Psychology for Socialists, Part 1

By Jonathan K.

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

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

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

Part 1: Know yourself

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

I. Illusions of knowledge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

II. The “Curse of Knowledge”

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

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

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

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

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

III. So what can we do about it?

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

I have good news and bad news.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beware the Ocasio-Cortez Bump: On Electoralism in DSA

by Anonymous

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zoey MM and Hannah K

Brief Summary: Immigration and Prisons

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

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

 

Building Working Class Power

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

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

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

Fliers on Imperialism in Central America

Seena, Edward P, Nafis H

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

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

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

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

Ben S, Boston Refoundation  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On Accessibility, Ableism, and Online Voting

By Peter M

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

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

 

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

 

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

On Endorsement

– Janet Malaime

Background

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

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

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

Goal-oriented Arguments, or vacuous arguments from material conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action-oriented Arguments, or dialectical arguments from material conditions

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

Electoral action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

Capitalist Nationalization Isn’t Socialism

Katy Slininger, Quiet Corner DSA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All Our Info on Online Voting

The Boston PEWG Editors

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

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

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

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.