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.

Fliers on Imperialism in Central America

Seena, Edward P, Nafis H

Boston PEWG is happy to share flyers we’ve created discussing the role of American Imperialism in Central America and its connection to the immigration debate in the US.

You can grab the one on El Salvador in PDF format here, and the one on Honduras here. Bring them to your nearest Families Belong Together rally on June 30th

Additionally we will coming out with a full set exploring the rest of the countries of Central America as well as the connection between calling for Abolishing ICE and calling for the abolition of police and prisons generally.

front.jpgback.jpg

 

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Win is Exciting, but What Comes Next?

Ben S, Boston Refoundation  

“This race is about People. Versus. Money.”

These words, from an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez campaign ad, encapsulate her campaign’s core message. A message that was strong enough to unseat one of the most powerful Democrats in the United States Congress.

As a revolutionary socialist who is opposed to the compromises necessary under current conditions to engage in “bourgeois parliaments,” I am excited by both her campaign and her victory. Why am I excited? Doesn’t this go against the politics I claim to believe in?

Her campaign proposals of job guarantees, Medicare for All, and free public higher education present real opportunities to reduce the harms of the capitalist system. They reduce the leverage held by employers over their workers. If they are implemented, people will no longer be held hostage in exploitative jobs by student debt, the threat of medical costs, or fear of long-term unemployment where they could lose their homes.

Next, her campaign grew out of the current socialist movement. Ocasio-Cortez was an organizer in her community (and at Standing Rock) before she ran, is a member of Democratic Socialists of America, and much of the support for her campaign came from DSA. Ocasio-Cortez emphasized her connection to her community of organizers, stating that she would defer her endorsement of Crowley post election to the decision of the movement. Her victory demonstrates that socialism  has real political power, and the media attention it brings gives socialist demands a sense of legitimacy in mainstream discourse. An organization that can help elect a congressperson can in theory defeat one as well. This victory gives DSA something to point to when (and if) we choose to make demands of politicians.

Finally, I am most excited about the presence of class conflict as a central point in her campaign. Her victory shows a real appetite for explicitly socialist organizing, for political work that pits the working many against the wealthy few, the proletariat against the bourgeoisie. The real driver behind the energy of Ocasio-Cortez’s campaign and victory is her highlighting the presence of class conflict, more so than any specific policy she proposed.  There is a pattern, from Occupy to Bernie, of this kind of language mobilizing large numbers of people to take political action. Ocasio-Cortez’s defeat of the Democratic Party machine is yet another example of this.

Despite my excitement, I have concerns. The first of which is that I feel her policies do not go nearly far enough to create the restructuring we need in our society. Her policies, while reducing harms, leave the capitalist power structure intact. Medicare for All and free college make the economy kinder, but they leave control over how goods are allocated in society in the hands of a wealthy elite. We are currently witnessing the harm reduction policies that were put in place during the ‘30s and ‘60s being systematically torn apart by the interests of the wealthy capitalists, demonstrating the danger of economic harm reduction without a restructuring of the entire economy. Additionally, while Ocasio-Cortez calls to abolish ICE, her discussion stops at only “criminal justice reform.” Though the call to abolish ICE is absolutely correct and necessary, the abolition of all forms of policing and imprisonment, not only at the border, is something that DSA has endorsed nationally and that community coalitions have been organizing around for decades. The criminal punishment system is a system of racial and class oppression that cannot be reformed;  in practice reforms only further entrench the prison industrial complex. We must be concerned when a self-proclaimed socialist refuses to describe the means by which capitalist power is enforced.

I am also concerned that the class-based energy of her campaign is being funneled into the election of a single individual.  As socialists, we must know that trusting individuals over collective organizing is dangerous. We are all human, no one is perfect. Bourgeois democracy elevates and separates individuals from the evolving work and thought of those engaged in the process of organizing. The two-year election cycle is much too long for there to be any hope of real accountability for elected officials. Unless Ocasio-Cortez fully commits to holding herself accountable to the working class (and not solely the electorate) I fear that we may ultimately be disappointed in her work.

My next concern comes down to something we must constantly ask ourselves as socialists. How will the actions we are taking help us accomplish our goals? In this case, taking the policies of the job guarantee, Medicare for All, and free college as the goals (however inadequate they are), how does the election of Ocasio-Cortez bring those goals into reality? In order to become reality, they will need to pass both chambers of Congress (in a system where money will control most elections for the foreseeable future), be signed by the president, and survive the inevitable court challenge before a Supreme Court promising to remain reactionary for decades. Maybe I’m a pessimist, but I can’t foresee this happening in my lifetime. Imagine instead that Ocasio-Cortez uses her platform to both describe and demonstrate the class nature of the state, and to mobilize people into revolutionary forms of organizing. While some may say that a revolution is just as impossible as Congress passing free college, revolutionary organizing can, in the short term, create real shifts in power and material conditions on a local level (for example, the work being done by Cooperation Jackson).

My last concern is simple. The big D Democrats. The Democratic Party machine  is structurally designed to oppose Ocasio-Cortez and people that share her politics. As we saw during Bernie’s campaign, and as we have seen since then, the establishment powers within the Democratic Party are willing to take whatever actions are necessary to prevent even the mildest form of socialism from gaining a foothold. Looking at this race, it appears that Crowley and the DNC never took the threat posed by Ocasio-Cortez seriously. Crowley skipped debates, appearing to think he could coast to victory on his name and 20-year incumbency without running a real campaign. And the DNC never took actions like those we saw taken against the Sanders campaign and Keith Ellison (despite both Sanders and Ellison being arguably to Ocasio-Cortez’s right). We must ask what this campaign would have looked like (and what future campaigns will look like) had Crowley (and his funders) seen Ocasio-Cortez as the force she is.

This election also exposes DSA to some political risks. Opportunists may see this election and think to themselves, “If I say the right things and take the right tone in front of DSA, they can mobilize their members and help put me in power.” As we have seen in the wake of Larry Krasner (who, despite his politics, is still a District Attorney), people with politics we should not support will clamor to claim the mantle of “the next A.O.C.”. I also fear that Democratic Party strategists will see DSA as a base of real power, and start attempting to co-opt the movement and its energy. Additionally DSA has a history that it has tried to shift away from in the last two years. The DSA leadership released statements in support of noted non-socialists Al Gore, John Kerry, and Barack Obama in 2000, 2004, and 2008 respectively (to be fair, I also supported some of those candidates at the time, although I am not a socialist organization). Rather than DSA pulling the Democratic Party left, as those who support working within it claim as their goal, the Democratic Party may end up pulling DSA right.

In conclusion, we must ask the question that all socialists must ask when examining political events. How can we use this to organize?  First, we must acknowledge that her campaign genuinely excites people, we must not shy away from discussing it, and we should place particular focus on the elements of class conflict present in her messaging. Secondly, (assuming that she wins in the general election) we can use her work in Congress to demonstrate the challenges of working within the Democratic Party rather than in a revolutionary working class party. And finally, we must prepare to welcome the people brought into organizing by their excitement about Ocasio-Cortez’s ideas. We must make DSA a place where revolutionary praxis has space and discussion, and help bring people with developing class consciousness into the project of building a real revolutionary movement.

On Accessibility, Ableism, and Online Voting

By Peter M

There is a pattern of behavior in Boston DSA that I find vexing. It is a pattern of behavior that isn’t exclusive to Boston DSA, and it’s a problem that besets DSA as a whole. There is an ugly tendency by some to use the concerns and issues of marginalized people without consulting those people. For example, Boston DSA’s Disability Caucus was not consulted in any way in the latest controversy surrounding online voting. Our bylaws state that online voting can only be used in specific cases, such as internal elections for leadership. The Electoral Working Group ended up choosing not to amend the bylaws to allow for online voting for electoral endorsements. At our local convention, the PoC caucus was not consulted about the quota amendment. Nationally, it has been my experience that the Medicare For All Campaign Committee did a subminimum outreach effort towards the National Disability Working Group and other key stakeholders in the effort, and to this day, five months later, the campaign still has not publicly addressed significant issues raised with the member of the National Political Committee who spoke with the Disability Working Group. At the national convention, members of the Disability Working Group were told “to just trust” the members of the resolution team when we questioned whether the version of a disability resolution we voted on was the unamended or amended version. When disabled comrades and I attempted to utilize parliamentary procedure to alter a resolution, we were declared out of order by the chair and ejected from the hall. When local delegates objected to this and got angry after local comrades got visibly emotional, myself and other delegates were told to “calm down and stop being so disruptive” by a member of local leadership.

And the failure to follow through on promises isn’t just a national failing either. There are members of local leadership who have to be reminded constantly to follow the accessibility guide while they mouth pieties about accessibility when it is politically convenient for them to do so.

 

If you’ll forgive my Catholicism for a second, James 2:20 says, “Faith without works is dead.” It is hard for me to believe that people talking about the need to make our decision-making processes accessible are being sincere in this when they do not undertake the necessary work to make all of Boston DSA’s efforts accessible. I want to also confront and challenge the conflation of making things accessible to the working class with making things accessible. Making things accessible for those who cannot attend a meeting due to a physical or mental disability and making things accessible for those who cannot come to a meeting due to something like a work schedule is not the same thing. Equalizing the two weaponizes disabled people’s identities and tokenizes them. It is ableist, it is offensive and it needs to stop. There is an implication when some talk about online voting as the only thing we need to do to make our chapter truly accessible for disabled people or that proxy voting is insufficient. That is not true and if you had had conversations with those who are doing accessibility work in the chapter, you would know this. As with any other marginalized group, be they queer, people of color, women, or anyone else, comrades with disabilities need to be consulted when there are issues in the local that affect them. Not only when it’s convenient politically, but every time. The sheer number of able-bodied comrades that have been engaging in ableism by not consulting the local Disability Caucus or conflating accessibility of disabled comrades with those who can’t make it because of a work shift is dismaying, and it is emotionally taxing to have my very right to exist in this space constantly challenged in ways both gross and subtle. Nothing about us without us isn’t just a slogan, it is the core lens around which I view liberation as a disabled person.

 

Sadly, not enough comrades in Boston DSA seem to be willing to meet this very basic demand. We must do better.

On Endorsement

– Janet Malaime

Background

Last week DSA’s National Political Committee announced their endorsement of four candidates in the upcoming elections. Among the endorsees was Geneviéve Jones-Wright, who ran for district attorney of San Diego county. The email DSA sent on its listserv announcing the endorsements likens Jones-Wright to Larry Krasner, a progressive DA in Philadelphia who’s received praise for refusing to seek cash bail. The email states that Jones-Wright plans to end cash bail. However, on her website Jones-Wright merely claims the bail system needs to be reformed and doesn’t specify what that entails. Despite her loss in the June 5th elections, Jones-Wright declared her intentions to continue her work in the progressive criminal justice movement.

Geneviéve Jones-Wright’s endorsement has sparked debate among DSA members over the question of whether or not it’s appropriate for our organization to endorse DA’s at all. People in support of the endorsement believe Jones-Wright had the potential to be a progressive force in San Diego’s criminal justice system. People opposed to endorsement believe progressive DAs won’t further our goals of building a socialist movement or advancing prison abolition. There are two general kinds of arguments deployed in this debate, goal-oriented arguments and action-oriented arguments. Goal-oriented arguments compare the potential goods a progressive DA could achieve to potential goods of other candidates, then they evaluate which future appears preferable. Action-oriented arguments treat endorsement as a commitment of the endorsing organization to take on an electoral project and evaluates whether other projects are a better use of their organizational capacity.

In this essay, I argue that goal-oriented arguments are insufficient to answer the endorsement question, but action-oriented arguments are. I also lay out the tools needed to make an action-oriented argument. Then, I present an alternative approach to prison abolition work DSA chapters can take up. These alternatives are based on the work of our comrades in Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group. I interviewed several members of Boston DSA (BDSA) and use their experiences to reflect on possible courses of action for DSA chapters.

Goal-oriented Arguments, or vacuous arguments from material conditions

Goal-oriented arguments have the following general form: a DA candidate pledges to be a progressive force in the criminal justice system, which could lead to decreased repression of oppressed and exploited people. If this candidate is elected, it would be better than if another candidate is elected. Therefore, we should endorse this candidate. There’s also a version of this argument that concludes the candidate shouldn’t be endorsed because it would be worse if they’re elected instead of another candidate.

For goal-oriented arguments, the inference relates material conditions expected on a candidate’s election to whether or not that candidate should be endorsed. These arguments only consider expectations of what the candidate will do in office. Because these expectations can only be fulfilled by the candidate actually getting into office, people who make this kind of argument have to assume the candidate’s campaign will be successful. After all, the whole point of the endorsement is to help the candidate win. They also have to assume on these arguments that the candidate will actually keep their campaign promises and that they’ll be accountable either to their constituents or to DSA in general. Because of their assumptions, when we debate using goal-oriented arguments we leave out some important practical questions such as is it feasible for the candidate to win? How can we ensure the candidate will keep their promises and remain accountable? How should we prioritize our organizational capacity?

Endorsement is always a practical question. Particular DSA chapters or national DSA have to ask themselves this question for particular candidates in particular elections. Since goal-oriented arguments fail to consider the above questions, the debates that employ them are one-sided. What they determine, at best, is whether or not a candidate is better to vote for than their opponents. Goal-oriented arguments fail to determine whether or not a chapter should endorse a DA candidate. They don’t tell us what actions we should take. They only compare forecasted effects of one person’s role in the criminal justice system as opposed to another.

Our analyses must start with the totality of material conditions. As Marx said in The German Ideology,

“The premises from which we begin are not arbitrary ones, not dogmas, but real premises from which abstraction can only be made in the imagination. They are the real individuals, their activity and the material conditions under which they live, both those which they find already existing and those produced by their activity. These premises can thus be verified in a purely empirical way.”

When we only consider the expected outcomes of elections, we’re talking about those conditions in a vacuum. We start with abstractions rather than the reality of a social whole, complete with relationships, constant change, and competing class interests. Instead, we need an argument that starts with politics as it is. Action-oriented arguments do just that.

Action-oriented Arguments, or dialectical arguments from material conditions

The question of the DA debate is whether or not endorsement as a particular tactic is worthwhile for DSA national or a chapter to use. Action-oriented arguments, in contrast with goal-oriented arguments, are actually substantial to this debate. An action-oriented argument considers what actions are best for an organization, instead of just evaluating the goals of proposed campaigns. Here, DSA chapters and national are conceptualized as having a capacity in terms of hours available for members to do political work, kinds of political work members have the skills to do, and available resources in terms of money, space, and communication networks. All organizations are situated in relation to communities, political bodies, and other existing organizations, all of which have particular class interests. They exist and act in a particular political time and place. The sum of capacity, relationships, and political conditions, comprise an organization’s place in the totality of material conditions. Bringing in material conditions as an ever-changing whole allows us to consider the wide-ranging effects and expected reaction to proposed projects. Action-oriented arguments relate the totality of material conditions to potential strategies, and then evaluate courses of action. Because action-oriented arguments consider everything involved in an organizational decision concerning strategy, they’re sufficient to answer the endorsement question. Now, let’s analyze endorsement through an action-oriented lens.

Electoral action

When we endorse a DA what exactly are we doing? It usually refers to any of three actions: issuing a public statement in support of the endorsed candidate, volunteering to canvass or phonebanking for them. The goal of electoral action is to get the endorsed candidate into office. Statements of support are short, easy to disseminate propaganda pieces. A small group within the endorsing organization writes them, maybe a draft is presented to the general membership for comment, then an outreach committee sends out the statement on social media or prints physical copies to hand to people. Statements of support usually don’t require much time, have a lenient deadline, and can be done by most chapter members. Sometimes a candidate’s campaign team will reach out to an organization for support. Otherwise, members decide to endorse by popular vote or a committee’s direct action. It’s hard to assess how impactful an endorsement is. While it’s generally safe to assume any chapter member who votes will vote for the endorsed candidate, we don’t have the data on whether or not the chapter’s endorsement influenced other voters. If an endorsement is just a statement of support, then the idea is to assemble a voting block of mostly DSA members, plus whoever we can reach by flyering and social media. Most DSA chapters don’t have a large enough membership or reach to form an election-swaying voting block, so the statement on its own will probably be ineffective. DSA voters are already likely to vote for the most progressive candidates, so it’s hard to identify any impact a statement of support will have on the election at all. We’re not influencing politics. We’re easy votes for progressives.

Canvassing and phonebanking are similar kinds of electoral action. Canvassing is when a group of people break into pairs, go door to door in the neighborhood, and ask potential voters how they plan to vote, soft-selling their candidate if needed. Phonebanking uses the same idea, but interactions occur over the phone instead of face to face. When endorsement entails this kind of work, chapter members commit their availability for specific times and days to go out and canvass or phonebank. Often this is done through already existing democratic party organizations, but a chapter can organize their own canvases and phonebanks. Because these electoral tactics directly reach out to voters, they’re more effective in influencing the election than statements of support. Their influence correlates with time spent and area covered. If we’re serious about getting a DA candidate elected, then canvassing and phonebanking will be our go-to tactics. Canvassing in particular gives members experience in going into a community and talking directly to people about politics, a widely useful skill.

However, the issue of accountability still remains. Even if our electoral work is successful, how do we ensure the DA will keep their promises? What happens if the candidate we worked so hard to get into office asks oppressed and exploited people for cash bail? It’s possible that we can threaten to withhold our electoral labor. However, as long as progressive DAs run as democrats, they’ll have access to an organization with a greater capacity than any DSA chapter or national. Democrats, liberal capitalists, and non-profits can always outspend and overpower us. In the last instance, we probably can’t guarantee endorsed DAs will deliver without popular pressure against them. Unless our work in an election builds popular participation, we’re not laying the foundation to actually deliver after a successful election. Canvassing without accountability is free labor for democrats.

Even if the DA can be held accountable, their progressive potential is fairly limited. Tim Horras illustrates this point in the related and much cited case of Larry Krasner.

“Even if a prosecutor doesn’t ask for bail for a particular defendant, magistrate judges could still make the decision to order it.” Effectively, the ball remains in the judge’s court.
This points to a larger problem in the Krasner “model”: while District Attorneys can exercise prosecutorial discretion — which is to say, while they can determine whether or not to press charges, what sort of charges to bring up, recommend sentences and offer plea bargains — they are neither legislators nor judges. They don’t write laws, issue rulings, or set legal precedents. So while DAs have significant leeway in setting priorities, any policies they enact are less durable than reforms won through legislation or judicial decisions; it only takes a new person occupying the office of executive to roll back such reforms-by-fiat.”

It would be a shame if our comrades worked hard to get a progressive DA in office only to be outmaneuvered in the next election. What kind of power do we win if it can be taken back on a whim? We need to fight for more than transient reforms. Thankfully, we can learn from our comrades in Boston about how we might start to do that.

Lessons from Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group

Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group (PrAb WG) formed about a year and a half ago when a local activist already working on prison abolition talked to BDSA about the relationship between abolitionism and socialist organizing. They’ve engaged in a variety of campaigns, including writing to incarcerated sex workers and educating themselves with abolitionist theory. Jesse W. describes the group as “a fairly politically coherent working group, with many members who consistently come every month to our meetings, all of whom are deeply committed to naming the goal of abolishing police and prisons, educating ourselves about the historical and social context of the prison and policing system and about what prison abolition might mean in both a theoretical and practical manner, and building coalitions in order to discern how BDSA can build trust and solidarity with long standing activists and most effectively organize around prison abolition.”

The coalitions PrAb WG has built extend to existing activist organizations, but also within Boston DSA itself. Alongside BDSA’s Internationalism Working Group, PrAb WG proposed their chapter endorse a campaign for the city of Cambridge to divest from Hewlett-Packard in an effort to support the BDS movement against Israel. The chapter passed a two-tiered endorsement. They signed as paper endorsers for the campaign and committed to send members to work on it. Their work included phonebanking and attending campaign meetings. Unfortunately, the campaign didn’t succeed in getting Cambridge to divest from HP. Zoey MM. reflects on the loss with hope for future struggles:

“The resolution for Cambridge to divest from HP was supposed to go to a hearing on 4/23. However, in the lead-up to the hearing, right-wing pro-Israel groups conducted a long, malicious campaign against the resolution, sending propaganda materials to local residents, and also pressuring city council members against both hearing the resolution and voting for it. Three of the city councilors who were originally supportive of the resolution (including one who had been DSA endorsed) became opposed to it, effectively guaranteeing that the resolution would not pass the council. The hearing was postponed, and the original proposal was watered down to encompass divesting from all companies committing human rights violations, with no mention of Israel, Palestine or HP. These developments represented a loss for the campaign, and also exposed some of the weaknesses in our local’s electoral work: namely rushing to endorse candidates when we have no established accountability mechanisms in place that would ensure they adhere to organizational demands and positions.

On the more positive side, Boston DSA was able to build connections, solidarity and trust with the Massachusetts Against Hewlett-Packard campaign, thanks in no part to our endorsed politicians and in all part to our dedicated members who put in hours of work and commitment to the campaign. We have hopefully built a foundation from which we can work together on other BDS projects, as well as continue to promote education about the interconnections between American and Israeli imperialism and carceral control.”

Currently PrAb WG is working on two campaigns, Massachusetts Ballots Over Bars and Court Watch. Ballots Over Bars is a program run by the Emancipation Initiative where people outside of prison donate their votes to incarcerated people. Since BDSA on paper has about 1000 members, this campaign offers an easy way to participate in chapter activities to members who aren’t as directly or consistently involved as the members of PrAb WG, utilizing BDSA’s latent capacity.

Court Watch is a program led by a variety of organizations including ACLU Massachusetts and Massachusetts Bail Fund. The program sends volunteers to take notes on the actions of judges and prosecutors in court. The goal is to identify the realities of courtroom procedures, its racial disparities and over-prosecution, so judges and DA’s can be held accountable. Eliza, who’s on BDSA’s steering committee and a member of DSA’s Refoundation Caucus, shares her experience as a court watcher:

“Court Watch is honestly extremely draining. Watching the prosecutors, public defenders, and judges joke to each other while defendants are left completely confused about the process is horrible. Judges in MA are banned from requiring cash bail amounts that defendants cannot afford, yet I’ve seen judges repeatedly require houseless people to pay $5000 just to return to their lives while they await trial for doing things like stealing a snack from a convenience store.”

I asked the BDSA members I interviewed what wins or failures they think came from the prison abolition campaigns. Jess L. responded,

“For me, this comes back to political education and coalition building. To effectively do abolitionist organizing you have to have a firm grasp of both theory and the local material conditions. A project that works in one location will not necessarily work in another. While there are fantastic abolitionist projects going on all over the place and it’s important to learn from the work that comrades do around the globe, it’s essential that we stop to analyze the material conditions under which we’re trying to organize. In that sense, coalition building has been an essential part of the work that PrAb has done over the past year. Our coalition partners have been doing radical abolitionist work for much longer than our working group has existed, and have been thinking about these problems for much longer than we have.

As socialists and prison abolitionists, our job is to combine this knowledge and use it to drive discussions and plans for what DSA’s contribution to prison abolition can be. We can’t effectively organize without an understanding of local material conditions and a dialectical process that engages how our actions will be shaped by the conditions and how the conditions should shape our actions. Without taking the time to do this analysis, we will inevitably replicate the neoliberal and capitalist conditions under which we currently live.”

What can we take away from the work and reflection of our comrades in BDSA? Coalition building can connect a DSA chapter to existing campaigns. These campaigns can serve as entry points for a chapter to engage in a protracted struggle for prison abolition. We organize where we live, so we need to learn the particular needs and opportunities our local material conditions present. Any endorsed representative is susceptible to right-wing lobbying, but even in defeat we should remain tenacious in the fight for socialism and prison abolition. There are options outside of electoral politics that can bring your chapter closer to the oppressed and exploited people we’re fighting to liberate. This last lesson is especially important, because without organizing with oppressed and exploited people our movements won’t be liberatory.

Conclusion

My goal with this essay is not to categorically answer the endorsement question. Instead, my aim is to provide the theoretical tools needed for any organization to begin to answer it for themselves. Hopefully, we’ll rethink how best to utilize endorsement as a tactic. In cases like that of Geneviéve Jones-Wright, endorsement appears as DSA asking mostly its own members to support mildly progressive candidates. Socialists should engage in ruthless criticism of all that exists. We shouldn’t be afraid to not endorse the most progressive candidate in the race, and instead should point out exactly where these candidates’ platforms fail. At the same time, if your chapter thinks entering an election as socialists will allow you to raise consciousness, increase capacity, and start other fights, then you should think about electoral work with the goal of advancing class struggle in mind. Revolutionaries can’t merely beg for reforms which, without a mass socialist movement, are essentially temporary. Endorsement is one tactic among many we need to consider in the fight for socialism, but to have tunnel-vision about progressive candidates will lead us to a losing strategy. We have a world to win, not an election.

 

Capitalist Nationalization Isn’t Socialism

Katy Slininger, Quiet Corner DSA

“The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all the other proletarian parties: constitution of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of bourgeois rule, conquest of political power by the proletariat.” (Marx & Engels, The Communist Manifesto)

Nationalization is having a resurgence among self-described socialists, with proposals for state seizures of various industries and properties becoming increasingly popular. Most commonly, we’ve been seeing demands for a seizure of fossil fuel companies, along with (sometimes half-joking) calls to bring various near-monopolistic corporations under control of the U.S. government.

While central planning should be the cornerstone of a socialist society, these proposals ignore a material reality: we don’t have a socialist society. What we do have is a bourgeois state that prioritizes ruling class interests over public good and violently oppresses the lower class—and socialists know this. So why are some of those same socialists so eager to push nationalization projects within a capitalist system?

A social democratic model of nationalization ignores issues of power. It assumes that public will within our existing political structure could override the existing incentives for politicians to preserve, for example, the independence of the fossil fuel industry. It also ignores basic realities of our volatile political system: the transience of legislation, the disenfranchisement of the working class, and the inevitable exploitation of expropriated industries by capitalist politicians and their corporate conspirators.

Nationalization of energy within a capitalist system is a common social democratic solution to both a weakened welfare state and climate change — it provides wealth to fund social programs while (supposedly) allowing for a democratic transition to renewable energy. However, we should analyze how a capitalist nationalization project plays out by looking at Norway through a socialist lens. Its nationalized oil company, Equinor, is a huge business funding their welfare state — a social democratic dream! But, as it is controlled by a capitalist government, it operates globally as any other profit-seeking venture by continuing the exploitation of finite natural resources. In fact, it will soon begin a controversial drilling project in the Great Australian Bight.

When a capitalist country nationalizes a fossil fuel industry, and builds social programs off those profits, it only further yolks us to the continuation of extractivism. It is an adaptation of capitalism rather than a step towards socialism.

Even nationalization projects that plan on decommodifying the products or services (like state-owned housing or transportation) have to grapple with the limitations of our political system. We can use our national parks as an example of inevitable deterioration after capitalist nationalization. Land, resources, and wildlife which were previously under federal protection are immediately compromised when power shifts from one administration to the next. The transitory nature of seizures under capitalism is also apparent in other publicly-owned properties like social housing and transportation, which are undermined by electoral swings and their corresponding budget fluctuations. We cannot engage in idealism that ignores both historical and current erosion of services and property under federal ownership.

Capitalist nationalization completely depends on the assumption that, in our current political system, public will translates into policy. A socialist movement should not waste political energy pushing for reforms whose hypothetical success is dependent on an utopian vision of American democracy. We have tycoons in public office, industry lobbyists exercising control over government decisions at every level, and resilient structures specifically designed to limit civic influence. This capitalist control is not a flaw of a bourgeois democracy that we can fix through reforms in the interest of socialized production, but a feature: “The state is an organ of class rule, an organ for the oppression of one class by another; it is the creation of ‘order,’ which legalizes and perpetuates this oppression by moderating the conflict between classes.” (Lenin, State and Revolution, Ch. 1)

Even if citizens were heavily in favor of nationalization of fossil fuel companies and a subsequent transition to renewable energy, and were capable of effectively exercising power (an impossible  qualification under a bourgeois state), we cannot ignore the danger of centralizing property and profit in a capitalist political system.

Centralisation of capital was the key process in the transition from feudalism to capitalism, and continues to increase the power of capitalists: “One capitalist always kills many. Hand in hand with this centralisation, or this expropriation of many capitalists by few, develop, on an ever-extending scale[…]the entanglement of all peoples in the net of the world market, and with this, the international character of the capitalistic regime.” (Marx, Capital, Vol. 1, Chapter 32)

The call to seize the means of production has been perverted into a project to centralize production under the ruling class. However, “seizing the means of production” is only socialist when it signifies either 1) a specific step in a revolution when workers take control over their workplace or industry or 2) the seizing of all production by the dictatorship of the proletariat. The former serves to radicalize workers, diminish the power and control of capitalists, and build the capacity of workers to collectively abolish the bourgeois state. The latter definition describes the process by the dictatorship of the proletariat as described by Engels:

“The first act by which the [proletariat] state really comes forward as the representative of the whole of society—the taking possession of the means of production in the name of society—is also its last independent act as a state.” (Engels, Anti-Duhring, referencing the actions of a proletariat state before it necessarily “withers away”)

The casual association of nationalization with socialism is lazy at best, and dangerous revisionism at worst—even fascist states have centralized production, seized industries, and built welfare programs.

The choice between the evils of privatization and the failures of undemocratic state control of an industry is a false one that turns liberals into foot soldiers for capitalism. Socialists need to build power among workers so they can actually seize the means of production themselves. By doing so, socialists reclaim power from both corporations and, eventually, the bourgeois state. A centrally-planned economy is necessary for survival—but ensuring proletarian control over the state, and transforming it into a socialist administration must come first.

All Our Info on Online Voting

The Boston PEWG Editors

Boston DSA’s June General Meeting will see an amendment presented to allow online voting for some kinds of decisions our organization makes. Since this idea was first introduced by in the Electoral Working Group’s proposed endorsement process, it has attracted some degree of controversy in the chapter.

Here at the PEWG Blog, we’ve published four pieces covering the debate. Presented here in order they were published.

As we get closer to the vote, the PEWG Blog will update with the text of the bylaw amendment, and we welcome any other views you’d like published by submitting to boston-pewg@googlegroups.com.