possible. Eventually I was led off to the smaller holding cells. There was a toilet, a little water fountain, an intercom style phone and a concrete bench. There were strange stains all over the place and the floor was very sticky.

For the longest time I just laid on the bench. Mainly I was thinking about this, about communicating this experience to others, and how easily it had thus far gone for me. The elephant in that particular room is that I’m extremely privileged and didn’t have a criminal record, so my experiences with the criminal punishment system are extremely biased. So here I’ve tried to emphasize the problems other people had in the same experience, but obviously could not capture all of what they were thinking or experiencing. I also thought about Rakem Balogan, a Black Lives Matter activist in Texas who was jailed for seven months, not even for civil disobedience, just posts on Facebook. Posts that pale in comparison to the memes I post on Twitter all day every day.

Every half hour or so a new arrestee was brought into the smaller holding cells. Next after me was the person with the injured arm. All of us were processed after maybe another hour and a half.

Gradually we started yelling to each other through the cells, making jokes and trying to keep our spirits up. One of the guards told us that the bail bondsman was on his way. One of us called the jail support set up for us by Cosecha and heard that the arrestees assigned as female had been released (we later learned this was not quite correct, but some of them were already making their way out as early as 10:30pm.

The bail bondsman arrived. The National Lawyers Guild had explained the likely process of what would happen to us and told us it was a good idea to carry forty dollars in cash into the protest. Their suggestion was dead on and that’s how much we paid in fees to the bail bondsman. After that I was sent back to my cell.

The others gradually paid their fee to the bail bondsman and were placed back in our cells as well.

By this point it was starting to get late. We were getting kind of loopy. The water from the fountain was probably not the best and the bench was sure as hell not comfortable.

Finally the guard came and got me. She gave me some things to sign and told me to appear at Roxbury District Courthouse at 9:00am Monday. This jibed with what the guy from the National Lawyers Guild had told us.

And then they released me, sent me out the back door and told me my fan club was waiting around front. So I hobbled around the corner was was met with a huge swarm of people from jail support. It was almost overwhelming and their happiness and relief kind of made me feel ashamed. Like, I don’t deserve any special recognition. I did a thing that I considered to be the bare minimum that someone in my position could do. I would have felt very bad if I had an opportunity to lend my time and privilege to a worthy cause and I had not done it.

But they had pizza and candy and my cell phone. It was around 1:30 in the morning.

I led the prison support folks to the back door they let me out from and one by one the other arrestees followed me out. Once everyone was out various people from jail support drove us back to our houses.

As I understand it, the arrestees assigned as female didn’t have it quite so nice. First of all, the other facility was aggressively cold. They had brought along sweaters because they expected that, but since it was a 90+ degree day they weren’t wearing them when they were arrested. I chalk that one up to the institutional sexism thing where buildings air conditioning systems are calibrated for men, who are comfortable at lower temperatures for some reason.

Second, there were a hell of a lot more of them, so it took longer to process them all. The fingerprint scanning machines that the BPD use aren’t calibrated for repeated use, so the corrections officers struggled to get good scans. One of the arrestees assigned as female was of advanced age and one of her fingers wouldn’t scan on the machine, come hell or high water. Eventually they had to give up and take a high resolution photo of the finger.

The next most important thing was that several of the arrestees assigned as female had extenuating circumstances, such as chronic diseases, advanced age (as noted above), they were nursing mothers and other such things. In particular the nursing mother began to get very dehydrated. The other arrestees there advocated for her and repeatedly asked for water on her behalf. The corrections officers explained that they didn’t have any cups. The jailsupport people outside were waiting with bottles of water and paper cups, but the corrections officers refused to accommodate the arrestees. One of the corrections officers even bought a drink from a vending machine and drank it themselves. Eventually they were talked into taking a small care package from the jail support people waiting outside to the prisoners, but of the items jail support said they gave to the corrections officers, only a few made their way to the arrestees.

And when the arrestees assigned as female were moved to individual detention cells their water fountains didn’t actually work, to add insult to Injury.

The final indignity that they suffered was that they were released in a slow, staggered manner. It probably took a half hour to release all the other arrestees identified as male after me. The first arrestee identified as female was released around 10:30pm, but the process dragged out much longer with the final arrestee being released around 3:30am.

But eventually we did all make it out that night.

Our arraignment hearing was scheduled for Monday and we needed to be at the Roxbuxy District Courthouse at 9:00am. Our attorneys from the National Lawyers Guild were present and kept us aware of the goings on.We filled out our probation paperwork to check in, but in an interesting twist our case hadn’t been put on the schedule yet. Around this time, a few DSA members working with the Court Watch program arrived and we all went up to our court room together. After watching a couple minor disputes one of our attorneys took us aside for a conference. None of the paperwork for our case had been sent up from the police districts. We twiddled our thumbs for a little bit. Around 11:00 am our attorneys told us that the Boston police had written up our reports wrong, so they had to rewrite them and that would take around an hour. Hopefully they would be fixed and sent back over before the court’s lunch recess.

There were a few decisions to be made, specifically about how to conduct our case. We could bite and fight and scratch, a process that would drag out for a year at a minimum, or we could accept some kind of plea from the district attorney, likely something to convert our charges into a ticketable offense. Our lawyers went over a few scenarios they had seen play out.

There was still a good amount of time that would likely pass before the paperwork was processed, so we went off to have our lunch. By the time we returned our proper paperwork was being faxed over, one person at a time. They Boston Police dragged out the process as long as possible, and the court ended up recessing for lunch in the meanwhile. After a couple sets of paperwork were sent over we could surmise that charges we might be facing—trespassing and disorderly conduct, which jibed with our intake paperwork from our arrests.

As a group we ended up congregated in the hall. As the lunch recess neared its end one of our attorneys arrived for a conference. The district attorney’s office had offered to divert our cases. Not being an attorney myself I can’t fully explain the details. Basically, there’s an option in Massachusetts courts to divert minor cases into different educational programs to prevent further legal violations.

The one caveat with this situation is that a diversion program doesn’t really exist for civil disobedience, and my suspicion is that the purpose behind this was specifically to avoid making it into a huge knock down drag out legal battle that will make a liberal state look bad for prosecuting grandmas for the devious crime of protesting children being sent to concentration camps.

Long story short, our attorneys talked the D.A. down from putting us into this fictional program for three months and instead for one. We decided to roll with that and we made our way back into the court.

After the lunch recess the court heard a couple arraignments and bail cases before we were finally called up. Our attorneys laid out in plain terms what we were protesting and why.

We were disgusted with the Trump administration’s treatment of immigrants and we could no longer sit back and do nothing. We were making a moral choice to stand up to injustice and we put ourselves in potential harm’s way to do this. The judge accepted it, and we were free.

Now, we still have the specter of a trespassing charge and disorderly conduct hanging over our heads, but for the most part we’ve been prevented from facing harsher consequences.

All told I lost about twelve hours of my life and about forty dollars in bail fees. This isn’t a terrible price to pay for what I feel is the fight for justice. In retrospect I wish the protest had been better publicized, that there was a bigger media eye on grandmas being dragged away in chains. I wish we accomplished more.

But we did do something and I feel that’s a salve against the injustices of the world. The last few weeks have been particularly hard for me. Normally I’m extremely dispassionate and detached, but even I was shaken by the pictures and audio of children in pain, not just because of Trump himself, but by the bestial, monstrous fascist system that created him and brought him to power. Even pissing in the wind against that hurricane of hate feels powerful.

There will be more opportunities to fight for justice in the future. Cosecha and other organizers are building toward a protest at the end of this month. I’m not sure what form it will take, but I’ll be there in some capacity.

I’ve got to fight for justice because I won’t face the same opposition that Rakem Balogan has for merely posting “fuck the police” memes on Facebook. I won’t be thrown into solitary confinement for months on end, because of the privilege I have.

If you’re a comfortable, privileged person, if the injustices of the world make you sick and you feel like there’s no hope, then pay attention. Pay attention to DSA and Cosecha and find other organizations you can help. I feel that it’s important for those least likely to face the hell fury of the carceral state to stand up and use our privilege, to directly interact with the injustices of our society. Put ourselves in danger.

Things are not getting better yet. Soon there will be more opportunities for civil disobedience. We may be soon fighting for abortion doctors or union activists. There is going to be more danger in the short term and one way you can prepare is with this sort of civil disobedience action.

* * *

Joey Peters is a writer, cartoonist, beauty contest champion. You can follow his work at socialismisgood.com

Marx was Right, A Pamphlet

Marx was Right

The following is the text and a downloadable pdf of a pamphlet illustrating basic Marxist concepts. It’s provided by Boston PEWG for anyone use, copy, or distribute. Download it Here (PDF).

Who was Marx?

Karl Marx was born in 1818 in the city of Trier in what was then the Kingdom of Prussia. He studied law and philosophy as a young adult, but spent most of his life engaged in revolutionary activity. He moved all over Europe, living in France, Belgium, and what is now Germany before finally settling in London. He was frequently harassed and stalked by reactionary governments and often lived under an assumed name.

With his lifelong collaborator Frederick Engels, he helped organize first the League of Communists, for whom they published The Communist Manifesto, and later the International Workingman’s Association, also known as the First International. Marx also wrote for the New York Tribune and was influential on the early development of the Social Democratic Party of Germany.

Towards the end of his life Marx turned his attention towards a more organized study of political economy, attempting to understand the exact nature of the capitalist system. This study produced his most influential work, Capital. He died in London in 1883.

Labor and Capitalism

Along with contemporary political economists like Adam Smith and David Ricardo, Marx understood human labor as the basis for the value of commodities.

Capitalism is a system of production characterized by the pervasive production of commodities for exchange. Commodities are goods produced for exchange rather than other requirements like feudal tithes.

This system allows for the exploitation of surplus value, paying workers less for their labor than the value of the labor in the goods they produce, by the capitalist (or bourgeois) class by driving all production into commodity production. Capitalists seek to commodify new markets, often through state or state-sanctioned violence, via colonization and the displacement of traditional modes of production. Deprived of other means to sustain themselves, people must sell their labor to capitalists and be alienated from the product of labor.

Capitalism is, at its root, a system of the application of violence to ensure the product of human labor benefits a particular class of people rather than humanity as a whole.

Historical Materialism

Marx arrived at these conclusions about the nature of labor and capital’s relationship through the application of a philosophy his collaborator Frederick Engels would later term historical materialism. Marx saw people’s participation in processes of production as the fundamental factor in their lives. As people have always worked in conjunction with others, these processes of production are social processes. From the relationships formed in these social processes come human politics, arts, and culture. These, in turn, influence how people organize themselves to produce.

This relationship is often referred to as the base and superstructure, where the base is the mode (or process) of social production people are organized around and the superstructure is the political organization and ideology of society.

Marx also understood that human society and modes of production are in constant flux. He believed change was driven by the struggle between classes of people as contradictions in the mode of production developed. He saw the end of the feudal period in Europe as an example of this. As wealth poured in from the exploitation of indigenous peoples and African slaves in the Americas, it lead to the creation of a new class, the capitalist class, from merchants, guild leaders, and parts of the old aristocracy who were engaged in commodity trade and production. This capitalist class reshaped the laws and customs of the continent, replacing the old idea of property based on title and lineage with a new one based on purchase and ownership.

While witnessing the industrial revolution sweeping through Europe, Marx saw a similar change happening. Previously isolated peasant farmers were being forced off the land and into factories that grew increasingly larger each year. A new system of socialized production was emerging where a new class, the working class, cooperated together to produce society’s material needs on a previously unheard-of scale.

The contradiction between this socialized production and the private ownership of the factories, which allowed the capitalists to extract surplus value from workers, is now the driver of change in society. The people engaged in socialized labor, the working class, are now the subjects of history and, by acting as a class, have the ability to abolish private ownership and end the use of their labor for purely private gain.

Organizing for Action

A tenet of historical materialism is that our social practice can drive the course of history. Marx believed that the contradictions of capitalist production would push workers to organize together, but also that that self-organization would not necessarily be enough to abolish the existing system.

Socialists have to position themselves on the leading edge of  the worker’s movement to promote class consciousness among working people. In order to abolish capitalism, we have to work together as a class acting for  the interests of the working class and those interests alone. Socialists have a duty to make sure their practice includes the entirety of the working class regardless of race, gender, ability, or nation.

As Marx and Engels ended the Manifesto:

“Workers of the world unite! We have nothing to lose but our chains!’

Further Reading

Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, The Communist Manifesto.

http://bit.ly/com_manifesto

Frederick Engels, Socialism, Utopian and Scientific.

http://bit.ly/soc_utop

 

 

What Do We Want The Future of DSA To Look Like?

By Claudia B. and Hannah K.

We’re writing this because of a recent incident in our local that has demoralized us as young organizers and made us question if there is even space for us in the broader culture of DSA.

According to our bylaws, YDSA chairs in the area are ex officio members of the Boston DSA Steering Committee. A similar measure is in the sample bylaws that national DSA gives local chapters (“Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) chapters within the geographic area defined by a DSA Chapter may affiliate as a Branch of that Chapter, in which case the local YDSA chapter may send a representative to the Chapter Steering Committee.”) But members of our local steering committee recently brought forth an amendment that seeks to remove our voting privileges as ex officio steering committee members––voting privileges that are inherent to ex officio status in Robert’s Rules of Order.

This amendment was brought forth as a surprise to us and to many on our local steering committee, who were not consulted on the amendment’s existence before it was sent out to our entire general membership. This suggests that this was done not out of a need to clarify the language of the bylaw, but out of another impulse entirely. And this impulse is not specific to this specific circumstance, but rather part of a larger attitude within DSA we’ve both noticed and been disturbed by.

Like most current DSA members, we joined in the wake of the 2016 election; the terrifying consequences of the Trump administration and the failure of our institutions to meaningfully respond to them convinced us to embrace a more radical politics. When we joined DSA, it seemed natural for us to start a YDSA chapter at our own college, Boston University. We believe in the importance of organizing our own communities, and decided to start with the most obvious one.

Starting a YDSA chapter is not an easy task. We had to build a base of members with no support from our school and only some support from national. We spent hours writing a constitution for our organization and hours on the phone with our local student activities office, which obstructed us at every turn in becoming an official student organization. In the face of this, and while managing our personal and academic lives, we earned national recognition and recognition from our school. We built a base of well-organized, educated campus activists who we collaborate with in pursuit of making BU a better university, and we’re proud of our chapter. We built a coalition with our local graduate student union (many of whom are DSA members), and we helped to organize a rally against sexual harassment, which one of our co-chairs spoke at. We started a one-of-a-kind labor campaign at BU to organize around the working conditions of our unpaid tour guides that received broad support across campus, with around a thousand people signing on to our demands. This is a campaign we hope can set a precedent for other YDSA chapters. And we did this through planning and facilitating meetings every single week without fail.

While we are very proud to have founded one of two active YDSA chapters in Boston, we are also proud to be committed members of our local. We’ve attended almost every monthly general meeting in the past year (which is more than some of our local steering committee members can say) and have consistently volunteered to help run our general meetings as well. One of us is the co-chair of our Socialist Feminist Working Group and is helping to put together a comprehensive child watch program in Boston DSA. We are dedicated members of multiple committees, teams, and working groups––including helping out with our Court Watch and Donate Your Vote coalition initiatives, which we believe to particularly important. We’ve helped to write and edit materials for our chapter, and we have even had our YDSA campaign featured as one of the inaugural posts of the Political Education Working Group blog. Our YDSA members have noticed this, and we’ve gone from having none of our YDSA chapter’s members consistently attend local events to seeing our members engage as the full DSA members they are.

But––particularly recently––we have often felt like the careful and deliberate nature of the organizing we’ve done both in our own YDSA chapter and in the local has been ignored and belittled.

In DSA as a whole, it is common to hear jokes about “dictatorship of the teens” and “the youth” and about how we want to “guillotine the olds”––and we won’t deny that they are sometimes funny! But we feel that these jokes go beyond tweets into a pervasive devaluation of the work younger organizers do. We have felt patronized and fetishized by many older members, who often treat us like children in need of protection—or, more commonly, unruly teenagers who need to develop further in order to be taken seriously. One recalls Joe Schwartz, former DSA NPC member, who when interviewed for The Nation described radicalism among those younger than him: “Now it’s hip to say you’re a Marxist-Leninist. People like the hammer and sickle; they like to wear a red star, have the posters in their bedroom.” As a result, we both have felt uncomfortable sharing our views in meetings or going to social events. We feel we have not been taken seriously, and as a result the perspective we bring to organizing has been frequently ignored.

When James Baldwin was once interviewed by the younger black radical activist Hakim Jamal, he was asked about his relationship to H. Rap Brown, a younger activist who was the fifth chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee during a brief alliance with Black Panthers on their part. Baldwin responded, “Well, Rap and I are very different people. I’m much older than Rap, and Rap may know a lot that I don’t know.” So the question stands: what do we know that others might not? Our age is often seen as being a weakness, or at least a point of vulnerability. And it can be those things–there are a lot of things younger organizers haven’t learned or experienced. But there are also things we have learned or experienced that those older might not have––or if they have experienced them, their experience of them might be very different from ours.

And we can’t help but feel that in many cases the reason our voices have been devalued is not because of our age necessarily, but because of what comes with our age: our conception of politics. Radicalism coupled with youth is often confused for purity politics, or for a lack of seriousness. It is not seen as being the product of a world that often feels so painful and narrow to us, a world where the future has narrowed into a point so small that in order to inhabit it, one feels like they’re forced to pass through the eye of a needle. Neither are our politics seen as one of the few things that can, as we argue, break the despair of the moment we live in. Instead, what we believe in is often written off as naiveté. We would like to counter that perception as being instead our instinctive reaction to a world we are not yet desensitized to.

The fundamental instinct to shrink from radicalism and dismiss it as naiveté is based in the belief in a capitalist, fixed reality that many younger organizers have fought to overcome. We have both been extremely fortunate to meet and organize with some wonderful people in DSA––people who have become lifelong friends, and, yes, mentors in some cases. But what makes those relationships so valuable is not that we have learned so much from them, but that they are open to learning from us. We’ve had valuable discussions with them about the “teen” rhetoric that bothered us in the past, and they listened to what we had to say and changed the way they spoke about youth organizing, and we think that this is a model for how inter-generational issues should be handled in DSA as a whole.

YDSA seeks to connect younger organizers with the national infrastructure of DSA. As it stands, being a member of YDSA automatically makes one a member of DSA. (In fact, technically all DSA members up to the age 31 can be a member of YDSA!) This makes perfect sense as our goal is to build socialism and this goal persists regardless of enrollment status. Yet, we have found in our experience, people are eager to differentiate these two groups, and, as a result create two different classes of members in tension with each other. YDSA organizing is seen to be separate from DSA local organizing, and local organizing is seen to be separate from campus activism. But if we wish to build a collective society without hierarchies, we need to encourage participation of different voices in different projects while never forgetting how these seemingly disparate things intersect.

Organizing students is organizing future workers, future caretakers, and future DSA local members all over the country; organizing a campus is also fundamentally organizing within your local community.

If what we seek is to build a better world, we must recognize that cannot happen with the divisions currently present in DSA across the country. The bylaw amendment that seeks to disenfranchise us is emblematic of the attitudes that seek to diminish the reach of younger organizers. It is inherently neoliberal to value older organizers over new ones because that behavior is founded in the idea that experience accrued over time is a kind of capital with the power to disenfranchise and devalue those younger. Perhaps there is something youthful about an ideology that seeks to produce something new––and while that is frightening––it is what we have signed up for as members of a socialist organization, and the voices and ideas of young organizers are essential to building socialism. DSA is an organization that prides itself on believing “a better world is possible.” What is the realm of the possible if not the future, and what is the future without young organizers coming up in the ranks? DSA’s future is dependent on its ability to re-evaluate its relationship to those coming up in its ranks. If it does not, the better world we all seek by organizing in DSA, will, we fear, become impossible.

This essay originally appeared on Medium.

Psychology for Socialists, Part 2

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 2: Know your comrade
In Part 1, I wrote about how we misunderstand our own minds. Here, I’m going to look at how we misunderstand our comrades.

The Boston DSA code of conduct instructs us to “assume good faith” from our comrades. To be blunt, there have been a number of times when that hasn’t happened. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, and being a psychologist, I’m going to argue that our disagreements and strife are not (usually) out of any intent or malice, or at least they don’t start that way.

Why do we so often fall into arguments and infighting? It breaks down into a few specific issues. Some don’t require explanation: Living under capitalism sucks, we’re all busy people, we get stressed and overwhelmed. Others are more subtle, and require us to re-examine our thinking and how we interact with each other. The two issues I’m going to point out here are a somewhat controversial idea from social psychology called “attribution errors” and a toxic drive to “save face.”

I. Attribution
Imagine you greet someone with “Good morning!” and they say “Fuck off.” You’re going to dislike that person. Now imagine, as you are having this exchange, that the person is having a broken arm set by a paramedic after tumbling down a hillside and hitting two yellowjacket nests on the way. You could maybe find it in your heart to forgive them for being a bit unfriendly.

A more talented writer could string together some analogy here about tumbling down the invisible hillside of life, but the basic idea is that we cannot always see why someone might act the way they do. This is at the core of one of the more contentious debates in social psychology. For many years, social psychologists argued that people were prone to something called the “fundamental attribution error,” or FAE. The “error” part of the FAE is that people tend to attribute the behavior of others to internal or “dispositional” factors about the other person, who they were, when in fact the behaviors are due to external “situational” factors. The error, in other words, would be thinking that the person in our example was an asshole, rather than attributing their response to the fact that they had just gone through an extremely unpleasant experience.

It is the nature of DSA that people have disagreements. It’s part of being a multi-tendency organization. Sometimes those disagreements get heated. It’s easy for a political disagreement to become a personal one. Sometimes that’s intentional. Sometimes it’s because people interpret what people say as reflecting who they are versus how they are at that moment.

The controversial part of the FAE is how often it’s actually an error:[1] Sometimes the attributions to a person’s disposition are fully justified. Nobody denies that people prefer to make dispositional attributions; that’s been a point of agreement in this debate for well over 30 years.[2] The question for researchers is: Do we make dispositional attributions when there are clear situational alternatives? Ultimately, that uncertainty is a part of the problem. We don’t always know when it’s an error and when it’s not.

This uncertainty is even worse when we don’t have any idea about other people’s situations. This is especially the case in online discourse: We don’t have any context for the people we’re talking to, and it’s easy to read the same post in many different ways. When we read something negative, it’s easy to assume that it reflects something intrinsic about the person who posted it. Sometimes it does. Sometimes it’s someone having a bad day. Sometimes it’s a little of column A, a little of column B. Uncertainty!

Now, let’s consider what it means to assume good faith in your comrades.

To me, it means that, when I see something I read as negative or hostile, I try to make the situational attribution first, especially with people I don’t know well. Whether or not it’s accurate, it is the more generous option. If it keeps happening I will end up deciding that it’s not situational, but it takes some time to tip the scales. To me, assuming good faith means making the default assumption that people aren’t assholes, but that anyone can have a bad day. That means I don’t go into my future interactions with them thinking that they will be the same. In general, I try to avoid attributing hostility to others whenever I reasonably can. This is not easy or simple: From childhood, we find it very easy to attribute hostility to others when they do something we do not like[3], whether they meant it to be hostile or not.

Of course, sometimes it’s us having the bad day. We say things that other people take badly, and then we get defensive. But defend what, exactly? Here, we run into the deeply ingrained problem of saving face.

II. The problem of face
Whether or not it’s accurate, the FAE applies only to our judgments of other people’s actions. When it comes to ourselves, we go almost exactly the other way. Whenever we do something that we’re not proud of, or that we are criticized for, we push the causes onto external factors. We try, as much as possible, to say “that’s not who I am,” and make excuses. Our concept of “who I am,” our self-concept, is complicated and multifaceted. One aspect is referred to by social psychologists as “face,” defined as “the positive aspects of character that a person lays claim to (or is treated as having laid claim to) in a particular interaction.”[4]

We are very protective of “face.” When it is challenged, by our own actions or by what someone else says, we get embarrassed. If you are around people you want to think of you as smart and you try to push a pull door, you feel embarrassed. Most people have a powerful drive to avoid embarrassment. We work very hard to save face.

Recently, I’ve come to the conclusion that this isn’t a good thing. In fact, I think it’s toxic, especially for activist organizations, and even more so for socialists that must ultimately trust each other to accomplish real change.

Let’s take a (minor) recent example from my own interactions with my local DSA chapter. I got into a discussion about a candidate who the chapter was considering talking to and endorsing, who had, as part of their platforms, police body cameras. I hadn’t worked out the intrinsic problems with body cameras (surveillance state, in short), and so I was confused when this got a strong negative reaction from some comrades. When I asked questions about this, I briefly found myself on a platform arguing about whether body cameras were a problem or not.

It took about four comments for me to realize that I was doing it exclusively to avoid being wrong, and for no other reason. So I stopped. Even then, I couldn’t bring myself to admit, publicly, that’s what had happened, and found myself trying to make excuses until I forced myself to stop. Eventually I just managed to put together “I didn’t think it through” and left it at that.

This isn’t the event that made me think face is toxic, by the way. I worked that out a while ago. But even with that in mind, I couldn’t stop myself. Saving face is practically reflexive. Maybe more for me than for some people, but research has concluded that saving face is nearly a cultural universal, with some variation in how far people will go to protect someone else’s reputation versus their own.

In any case, my anecdote is just an example of why face is bad. Why couldn’t I just say up front that I hadn’t thought it through? Why is it so difficult to even write about now? Because I hate being embarrassed. Kind of a lot, in fact. If this post makes it to the public eye with all of this intact it’ll be the greatest success I’ve had yet fighting the impulse to save face.

Now let’s think about this in a broader context of our organization: Callouts, arguments, and how people respond to being called out.

Let me start with a very important disclaimer: I’m not talking about callouts for personal harassment or extensive abusive behavior. There are such things as unforgivable actions, real harms that cannot be repaired by simple apologies. That’s not what I’m talking about here. You’re not “saving face” if you’re making excuses for deliberately hurting someone, you’re just an asshole. There is no situational justification for actions that cannot ever be justified. When someone causes real, serious harm, they should admit they’re wrong, but just admitting they’re wrong doesn’t absolve them. Nothing I’m going to say here applies to those kinds of cases.

I’m talking about the kind of day-to-day squabbling an organization like DSA generates. In our chapter we’ve seen public arguments about political education programs, electoral work, technology infrastructure, accessibility options, and the general internal political structure of the chapter. I don’t want to dismiss the importance of any of these issues, but I hope it’s clear that there is a difference between public arguments about these issues and public callouts for extensive individual harassment and abusive behavior. For one, when you’re dealing with what I’ll call “political” callouts (for lack of a better term), there’s some expectation that you will be working with the people involved in the future. That’s the kind of case I’m talking about here.

With that in mind, political callouts are sometimes justified, and sometimes it turns out they are not. However, when people are called out, more often than not the response I see is some kind of self-justification. Sometimes it’s an admission that something isn’t right and a situational excuse, sometimes it’s a doubling-down on the justification for whatever they are being called out on, to the point where they will express pride in it. Either way, the goal is clearly the same: to save face. The most awful forms of this are the non-apology (“I’m sorry you were offended”) and the outright denial.

The intended outcome of (most) callouts is a correction. Saving face doesn’t do that. Most face-saving responses will drag the problem out, or make it worse, or at best ultimately correct the issue but leave some lingering resentment from the parties involved.

What if we didn’t try to save face? What if we fought the impulse to protect our self-image with excuses, and simply said, “I was wrong, and I feel bad about it”? It’s hard to say because it so rarely happens, but personally, I think it would usually work out a lot better for everyone involved. If you are the one making the callout, it would address the issue they wanted addressed. If you are the one being called out, it would feel bad, in the short term. Embarrassing, of course. But, ultimately, if you’ve made someone mad enough to call you out, it would do a lot to repair that relationship, it would let you work together moving forward, and in the context of advocacy, it would help you Do Things That Work.

The above only applies to justified callouts. Sometimes callouts aren’t justified, due to incomplete information, misunderstanding, or just failing to assume good faith. Once you’ve made a callout, in a public sphere, you are committed to something that can become a threat to your face. If you discover that your callout wasn’t justified, what do you do next? Well, one option is to admit you were wrong. The other is to try to save face. The pattern of saving face here is generally to double down, or dial back by half-measures. The end result is the same: It accomplishes nothing except to build acrimony. In making a callout, if we expect those we are calling out not to try to save face, and to admit when they are wrong, we must be willing to do the same if it turns out we were wrong.

There is also a third possible situation, which is less of a callout and more of a straight-up argument: when both sides feel, truly feel, they are justified, not because they are saving face but because they really believe in their actions or their positions. Neither of the above points apply to those cases. This isn’t a call to simply give up your position when challenged. This is a call to examine why you want to defend your position. Is it because you really are justified? Or is it because you want to save face? You will almost always think you are justified, at least at first, but that assumption is part of the impulse to save face, and you shouldn’t simply accept it without questioning it.

My advice? Whenever you call someone out, or are called out, challenge yourself on your position. If you think you’re right, really challenge your own position, really think about why someone might feel justified calling you out on it (or why they would feel justified holding the position you are calling out), and if you still think you’re justified, well, then you might be. If you find your position isn’t as strong as you thought, then maybe it’s time to try not saving face. Even if you can find a situational justification for your behavior, let it go. You can know, for yourself, that it wasn’t “who you are,” but making that excuse doesn’t help anything except your own self-image, and so often sounds like an attempt to avoid responsibility. Making a situational attribution for yourself is a way to save face rather than resolve the concern, and even if you can make that attribution, it doesn’t mean that you should.

The earlier you make that determination, the better. We’re no strangers to chapter or national drama. It ramps up. People get entrenched. Even when one flare-up subsides, it leaves lingering distrust and acrimony, which fuels the next flare-up. If you can save months of arguing and bad feeling by not trying to save face, don’t try to save face.

And as a comrade, make it easier for people to make that decision. Do not hold grudges. If a comrade admits they were simply wrong, respect them for it, and remember the problem of attribution. Embarrassment is just a feeling, but disrespect is a punishment. Even if they admit they did something wrong, that doesn’t mean there wasn’t a situational factor behind it. They just don’t want to make excuses, and that is a quality we should appreciate in our comrades. Let me emphasize again, there’s a class of action that this advice does not apply to, and never should, but for most of the arguments and disagreements we have, there’s no need to hold a grudge, and no benefit.

III. Being comradely
The message I’m trying to get across here is not that you have to agree with all of your comrades, or even that you have to like them. The goal here is to treat them, and yourself, fairly. Assume good faith by asking, when someone says something you react negatively to, whether it is a reflection of who they are, or a product of their situation. Be willing to accept when you are wrong, and be willing to accept others when they admit they are wrong. Sectarianism is the death of any activist movement, and sometimes that is built on deliberate strife. However, in assuming good faith of my comrades, when it rears its head in DSA I see it as more of a product of failing to assume good faith by the participants, and a desperate need to save face. If we can learn to assume good faith, and if we can be less selfishly attached to our own self-image, we can accomplish more. We can get more done. We can more effectively make the world a better place.

So this is a call to examine yourself and your interactions, to think about what you are attributing to others and what positions you truly need to defend. This is not advice aimed at any one person, but at every member of this organization. Some disagreement will touch all of us sooner or later, and we must all individually be prepared to deal with them in a constructive and comradely way. The common good is greater than any of our egos or our personal dislikes. While we can disagree on valid, principled grounds, we must spare ourselves unnecessary fights, unnecessary drama, and above all unnecessary hostility. Disagreements that start as these simple misunderstandings or mistakes can lead to deliberately hostile actions later. A little hard self-examination now can save a organization-shattering fight later.

Notes
[1] Sabini, J., Siepmann, M., & Stein, J. (2001). The really fundamental attribution error in social psychological research. Psychological Inquiry, 12(1), 1-15.
[2] Harvey, J. H., Town, J. P., & Yarkin, K. L. (1981). How fundamental is the “fundamental attribution error”? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 40(2), 346-349.
[3] van Dijk, A., Poorthisu, A. M. G., Thomasse, S., de Castro, B. O. (in press). Does parent-child discussion of peer provocations reduce young children’s hostile attributional bias? Child Development.
[4] Sabini et al. (2001), pg. 2.

Their Dream and Ours: a Review of “The Dream is Lost” and a Path Forward for the Left

Three men standing around a car with signs for the Crusade for Voters

Mike B

The following is a short book summary followed by an analysis. This piece is the opinion of the author only and does not represent the views of any organization to which they belong. 

This piece was originally published on Medium.

SUMMARY

Julian Hayter’s invaluable book, The Dream is Lost,  provides the first monograph-length study (excluding several capable works which cover a much longer time period, including Rights for a Season) of the annexation crisis and the events surrounding it since Rutledge M Dennis and John V Moeser’s Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City in 1982. The Dream is Lost, however, also includes additional background that a slim volume like Politics of Annexation did not flesh out, and benefits from decades of hindsight in a way that Moeser and Dennis, writing so soon after the events described, could not.

dream-is-lost
Cover of Julian Hayter’s The Dream is Lost

Hayter insists that Richmond skipped the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (a notion that would surely surprise quite a few Virginia Union University (VUU) students and East End Neighborhood Association members!) and went straight to (electoral) politics. The Richmond Crusade for Voters, a middle class group, led the charge to the polls. When the Crusade was formed in 1956, the main impediment to Black suffrage was an onerous poll tax. The Crusade fought back by raising funds to pay the poll tax for indigent Richmonders and by going through Black communities on election day with speakers and megaphones exhorting residents to vote and excoriating those who did not. Numbers of registered voters skyrocketed and participation in city elections grew.

 

But, notes Hayter, “[t]he Crusade may have championed democracy, but it was not organized democratically…its decision-making process was almost entirely in the hands of its middle-class members.” Crusade brass determined for whom members would vote, and the organization’s committee in charge of selecting candidates would release their list of endorsements on the Sunday prior to the election (!), leaving little time for working class members to organize an opposition to the leadership’s slate.

Crusade priorities had initially centered on having Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc for progressive white candidates (be they Democrat or Republican), but, after a strong performance in the 1960 councilmanic election, the Crusade aimed for a more ambitious goal — winning a black majority council (BMC) in the capital of Jim Crow Virginia. In 1964, the Crusade saw its first Black candidate, B.A. “Sonny” Cephas, elected to City Hall along with several white candidates the Crusade had endorsed. After the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the Crusade earned even greater successes, including the election of Henry Marsh, an outspoken civil rights champion, to City Council, along with two other African-Americans. Henry Carwile, a white progressive, joined his Crusade comrades.

henry_marsh_4
Henry L. Marsh III, second from left, during Richmond City Council meeting June 29, 1971. 1971 Times-Dispatch

Political defeats tailed closely behind electoral triumphs. Much of the Black middle and working classes were disgusted when a police review board proposal (already a compromise — the board would consist of zero members elected by the public, five selected by the City Council, and four police officers appointed by the city) was voted down 7–2, with Crusaders Cephas and Mundle siding with the white conservatives against Marsh and Carwile. Richmond Forward, the faction of the white right, rammed through legislation to run a new expressway through Randolph and Oregon Hill, sending residents to overcrowded public housing in East End and Southside. Route 64 had similarly destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood without creating enough public housing to equal or exceed homes destroyed years earlier. It seemed as though too little had changed with Crusaders unable to counter the schemes of the white conservative Council majority.

Sensing the urgency of the Crusade’s plan to achieve a BMC, RF sought to annex portions of Henrico County containing tens of thousands of white voters. After five years (1961–1966) of tussling with Henrico residents, courts, and the Virginia General Assembly, the plan fell through. Richmond Forward’s successor, the Team of Progress, turned its gaze South to Chesterfield.

This plan to dilute the Black vote didn’t go unnoticed. Curtis Holt, a disabled former construction worker who founded a tenant association in Creighton Court, opposed the plan absolutely; the middle class leadership of the Crusade backed annexation, but demanded a switch from at-large Council elections to a ward-based system with enough majority-Black districts to ensure proportional representation. After a tumultuous legal battle that left Holt and some of his poor supporters at odds with the well-to-do Crusade leaders, Richmond annexed some 40,000 white residents of Chesterfield in 1970 (prior to this, the area West of Forest Hill Ave. was not part of the city). Responding to Holt’s charges of voter dilution, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the city from holding new councilmanic elections until it had adopted a ward system. This wasn’t accomplished until 1977, meaning that the 1970 City Council was in power for the better part of a decade without standing for reelection!

In the next election, Crusade candidates swept five out of nine wards. At last, they had won a Black Majority Council. The new Council selected Marsh as the mayor and included newcomer Willie Dell, a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor whose indefatigable anti-poverty activism, razor-sharp intelligence, and straight-talking brand of charisma endeared her to many of East End’s poor. The wind seemed to be at the Crusade’s back. It was not to be.

“The politics of Richmond are now controlled by Afro-Americans, [but its] economics [are] still controlled by white Americans”, lamented Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta (1974-1982, 1990-1994), who sailed to power on a wave of civil rights movement support, only to enact punishing neoliberal measures once in office. The campaign of obstruction and sabotage in Richmond was unrelenting — the press printed screed after screed against Marsh, white residents and white businesses left for the counties, leaving Marsh and his Crusaders with scant funds to rebuild and maintain homes and schools decaying from years of white neglect. Marsh felt he had little choice but to desperately pursue boondoggles to keep capital in Richmond — projects like shopping centers, the Project One disaster that gave Richmond an underutilized convention center on Broad and two overpriced hotels on either side, as well as the crumbling Coliseum, and Kanawha Plaza, the business center just West of Shockoe Slip on Cary with the hideous maritime statue.

White sabotage worked. Marsh failed to deliver an improved standard of living for the

Roy West
Former Richmond Mayor Roy West. C-SPAN

working class, and many well-to-do Black voters were eager to elect a candidate who was able to work more comfortably with the city’s white business establishment to prevent further capital flight. In 1982 the white power structure threw money at Roy West, a Black conservative, running for Willie Dell’s seat. Overspent and awash in invective from the white press, Dell’s working class base in East End was demoralized, but her district also stretched into more prosperous Highland Park, whose middle-class Black voters were anxious to dump Dell’s combative, left-leaning platform in favor of West’s promises to closely work with the white elite. West won, was elected mayor, and proceeded to privilege the desires of the wealthy above the needs of the working poor. The forces of reaction had triumphed.

WHAT HAYTER LEAVES OUT:

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s concept of a “long Civil Rights Movement” has become one of the most influential lenses through which to view twentieth century Black history. Hall contended that many of the roots of the “classical” Civil Rights Movement lay not in events immediately preceding the Brown decision, but can be traced back even further — specifically to the upsurge in Black activism and labor militancy in the 1930s. As Glenda Gilmore, among others, have argued, this means acknowledging the Communist Party USA as an influential institution in the rise of Civil Rights. It wouldn’t take much stretching to fit Richmond into the long Civil Rights narrative. The city was the home to a Communist-influenced union involved in major struggles to weaken the color line in industry and improve wages and conditions for black workers, and Richmond hosted the first headquarters of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Civil Rights organization that would later inspire groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Hayter misses an opportunity to provide a “long Civil Rights” history of Richmond by instead focusing almost exclusively on voting rights and electoralism. This undertaking necessarily involves writing out or minimizing crucial political context at the grassroots level. Where, for instance, does Hayter mention the East End Neighborhood Association, the working class Black group whose uncompromising boycott campaign desegregated more than a few stores? Why is the reference to the Creighton Court Civic Association only in passing as a minor biographical detail of Curtis Holt? By analyzing only electoral politics Hayter neglects the myriad of extra-parliamentary ways the Black freedom struggle that provided the context of the Crusade’s work operated, and that may have provided a different, more effective road to lasting change and real power.

We on the left sometimes exhibit a similar lack of perspicacity when we regard working and oppressed peoples’ power as primarily stemming from their status as voters. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the full humanity and the full capacity of people to remake their world with an array of different tactics and strategies, many of which have a higher batting average than municipal elections.

ANALYSIS:

Holt, Marsh, and other sincere advocates of progressive policies found themselves in a paradoxical situation — at the beginning of their journey, Richmond had a sizeable tax base, but Black residents had no electoral representation; later, Black residents won a majority on the City Council only to see funds (and therefore their ability to substantively support housing, education, and anti-poverty initiatives) massively depleted. Their voters realized this fact and became demoralized and demobilized, and their opponents seized on these failures in order to drive a wedge among Black voters, winning some of the middle class and small business owners to their agenda of neoliberal “reforms.” From Roy West to Wilder, Kaine, Jones, and Stoney, Richmond has seemed to have no alternative.

A socialist perspective can provide us with the tools to see why the representation-vs.-money zero sum game is such a dead end, and the strategy we need to create real and lasting change and break out of this trap. We sometimes refer to elected officials as “people in power” or even refer to winning office as “taking power.” The example of Richmond in the 1960s through 1980s shows this to be sorely mistaken. Elected office represents a position, but the ability to shape the city, sabotage the Black Majority Council with no real resistance, and the ability to make money on the backs of working class Richmonders remained in the hands of the landlords, real estate interests, employers, VCU administration, and businesses. These interests — the capitalist class — still held power, and still will hold power even if we were to get a socialist majority in the next City Council election.

The only way leftwing officeholders can legislate change and keep it is if the power of the capitalist class is already weakened by the building of a working class counterpower outside of the state. The capitalist class in Richmond has amassed tremendous wealth, but they have a huge Achilles Heel — they depend almost totally on workers to generate their profits and to pay them rent, and they need placid social conditions to reap their ill-gotten gains in peace.

Before seeking electoral office, we need to help build a base — a militant, committed, organized, and ever-expanding section of Richmond workers who are able to push for higher wages, better conditions, and an end to harassment and discrimination; neighbors united to push back rent hikes, successfully demand landlords perform needed repairs, and crush our city’s well-oiled gentrification and eviction machines; students, parents, teachers, and staff ready to strike against Jason Kamras[a] and his puppetmaser Thomas Farrell[b] and their plans to bring DC style privatization schemes to Richmond, and against Michael Rao’s[c] quest to colonize more of the city under the banner of VCU; Women, non-binary, and trans people, people of color, and immigrants and their allies prepared to weaken institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression. Even then, capital will defend itself and use capital flight. For this reason, we should never see electoral contests as an end in themselves, even after we have won a base. Rather, winning elected office should be seen a temporary, supporting tactic in a broader strategy for the total overthrow of capitalism.

While our current context is unique in some respects, we have better lodestars to guide us than the electoral work of groups like the Crusade. In 1937, tobacco stemmers (many of whom were Black women) began to rise up against low wages, hazardous conditions, and a rigidly-enforced color line in the industry. Communists like Frances Grandison, Chris Alston, and James E. Jackson met with workers in Rev. Queen’s church on Leigh Street and helped the workers expand their strike wave to other plants. The next several years would see the founding of the Tobacco Stemmers Labor Union (TSLU), a radical, Communist-influenced organization that successfully organized for raised wages and won the 8-hour day in the dark, Satanic tobacco plants of Southside. Just as importantly, they pushed back against the color line in tobacco — for years, white business owners had misclassified challenging work as “unskilled” to justify paying Black workers less than their white counterparts. TSLU managed to reclassify Black workers in some plants as skilled or semi-skilled, narrowing the wage gap against white workers. While automation in tobacco, divide-and-conquer tactics by Richmond’s captains of industry, and co-optation by less radical, more Jim Crow unions would eventually frustrate TSLU and the Richmond Communists, their achievements for the working class were tangible and undeniable. With more foresight, a better analysis of changing industrial conditions, and more stubbornness towards co-optation by the AFL and the Democratic Party, the Communist assault on capitalism and Jim Crow could have lasted longer and reaped even greater gains.

Our movement shouldn’t be dogmatic. Electoral work can play a supporting role to organizing, but must be at most a distant second. We need to make major strides in basebuilding long before we can engage effectively and intelligently in the electoral arena, or else we will find ourselves in the same position as Willie Dell and Henry Marsh — forced to choose between minor legislative victories as the city crumbles, or openly enacting the will of the capitalists. Richmond is far from alone in having progressive politicians reduced to administering harmful neoliberal policies — Communists in France and labor parties in Australia, the UK, and elsewhere have formed governments which have genuflected to capital and cut needed social welfare policies for workers and the poor. Even groups that claim to balance basebuilding outside of elections with running for office too often privilege the latter over the former, as Kali Akuno’s recent criticisms of Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s Democratic mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi make clear.

Hayter’s work ends on a depressing note — for the Richmond left in the 20th century, the decades-long quest for a Black Majority Council was achieved, only for them to realize too late that real power lies elsewhere, and the road to change must take a radically different route. The sun has set on this electoral path to “power,” but armed with our knowledge of the past we can bring a new dawn in Richmond by organizing for power from the ground up.

Sources consulted:

Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis. Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City. Schenkman Books, 1982.

Randolph, Lewis A. and Gayle T. Tate. Rights for a Season: the Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia. University of Tennessee Press, 2003

Julian, Hayter M. The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Love, Richard. “In Defiance of Custom and Tradition: Black Tobacco Workers and Labor Unions in Richmond, Virginia 1937–1941.” Labor History 35, no. 1 (1994)

Cooper, D.B., Ed. “It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend.” March 16, 2018. https://theleftwind.wordpress.com/2018/03/16/its-all-about-that-base-a-dossier-on-the-base-building-trend/.

Willis, Samantha. “A Leader from Leigh St.” Richmond Magazine. June 28, 2016. https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/a-leader-from-leigh-st/.

Weaver, Adam. ““Electoral Pursuits Have Veered Us Away”: Kali Akuno on Movement Lessons from Jackson.” Black Rose Anarchist Federation. April 18, 2018. http://blackrosefed.org/electoral-pursuits-have-veered-us-away-kali-akuno-on-movement-lessons-from-jackson/

QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE:

In this article I attempted to summarize a recent work of scholarship on Richmond and use it to analyze the prospects for electoral work at this current moment. Given these limited aims I left many questions unanswered or even unexamined, including: the relationship between Black conservatives and Richmond’s Civil Rights Movement and the city’s Black population more generally; the role of parties in electoral politics; and how we might concretely begin a radical, basebuilding strategy in Richmond today. I also chose to be brief in explaining the demise of the Communist Party in Richmond, which was concomitant with its fall from influence nationally. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for future research and analysis for Richmond organizers.

I also pushed some of the broader questions of socialist theory to the background, namely: how does the capitalist state function, and how should socialists engage it? My own view is that the state is a machine for the domination of one class by other classes (in our society, it is an instrument of capitalist rule over workers and oppressed people). Merely purchasing a grip on electoral organs of the state, in my opinion, does not greatly change the overall function of the state and does not provide as many opportunities for building working class power or improving material conditions for masses of people as some assume.

So how can socialists use elections? I’m still studying that problem, but my perspective is that we should not have illusions about assuming office and administering capitalism, but rather disrupting its function and undermining its legitimacy. Campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Freedom Vote provide one topic for future study, as does the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in the reactionary tsarist parliament, the Duma.

Though I have tabled those important subjects for inquiry, I hope I have shown that even to social democrats who view use of the electoral organs of the capitalist state as being the end point of the movement that we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can even begin to think of achieving that goal.

[a] Jason Kamras is the new superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.  He was a former Teach for America kid who became a leading quisling of DC school czar Michelle Rhee, attacking teachers and privatizing schools.  He is the highest-paid superintendent in RPS history.)

[b] Thomas Farrell is the CEO of Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Downtown Richmond.  Farrell, who has no children in RPS and no background in education policy, served in the committee to select the new superintendent of the school system.  Farrell made his fellow committee members sign a confidentiality agreement not to divulge details of the superintendent search to the public or even to the school board.)

[c] Michael Rao is the president of Virginia Commonwealth University.  With compensation topping $900,000, Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2016.  While administrative pay is high, VCU’s adjunct faculty and hourly staff make poverty wages, and while VCU continues to raise tuition, its endowment of more than a billion dollars is one of the 100 largest in the world.  Rao has aggressively pursued real estate projects that have contributed to the destruction and gentrification of several Richmond neighborhoods, including Jackson Ward, once the heart of the Black community north of the James River.dream-is-lost.jpg

Psychology for Socialists, Part 1

By Jonathan K.

“Psychology for Socialists” is a three-part series designed to introduce people to findings and theories in psychology that are relevant to socialism and activism. The things I will be presenting aren’t exclusively relevant to those topics; in fact, they apply to almost every facet of our lives. What I will be doing is presenting them in relation to the work we do as socialists.

Let me start with a couple of disclaimers. The first disclaimer is that findings in psychology are (almost) never absolute. We can capture general patterns or describe the most likely behaviors or reactions, but there will always be exceptions. So, for everything I’m about to describe, remember that it doesn’t apply to everyone or every situation. The second disclaimer is that psychology is an imperfect science. Like many sciences right now, it is struggling with a replicability crisis. The findings I will present will be ones I have confidence in, or I will be clear that they are still unsettled. However, even the ones I have confidence in could be overturned at some point in the future.

Psychology is imperfect in another sense because, like many sciences, it has suffered from a lack of diverse perspectives, and more than other sciences it has suffered from a lack of diverse data. Many of the findings I will discuss are based on studies of mostly upper-middle-class and mostly white college students, and conducted by mostly white researchers (though somewhat less overwhelmingly cis-male than other fields). In the last two decades the field has become more aware of this and made efforts to self-correct, but it will take some time for us to be confident that these findings apply to all of humanity.

Part 1: Know yourself

The goal of this series is to help us be aware of things in ourselves and in others that affect our behavior, our interactions, and our work. The intuitive starting point is an introduction to yourself: features of your own mind that you might not be aware of. I’m specifically going to focus on issues about what we think we know, what we think other people know, and how wrong we can be.

I. Illusions of knowledge

Off the top of your head, without looking anything up, how well do you understand how a toaster works? Just give yourself a quick rating on a 1-7 scale, where 1 is “not at all” and 7 is “completely.”

Now try to explain to someone else how a toaster works. Include things like, how does it “pop” at the right time? How does the knob control how toasted your toast gets? I’ll wait.

Odds are good that you just discovered that you overestimated your knowledge. This is called the “Illusion of Explanatory Depth” (IOED)[1] and is one of several related examples of ways in which we overestimate what we know. You may have heard of the “Dunning-Kruger effect,” which is a more general statement of the same idea: The more you know, the less you think you know. It often gets used in classist or ableist arguments, but the underlying idea is neither of these things. It’s extremely difficult to measure the depth of our own ignorance.

As socialists, we are often required to explain complex concepts like capitalism, the difference between socialism and communism, the carceral state, and more. We also have to advocate for complex social support systems, like single-payer healthcare, to say nothing of ideas that are excluded from mainstream political outlets, like prison abolition. Going into a political discussion, you may feel like you deeply understand these issues, that you have comprehensive arguments to make, and that you are ready for the most common rejoinders. Unless you’ve actually tried to explain these concepts to someone, you might not understand them as well as you think.

These effects have been the focus of a fair amount of research, and so we know a few things about how they work. As with everything in psychology, there are multiple things going on. One major piece is that we confuse knowing where to find information with knowing the content of the information. There have been some very good studies showing that, for information that we can look up, we will remember how to find that information, but we won’t remember much of the information itself.[2] Now that we can look up everything on our pocket-sized internet machines, that’s probably even more true (though I don’t know of any studies looking at smartphone usage specifically).

Second, there is the difference between “abstract” and “concrete” information. Think again of the toaster. There are some things you really do know about it — it uses electricity to create heat, and there’s some kind of spring for pop-up toasters. That’s “abstract” knowledge. There are no real details there, just general principles or descriptions of behavior. If you found you had trouble explaining things about how a toaster works, it probably wasn’t those things. The difficult pieces are the “concrete” details — things like how electrical resistance in the material of the heating coils creates heat, how thermocouples control the temperature of the toaster and when it pops, or how the latch on the pop-up mechanism works. One evidence-backed account of the IOED and other, similar effects is that we recognize that we have abstract knowledge, and we confuse that for having concrete knowledge.[3] So, when you feel like you know something, you should ask yourself whether you know only the abstract part or really have the concrete details. For example, when we talk about single-payer, how would it address funding medical education? How would we deal with existing medical debt? How would we deal with malpractice insurance? People have offered answers to all these questions (which I personally don’t know off the top of my head, but I know where to find them), but when you say you understand a single-payer, you should make sure you know what you think you know.

Finally, these effects persist because of a strong desire to “save face” (something I will talk about a lot more in a later post), combined with a negative cultural attitude toward ignorance. In mainstream U.S. culture, there are few more humiliating things than “looking stupid” by being ignorant. Our self-image and self-esteem suffer if we demonstrate ignorance. So, we are motivated to avoid that. One way to avoid that is to simply ignore our own ignorance, perhaps because we so rarely get called on it. You probably spent most of your life until today thinking you knew how a toaster works, because you were never really challenged on it. We can get very far with very little knowledge, as it turns out, and so we can safely assume (most of the time) that we know things we really don’t. (There are no studies of this, by the way. It is just one theory as to how we manage with such frequent ignorance.)

As socialists and individuals, all we can do about the first two issues is be aware of them. They are internal to our own minds, and we must simply be vigilant about monitoring our own knowledge. However, tying ignorance to self-esteem and social scorn is something we can, and should, attempt to combat. As socialists, we should value the act of learning, and be clear that learning starts with admitting ignorance. I like to use the XKCD example of the “lucky 10,000,” which makes the point that for something that “everyone knows” by age 30, there are (if you assume a constant rate of learning) 10,000 people learning it every day. An expression of ignorance should not be a source of shame, but a source of excitement. It is an opportunity to learn, and for others, an opportunity to teach. Indeed, some studies have reported that, in Japanese culture, that is exactly how ignorance is treated[4], and (by some measures) it makes for a much better educational experience.

In thinking about this, we should be careful not to fall prey to a different individualist attitude that ultimately leaves the same problems. Socrates is famously quoted as saying, “I am wiser than he is to this small extent, that I do not think I know what I do not know”[5]. This is an expression of scorn for overconfidence, but it does not welcome expressions of ignorance. At the same time, we should not start treating ignorance as being good in and of itself. Remaining ignorant by choice is something we should not accept. To accept ignorance without elevating it, we must value the act of learning, and be explicit that the first step in learning something is admitting ignorance. We must all become comfortable with saying “I don’t know this, can you teach me?” When we say “there are no stupid questions,” we have to learn to mean it.

II. The “Curse of Knowledge”

Not only do we think we know more than we actually know, we also have trouble figuring out what other people don’t know. An expert in any field will have years of experience and accumulated knowledge, but to be a good teacher, they have to recognize how much of their knowledge is due to experiences that their students have not had yet. How often have you been in a class where a teacher talked about something for three seconds as if you already knew what it meant, and you felt completely lost? The teacher, most likely, assumed you already knew that information because they already knew that information, and forgot it had to be taught to them.

This is called the “curse of knowledge.” There are many examples of it throughout psychology. The classic example is a study in which a group of participants were told to tap the tunes to various popular songs (e.g., “Happy Birthday”), and estimate how easily someone listening to their tapping could figure out which song it was. The tappers, who heard the song before doing the tapping, estimated that listeners would be able to recognize the song based on their taps alone about 50% of the time. In reality, listeners only managed to identify the song successfully 2-3% of the time. There are many other examples of this kind of effect. It starts early, too, peaking in young (3-5-year-old) children, who assume that other people know everything that they do[6].

This is a big problem for teaching. It’s a big problem for me, right now, as I’m writing this. I’ve read over a thousand research articles in psychology over the course of the last ten years (according to my reference library), and I have to try to put myself in the shoes of a reader who might not even have taken an introductory psychology course. If there’s something in here that I talk about like it’s obvious when it really isn’t, it’s because I failed at understanding what you do or don’t already know. It takes constant, conscious effort to avoid making those mistakes.

The implications for advocacy should be clear… or perhaps they are not. In any case, there are two contexts where the curse of knowledge can be a huge problem for us and our work. The first is in internal political education. It is the flip side of being willing to admit our own ignorance: Avoid stating things as if they are obvious, though it can be difficult to strike a balance between that and being patronizing. Communication is key. “Do you know what X is?” is a valid and useful question to ask when engaging in political education.

The second context is when advocating for our ideas in the public sphere. Here is where the curse of knowledge can truly bite us in the ass. We might know that the weekend exists because unions fought and died for it, that single-payer is cheaper and more efficient than private insurance, that health-care reform requires as much work on cutting costs as it does on providing access, but everyone we are talking to may not. They may even have been actively misinformed. We typically refer to this as “meeting people where they are,” but the curse of knowledge can make it harder than you might have expected. Be sensitive to the fact that you might need to re-evaluate what is or is not “obvious,” simply because you learned it so long ago.

III. So what can we do about it?

So, our own minds are working hard to sabotage us. What has the science of psychology given us to counter these bad habits?

I have good news and bad news.

Let me start from the top. Consider the following math problem:

“A ball and bat cost $1.10 together. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

For most people, your immediate, intuitive answer will be $0.10. This is incorrect, and a little arithmetic will show you why: If the bat costs $1 more than the ball, then the bat costs $1.10, and the total cost would be $1.20. The correct answer is $0.05, but the question is worded in a way that’s designed to lead you to a different answer at first.

This is a question from an early version of the “Cognitive Reflection Test” or CRT. It measures a cognitive “style,” for lack of a better term. As with many things in psychology, people were able to describe this before we were able to measure it. I’m particularly fond of Terry Pratchett’s description of it in the Tiffany Aching books: “First sight and second thoughts.” First sight is the ability to see the world as it is, without letting your expectations get in the way. Second thoughts is the ability to look at your own thinking and ask yourself, “Is this right?” In psychology, we call these second thoughts “cognitive reflection.” The more “reflective” you are, the more you check your own thinking for errors, and the more likely you are to catch them before you act.

The good news about cognitive reflection is that it can be learned and practiced. The easiest way to develop it is to start by slowing yourself down. Researchers have designed training tasks for preschoolers that increase cognitive reflection. It’s very simple: They are given a difficult (for them) question, but after seeing the question, there is an enforced two-second delay before they can answer. That alone makes them much better at other, unrelated tasks that benefit from cognitive reflection. For adults, we can do this to ourselves. Whenever you are about to make a decision, or answer a complicated problem like the one above, before you answer, deliberately stop yourself and re-examine your answer again. Do this enough and it can become a habit.

The other piece of good news is that cognitive reflection does seem to affect the IOED. People who score higher on the CRT are less prone to the illusion of explanatory depth. However, we have a correlation, but not a causal link. There are no training studies yet that show that increasing reflectiveness makes people less susceptible to the IOED, but in principle it could help quite a bit. Sadly, nobody has looked at cognitive reflection and the curse of knowledge, but based on our best understanding of them, the worst it can do is nothing.

The bad news is that the only training studies I’ve found don’t look at long-term benefits or real-world applicability. How well you can reflect on your thinking in a psychology lab after an intensive training could be very different from how well you can do so when you’re about to run a political education session coming off a long work day. My completely intuitive guess is that it’ll be very difficult to actually apply outside the lab. But it’s still one of the better solutions we have.

Ultimately, the most we can say about the IOED and the curse of knowledge is that you need to know about them to be able to counteract them. The best I can do is introduce them to you. For some readers, this might feel like old news. For others, it might be a revelation. I don’t know, but that’s fine. I can find out by sharing this with all of you.

Notes
[1] Rozenblit, L., & Keil, F. (2002). The misunderstood limits of folk science: an illusion of explanatory depth. Cognitive Science, 26(5), 521-562.
[2] Sparrow, B., Liu, J., & Wegner, D. M. (2011). Google Effects on Memory: Cognitive Consequences of Having Information at Our Fingertips. Science, 333(6043), 776.
[3] Alter, A. L., Oppenheimer, D. M., & Zemla, J. C. (2010). Missing the trees for the forest: a construal level account of the illusion of explanatory depth. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 99(3), 436-451.
[4] Heine, S. J., et al. (2001). Divergent consequences of success and failure in Japan and North America: An investigation of self-improving motivations and malleable selves. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 81(4), 599-615.
[5] Plato, Apology 21d, tr. Tredennick, 1954.
[6] Birch, S. A. J., & Bloom, P. (2004). Understanding children’s and adults’ limitations in mental state reasoning. Trends in Cognitive Science, 8(6), 255-260.

Beware the Ocasio-Cortez Bump: On Electoralism in DSA

by Anonymous

For leftists in the United States of Amerikkka,* the current situation looks dark. Ever-more-open fascists are in positions of power throughout the government. White supremacy runs rampant through our society. Inequality is on the rise. In this situation it is natural to search for points of light, places where the left can claim a victory and find cause to feel hopeful. But to paraphrase another, one self-described socialist wins an election and Amerikkkan socialists become a bunch of liberals. Without solid analysis hope can easily be misplaced and a Marxist understanding of the situation replaced with liberal idealism. The latest case where this is happening is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s election victory.

An analysis should begin with what specific gains can be expected. And we should be completely honest with ourselves and each other—there is NO chance that anything she has run on will become law. All three branches of this government are controlled by the far-right wing. And even if, against the odds, a “blue wave” sweeps the nation electorally, all we must do is look back to see what difference that makes. The crowning achievements of Obama’s years are wildly disappointing: a flawed healthcare expansion law, a slew of executive orders that have been overturned, avoiding a full economic collapse in exchange for the Great Recession. The rest of Obama’s legacy is enraging: deporting more people than any other president, the continued growth of the police state, bailing out businesses and banks while prosecuting none, an expansion of imperialist wars. After two terms as president, the socialist left is no stronger and a utilitarian calculus to determine “harm reduction” is impossible. It makes no sense to expect a sole congressperson to be able to leave behind a more inspiring legacy. This is not a victory for “harm reduction”—there is no evidence to support such a claim. Instead we have another politician making promises they can’t keep, covering “socialism” with the same filth and distrust most Amerikkkans feel towards the mainstream parties.

Even if Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could enact all her proposals, they are far from perfect. Valid critiques have been made of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s positions but as is usual for debates within DSA, the most important aspect of global capitalism—imperialism—has escaped mention. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has laid out a vision of socialism that focuses on a more equal distribution of wealth among Amerikkkans, ignoring where that wealth comes from while speaking positively about veterans and “ALL who’ve sacrificed in our armed forces.” This is both extremely dangerous and utterly disgusting. Amerikkka rules the world with an iron fist, killing millions with its armies, arms, and resource/wealth extraction policies. A “socialist” on a national stage that refuses to even name this reality, nevermind making the dismantling of this system a center of their platform, is no ally to the global proletariat. They are instead pursuing a politics blinded by nationalism, which in the case of Amerikkka equates to support for a global regime of white supremacist capitalist imperialism.

Some have claimed that this victory will bring media attention and therefore legitimacy to the cause of socialism. What possible reasons could one have to believe that media attention will be beneficial to socialism? Nearly every mainstream outlet is controlled by a handful of corporations, and day-in day-out spread stories that reflexively defend capitalist governments and the white supremacist status quo while defaming leftists and workers the world over. Again, most Amerikkkans (rightly!) view politicians with disgust and, at least instinctively, understand that they serve a set of interests that is not the same as those held by the people. What part of further tying the idea of socialism to the sham that is bourgeoise electoral politics will give further legitimacy to socialism in the eyes of the people?

Similarly, it has been said that this campaign “centers class conflict.” How this vague idea does anything to advance socialism in the eyes of the people is unclear. Ask any worker, they clearly understand that their bosses are screwing them. Ask any immigrant, homeless person, or member of another marginalized community—they understand that the system is stacked against them. The people don’t need an elected official to tell them these truths, they live them. And even further than that, I’ve seen nothing from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that couldn’t have come from the mouth of a progressive capitalist. An explanation of socialism that is so weak that it could be picked up by any progressive capitalist does nothing for improving class consciousness or creating socialism. What is needed is working class organization, a way to wield their power to build a society for themselves instead of one for the capitalists. And instead of building such an organization, finding ways to create something new and powerful, this victory has sunk thousands of hours into reinvigorating a Democratic Party primary. It reinfores the typical lie of liberal democracy that is told to all radicals: “Don’t worry, don’t act out, don’t create something for yourself—put all your energy into getting this one leader elected, this one ballot measure passed, this law overturned, and the system will take care of you.”

Which brings us to the topic of being co-opted by the Democratic Party. Some have raised concerns that this election is a victory but that we must be ever-vigilant against Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez being co-opted. Why would the Dems need to co-opt one of their own? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will sit in Congress as a Democrat. She will stand there as a beacon to progressives, social democrats, democratic socialists (and apparently even some revolutionary socialists) that the Democratic Party can be fixed and changed. Her mere presence in Congress, if not the actual words from her and her supporters, screams: “All you need to do is vote a little harder, do electoral politics a little harder, really, we promise.”

I’m sure this take will get some backlash: “But what about spreading socialism? What about all the new members this will bring into DSA?”

To the first question I’d ask: what kind of socialism? Surely, we can look to the historical examples globally to see that a socialism that is socialist in name alone does nothing positive for actually creating a communist future. DSA recently left the Socialist International because it is full of political organizations that adopted the socialist name but advanced policies that have only harmed the cause of actually creating socialism. And given all the issues outlined above, what makes this case better or different?

To the second question I’d say: you reap what you sow. DSA already has problems stemming from the class/race character of its membership. This is in some ways due to the source of its membership. The electoral campaigns that have fueled DSA membership speak to a certain class. Certainly, there is broad appeal in the message of Sanders or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, but the type of people who find such campaigns so inspiring that they are willing to volunteer to continue such electoral efforts are predominantly of a particular background. Altogether this creates a cycle—the grouping of individuals who are excited by (and more importantly have the time and ability to get involved in) electoral politics join DSA, which causes DSA to then focus on electoral campaigns, which excites and recruits more similarly-minded individuals. There is no clear off-ramp for this cycle, with each electoral campaign, if it succeeds or fails, only further cementing the current reality that DSA will focus on electoral politics before and above any other effort.

You want to make DSA into a revolutionary workers party? Start doing revolutionary work, clearly separate from all electoral efforts and directly improving the lives of the workers, and recruit and grow membership from the people that are excited by that work.

*Editors’ note: This piece originates from a comment received in response to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Win Is Exciting, but What Comes Next? and has been edited for sense, but terminology is the author’s own.

Free Them All: Abolish ICE, Borders, and The Carceral State

Zoey MM and Hannah K

Brief Summary: Immigration and Prisons

Immigration detention and family separation are current manifestations of a racist, capitalist carceral logic present throughout all of American history. During slavery, enslaved people were bought and sold at whim by plantation owners and slave traders; children, spouses, and other family members were regularly separated when sold, partially as a tactic to deprive enslaved people of opportunities for community and loyalty and thus to avoid the threat of rebellion. Following emancipation, convict leasing became widespread, and newly freed African Americans were routinely criminalized, jailed, and then leased out to businesses for cheap labor, a practice which our current prison system is rooted in and continues (on average incarcerated people make 87 cents daily). Similar patterns of criminalization and labor exploitation are present in our immigration system: immigrants commit the manufactured crime of crossing an arbitrary border, and bosses target their precarious legal status as a way to coerce cheap labor.

Immigrant families have been held in detention for years (under the Obama, Bush, and Clinton presidencies as well as the current administration), and immigration detention is currently one of the fastest growing areas of the U.S. prison system. The current child detention centers are horrifying, but not surprising, given how our national prison system routinely breaks up families: in 2015, 1 in 14 children in the U.S. had an incarcerated or formerly incarcerated parent, and in the same year the juvenile incarcerated population was estimated to be ~53,000.

 

Building Working Class Power

To end the holding and caging of both immigrants and currently incarcerated people, we must work towards the dismantling of several interconnected structures: we must abolish ICE and its accompanying immigrant detention centers, and abolish the borders they supposedly protect. But we must also abolish the police and prison system that marks what existences American ideology find suspect: being on the other side of imaginary line in a desert, being found with drugs, being seen arguing with a family member or peer, being in a place deemed someone else’s property, being someone who sells sexuality as labor, being mentally ill, being unhoused, being poor, being a person of color, being queer.

The kind of thinking that lies behind these criminalized ways of being is also the kind of thinking the results in the imaginary borders that carve their way into our physical and mental lives. These borders contain the correct, verified, and quantified way of being, and anything outside of them is marked as being wrong, unverifiable, and unknown. Yet the lives that exist outside of borders are, on examination, no different from those within. Pain, love, fear, pleasure exist for all––regardless of whether our lives can be marked by numbers or stamped on documents. Only by working and struggling together can we recognize the fundamental alikeness we all share, and only through working to tear down the structures that bind us all can we turn our world of borders delineating what and who we are into one of real possibility. This means pushing for bare minimum reforms like ending cash bail and eliminating mandatory minimums, while also pushing for policies that ultimately diminish carceral facilities, such as defunding and de-arming the police and ICE. This means building alternative structures for addressing harm by building community power and creating space for those forced to leave their homes and seek refuge, which is often the result of American imperialism.

We must be ready to fight with and for one another, whether that means those of us in the free world supporting prison strikes, those of us recognized by the state supporting immigrant labor strikes, and those of us invisible to carceral systems working to disrupt them––whether they are detention centers or prisons, ICE or the police. To not do so is to evade our innate responsibility not just to others, but to ourselves as well; as long as any of us are caged, none of us are free.