Building a Base Through Tenant Unionizing

By Chris E. and Mike L., Boston Refoundation

Like nearly every other American city, Boston is facing a housing crisis. Rents are on the rise across the Greater Boston area, and processes of development and redevelopment displace longtime residents and restrict the population of ever-growing parts of the city to an ever-shrinking class of bourgeois and petty bourgeois residents. The brunt of this violence falls on working-class people of color in communities like Dorchester, Roxbury, Hyde Park, Mattapan, East Boston, as well as towns outside the city, such as Brockton, Randolph, and Lawrence.

In these communities, landlords take advantage of speculation in the real estate market to extract increasingly exorbitant rents, sometimes with increases of hundreds of dollars at once. At the same time, they neglect their buildings—often on purpose, with an eye toward selling to investors—and evict tenants freely for minor offenses or capricious reasons. Worse, developers, landlords, and investors weaponize mass eviction to clear out a building before or after a sale, usually in preparation for redevelopment or another sale, evicting dozens of people at once with little to no notice without any regard for the human impact and with concern only for the profit they can make. In this environment, precarity in housing is the norm, and homelessness is the devastating result for thousands of people who do not have the resources to pay rent or find housing on short notice after an eviction.

As socialists, we must understand the local, national, and international housing crisis as the natural result of a system of housing-for-profit, housing as a commodity, housing under a capitalist mode of production. The rapidity with which Boston has developed, with whole neighborhood blocks being evicted and demolished sometimes in the span of months—for example, CLVU organizers have encountered this horrifying phenomenon in East Boston—is indicative of capital’s insatiable drive to exploit new markets for greater profit. Landlords, developers, and property managers do not perform their functions for any reason other than profit. The unfairness of landlordism is incredibly glaring, as buildings are often inherited directly, and in many cases the upkeep of the buildings falls to the tenants themselves.

A profound illustration of the relationship between capitalism and the housing crisis is that luxury housing continues to be built and remain empty, held as commodities by developers, investors, or absentee owners, while homelessness is rampant and working-class people struggle to find housing. As socialists, it is our duty to end this system of commodified housing and  instead assert that housing is a human right, in practice as well as in words. We cannot achieve the momentous goal of building a system of housing that meets the needs of all by collaborating with capitalists—the landlords, developers, and property managers who exploit tenants and communities for profit.

We understand that the relationship between landlords and working-class people, tenants and homeless, is one of class conflict: a zero-sum game between workers’ need for housing and capital’s desire for profit. While this conflict may not have the special place at the site of production as the conflict between labor and bosses, it is a site for militant class struggle. We in Boston Refoundation believe that Boston DSA should pursue the formation of tenant unions as a strategy for building working-class struggle around housing, reducing isolation among community members, and creating new socialists in the long term.

Since July 2017, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) has been working with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU), a tenant organization comprised of working-class people across Greater Boston. CLVU organizes tenants, as well as foreclosed homeowners, against eviction, rent increases, and terrible building conditions using what they call the sword and shield: the shield for legal defense, and the sword for direct action. Their base comes primarily from the working-class communities of color most affected by eviction and rent increases. CLVU intentionally cultivates a sense of ownership among tenants from the first time they show up to a meeting, encouraging them to see themselves as members of the organization rather than people helped by it, telling them “if you fight, we’ll fight with you.”

Many of the organization’s strongest leaders, both members and staff organizers, first came to it as tenants facing eviction and stayed to fight with others. Some tenants currently fighting with CLVU are people who had organized a union and won a contract with CLVU five or ten years before, received evictions or rent increases after the expiration of the contract or after a sale, and returned to CLVU to organize again. Others have been resisting rent increases or evictions for years—some for nearly a decade. This type of militant struggle is made possible because CLVU brings tenants out of the shame and isolation of eviction and into community and solidarity with other people fighting the same injustices. CLVU intentionally develops their political leadership and their willingness to see themselves as capable of fighting, and shows them that through fighting they can achieve the material victory of staying in their homes. We view this model as one that Boston DSA should learn from and emulate as we attempt to develop our capacity to organize tenants. Essentially, CLVU already accomplishes what we and many other DSA chapters would like to do in our housing work: build a base of working-class leaders ready and able to fight capital and win.

Since we began working with CLVU last July, our work has consisted mostly of canvassing buildings identified by CLVU—both less organized buildings in existing struggles and new buildings we’re exploring for the first time. The Housing Working Group has grown a small team of people who engage in this work regularly, with several other members who may have been once or twice. We’ve learned a lot about how to talk to tenants about their material issues, while also being respectful of the sensitivity of those conversations and tenants’ agency in responding to them. In the immediate future, we should work to improve our follow-up with tenants, getting them interested in coming to a Tuesday CLVU meeting or helping them organize a building meeting with their neighbors. In February, we took a first step in this direction by providing ride support for a disabled tenant we’d met canvassing to CLVU’s weekly meeting. We should expand this sort of work wherever we find tenants willing to organize with us.

 

We can and should work toward this goal by continuing our existing work with CLVU and by exploring new opportunities that we discover on our own. For the former, we can continue our regular canvassing at places CLVU is looking to organize and actively work to improve our follow-up with tenants, finding ways to connect with tenants around material issues and coming to shared understandings about how we can work together. For the latter, we can explore a variety of strategies to identify targets where people may be experiencing material conditions that threaten their housing—eviction, rent increases, and gentrification, among others—and figure out how to organize with tenants around those problems. Both approaches will include a continued close relationship with CLVU while also allowing us to develop our skills as socialist organizers and become more capable and independent in our tenant organizing. Very few DSA chapters have an already-existing tenant organization like City Life in their regions; we are lucky to have them as a coalition partner and owe them a great deal for our progress so far. Our organizing, whether initiated by CLVU or by us, should bring tenants into CLVU’s movement. We do not have the capacity to immediately create the kind of solidarity and social support among tenants that CLVU provides, nor do we have the same roots they do in the communities most affected by eviction and displacement. Furthermore, CLVU has legal resources that we cannot provide tenants on our own. As we organize more effectively over time and begin to help tenants win their fights, we will increase our capacity to build these types of social and political organization among tenants in the long term.

There are a number of routes we could explore to developing our own tenant organizing project, but our adaptation of Metro DC DSA’s Stomp Out Slumlords project (SOS) currently stands out as one of the most promising. Stomp Out Slumlords has provided an inspiring example of a DSA chapter trying a creative, politically informed strategy to organize with tenants against eviction. HWG members have been developing an approach based on insights from the Stomp Out Slumlords project—namely, the idea of using publicly available information from the court system to reach tenants facing eviction—to expand our current work within the context of CLVU. Our approach merges our current tenant unionizing effort within Stomp Out Slumlords’s novel approach to finding and identifying tenants willing to organize. Interestingly, our DC comrades reported in their April update that their work on Stomp Out Slumlords has naturally gravitated toward building-level organizing with a focus on base building, much more similar to our approach and CLVU’s than to the initial SOS program. The Housing Working Group has now used this method twice since we started on May 5, and we are working to evaluate and improve it going forward. We invite any interested comrades to reach out to HWG to get involved.

We should also be on the lookout for housing issues around evictions, such as rent increases, or development around the Boston area in general, especially in regions that may not already be organized by CLVU or a similar organization. We should develop class consciousness among our own membership around their class position as tenants, encourage them to organize their own buildings if they wish to do so, and support them in those efforts by offering organizing trainings and labor.

For all of this work, and especially the last point, we must consider robust political education a necessary component of our work and meaningfully implement that commitment in practice. We must approach all of it with a clearly socialist understanding of what we mean when we say housing is a human right. We will not succeed in organizing with tenants if we are not clear that we are for tenants and against landlords and developers.

We need to take care not to fall prey to working toward capitalist reforms, an ever-present trap especially in the arena of housing. Even the most radical orgs can become co-opted by the Massachusetts Democratic establishment machine, and given the nature of the systems we work in, it may be tempting to make concessions to capital to obtain short-term gains. In particular, the framework of “affordable housing” dominates the progressive housing discourse, but this framework does nothing to strengthen the working class. “Affordable” is never accurately defined within any reasonable understanding of the word, and landlords frequently receive some benefit in return for meeting very low numbers of these units. Affordable housing assumes both that rent will always be extracted from workers’ wages and that the vast majority of housing units will be, by definition, unaffordable. Without a socialist vision and strategy that is grounded in not just a Marxist understanding of the capital and class conflict surrounding housing, but also in a knowledge of successfully implemented socialist housing throughout history, or in promising theoretical models from other Marxist groups and thinkers, we will only be temporarily stemming the tide of late-stage capitalist exterminism.

The proposed PEWG/HWG collaboration, a four-part series aimed at combining theory and praxis for socialist housing, is an exciting first step toward a broader conversation around what socialist housing means and how we can organize with and as tenants. This series, and subsequent events like it, should contribute to the development of class consciousness as tenants among our membership and open new possibilities for organizing from within DSA. In the medium to long term, as we improve our own skills as tenant organizers, we should offer deeper and more robust training for our members to organize their buildings.

Political education events, like the PEWG/HWG collaboration, will introduce more members to the basic ideas of socialist housing and tenant organizing and give them an accessible way to approach that work themselves. If done well, these projects will increase our capacity both by improving the quality of our work and by drawing more of our members to tenant organizing projects. Our political education must give us space to reflect critically on our organizing methods to ensure that they are effective. We must examine our external organizing to ensure that we do not take paternalistic attitudes into our work with tenants or choose methods of struggle for them, especially when tenants are more exploited than our organizers along lines of race, gender, class, or disability. Our internal organizing must value the contributions and labor of all our comrades and not overly rely on methods like canvassing that systematically exclude some of our comrades.

Boston Refoundation believes that tenant unionizing is a promising site for militant class struggle in our area. By applying and expanding the lessons the Housing Working Group has learned so far in our work with CLVU, we can increase our capacity to organize around tenant issues and support tenants in their struggles for our shared goal: housing as a human right. If we can help tenants win material victories in these fights, we will create relationships with working-class leaders across the Greater Boston area—people with whom we can organize in the future around issues other than housing. Building those relationships through the work of tenant unionizing in the long term will make projects like the Mass Against HP BDS campaign and the proposed Prison Abolition project to get police out of Boston public schools more imminently possible for Boston DSA to organize around. It will open up new frontiers for direct service and mutual aid projects that are useful and possibly reciprocal. We believe that we must pursue these projects of organizing and unionizing tenants both because it is right to stand in solidarity with tenants in their fights and because it is necessary to achieve our ultimate goal: uniting the working class to win socialism.

Eugenics 2.0: How Dialectical Materialism Can End the Nature vs. Nurture Debate.

By Nafis H.

The recent opinion piece by prominent geneticist David Reich has once again fanned the flames of the debate on race, genetics, and intelligence. This is not a new debate — after eugenics was supposedly put to rest, it appeared that this ideology had taken refuge in the shadows of evolutionary psychology and behavior genetics. It is not surprising that the latter field, built on the nature vs. nurture duality, is a hotbed of debate and sensationalism, given the sociopolitical implications and our collective obsession with genetic determinism. Over the years, the question of whether differences in intelligence is due to environmental factors or genetic factors has been repeatedly raised. In 1994, Charles Murray co-wrote the notorious book, The Bell Curve, in which he argued that blacks are less intelligent than whites because of genetic differences. While the book was criticized by the evolutionary biologist Stephen J. Gould in his summary analysis & rebuttal The Mismeasure of Man (revised ed., 1996), the idea that there is an inherent, genetic differences in intelligence across races, stuck around in other forms. Once the human genome was sequenced, and genetic determinism again became fashionable with its technological reincarnation, billions of dollars of public money was funneled into studying the genetic basis of complex traits, including behavioral and psychological ones, and their differences across racial and ethnic boundaries. The belief that the answer lay in the genes nurtured the idea of eugenics along with it.

Current day eugenics, Eugenics 2.0, takes the form of hyper-rationalism, scientific racism, race realism, and the misleading idea of “human biodiversity.” It is not surprising, then, that the alt-right and white supremacists have taken up Eugenics 2.0 behind the shield of “Science”, just as they espouse their bigoted views from behind the mask of Free Speech. For example, earlier this year, a secret conference on eugenics and intelligence was hosted at University College, London, and featured white supremacist speakers like Toby Young. Sam Harris recently hosted Charles Murray on his podcast under the title “Forbidden Knowledge”, after Murray was protested when invited to deliver a lecture at Middlebury College, under the premise that Murray’s ideas were being restricted due to the college PC culture (Murray was recently awarded a hefty prize from the Bradley Foundation and is regularly invited to give talks on conservative platforms). Reich’s op-ed is naive at best, and to be fair he does precaution against weaponizing any of the scientific findings. However, as geneticist Razib Khan’s case shows, white supremacists can use such studies as evidence for racial superiority, and they are increasingly leaning towards genetic testing for validation.

This is not to say that Eugenics 2.0 hasn’t faced its own share of resistance in academia — much has been written against the idea that inherent genetic differences explain the variable performances in IQ tests along racial lines. The scientists that championed the environmental causes of such differences in IQ test outcomes have put forth socioeconomic status (SES) as the primary cause. A seminal study by Turkheimer et al in 2003 showed that genetic differences could only explain differences in intelligence among kids from high SES background. For the kids from lower SES, environmental factors were the primary cause for variation observed in IQ. A more recent critique of the paper showed that the differences observed between the two SES groups were not significant along racial lines. A paper by Figlio et al published in 2017, the largest study to test the idea that “genetic influences on cognitive abilities are larger for children raised in more advantaged environments”, found on no evidence to support their hypothesis. However, they do admit that “articulating gene-environment interactions for cognition is more complex and elusive than previously supposed.”

Other scientists have already denounced Reich’s op-ed — a host of scientists across disciplines have accused Reich of conflating the implications of modern behavior genetics research, and one scientist even questioned Reich’s expertise in understanding evolutionary biology and whether he is a racist. Academia is not without rebuttals, as evolutionary biologist Michael Eisen took to Twitter to criticize above-mentioned rebuttal op-ed to Reich, asking whether social scientists understand genetics themselves. Beyond the discussion of study design and other scientific details of contradictory results, the question has attracted other meta-analyses. Some of these include a sociological perspective on whether race is a biological or social construct, the limitations of IQ tests, whether the term “Race” should be used in the context of genetic differences between population groups, and whether this debate belongs in the realm of Free Speech.

This endless debate, however, is spurred on by a major epistemic flaw in understanding the nature and nurture equation. In his detailed analysis of the behavior genetics field in the post-genome sequencing era, sociologist Aaron Panofsky writes, “Behavior geneticists’ focus on environmental factors and interactionism has involved looking at different parts of the nature versus nurture equation, not a rethinking of the presumptions of that equation or the notion of the analytic separability of genes and environment.” What was perceived to be a change in paradigm, ended up being just a shift towards one variable or the other. The individual focus on genes or environment as separate entities have resulted in much contradictory evidence so far, allowing the white supremacists to weaponize scientific evidence to their favor and change public perception (for years, Nicholas Wade misrepresented scientific data to make racist claims as a science writer for the New York Times). However, Panofsky doesn’t provide an avenue to escape the quagmire that behavior geneticists find themselves in.

The promised paradigm shift can be achieved through a shift in how we view the relationship between us and our environment. And turns out, Marxist ideas can help us do exactly that. Engels first proposed the idea of using Marx’s dialectical materialism to examine this relationship is his unfinished book Dialectics of Nature (1883). Marx, in his revision of Hegel’s dialectics, asserted that dialectics should deal with the “material world” of human history and activity rather than the metaphysical world or the world of ideas. As Ernest Mandel describes in his introduction to Capital (Penguin edition, 1976), “when the dialectical method is applied to the study of economic problems, economic phenomena are not viewed separately from each other, by bits and pieces, but in their inner connection as an integrated totality”, dialectical materialism allows for studying the interactions between phenomena in an empirical manner. Engels’ intention in his unfinished book was to employ this philosophy to understand the ever-changing relationship between Man and Nature.

Biologists such as J.B.S. Haldane and others had tried to keep this tradition alive through their writings over the years. But the pseudoscience practiced by Trofim Lysenko and the misuse of dialectical materialism by Stalinists resulted in shunning of this approach in Western philosophy and scientific understanding. However, in its unadulterated form, dialectical materialism can provide a solution to the nature vs nurture debate, as Richard Levins & Richard Lewontin have outlined in their book The Dialectical Biologist (1985). Levins & Lewontin write, “an organism does not compute itself from its DNA. The organism is the consequence of a historical process that goes on from the moment of conception until the moment of death; at every moment gene, environment, chance, and the organism as a whole are all participating….Natural selection is not a consequence of how well the organism solves a set of fixed problems posed by the environment; on the contrary, the environment and the organism actively codetermine each other.”

The central premise of Levins & Lewontin’s argument is that because the relationship between an organism and an environment are reciprocal, and hence dialectical, it is the relationship that should be the subject of empirical study rather than either the environment or the organism individually. Additionally, they argue that this relationship cannot be studied outside the context of evolution, echoing both Marx and the famous biologist Theodosius Dobzhansky who proclaimed “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution”. Lewontin went on to further solidify the necessity of using a dialectical approach to studying evolution and development of an organism. In his book The Triple Helix (2002), he writes “that the ontogeny [development] of an organism is the consequence of a unique interaction between the genes it carries, the temporal sequence of external environments through which it passes during its life, and random events of molecular interactions within individual cells. It is these interactions that must be incorporated into any proper account of how an organism is formed”, thus establishing the organism as a site of interaction between the environment and genes. Therefore, under dialectical materialism, the nature vs. nurture debate is replaced by how nature AND nurture contribute to the development of an organism.

Current scientific rationale employs the capitalist ideology of individualism to champion the cause of genetic determinism, and in turn, scientific racism. While scientists, both geneticists and sociologists, have acknowledged that both the environment AND genes play a role in development of cognitive functions, their study designs are flawed because of this reductionist, individualistic approach. Modern technological advances have done little to end the debate despite promises; scientific evidence generated using a reductionist view will only continue to be co-opted by oppressors and white supremacists, and scientists cannot afford to not care about the sociopolitical impact of their work. It is definitely time for a more encompassing understanding of our biology and our relationship with the environment, and dialectical materialism, as Marx and Engels had intended, and Levins & Lewontin have applied theoretically, is poised to do so.

We’re All Paper Members

by Katherine I.

Recently, a letter was submitted to the Steering Committee expressing concerns around the dynamics of online voting in the chapter, and whether it should be permissible for members to vote on endorsements outside the framework of a live (streamed or in-person) General Meeting. The letter made several points against online voting, and by extension all remote voting, as creating a inherently capitalistic, inferior framework. Beyond responding to points made in the document, I fundamentally disagree with the idea that allowing an online vote is an inferior framework when it is simply inherently a more democratic framework. The purpose of this essay is not necessarily to provide a point-by-point refutation of arguments outlined in the letter, but to advocate that online/absentee voting is an inherently superior framework than only voting on the floor, and one we should work to adopt in our chapter.

I believe that any framework which prioritizes the ease of voting is a superior framework.

I believe that any framework which allows for secret balloting is a superior framework.

I believe that the rank-and-file, and by extension the working-class, does not need to be grounded in socialist theory to know what is correct practice for a mass movement.

Voting procedures in our organization cannot be seen as in isolation and independent of the history and context of voting outside our organization. Voting procedures can either create a democratic, diverse, and open organization, or an anti-democratic, narrow, hierarchical one. And every step between a voter and a vote is a barrier we should strive to demolish.

Only allowing those who attend a General Meeting to vote is a barrier. We should work to demolish it.

Town Meetings: The Problems With Live Frameworks

Have you ever been to a town meeting?

Town Meetings are an annual event in rural New England towns where municipal officers are elected and budgets are approved. They typically happen in springtime. Citizens from all over gather to debate and vote, usually using Robert’s Rules, and in a few scant hours the vast majority of the town’s business is sorted out.

Many towns do not use Town Meetings anymore. There’s a simple reason for that – they are undemocratic and uphold a narrow range of (usually moneyed) interests. “In more modern times, New England Town Meetings have suffered a drop in attendance attributable to the increase in town size… While their purpose continues to be the granting of an open, impartial forum for public opinion, John Gastil notes that meetings are less ‘open’ than they used to be; composed primarily of stakeholders and invited guests.”

My own town meeting had maybe two or three hundred participants, representing a town of over 9,000 citizens. Around 3% of our entire town crammed into an auditorium to decide the business of everyone who lives there. Town Meetings occur in the evening, on a Tuesday, right after a 9–5 work day, and my city had limited public transit.

This meant our Town Meetings were almost exclusively white middle-class landowners, most of them childless, often seniors. They decided the school budget. They decided who ran the town. And they ran the town for middle-class, childless landowners, and not for people who couldn’t make it to town meetings because they had work, children, or lack of access to transit. Even if every member of my town could have made it to such a meeting, there wouldn’t be a venue to accommodate them all or a way to fairly distribute debate time.

Town Meetings have largely been abandoned as a forum for voting for this and other reasons. We should follow their lead and seek to minimize and supplement the use of “on the floor” votes whenever possible. Town Meetings, are — to be sure — representative of people who care about the town. If you care about the town, you are unusually incentivized to go to a huge meeting once a year on a Tuesday night. But they’re also representative of people who have access to time and money. That is not working-class people, it is not people with children, and it is not people with accessibility concerns of any kind.

It’s about Accessibility — Everyone’s Accessibility

A DSA General Meeting is essentially a Town Meeting, held more often and at, perhaps, a slightly better time. Once a month, members gather in DSA to do the business of DSA. Like a Town Meeting, we have the excitement and vitality of live debate.

But there are very real barriers to General Meeting attendance. It incentivizes people who have at least two hours–often more–to burn, usually on a weekend. General Meetings typically occur at times that are accessible for DSA’s largest contingent, which is young (usually white) college students and professionals. Weekends and occasional weekday nights are viable for those who work a typical 9–5 job or have daily classes. Many do not — and typically working or lower class occupations fall into this category. Over one in 10 US jobs are retail jobs, and these by nature require workers to be on the job when other people aren’t. Their shifts are unpredictable, their time-off is unpaid, and their hours are cut if they decline shifts at peak hours. Some subsistence work such as call centers require workers to be in the office on the second shift from around 4pm to midnight, so if your GMs are on a weekday night, you’ve cut off another portion of attendees.

General Meetings, especially on weekends, are set up to be ideal for those who do not have to worry about the reproductive labor of caring for children. Many DSA chapters, including my own Boston DSA, have made strides in providing child watch — a huge step up from early meetings when parents had no options. But a General Meeting still asks a parent to make time to vote in-person, time they may want to spend with their child — especially if they are separated, working more than forty hours, or have plans for social events with or for their children.

Even if you don’t have a retail job, a second shift occupation, or limited time with your family, most other activist work occurs during these hours. Our annual bylaw amendment vote occurred during “The March for Our Lives.” If members wanted to participate in our bylaw process, they were asked to pass on one of the largest, most youth oriented, and vital mass protests in the last forty years. The ask of DSA Membership was “You can either participate in an absolutely historic activist event — whether you’re there to join in or give more critical support — or you can exercise your right to give input on the way in which we run your chapter.” To ask members to prioritize bylaw amendments over such a landmark event gives lie to the idea that attendance at a meeting is the best way to build socialism. If we purport to be an organization dedicated to overturning the oppressive structures of capitalism, we must allow members a say in our day-to-day administrative work without forcing them to sacrifice the political work of building socialism.

A Praxis of Privilege

Even beyond all of these individual reasons why in-person only votes are inaccessibile,  it is the highest principle of democracy and accessibility that voting be as absolutely accessible as possible, for any person and by any avenue, for any reason. This is a principle that goes beyond what any one person’s accessibility needs might be and echoes a higher principle of what we mean when we talk about accessible voting. When we talk about accessible voting, we are not just talking about those who work, those who have children, or those who have other commitments. We are talking about the fundamental belief that voting is something we should strive to make as easy for anyone to accomplish as it is to read a ballot. When we look at the measures we support in voting, historically, the more voting expands, the more it represents working-class interests.

This core principle of voting is violated in the Town Meeting example, where the intent may not be to limit participation to privileged actors but the effect is to do so. Even with the limited set of accessibility examples above, it’s clear that those accessibility barriers move far beyond just those above but to everyone in the chapter. If the argument is that this does not matter, that it is more important to empower the voice of the minority who may better know or understand the contours of the debate, we have to ask ourselves how such barriers in the past have been used under similar rhetoric to nefarious ends. Indeed, one low point of the socialist movement was when the American Federation of Labor in the late 1800s argued for literacy tests for the ostensible reasons of ensuring an educated and informed electorate, when such reasoning actually had to do with the AFL’s desire to shut working class immigrants out of voting and prioritize english-speaking union members. Voter ID laws and barriers to and automatic voter registration use similar rhetoric that those who really want to or really deserve to vote will take the pains it requires to vote or won’t be impacted. Time and time again in history we see that calls — be they motivated by pure reasons or not — to limit voting to educated actors have the effect of suppressing working-class voters. (source)(source)(source)(source)

Even if we try to make the argument that the effect of mass participation without educational barriers leads to uninformed and anti-socialist choices — unrooted in the important understanding of socialist theory — the vast majority of actual outcomes of mass voting outside the dynamic of in-person or limited voting show that even “uninformed” working-class voters understand the interests of a mass, pro-worker movement. Australia’s implementation of compulsory voting increased turnout by 24%, but more importantly, it significantly increased the share of Labor party seats in the AU, who had a pro-union and socialist platform (source) (source).  While I prefer incentivized voting because of the potential regressive implications of a punitive compulsory voting system, the function of having “uninformed” voters vote was to encourage more people to engage with the process and ultimately make choices that reflect the interests of a mass working-class base.

A Socialist Aristocracy

Much of this is uncontroversial within the base of DSA — I am sure that it is most likely uncontroversial with those who have raised concerns with online voting. But these comrades would argue that these are national questions, working within the framework of a liberal system, under liberal rules, and we should not reflect them. We are trying to create an organization that works beyond such capitalistic structures and engages people collectively in a mass movement where there is a robust, vital exchange of live ideas.

We do not exist outside of a capitalist framework. Even if you believe a live debate is the ideal socialist framework, we must construct the best democracy we can right now, in this moment, in the context of an oppressive, capitalist framework, and everything we have learned in that framework tells us that more votes and ease of voting means more working-class power. Rosa Luxemburg said, “Socialist democracy is not something which begins only in the promised land after the foundations of socialist economy are created; it does not come as some sort of Christmas present for the worthy… Socialist democracy begins simultaneously with the beginnings of the destruction of class rule and of the construction of socialism. It must proceed step by step out of the active participation of the masses.” We cannot wait for some theoretically liberal framework to be overthrown before we open the doors of DSA to the rank-and-file who cannot come to a meeting. We cannot create some collective decision-making process in our organization ungrounded in the material circumstances of workers that are occurring right now. We must aggressively increase participation to the people in whatever avenue we can, and we cannot create a walled garden of what we want such a system to look like in which only those able to be contained inside are given a voice and are able to tend to the tenets of socialism. We must open our doors to the masses outside, and we must allow them to grasp the promise of a socialist future and participate in our organizing in whatever way they can.

Some may feel that online votes and secret ballots are a hopelessly liberal framework; that we cannot create a socialist organization with a vote that is not live and social,  and such a vote has no democratic vitality. I categorically reject such thinking. A mass movement consists of mass input ,and just like socialism encourages us to organize the many for the common good, we organize individual voices collectively for a mass movement where everyone is given the opportunity to express their say — and we then join their voices together to determine the collective road for socialism.

Secret votes have important features that go beyond simply allowing mass input. Systems which uphold that a live vote is a democratic ideal have not wrestled with deeply problematic social dynamics that live votes foster. A movement’s votes should be honest votes of conscience grounded in the ability of members or caucuses to inspire a mass movement and convince rank-and-filers of theory and strategy. But in-person voting actively undermines votes of conscience. One of the most famous experiments of psychology, the Asch experiment, showed how, when presented with verifiably and objectively false information, people will often go with the answer of the group due to the fear of social retribution. This experiment spoke to deep human fears about rejection and censure for heterodox ideas. We cannot base socialism on a system which may be built on a consensus extracted through fear rather than unfettered votes of conscience. And we cannot echo, even unintentionally, a punitive, capitalistic framework of “justice” to enforce the behavior of rank-and-file. Whatever the noble goals of a consensus decision making process, the impact of such systems is inherently to enshrine dynamics of shame, power, and control. There is nothing inherently anti-consensus about online “paper” ballots, which allow rank-and-file to vote their conscience and then use that vote to arrive at a collective decision, rather than arriving at a false consensus based on potentially dishonest votes made from fear.

Those who want to use live votes to create a dynamic where we are echoing a theoretical dynamic of socialism — one where members are exposed to a certain socialist praxis — may arguably echo a different attitude than liberal frameworks. Instead, they are echoing an aristocratic framework — an even older, more regressive political framework — that sees certain groups as having a superior ability to engage in decision-making through the basis of their education. Such frameworks have been used to oppress working-class people for thousands of years by enshrining a meritocratic ideal that certain people are just better than others because they have the correct amount of information about the business of running a government. It is an ideal that liberal frameworks have used to enshrine this regressive meritocratic idea that only the highly educated ought to have the right to decide the business of government. It is a framework reflected everywhere from the Roman Senate to modern calls that neoliberal Democrats are more “experienced” or educated and therefore inherently deserving of power. (source), (source, pp30), (source), (source).

We do not “know better” than people without socialist theory, and we do not need a framework that requires people to engage membership with socialist praxis in order to vote. From the Diggers to the Paris Commune, working-class people have understood perfectly well what is wrong with society without the banner of Marxist theory to guide them.

We’re all Paper Members

Those who argue against online voting imply that there is some difference between a paper member and a “live” member — between those who “only” pay their dues and engage in our work in a more piecemeal fashion rather than attending General Meetings. These “paper members” may engage in DSA through reading online and engaging in socialist theory through articles or Slack, going to individual workshops or canvasses, going only to Working Group meetings, or attending General Meetings infrequently. But even the act of signing on to become a dues-paying member is a commitment to the project of socialism. That is a commitment that every member of DSA shares, and all of them have differing and yet similar ideas of how to fulfill the promise of socialism. And it is something — perhaps even the only thing — that all of us share. The moment before we walk into the doors of a GM we are all paper members, and the moment after we walk out we are all paper members, engaging in socialism when we can, where we can, how we can. To make a discrete difference between a member because they have walked into a room is not the work of socialism. It is the work of elitism, and there is no room for elitism in the socialist project.

 

Katherine I., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)

Co-Signed Robbie H., EWG Co-Chair (liaison to the Membership)

 

Open Response: BDSA Endorsement Process

By Kathryn A., Steering Committee

I’m heartened by the discussion I’ve seen unfolding over the past weeks, starting with the Electoral Working Group meeting, and then continued with the open letter signed onto by some of our comrades. This sparked discussions in person and across a variety of other platforms. I’ve seen other members take considerable time to write out their opinions and respond to my questions with patience and understanding, even when it was clear that some of our opinions differed. One person even took the time to specifically call out that they believe we have a shared goal, just with different ways of getting there. These conversations have largely been comradely, understanding, and focused on moving forward together, and give me hope for our chapter.

The main points of the debate, as I understand them, are:

  1. We need to bring the endorsement process to a discussion/vote at the General Meeting.
  2. The endorsement process as outlined doesn’t have enough guarantees that voters will be meaningfully exposed to various viewpoints, especially those that may be the minority.
  3. Online voting itself is a potentially isolating procedure that could reinforce the individualism our capitalist society encourages, rather than emphasizing the collective knowledge and strength in solidarity we hope to build through socialism.

I’ll try to engage with these as best I can.

GM Vote on the Endorsement Process

It’s my understanding, after last night’s GM Planning Committee meeting, that the endorsement process itself will be brought to a discussion and vote at the GM. I think this is good for our chapter right now, and I also think moving forward it’s reasonable to try and figure out what things from WGs need to be voted on by a WG, the GM, the SC, or some other body. Initial tensions around the open letter seemed to stem from fears that people wouldn’t have input into a process where they felt their voice was needed. As a chapter, we should discuss our expectations for what constitutes an administrative decision appropriate for the Working Group level, and what constitutes a political decision appropriate for a WG versus for our highest body, the General Membership. What appeared to some members of the Electoral Working Group to be a procedural decision designed to elicit engagement from the whole chapter was taken by some to be a much more significant change. We need to keep talking about which decisions fall into which category as our chapter develops, and especially as we begin the chapter priorities process that’s currently been approved by the SC.

The Endorsement Process

The endorsement process as currently outlined has the following official points of engagement:

  1. Member submissions of candidates/races to consider (only limitation being state rep races due to capacity and a desire to focus on the smallest possible race).
  2. Member created survey, including a vote (possibly online) on the final survey questions.
  3. WG summaries of candidate responses (sent to email, Slack, and on paper at in-person meetings), providing an opportunity for any and all WGs to focus on their analysis of a candidate’s responses.
  4. Membership vote online on which candidates to invite to a forum.
  5. Candidate’s forum with member-generated questions.
  6. Recordings and postings of the forum on email and Slack, providing an opportunity for discussion.
  7. GM Endorsement discussion.
  8. Vote on endorsed candidates, potentially including internet balloting.

Since this was proposed at the Electoral Working Group meeting about endorsements, I’ve heard the following suggestions for making this process even more robust and member-oriented:

  1. Candidate research to be distributed to the membership, providing an opportunity to bring a candidate’s past into the discussion.
  2. Including pro and con statements on internet ballots.
  3. Distributing notes, recording, and/or summaries of the GM discussion to membership prior to a vote.
  4. Ongoing development of what candidate accountability looks like.
  5. Making explicit the “No endorsement” option in the final vote.

This is to say nothing of the myriad informal/semi-informal spaces we already have for discussion (before and after meetings, one-on-one conversations, Slack, emails, working group lists, phone conversations, etc.). Few (though certainly some) of these options are entirely online. The process before us is neither in-person nor online  —  it’s some option in between. The world will keep changing, and we must continue to adapt time-tested strategies of organizing to the growing opportunities for building solidarity.

The letter’s signatories are correct in saying that there is no guarantee that any of our members will be involved in all of these discussions, formalized or not, before online balloting, and there is no guarantee they will have heard or fairly considered every viewpoint. There’s not, and I don’t think there should be a formal guarantee beyond our faith and trust in our comrades. When it comes down to it, that’s really what DSA is built on.

Instead, it’s our responsibility to make the importance of these meetings and discussions felt and heard, to mobilize members to come to or otherwise contribute to the process, and to broadcast our viewpoints to the membership at large. This burden isn’t entirely placed on those in the minority, either  —  the process for submitting analyses of candidates and their responses, the discussion at the GM itself, and the proposed addition of pro/con statements and a “No endorsement” option to online ballots all provide formal protections of potential minority viewpoints within the chapter. The protection of the minority voice is being taken seriously within DSA  —  what more additions to this process are necessary to prove this? The preservation of in-person meetings and the relationships and solidarity built there are similarly critical to DSA  —  again, what additions or edits to the process are necessary to prove this?

Member Engagement and Collective Struggle

Finally, there absolutely are members on our rolls who are more active in DSA-specific meetings, working groups, and organizing. And there are some who haven’t yet become regulars at DSA-specific events. This latter category has been referred to as “paper members” or “inactive” members. It’s important to challenge this narrative. There are so many ways to build socialism within and without DSA, and we should work to build connections until we’re no longer ancillary to so much of the movement to rebuild society. This means those of us who have found some specific work in Boston DSA should be reaching out to less active members with the hopes of learning how we can involve them in our work, or support them in theirs, given their unique position, background, and connections to other organizations or activism, and thereby connect more members more deeply to DSA while strengthening the organization itself. As good organizers, we can’t leave members themselves responsible for not coming to a particular meeting or engaging in socialism in a particular way. We must instead reflect on our own programming and approach AND reach out to members to determine what initiatives would make direct DSA involvement more meaningful for them. We don’t know why some of our 1,100 members aren’t regularly attending meetings  —  all we know for sure is they agree with the principles of Boston DSA enough to meet our agreed-upon criteria for membership.

As an organization, I believe we have a responsibility to guarantee each member the opportunity to vote on important matters, and must provide the resources to make that vote an informed one. An internet ballot is no more or less informed than an in person one. There’s no guarantee that a person at a meeting has mentally engaged with a particular viewpoint in a meaningful way. The proposed process, by including online balloting, provides both opportunities and mandates to reach out to the 1,100 members of Boston DSA to encourage this engagement. The proxy process shouldn’t be eliminated  —  it provides important opportunities for remote comrades to participate in the debate and procedure of an in-person meeting in real time beyond just the vote. Internet balloting isn’t a replacement for proxy services  —  it’s an addition, and a meaningfully different one. It places the majority of the burden for enfranchisement on the organization, rather than its members, and it proactively and purposefully extends this opportunity to every member in DSA.

This is far more difficult than reaching out to the few hundred people who regularly attend DSA meetings  —  it’s also the kind of organizing that is critical to practice in the process of creating a militant movement capable of winning the socialist society of our collective hopes and dreams. Far from isolating our members, it encourages us to practice the skills necessary to reach massive numbers of people with our message and still work to come to a collective decision. It provides a stark reminder that it’s our responsibility to engage our comrades, not to dismiss or fear them. It pushes us to trust them to make good choices when provided with the information and the process to do so. Our chapter has already made us proud with its collective choices time and again  —  we’ve endorsed an important BDS campaign, unanimously passed an important resolution condemning FOSTA/SESTA, put two of our own members in office and begun learning what it means to then hold them accountable, and worked together to rework our outdated bylaws to include things like cop disclosures. I believe that our members will only continue to validate our trust and solidarity in greater numbers when afforded the opportunity to do so.

Open Response: Online Endorsement Votes in Boston DSA

By Maddie H., Co-Chair

The Boston DSA Steering Committee recently received an open letter from a member and multiple co-signers calling for the Steering Committee to intervene in our Electoral Working Group’s candidate endorsement plan. The letter asks the SC to set up a process by which the membership can choose whether to block online voting for candidate endorsements.

It’s unclear to me why the Steering Committee is being called on to intervene in this specific vote. This is a proposal coming from a member and its end result is directed at the general membership, and as such I believe it should go through our standard general meeting planning process and be voted on on the floor of a GM.

With that said, I’m appreciative that the co-signed members took the time to communicate their stance to not allow online voting for candidate endorsements, and I feel it is my duty as co-chair to respond and share my point of view with the membership at large.

In terms of decisions made by the organization as a whole, I advocate for as open a voting policy as possible. If we’re making a decision as Boston DSA, such as endorsing a campaign or choosing a priority, I believe that means that every member of Boston DSA must be offered the opportunity to participate in that choice. Not just a narrow opportunity, attached to limitations and judgments, but an open, trusting opportunity, that reflects the trust we aspire to have in each other and our community. That is the foundation on which I want to build an organization. I want online voting, not just for endorsements, but for anything that would be called a decision made by Boston DSA as a whole.

Simply being able to vote does not constitute a democracy, as we can easily see from our current electoral situation in the U.S. But the expansion of participation beyond voting does not result from unnecessarily restricting voting. Whether or not this measure would be intended to do so, the end result is that it ranks some members above others, and removes privileges from those members who cannot structure their lives around key meetings. I do not believe in this punitive approach to encouraging participation. In lieu of blocking avenues to those who want to be involved, I would rather focus on incentivizing participation beyond the vote. I would not want to create a precedent for not allowing dues-paying members to participate in a decision that will bear their name, especially when we have the means to support their participation.

A vote is the bedrock on which we build: It’s the bare minimum, but it’s not optional. In the world I envision and the world I believe we are fighting for, no one lacks the vote. As I said in my candidate statement, I intend to work to have DSA’s structure reflect the qualities we want to see in the world at large. One co-signer of this letter told me that this is an overdramatic way of phrasing this, that a membership organization does not function the same way a government functions. But to me, every step we take towards a truly egalitarian society needs to be actively moving us closer to that society, not away from it. Restricting voting in a chapter-wide decision would be moving away from it.

One concern folks have voiced is that the minority will not be heard if we do not require participation in a meeting to hear debate. But the minority is heard in Boston DSA: online, in our newsletters, in conversations at our many social events and non-general meetings, in pamphlets and materials, and more. Engagement with the various minority positions in our org is absolutely not limited to four minutes of debate time during a vote, and we shouldn’t structure our organization’s decision-making process as if that is true.

The letter uses the premise that Boston DSA is run consistently and according to our bylaws by parliamentary procedure. I want to challenge this: Though we can use parliamentary procedure for decision-making, Boston DSA is not rooted in parliamentary procedure, nor is parliamentary procedure always the standard by which radical organizations should act. The only language around endorsements is a threshold — we must endorse with “60% of the voting members at a local meeting.” That local meeting could take a variety of forms, and could easily include online voting, since online voting is not prohibited by Robert’s Rules — and it is especially easy to allow online voting with, e.g., the addition of a livestream and a recording of the meeting released to members, plus a time delay for vote closure. There are many creative possibilities available that include a vote being available to any member. I would much rather proceed with decisions about how we enhance participation with the given condition that we will not restrict votes on chapter-wide decisions, and see where that conversation goes and what choices we make.

The letter-writers present a false dichotomy: We should either do business as an all-online or all in-person organization. This is an attempt to force a choice that does not need to be forced. There are shades of gray between these two extremes, and we are already existing in an organization that is functioning within those shades: The release and wider publication of the original open letter itself is evidence that we have many fora outside of meetings in which the minority voice can currently be heard and have a significant impact.

In this letter and in other conversations I’ve had around this question, proxy voting is offered as an alternative choice to online voting. I think it’s highly preferable to have both options available to members. Proxy voting is more limited than online (e.g., in other proxy voting systems I’ve experienced, a certain member can only vote on behalf of a set number of members) (CORRECTION: after a member reached out to me, I want to point out that the specific Boston DSA bylaw around proxy voting does not have such a limitation and that it is the responsibility of the SC to make sure all members who ask are provided with a proxy) and presents a clearly more difficult choice and a barrier to members with social anxiety or a lack of strong connections and friendships in the organization. I say this as someone who has experienced significant social anxiety. Do we want to shut off the option to vote to these members? Will that encourage their participation and engagement? The bottom line is that the more barriers that are placed between a member and their vote, the less comfortable I am. If proxy voting were truly as simple as online voting, we would not be having this conversation.

I move that the steering committee is removed from the process of deciding how votes are managed for candidate endorsements. The letter writers should bring the points in this letter as a proposal to the General Meeting Planning Committee, as would happen with any other member proposal. I will be voting no on any motion to prevent online voting for chapter-wide decisions, as I strongly believe that if Boston DSA makes a choice, all of Boston DSA makes that choice, period. We have the tools to make that vote democratic, and we are obligated to use them.

 

There Is No Mass Movement Without Prison Abolition

By Alexis, Drew D, Elizabeth K, Jesse W, and Zoey M, Boston Refoundation

A socialist revolution cannot occur without prison abolition. As socialists, we must fully commit to abolition as a cornerstone of our movement.  This commitment is not an issue of just a rhetorical choice to use the term “abolition.” That term has real-world consequences for our movement. Anything less than abolition will be seized on by reformers who only offer ways to strengthen the carceral system.

Angela Davis has stressed that we need to develop a new vocabulary in order to describe a world without prisons. The words we choose in this movement will be crucial. This vocabulary will be ever evolving as well. For instance, we welcome the criticisms by Dylan Rodriguez on the term “mass incarceration.” The “mass” in that term implies that the prison problem is one of scale; reformers believe if we can only cut the imprisonment rate by a third or half, our problem will be solved.

If our analysis of the prison system is historically grounded, though, we know that it is a foundational institution in America’s white supremacist capitalism. From the practice of imprisoning recently freed slaves and convict leasing following reconstruction, to the origins of the police in both slave patrols and the suppression of labor movements, to the rise in political prisoners in the 1970s alongside growing power of black nationalist movements, policing and prisons have always evolved in service of the capitalist state’s need to control and repress people of color. They will always be used to oppress the black population, and lowering the rate of incarcerated people will not change this. A fluctuating rate of incarceration does not signal its slow end—the state still has the ability to ramp it up when it is politically expedient.

Reformers can easily seize on a rate cut that has no lasting impact: a perfect example of this occurred recently in our own state of Massachusetts.  The landmark case of Diatchenko v. District Attorney, for the Suffolk District in 2013, ended in a life without the possibility of parole sentences for juveniles. Diatchenko was paroled, along with several others who first went before the parole board after the decision. Liberal reformers in MA cheered the decision as a proper reform for juvenile justice. However, once the spotlight turned away from the issue, zero out of the next 16 juvenile lifers were granted parole, rendering the decision essentially useless.

There are even instances where reformers actively grow the carceral state in an attempt to regulate it. The Vera Institute of Justice led an initiative to make city police forces more “efficient,” a misguided attempt to make police forces smaller. In the process, they created the groundwork for CompStat, the epitome of neoliberal urban policing. A combination of big data, broken windows theory, and tech-driven police solutions, CompStat has only lessened police accountability in working communities.

If we are going to be serious about abolition, we must put this new vocabulary describing a prison-free world into action NOW to disentangle our lives from the carceral state. We must stop allowing law enforcement to be lionized. We must understand the brutality of law enforcement as a totality: it is constant in the lives of the working classes. Although a unifying political vision of abolition may not be currently articulated across the wide range of working class people and neighborhoods with divergent experiences, the material reality of the destruction and trauma that the system causes is ever-present.

Prison abolition should always be our overarching goal; however, there are steps that we can take in order to substantively disentangle our lives from the carceral state. We can begin to do this in all sorts of ways, big and small. For instance, we can refuse to offer material support to anyone who explicitly associates themselves with the carceral state, for instance by providing discounts to law enforcement, as is common practice in many industries.

We should be offering our communities resources for who to contact in emergencies besides police, even if only to function as a means to widening our political imagination. The carceral state maintains such a wide sphere of influence in our lives because we are encouraged to call the police before we speak to our neighbors, reach out to our community members, or try to find non-violent resolutions for everyday conflicts. Capitalism has deeply entrenched alienation in our communities, and police have stepped in to replace interpersonal connections, finding only the most violent and repressive solutions to our social problems. In contrast, a key tool within an abolitionist framework is restorative justice, a process that rejects an outright punitive approach to addressing crime and violence, and instead prioritizes repairing trust and community relationships while truly holding perpetrators accountable to reckoning with and understanding the harm they’ve caused.

There are abolition skeptics in our movement who state we cannot explicitly claim an abolitionist politics while building a mass workers movement. Even if the working classes do not articulate an abolitionist politics, the material injustice of the carceral state is felt across working class communities and communities of color. This is not only apparent in the creation of new prisons, the militarization of the police, or the expansion of the surveillance state, but also inversely appears as lost funding from schools, health centers, parks, libraries, infrastructure projects and other public goods, which enrich and sustain working class communities. It is our job as socialists—and for many of us—members of the working class, to organize around this material injustice. Likewise, while socialism is not always articulated by working class communities, the material injustice of capitalism is felt consistently. It is our imperative to organize around both.

The struggle for prison abolition is not a symbol to be used or evaluated on the basis of whether or not it is rhetorically effective in organizing work within DSA. The movement for prison abolition has a rich history and makes a revolutionary call for change. The prison industrial complex reaches far beyond the walls of prisons and jails and thus abolition is not merely about getting rid of prisons or police, but changing the very fabric of the society that we live in.  As well put by Dan Berger, Mariame Kaba, and David Stein, in “What Abolitionists Do,” “Whether in response to private property and nineteenth-century chattel slavery, or the prison industrial complex of the last half century, abolitionist movements have unsettled not only conservative critics but liberals, progressives, and even some radicals. The stubborn immediacy of the demand disturbs those who hope for resolution of intractable social problems within the confines of the existing order.”

It is difficult to imagine precisely what a future without prisons looks like, but what socialist abolitionists call for us to do is recognize that to win any long-term goal, one must name that goal and begin to fight for it today.  Abolitionists do not settle for that which the capitalist system seeks to convince us is realistic or possible. Instead, we seek to change the landscape of possibility. Abolitionists have changed the landscape of what is possible in prison reform movements, by critically examining reforms and calling for those that weaken state power and empower incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people and communities most impacted by criminalization. Abolitionists have changed the landscape of what is possible in the collective political imagination by redefining violence to include violence perpetrated by the state through law enforcement. We connect a radical critique of capitalist oppression, state violence, and law enforcement with a transformative vision for a socialist future.

A socialist revolution without prison abolition can never be a mass movement. Without abolition, we are ignoring and excluding not only the 2.2 million incarcerated prisoners, but the tens of millions of people on probation, parole, out on bail, or otherwise entangled in the carceral state. Without abolition, we are also ignoring the problems of trauma that prisons cause in our working class communities. We need to offer a politics that humanizes everyone, and without abolition, we are buying into the capitalist dehumanization of the ”criminal” in our society. We are not just othering the criminal, but we are allowing our movement to be poisoned by the very idea of othering/dehumanization. The promise of liberation that socialism brings must be liberation for all.

A Open Letter to the Boston DSA Steering Committee on Online Voting

By Edward P

Dear Steering Committee comrades,

After the April 25th meeting to discuss an endorsement process for Boston DSA, it is clear that we are at an impasse in regards to the use of online voting for electoral endorsements and the only possible resolution for this argument is a vote at a General Meeting. We, the undersigned, would like to lay out our concerns with adopting online processes for our chapter and propose a process for moving forward.

First, we would like to make it clear that this is not about relitigating the Steering Committee elections. We understand that those of us who ran in the election, who then voiced concerns, have been accused of ‘sour grapes’ or of being ‘sore losers’ with regard to complaints about the split between the preferences of online voters and in-person voters at the convention. While we believe that there were structural flaws with how that election was conducted, it was a legitimate process because online voting was specifically permitted by our bylaws for internal elections and the elections themselves were not carried out under parliamentary procedure. We encourage engagement with the rest of our arguments in good faith that we are not disputing the Steering Committee’s legitimacy.

The arguments advanced at the April 25th meeting display a fundamental difference in how we understand a democratic membership driven organization. In order to explore these differences, we need to look at why we use parliamentary procedure, how we understand the difference between voting and participation, the process through which socialist knowledge of the world is built, and finally, how ‘accessibility’ and ‘working-class’ have been weaponized in this debate.

The purpose of parliamentary procedure is simply that the majority should rule but the minority should be heard. The problem with mixing in-person debate and online voting that is open to people who were not present (either physically or via a telepresence solution) is that the minority will not be heard by those only engaging through the process via online voting. In such a scenario the in-person debates and discussions would be undermined as they would only represent a portion of those participating. Comrades may even choose to not attend knowing that they don’t need to in order to vote. It is fundamentally not parliamentary procedure in that case. Yes, we can figure out a way to carry out parliamentary procedure entirely online, but that still means some kind of live debate has to be carried out that all voters have to be present (in whatever sense) for; simply putting out a ‘pro’ and ‘con’ statement doesn’t satisfy the spirit of parliamentary procedure, and opportunities to hear comrades’ real lived experiences, thoughts, and concerns are limited in such a format. Furthermore, being able to raise ‘points of …’ during the debate are extremely important to clarify information or point out falsehoods or distortions of fact.

Moving parliamentary procedure entirely online, either through a text-based discussion or a conference call style solution, is an entirely valid way to have online voting, but it should require us to think about if that changes our organization in way we’re all comfortable with. Toxicity and managing hurt feelings have always proved a huge problem for text-based online communication, and online conference calls require access to internet speeds that may not viable for all members. Are we prepared to tackle those challenges? We argue that, at this time, we are not; we will have to be if we want to become an organization that conducts parliamentary business online.

Another crux of disagreement expressed at the April 25th meeting was whether we could quantify the efficacy of the democratic process based on the number of people participating in it.  As stated in our chapter’s Purpose as ratified by the membership at our annual convention, the goal of our socialist movement is to “realize a truly democratic society,” and not merely import the shallow standard of democracy permitted by our capitalist society. True to that value, a vote on policy (such as endorsement decisions made as a whole chapter) is fundamentally different from voting in an election, in that it requires full participation and deliberation, and if people are prevented by circumstance from doing so, that a fair solution be made available so they are able to fully participate in the discussion and vote by proxy.The liberal view, in contrast, holds that passive suffrage is enough to make a process ‘fair’ – that if everyone can register a lone vote as an individual then the class struggle is resolved and the outcome should be considered legitimate. This is an area where the hegemonic ideology of liberalism has clouded the terms of the debate.

We are a membership organization with a specific, and pretty grand purpose: to win socialism for the people of the world. When we consider our internal democracy we have to consider it on those terms. Socialists do not conduct the struggle as atomized individuals; socialists struggle collectively. Socialists understand the world collectively. We should be building procedures that encourage collective debate, discussion, and reflection, and not structures that allow people to participate only by casting votes. And maybe the way to do that is by going fully online! That is definitely worth considering, but its success can only be measured by the extent to which it deepens our collective organizational capability, not by an increase in the number of votes cast.

The undersigned describe ourselves as Marxists. Part of being Marxists means we see political struggle and the knowledge we acquire from that struggle as a scientific process. The building of scientific knowledge–whether it is learning botany or learning about tenant organizing–is always a collective process. This is the key argument Kautsky and Lenin advanced in the early 20th century against the revisionists like Bernstein in the German Social Democracy Party and the Economists within the Russian Social Democratic Labor Party. Marxism is the loop of theory to practice to knowledge of the world back to theory. The practice of a socialist organization to should be to test its theories, collectively evaluate its result, and use that to determine where to go from there. Therefore, before we jump into new action, we need to debate and discuss the theory that underlies that action. We have clearly not done that with regards to either online voting or our electoral strategy more generally. To operate under these conditions, without theory or strategy, is to create opportunities where individuals can use the cover of ‘socialism’ to advance their personal agendas.

And yes, if the last 100 years have taught us anything about science, it is that scientific truth is not objective truth–that the process of experimentation and discovery is intimately tied up with human fallibility and  the material conditions within which we operate. That is why Marxists don’t seek to prevent individual experimentation and initiative as we are often accused of within this chapter. Instead, we believe that all practice within the chapter needs to be tied into a social practice that values discussion, study, and reflection, such that we can integrate any knowledge gained into our collective understanding of the world system we struggle against.

The way online voting has been promoted as the solution to accessibility issues for comrades with mobility issues is particularly troubling to us. As far as we are aware the people pushing for online voting for chapter decisions have not reached out to either our local Disability Caucus or the national Disability Working Group. Instead of consulting those inside our chapter, or those inside of our national organization, with the most direct lived experience of the issues at hand, they have concocted a solution entirely without their input.

In this debate ‘accessibility’ has also been used to mean ‘accessible to the working-class’. We take issue with the idea that in-person meetings are not accessible to the working class and that holding in-person meetings is responsible for the current class-character of our organization. The working-class is not a monolithic entity. The idea that there is a one-size fits all method for allowing our participation in the life of this organization, either online or in-person, is incorrect, which is why our organization has adopted hybrid online/in-person meetings via streaming or teleconferencing over the last year. Although we have adapted to the needs of our members, we have still maintained that our meetings are events that we participate in together. The neoliberal world order seeks to isolate us from one another, and being together for an event where we can hear more than a pro and con video, and hear each other and our lived experiences, builds the solidarity between individuals necessary for the success of a socialist movement.

It’s also unclear to us that making decisions online would actually reduce barriers to participation or change the class-character of DSA. Sure, some of us have to work on weekends, but some of us don’t have access to reliable or high quality internet connections. The MBTA may have issues, but it has a lower barrier in terms of monetary cost to access than the broadband internet connection or phone plan necessary to fully participate in a teleconference call. To us, the class-character of DSA seems to be a result of its politics and its tactical positions. We are much more likely to reach a broader segments of working-class people by adopting truly radical positions and communicating with them clearly, instead of muddling our socialism with paeans to small businesses, ‘affordable’ housing, and the innovation economy. We can develop connections with a broader section of working-class people by breaking out the cycle of organizing for elections and organizing to beg politicians, and instead, help people organize to directly confront state power and the problems they are facing in their lives. We will grow our organization and change our class-character only when we prove we can directly impact the lives of working-class people rather than merely changing the agent of capitalist power that rules over them.

When we make decisions, such as candidate endorsements, as a chapter, we must make them in a truly collective manner. Online voting without an online culture and online media for the chapter reduces the collective decision to a series of smaller individual decisions. If we are to move forward towards online voting, we must do so in manner that values the collective production of knowledge and prevents individuals with substantial social capital from using the organization for their own ends.

These are the terms under which we will contest. We believe it is up to the Steering Committee to decide on the next steps of how this process will be determined democratically by the General Membership. We think it would be in the best interest of the chapter to contest it on the narrowest grounds, which is “Should we allow online voting for candidate endorsements,” but the proposal we will debate must demonstrate how we will preserve the fundamental element of parliamentary procedure, “the majority rules but the minority is heard.” We urge you to take this into consideration when planning the next steps of this debate.

Finally, we would like to reiterate that we are contesting this issue on political, not personal, grounds. We understand that we are in an organization where members have differing understandings of socialism, and for some, it is difficult to separate criticism of their political positions and the labor they have undertaken in support of those positions from criticism of themselves as a person. That is why we are being clear about our specific political understanding of the world that leads us to believe the organization should function in the way we outlined above. We don’t believe that this kind of fight is a new one for socialist organizations to have and we encourage everyone to study and discuss the history of such debates, so if nothing else we can all understand each other politically more on the other side of this process.

Solidarity,

Signed by 37 people.

If you would like to add your name to this document and have it submitted to the Boston DSA Steering Commitee you may add it here: https://goo.gl/forms/Gjj9c8GrumjvMILr1

Two Sentences

 by Jonathan K.

Do things that work.

Get shit done.

These two sentences are my entire political philosophy. All of my political positions, how I engage with politics, and the effort I put into political activism on a day-to-day basis all come down to these two sentences. I want to share these sentences and explain how they’re all I need for anyone trying to figure out which political organizations they might or might not want to join, for anyone wondering how to fight for the issues they believe in, and for anyone wondering what issues they should care about. The conclusions I reach might be different from the ones you do, and that’s fine. I have only one article of faith about this approach: You will find something that you can engage in with conviction and passion, and you will be able to make a difference.

Do things that work.

I first got this line from a darkly hilarious (and often problematic) webcomic from the G. W. Bush years called “Nobody Scores”. This strip in particular tapped into a deep-seated sense of frustration with, well, many things in my life and the world. It was an unlikely source for a political awakening, and ultimately I came to a different conclusion than the point the comic is trying to make, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized “do things that work” was a surprisingly powerful statement.

“Do things that work” applies at every level, from the most macro issues to the most micro. The key is figuring out what it means for something to work. That’s not a simple or straightforward question to answer, and it’s often one you can’t solve with armchair philosophizing, but it’s a way to make a start. Let’s start big.

What does it mean for an economic and political system to work? It should guarantee a basic standard of living for everyone in it, which would  allow them to pursue the life they want to live. It should balance personal autonomy against communal safety. It should incentivize behavior that works for the common good. It should aim to propagate humanity and human civilization into the foreseeable, and unforeseeable, future.

This line of thinking brought me to an inevitable conclusion: Capitalism doesn’t work.

It is most obvious in domains like healthcare and education. Healthcare should be geared towards making people healthy. That’s incompatible with profit. The ideal capitalist vision of healthcare is one that makes you pay to maintain the bare minimum level of health required to produce value. That’s why pharmaceutical companies so often pursue treatments, rather than cures, for chronic diseases like cancer. A cure means you stop buying their product. If you rely on their treatment to survive, you’ll be paying for them the rest of your life, one way or another.

Most “developed” countries have figured this out in regards to healthcare at least (with one very big exception), but in fact, capitalism doesn’t work for anything. If you make a great product, capitalism incentivizes reducing its quality to a barely satisfactory minimum to reduce production costs and maximize profit. It incentivizes sabotaging people who would otherwise be allies, and disregards safety, privacy, sustainability, and basic human decency, because none of them maximize profit. No matter how much you regulate it, those fundamental incentives mean that capitalists will always try to find ways to undermine those regulations, and usually undermine the entire political system in the process, destabilizing the country and often the world. Capitalism doesn’t incentivize peace (except when war disrupts profit). It doesn’t incentivize happiness and well-being (satisfied people aren’t trying to buy their way out of unhappiness). Capitalism just doesn’t work, for anything.

“Do things that work”. So, I became a socialist.

At a slightly less macro level, the question then becomes, what kind of political activism works? Activism that acknowledges the world as it is, works to make the world immediately better, but nonetheless pushes for the world that should be.

There are many things about the world as it is now that are structurally awful. The American electoral system is broken. I don’t need to make that argument here – it has been made many times and better than I ever could. Doing things that work means fighting to fix the electoral system at every opportunity, trying to remove corporate money from politics, trying to tear down the two-party system, trying to create a system that actually incentivizes representation over fundraising. And yet, when election day rolls around, until any of those efforts succeed, ignoring electoral politics doesn’t work. At the end of the day, most of the time, the winner of an election will be one of two people (if it’s contested at all), and whoever wins will have substantial power to shape the well-being of a lot of people. There is such a thing as a lesser evil. Even if the best case scenario is not someone who will do things that work, that’s better than someone who actively tries to do the exact opposite.

At the same time, electoral politics isn’t everything, or even close. Elections can indirectly help people, but ultimately people help people. Collective action is powerful. Supporting a union on strike will help the members of that union improve their conditions, allow them to live better and happier lives, and often create safer and better work environments. That works. Standing in solidarity with marginalized communities, protecting them from police aggression and bigotry, and directly combatting fascist aggression preserve the basic human rights and well-being of all people. All of that works. Direct aid, providing food, shelter, healthcare, and general well-being to those who cannot acquire it for themselves, make the world a better place. That works. Advocating for a better world without proving, concretely, that you can improve the world as it is, doesn’t work.

But this is not a simple problem. The most dangerous aspect of this political philosophy is that you don’t always know what works, and confusing what should work with what does work can be disastrous. It’s easy to jump into something that looks like it should work without stopping to make sure that it does. It’s easy to try to help someone in a way they don’t actually want, or need, to be helped. It’s easy to miss what could actually work when it’s not obvious at first glance. Political activism that works must be able to make change, but also simultaneously carefully consider how those efforts fit into what it is working towards, and correct itself when it wanders astray.

“Do things that work.” So, in 2016, I joined the Democratic Socialists of America.

There are plenty of other socialist groups out there, but the DSA has three big advantages: flexibility, pragmatism, and size. There is no consensus within the DSA about grand strategy, beyond the long-term vision of a democratically socialist society. There is constant, lively, but (usually) friendly debate about how to achieve that goal. Best of all, those debates are often not abstract discussions in smoke-filled rooms, but going out into the world and seeing what works. DSA and its members engage in electoral politics, though there certainly is debate about whether that’s the best way or even an acceptable way to bring about change. DSA demonstrates and protests, joins and supports strikes, collaborates with organizations fighting for particular issues, never shies from showing solidarity with marginalized groups, and engages in many forms of direct and mutual aid. DSA tries to focus on things that have an impact now, that start making the world better immediately, but never without thinking about how those actions fit into a broader political program. In addition, DSA is bigger than the other socialist organizations in the US, and that size gives it the power to engage in these actions more effectively.

Even at the most micro, day-to-day levels, “do things that work” has power, and not just in political life. I’ve cut steps out of bureaucracies just by asking “what purpose does this step serve?” If it’s not serving any purpose, it doesn’t work. Choosing which issues to insist on in collaborative projects is always a matter of “does this make what we’re trying to do more or less effective?” If the answer is “neither”, I’m not going to die on that hill. I’ve seen plenty of projects break down, and whole organizations collapse, because of passionate disagreements over things that don’t change how effective something is. That doesn’t work.

Above all, never let personal get in the way of effective. Don’t hold grudges, or at least don’t let those grudges make you sabotage good ideas. Don’t take being wrong, or on the losing side of a debate, personally. When you are working on something you believe in, you personally winning is less important than the project as a whole succeeding. The goal is to get the work done, and done right. Everything else is details.

“Do things that work”. So, get shit done.

Get shit done.

Here again, there is a macro level and a micro level, but not quite in the same way. It’s probably more accurate to say there is an organizational level and a personal level.

At the organizational level, it means accomplishing what you set out to do. The goal of a single-payer campaign is that every single person in the USA has unrestricted access to the healthcare they need. When that happens, we will have gotten something done.

Then there are the intermediate steps. To get there, we will likely need to start by showing it can work at a state level, the same way the ACA was modeled on Massachusetts’s healthcare system (reluctantly signed by Mitt Romney, of all people). So, there are campaigns in many states for universal healthcare, but most vocally in MA and CA, which have universal healthcare legislation actively under consideration in their state houses. Getting those laws passed will get something done.

To accomplish that, we call, lobby, demonstrate, and vote, to create a legislative environment where such a law can, and does, pass through the legislature and be signed into law. Every time that campaign gets a legislator to sign on and commit to supporting the bill, it has gotten something done.

Those campaigns are not abstract, nebulous clouds. They are made of people doing simple, concrete things. Every time someone makes a phone call to their representative, especially if they hate making phone calls, they are getting something done. Even if that something is just adding one mark on one side of a tally in that representative’s office, it’s getting something done.

“Get shit done.” Political activism isn’t just about standing up for an idea. It’s about having an impact. It’s about making change. It’s about accomplishing that by taking tiny, individual actions and connecting them, channeling them, targeting them, and turning them into an irresistible force. This is the other reason I am in DSA, because as an organization, it gets shit done.

Then there is the personal level, and in my opinion, it is where “Get shit done” matters the most.

There is nothing you can do that is more damaging and frustrating to others than volunteering for something and failing to deliver. Sometimes it’s unavoidable. Emergencies come up, things don’t work out as expected, the world is a chaotic place. You don’t always have control over it. You do have control over how much you take on, and you do have a responsibility to know what you can and can’t get done. Volunteering and then failing to deliver means not only that you didn’t get it done, nobody else did either, because you said you would.

I don’t volunteer to work on things in my DSA chapter as much as I would like to. That’s because if I say I’m going to do something, I am committing to it. It will get done. My professional and personal life simply means I can’t make that commitment as often as I’d like.

At the smallest level this can mean simple things like, “I said I’d send someone this link” or “I said I would bring the chips”. Sometimes it’s bigger things, “I said I would design this flyer” or “I said I would summarize this article”. Sometimes it’s huge, “I said I’d start this team” or “I said I’d lead this project”. I have done all of these things at one point or another. Every single one I committed to only after I thought about it, honestly looked at my capabilities, and said, “yes, I can get this done”. And I did. Not always as quickly as I had hoped, and not always to the highest standards I set for myself, but always well enough to do whatever it was required to do, and often better.

“Get shit done” means accountability. It means honesty. It means saying “I’m sorry, I really don’t have time for that”, or “I can only do this much, who else can do the rest?” That can be hard to say. To some, it creates anxiety that people will think that you are incapable or not committed enough. I can’t speak for anyone but me, but I like someone who says “I can’t do that right now” much more than someone who says “I’ll do that ” and doesn’t. Be the person who gets shit done, not the one who says they’ll do everything.

Each of these two sentences alone is powerful. Together, they are greater than the sum of their parts.

For one, you need a mighty feedback loop. The personal level of “do things that work” plays a big role here. When I first joined DSA, I quickly figured out that what worked for me was listening. I’m not the first person to recognize the problems with capitalism, or the incredible difficulty of trying to change a massively flawed economic system while living in it. Even with the issues I had considered, there were problems layered on problems and interconnected in ways I would never have recognized on my own. Even as you are getting something done, you need to ask yourself if each step along the way works for your broader goal. If you’re doing it well, it gets complicated quickly. Here’s a toy example: You can’t campaign to imprison neo-nazis and say in good faith that you are in favor of prison abolition. Solving problems like this is not a solitary endeavor. If you want a solution you can actually apply, you need a diverse group of people to go over it, think about it, see how it all fits together.

These two sentences together also have a strong impact at a very narrow level. Your organization is renting a table at a local event, or putting together a list of the resources you need for a protest, or arranging accessibility for a meeting, or dropping off clothes at an aid program. The decision to engage in these actions is part of figuring out what works, but the administrative work of actually doing them is getting shit done. Even then, there are ways of dealing with these administrative tasks that work, and ways that don’t work. Let me close on one of those.

If there is one phrase I hate, hate saying, it’s “someone should do X”. When anyone says “someone should do X”, one of three things happen. Rarely, someone says “I can do that”, and it gets done. Often, if it needs to get done, it gets dumped on someone who is already doing too much, who has as little time as you do, and who ends up with the entire list of “someone should do” tasks. Frequently that person is a woman, racial or ethnic minority, or both. Most likely of all, it never gets done.

I long ago learned that when I say “someone should do X”, what I should have said is “I will do X”. If I can’t do that, at a minimum, it should be “can you do X”. There is ample psychological work on the bystander effect and distributed responsibility, and the cure is simple: You either make or elicit a concrete, individual commitment. If you want it to get done, step up yourself, or do the socially awkward thing of making specific demands of specific people.

Saying “someone should do X” doesn’t work. It won’t get shit done.

Do things that work.

Get shit done.

An older version of this post was originally published on Medium

 

Fundamental Socialism: Imperialism and Internationalism – 2/24/18

Link to audio recording

Fundamental Socialism: Imperialism and Internationalism

Brandon: Alright. Welcome, everyone, to Socialist Fundamentals: Imperialism and Internationalism. As DSA has grown, one of the critiques from other left groups has sort of been a lack of analysis of imperialism, or global capitalism, and whatnot within DSA, and particularly in its history. So we thought it’d be a good idea, collectively, to start talking about some ideas about what imperialism, global capitalism, and internationalist solidarity look like, what it’s looked like in the history of socialism, but also what it could be for us today and how we can go about theorizing, organizing for a socialist future.

Because it’s a fundamentals discussion, we’re not going to go super in depth into the theory and history of different ideas about internationalism or imperialism. But I think it’s a good idea to start with some broad, basic stuff that we can open up to discussion and if anyone has more questions or comments, critiques, etc., [we can discuss those].

So what is imperialism? So it’s important to realize that imperialism wasn’t this stage that appeared late in the development of capitalism. It’s something that was fundamental to its inception, and Marx and Engels in The Communist Manifesto in 1848 already recognized this. In their opening to the Manifesto, they described how the discovery, the so-called discovery of the Americas, the free flow of capital, trade, and accumulation, was already fundamental to the rise of the bourgeoisie. C.L.R. James in The Black Jacobins, in his history of the Haitian Revolution, described how the French bourgeoisie itself from its very inception depended on the exploitation and enslavement of black people in Saint-Domingue, which is present-day Haiti. So it’s important for us to realize that any understanding of what imperialism and colonialism has been throughout history depends on this intertwinement of capitalism, colonialism, imperialism (which – they have their distinctions), and sort of the quote-unquote “free” movement of peoples, trade, and goods around the globe.

So, instead of staying in the abstract level, we thought it’d be interesting to think about the U.S., and the U.S. as an empire, as an imperial force. What have been some of the conceptions of the United States as a world power since its very inception? Assuming that we all at some point took a U.S. history class – or if we didn’t, we probably heard this at some point – there have been two myths about the way that America has portrayed itself. On the one hand, we have the myth of isolationism: that because of our founding and our anti-colonial struggle against the British Empire, we decided that, “Hey, here we are, we’ve got 13 colonies, and we have this non-interventionist philosophy toward the rest of the world”. But for some reason, we’re going to keep expanding. So why is that we kept expanding, and why is that expansion, that the same people who were calling for expansion at the same time wanted to describe the United States as if it was not an empire, as if this was something new and different in the history of the United States? So this conflict between being an expansionist power and not wanting to be called an empire is crucial to the way the United States has portrayed itself internationally, from its very inception. And it’s a myth precisely because this country was founded on settler-colonialism; indigenous genocide, dispossession, displacement, and further exploitation; and of course trans-Atlantic slavery; the creation of a notion of blackness and race as inferior to whiteness, and this pure idea of what the white, pure Christian male was supposed to be.

Of course, these ideas continued on to the 19th century. The United States, once again trying to present itself as this anti-colonial or non-colonial force with ideologies such as Manifest Destiny and the Monroe Doctrine, presented its expansionist ambitions as if it were a matter of like messianic destiny for the United States to keep expanding, to bring its own version of civilization and democratic ideals to the rest of the world, and to keep those backward European empires with their imperial maneuvering from coming to Latin America and the rest of the Atlantic world and interfering in our affairs.

So it’s crucial there, even in the way that I’ve framed this already, that by the time that the so-called Age of Imperialism takes off in the late 19th century for the scramble of Africa, for Asia, capital’s penetration of parts of the world that had, up to that point, not been fully incorporated into the global capitalist system, racism and imperialism had already been intertwined and would continue to be intertwined. It’s also interesting to think about how the United States entered this phase of its development as an empire. It presented itself as this, once again, this anti-colonial force. We’re liberating Cuba, the Philippines, and Puerto Rico, for example, from the Spanish Empire, yet at the same time we want to impose our own interests within our own divisions of labor, our own companies, to extract wealth and raw materials from those places.

In terms of the ideology of this period – this is something I didn’t know beforehand, but Casey told me about it – the first journal, academic journal, of international affairs (run out of Columbia University), which is now called The Journal of International Affairs, at its point of inception wasn’t called that. It was called The Journal of Race Development. So we already see here what international affairs meant to the United States, even if it posed that conception of itself.

W.E.B. DuBois – this is probably too small for some of you to see, but if you can [referencing slide] – this text, Black Reconstruction in America. You know, DuBois – huge influential figure in the history of African-American anti-imperialist stuff, and he was himself an internationalist, a socialist. He, from the very beginning, thought of the United States as having, post-emancipation, after the Civil War… he saw the defeat of radical reconstruction, the failure for black Americans to become fully free citizens in the United States, that story being completely intertwined with the history of further imperialism in the rest of the world, the U.S.’s role as an imperial power. There’s a quote that I love from W.E.B. DuBois; if you can’t read it, I’ll just quickly go over it.

That dark and vast sea of human labor in China and India, the South Seas and all Africa; in the West Indies and Central America and in the United States—that great majority of mankind, on whose bent and broken backs rest today the founding stones of modern industry—shares a common destiny; it is despised and rejected by race and color; paid a wage below the level of decent living; driven, beaten, prisoned and enslaved in all but name; spawning the world’s raw material and luxury—cotton, wool, coffee, tea, cocoa, palm oil, fibers, spices, rubber, silks, lumber, copper, gold, diamonds, leather.

So essentially, the United States, regardless of what image it was trying to present of itself to the rest of the world, was participating in the same forms of capital accumulation based on commodity production in the rest of the world.

And here’s a really famous image, a cartoon from, I believe, 1914, about these contradictions – of how the United States continued to see itself as, you know, tutoring its colonies. This is supposed to be Cuba, Puerto Rico, Hawaii, and the Philippines [referencing image]. And then – you probably can’t read (the people in the back) – but those are children that are Arizona, Texas, Alaska, New Mexico, California… you have a Native American who can’t read, he’s reading the text backwards in the back, and a Chinese person who’s entering this classroom. So you have the rest of the world having to learn from the United States what it would mean to be fully human, even.

So, what happens? Some of you might be familiar that, you know, a huge world transformative event, the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution—and later on the Communist International—founded an idea that in order to make world revolution, socialists around the world, communist parties around the world, needed to really entrench themselves in the colonies. Most of the world at this point, 1917 into the 1920s and ‘30s, was still colonized. So the United States found itself in this position in which more and more organizations—communists, socialists, anarchists, you name it, even liberal nationalists in the colonized world—started pointing to the United States as precisely the problem, the problem in the distribution of wealth in the rest of the world.

So the United States was very, very astute, and they decided to do something. To sort of take on this anti-colonialist developmentalism to the rest of the world: that as long as you were not going to go into a communist direction, as long as you wouldn’t align with China after 1949 or the Soviet bloc, we would provide you aid, we’d develop you to the best of your countries’ capacities. So once again, the United States constantly—as you can see, it’s just transforming this same notion of what its world role is supposed to be, as both this reactionary force that keeps extracting the wealth and labor of the rest of the world but at the same time presenting that as an alternative freedom that is not actually freedom for most of the world.

Both of course, these movements kept pointing to this contradiction. Whether it was the subjugation of labor, or black workers, or black people in general and Native Americans in the United States, or it’s the United States’s imperial role in Latin America and much of the rest of the world… this was very clear to anti-colonialists well into the 20th century. And there were pockets of anti-imperialist opposition within the United States. And this all comes to a boiling point once we get to the Cold War period.

And this is where the origins of DSA’s internationalist, or lack thereof, position in the 1970s really comes to view. Because at the center of this historical moment, at the creation of an anti-war, anti-imperialist left within the United States, we’ve already had a crisis of communism—of Stalinism, as other people would put it—so the old left is in crisis and needs new organizations, or needs to reform its existing organizations. The anti-war movement spawns, later on, a—some people call it “Third Worldist”, I just prefer the term “anti-imperialist”—outlook about the United States’s role in the world. And, you know, it can seem kind of crazy looking back now, but this was the moment, the moment where a lot of the world was decolonizing, and U.S. radicals wanted to stand in solidarity with this.

So, DSA, at this point, it wasn’t yet DSA—it was sort of the origin organizations—had never articulated an anti-imperialist position. It called, during Vietnam for example, for peace, but it never had a very nuanced critique of imperialism; it never publicly really opposed these forms of domination that the United States was imposing on the rest of the world. And, you know, a lot of the left did not align with the democratic socialist organizations that would later merge into DSA. And this is all because, to be a democratic socialist in this Cold War period, for people like Michael Harrington, was to be a principled anti-Communist, because the rhetoric of the time was that if you had any whiff of Communist sympathy within your organization—well then, there you go. So, red-baiting within the left was a real thing. But then of course you have an explosion of all these other kinds of groups—these are like the Black Panther Party, the Third World Women’s Alliance—they were small groups, but they’re significant. They really mobilized and organized their bases on an anti-imperialist outlook.

Of course, this vision of the world, the decolonized world that would be an alternative, socialism, didn’t come to fruition. Even from the moment of the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile, as he was trying to take Chile down an alternative, democratic socialist path that would break free from this Cold War divide, things like the Non-Aligned Movement tried for decolonizing countries to take a new path that was neither U.S. liberal free-market democracy or Soviet Communism, the spaces for them to actually exist and implement this view of society became smaller and smaller, for many different reasons. There was some U.S. intervention, obviously, in many parts of the world, [which] continued that crisis, which [was] only exacerbated through IMF and World Bank structural adjustment programs that forced all these countries to cut back on their spending programs, their social spending on different programs that really did improve the lives of the majority of the population of these decolonizing countries. So, this moment passed, and we were left with this ideology that we’re all familiar with: that there is no alternative anymore, and we have to adapt to the parameters of the existing capitalist system, which by now is completely globalized, and here we are.
Casey: Alright, so, I’m going to cheat a little bit, since my notes are on here. I’ll flip this around. I have some pictures, but if you can’t see them, it’s alright. I’ll flip it around when I have some nice pretty graphs to show you that actually are informative. There we go.

So, at the end of the Cold War, there’s kind of a notion that this was the end of history. Literally, a fellow named Francis Fukuyama published this essay called “The End of History” in which he said that what we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that as the endpoint of mankind’s ideological evolution, the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of government. And when he was talking about this, he meant this in a kind of way not only about liberal democracy, but also capitalism. And the end of the Cold War was thought of as not only the defeat of the Soviet Union, but the actual ideological victory of the time of liberal democracy and capitalism over socialism and Communism the world over. This is all going on much longer, you have the breakup of the Soviet Union from 1986 to 1991, the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and Francis Fukuyama’s essay itself is also from 1989.

So, part of the question was, what does a sole global superpower, how can it rule? What is it supposed to do? And in the 1990s, a kind of new idea of how American power would be framed, alongside a kind of reframing of the American past to kind of explain this new power, a kind of softened power imperialism. So the Cold War required a reframing of the American past itself, as a history of ideals of capitalism and democracy. So if there are issues on the home front back in the United States, say questions of race, class conflict, gender inequality, et cetera, the overall consensus of Cold War liberalism was that, regardless of those things, we are on the path of overcoming all those problems. The completion of this project of liberal integration, however, also took off the table any possibility of rapid change.
However, at the end of the Cold War, the American story and its kind of historical trajectory, in a sense was universalized. All countries were on the march toward democracy, with capitalism, not just the United States. At the same time, American interests became framed as being coterminous with the interests of the entire global community. Anything that was good for the United States, because it was the kind of scion of liberal democracy and capitalism, would also be good for the rest of the world and push them further along that path. So you had a way of thinking about, rather than American power being a matter of coercion, of force of arms, being about the forces of representation, a form of cooptation of governments. There’s a bit of false dichotomy there because cooptation and coercion still are forcing people to do things that they don’t want to do, but nevertheless, this was the ideological way this was framed. So it was an active change to actually change the global norms of power, in which the United States would be the one setting what exactly those norms would be. You can think of the famous phrase of George W. Bush, that kind of saying of like “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists.” There’s that kind of hard form of cooptation: we’re not going to use force to convince you to do these things, but if you don’t do them, you’re on the bad side.
So, part of the problem, of course, was that this period of liberal democracy, this victory and capitalism’s victory, was also a time that had the highest levels of violence, inequality, exclusion, famine, economic oppression, that the world had ever seen. So despite that veneer of victory, some things were still very wrong. So this became framed as no longer the Cold War, but it’s also still war is going on. International conflict, however, is increasingly framed as “police actions.” You can think of the 1991 Gulf War, the NATO intervention in Kosovo, for instance. And what this symbolized was kind of a legalization of war and conflict, a legalization within the international framework: ideas of multilateral intervention, i.e., NATO, you have “peacekeeping missions,” forms of negotiation between parties. And—here’s a pretty graph—and you literally see a—come on, let’s see the whole thing… I mean, you can’t see this very well, but this is literally a stack graph, a bar graph of the conflicts, worldwide conflicts in which—so, this point right here is about 1976; this top spike is 1990-ish. And what you actually see is, these down here are interstate conflicts. These are the number of civil wars that are still going on. So in the 1990s, you’re actually having more conflicts than you actually did during the Cold War, and even before that. And also kind of a redefinition of conflicts from interstate conflicts to civil, or civil wars with foreign intervention. And it’s also increasing attention on not just the point of conflict, but also the ways in which the world systems try to deal with things like global hunger and extreme poverty. These actually became these objects of development policy. However, with increasing focus on poverty and human development, especially things like the Human Development Index, which was developed in the 1990s, it really solidified very specific metrics for the ability of populations to be and do desirable things. However, this was entirely within the frameworks of capitalism. Literally—like, the HDI purposely excludes questions of inequality at the national level, and since it’s framed as merely the nation-state itself, it totally ignores global inequalities. And you can imagine just what it means to fight only hunger and extreme poverty within a capitalist system. You’re trying to get rid of whatever possible things might get in the way of things like social reproduction, the ability of people to feed themselves, to have families, for just basic living to happen, so that people can actually just be exploited.
You can think about now the kind of divisions of wealth across the work. To be within the top 10% of the world population you have to make…what is it, like, $32,000 now? So you can think of the rest of the world barely making by.

So that’s kind of like this moment within the 1990s and kind of how things were developing ideologically at that point. So we have the kind of big moment that we all think about, which is obviously 9/11, and how that actually transformed the world from there on, and the emergence of terrorism and perpetual global war. So, within 7 days of 9/11, the U.S. put forth a policy of authorization of the use of military force and put forth a policy eventually that was more elaborate later of preemptive war, that the US government would be obligated to anticipate and counter threats before the threats could do grave damage to American people and American interests. Both political and economic, obviously.

This authorization of force was broad as can be, nearly no limits, and what that allowed for was an expansion of military power abroad. We all know the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, but those were not the only points of conflict. By the beginning of 2017, there were over 76 countries in the world which were directly involved in counterterrorism efforts, whether hosting bases, site of actually fighting, security partnerships with the U.S., etc.

This is literally a map of all those countries [referring to slide]. You have pretty much every single continent except North America, which I am kind of suspicious about, since I’m sure there’s at least one Central American country that has security partnerships. But pretty much the entirety of Africa, the Middle East, central Asia, large parts of Europe, Australia, southeast Asia, et cetera.

And, alongside this also is not only just increasing military interventions, but also increasing Americans’ foreign aid from the United States, both economic and military. And if you actually look at a graph of this, you really do see a jump from the 1990s, where it’s a relatively low period of U.S. foreign aid, to almost doubling in 2000-2001, and maintaining a kind of constant level until now. And this aid is going to the exact same countries on this map.

 

So even at this point today, the United States military expansion now, we have almost 300 thousand Department of Defense personnel stationed overseas, over 516 military bases, 200—military bases being anything over 10 acres or $10 million in assets. We also have 271 of what they call lilypad bases, which are below that threshold, and 56 U.S.-funded host nation bases, which we basically pay to allow for U.S. personnel to use for whatever—for refueling planes, for intelligence gathering, everything. It really kind of demonstrates the increasingly extraterritorial nature of American power in the 21st century—you know, the really main case being Africa and the ways in which the war on terror has expanded their drone bases and whatnot.

And I have a pretty picture that you can’t really see [referencing slide]. It’s just a map of bases. That’s in Djibouti, Camp Lemmonier, which is actually an old French base which has been transformed into this whole 500-acre compound, with its own Pizza Hut, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera… and which is currently slated for $1.4 billion in upgrades over the next ten years. And it’s one of the centers for air operations in the Persian Gulf, but also the central hub for drone operations in Africa.

So, part of the story and part of the reason why we’re talking about why imperialism is important for socialists here in the United States is that empire making and race making go along hand in hand. The kind of histories of racial suppression and discrimination in the United States are coupled in very interesting ways with the ways in which the American empire functions overseas. Some of this is very direct, the militarization of the police that we’ve seen over the past… we think about it happening especially post-Katrina. We saw it really strongly after Katrina. We actually had police patrolling in armored personnel carriers, private military contractors like Blackwater deployed in New Orleans. And we’ve seen that kind of become even more and more regularized over the past decade and half.

And part of the discourse around the global war on terror, which actually allowed for U.S. military expansionism, has allowed for normalization of racism at home. For almost a decade of like, “we have a black president now, so the United States is no longer racist,” colorblind liberalism, right? So something like racial profiling was able to move from something that was denied by police forces in the kind of, like, early ‘00s late ‘90s, to something which is now standard practice, both in terms of the war on terror and ever-increasing against immigrants and refugees. There’s something we know as fact that polices forces have been doing for the past two decades, around broken windows policing and so forth.

And the kind of ironic thing is that you can understand why the militarization of police works this way when you actually look at the ways in which poverty, wealth, and inequality have been transforming. Where this entire period where U.S. military expansion has been going on, you have an increasing global wealth inequality, where the United States has the effects of that, but also interior to the United States, you have huge amounts of wealth inequality here! Not only in terms of the 1%, but then also the ways that maps onto, obviously, racial wealth inequality.

Here you can see this graph right here, which is basically this racial wealth inequality where the top line is whites within the U.S. and the two bottom lines are black and Latino. And this projected out into 2024. So you can see the huge wealth disparity, right, between us. And you can see how the ways in which the militarization of the U.S. has been used abroad to maintain forms of global wealth inequality, i.e. capitalism, and the ways in which these are now coming home to be used on American populations.

So we kind of wanted to talk about—so, what are the possibilities for internationalism today? How do we move beyond sectarian debates about previous internationalism, so western socialists versus third worldists? How do we rethink or reinterpret the histories of anti-war activism to learn from their successes and failures, what the limits of those past theories and practices have been? And also, to move beyond thinking—or at least understand what is unique about today and what’s not. To what degree are those old theories and practices actually something we can use today?

So the particular nodes that we were thinking about are like, how does labor organizing relate to internationalism? How do we organize labor in such a way to actually focus on things like class struggle, not in a sense that divides, but one that is used to move across racial lines, but also international lines.

Immigrant and refugee solidarity. Capitalism relies on borders. Because it’s able to cross them! Whereas labor is not supposed to, except for in these limited cases of, like, migration, right? So how do we think about immigration and refugee solidarity in that very context.

And anti-war activism. How can anti-war activism hook up with these other things? How can anti-war activism be something which is actually international? When we think about grassroots movements throughout places like Japan, South Korea, even the Middle East to some degree, though they don’t really allow these kinds of protests… protests against U.S. military bases abroad, grassroots movements in those countries, how can that be related to anti-war activism at home? So these are all questions we wanted to pose for discussion to think about collectively… We’ll just open up the floor.

 

Labor History and Campus Organizing at Boston University

Claudia B. and Hannah K. are Boston University YDSA co-chairs. For the past few months, they’ve been working on a campaign to get the tour guides of Boston University paid a fair wage. In honor of May Day, we’d like to kick off the first post on Boston DSA’s Political Education Working Group blog with an interview about their organizing work.

 

First off, could you tell us about the background on the tour guides campaign you’re working on?

Claudia: Tour guides at BU are not paid, but they do receive a hoodie. I was a tour guide last year and quit as I started to recognize the how exploitative the program was. Our members in Boston University YDSA were super into labor organizing so we were trying to find a campaign that had the potential for political education and a feasible goal, as well as one that allowed our members to practice organizing conversations and that wasn’t too risky.

Hannah: I’ve never been a tour guide, but I have a lot of close friends who are/have been and talking to them about their working conditions I definitely sensed dissatisfactionwhich, of course, is the seed of any productive organizing conversation because it means you can get them pissed. In addition, it was a good starting point to get students at BU to start thinking about laborbecause BU is such a bourgeois, “career-oriented” (yuck) school most people think it is fine to work for free for resume-building purposes (“paid in experience and connections”), so I think both of us recognized that a smaller campaign would have the potential to open people up to re-examine the work they do in their own lives. Because so much of the way a university operates depends on unpaid or underpaid labor: teaching assistants, student research, learning assistants, tour guides, etc, etcwe’ve actually heard a lot of people tell us that they didn’t think about the work they did that they weren’t paid for as “work” until now.

 

What has it been like organizing the tour guides? Are most receptive, or are some interested in maintaining the unpaid status of BU tour guides?

C: We have gotten a lot of support! We have over half of the current tour guides to sign the list of demands and a large number of past tour guides. There are some tour guides that are hesitant about the demand of a $15/hour wage. The largest backlash is from student employees in the office who are currentlythere are some students who answer phone calls and check in parents who are paid less than $15/hour, and then there’s some that get a stipend to do more oversight of the tour guides. They’re opposed to them getting paid because they think it’ll lower their pay or make their positions less valuable. It’s been important in our organizing conversations to explain that it’s a “boss” problem not an “other workers” problem.

H: And also with the $15 thing we often ask: well, why isn’t everyone paid $15 an hour? And if they agree with that (and most do): aren’t the tour guides a good place to start? We have also gotten a few scab/cop types who argue that tour guides should remain volunteer because if they’re paid the position will attract the “wrong kind of people.” To which, a) wow, there’s a lot to unpack there but, b) you should be paid for work regardless of whether you like doing it or not.

 

What are your demands, and what has BU’s response been so far? How would you respond to statements that the tour guides would prefer to work for free?

C: The main demands include a $15/hour wage, the option to use work study awards to be paid, transparency about the requirements of the position, and a more thorough hiring practice, because currently the student workers in charge of hiring tend to just hire friends.

The biggest proponents of continuing this system are people who claim that making the position paid would attract the “wrong kind” of candidate. We argue this will attract the same, if not better, candidates. People who were already willing to do this for free will continue to be interested, and they will be more able to prioritize it as a job and keep it. Admissions has an issue with turnover with this current system. Additionally, admissions boasts of having diverse tour guides, yet a system of unpaid workers fundamentally seeks to exclude working class students. Another argument we sometimes hear is “if people ‘consented’ to work for free, it is entitled to change and ask for compensation now.” To this, we say that it is well within a worker’s rights to advocate for better working conditions at any time. Specifically, in such cases, students are fed lies about how such unpaid positions affect their later employability. As students come to realize these falsehoods, it is quite reasonable for them to change their expectations.

 

Hannah, you’ve written before about how BU has a long history of labor organizing. Are there any events in BU labor history that you’ve drawn from in this campaign?

H: When we first started BU YDS, I got really into researching BU’s history of student activism. The fact is BU used to be way more radical than it is nowyou can find old pictures from BU in 60s and 70s online and they seem like another world. There are photos of BU undergrads protesting US involvement in Iran and protesting Robert McNamara speaking at BU! That would never happen here today! And while BU is very different today, there’s definitely been value in looking at our campaign as part of BU’s larger labor history. While I don’t think what we’re doing is anywhere near the scale of the ‘79 strike, I do think that looking at what we’re doing as part of a much greater movement allows us to look ahead in terms what we’re doing with our campaignhow can we try to transform the momentum we have with the tour guide campaign into something greater, and something that has the potential to energize the campus in the way it was back in the 70s? That I think is the bigger project, and something we’re thinking about a lot.

 

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your organizing campaign and how have you responded to them?

C: While I think all of BU YDSA is proud of the work we’ve done, I think we would’ve liked to center large groups of workers more than we were able to. The admissions office work is very isolated and makes organizing very difficult. All of the demands were crafted following one on ones with current and past tour guides. We were able to mobilize around 6-7 really amazing leaders to try to combat this. We are hopeful that the tour guides have been empowered to further advocate for their rights in the workplace despite these challenges.

H: I thinkand this relates to what Claudia said about our issues centering workersa big part of this is just that we’ve been so time-crunched in pulling this together. We had to spend the first half of the year building our YDS chapter so that essentially we’ve only had a semester to organize around this issue. If we had more time, I have no doubt we would have a stronger worker base, but the fact is we’re up against the university calendar and also Admissions’ calendar, as they are most vulnerable when turnover is high at the end of semesters.

 

It seems like the labor movement has grown from traditional unionizing campaigns to organizing more types of workers and different types of employment. Can you speak to how your campaign fits into that?

C: Hell yeah! We’re very excited about this. Unions rule but the fetishization of union workers takes away from all other labor struggles. This concern with only union labor also takes the focus away from marginalized workers as certain privileges and infrastructure are inherent to union organizing. That’s something I’m very proud of with regards to our campaign; there’s power in a union but ultimately it boils down to the people

H: also unions involve a lot of structure and regulation that ultimately isn’t workable in organizing all workplaces

C: definitely, and women of color are a huge exploited labor sector in terms of care work and people often ignore their organizing efforts because they can’t picket. While we obviously want the workers to see their demands realized and see BU respect its students’ requests, this campaign has had definite success. Whether in the mind of the tour guides themselves or their peers, a conversation has started about what it means to be a worker. There has definitely been increase in dialogue about how students are coerced into working for free. I think this lays a nice foundation to organize around internships, gig economy jobs, and other sources of precarious work or exploitation we have been told is necessary to attain success.

 

Anything else you’d like to add?

C: We are hoping to use the momentum from this campaign toward something like a campus wide $15 minimum wage

H:which is something that other student activists have started working towards. For example Virginia Tech’s YDSA is campaigning for campus-wide $15 now, and in addition, Rutgers has a very strong group of student activists fighting for $15 as well. Rutgers is also notable because it’s a state school, so winning $15 there actually helps to push New Jersey to make the state-wide minimum wage $15. We also think that $15 campus-wide minimum wage is achievable because it will benefit ALL BU workers, and not just student workersit’s an easy sell: who doesn’t wanna be paid more?

For more information on the tour guides campaign, check out Hannah’s piece about BU’s labor history , or this piece from BU’s Daily Free Press about this specific campaign. To support this campaign, you can read their list of demands or sign their petition here. On May 4th at 3pm, a small group (per admission’s request) will be meeting with John McEachern and Kelly Walters. You can also show your support by walking with the organizers to this meeting. They will be meeting at 2:30pm at Marsh Chapel. Supporters are encouraged to wear BU colors or apparel to show this is really about creating a better community. Please click GOING on the Facebook event if you are going so they can keep track of numbers!