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.


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!

Fundamental Socialism: Class and Intersectionality 1-18-2018

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Stefanie: Hello, welcome everybody, we’re gonna get started. Welcome to DSA’s Socialist Fundamental Series. This is the third in the series; first we had Intro to Socialism, we had then Intro to Marxism, and now we have Class and Intersectionality. Clare’s going to present, and then we’ll open it up for discussion, so take it away Clare!


Clare: Thank you all for coming. Before we get started explaining these terms, I’d just like to see a show of hands, who here considers themselves to have grown up in a working class household? Got a couple. Who considers themselves to have grown up in a middle class household? Anyone here grew up in a bourgeois household? [laughing] A couple – thank you guys for coming! What about your current occupations? Anyone feel like their current occupation is in a different class than the one they grew up in? Hm, couple, alright.

So, first of all, why are these terms important for us to understand? Why did you show up today wondering about them? [talking about speaking volume] So before we get started explaining what they mean, I just wanted to ask why they’re important for us to understand. If anyone’s got ideas. Or if you have no idea and that’s why you’re here that’s fine too.

So, there’s a couple of different ways of talking about class, and Marxists talk about class in a very particular way that’s not necessarily what you’ll see in a lot of the rest of the media and mainstream newspapers. So sometimes you’ll see people talk about class as an identity; somewhere around 90% of Americans consider themselves middle class, so that’s not necessarily the most useful way of looking at it. You’ll also see in movies or commercials or a lot of times in political theater class – uses basically sort of like a culture like, this is the kind of trucks people drive or beer people drink or the way people dress or speak and that that’s the understand of class they use. This is also often of limited analytical utility. It works very, very well for political campaigns. A somewhat more objective measure of class is just a measure of how much wealth or income someone has, so people will divide that up, however many classes they want. We have a wealth and income classification table here that I stole out of a book, and a lot of economic analysis uses this because it’s numbers and you can measure it. Another way that you’ll hear class talked about is as an explanation of life chances, and this is stuff like what neighborhood you grew up in, and where you went to school, and what that means for what kind of work you’re going to end up doing.

But Marxists talk about [talking about slides] – So Marxist class theory is a little bit different. Marx identified class as your position within sort of an economic system. It’s your position relative to the means of production. There’s basically two classes here, we have the capitalists, who own everything, and workers, who have to sell their labor. It’s not really about whether someone’s a decent person or not, and the relationship between the two is antagonistic. If one side wins, the other side loses. The capitalist is looking to extract as much labor from the workers as they can, and pay them as little as they can, and workers are trying to get paid for the jobs they do. Can anyone think of some examples where this has been playing out in the news lately?

Comrade #1: I know Vox and the New York Times have been unionizing –

Clare: Yes.

Comrade #1: – met with heavy opposition from their kind of owners.  I don’t know that much about the situation as a non-member of either of them –

Clare: Yeah, yeah that –

Comrade #1: It certainly seems though some of these [background noise] print media places I would say are ready to cut people working solely from freelance from now on.

Clare: Yeah, there was a paper in New York that I think as soon as they unionized the owner just like pitched a fit and shut the whole thing down.

Audience members: Gothamist.

Clare: Yeah, so that’s a good one. The purpose of unions is to give labor more power so the owners pretty much always see this as a loss. The recent tax bill is also a good one.  Although if you haven’t been following everything that’s messed up about the tax bill I don’t necessarily want to go over all of it right now, but we can talk about it in discussion later if anyone’s interested in ranting about that.

So exploitation in Marxist terms – there’s a lot of terms that you’ll have heard but do not necessarily mean exactly the same thing in Marxist analysis that they do in regular conversation. Exploitation does not necessarily refer to poor working conditions. What it means is that workers can’t choose not to work, they don’t have anything to sell but their labor, so if they can’t get a job, then they can’t survive. Which means they are basically forced to take whatever job they can get. Employers need workers; they have to hire people to perform stuff, stuff that can’t be done by machines. These days we talk a lot about job creators, which basically conflates the need for work with actually doing it … I have opinions about that.  So exploitation basically means when the compensation that someone receives for the work they do is less than the value of what they produce, effectively the capitalist is stealing from the workers. In Marxist terms it’s called surplus value; it’s also known as profit.

So things like minimum wage laws and unions are very important for making income distribution a little bit fairer so that the capitalists don’t suck all the money out of the economy and crash everything, which is their goal and they do it periodically when they’re allowed to. But a fairer income distribution is not really considered sufficient because you will still end up making less – if you’re a worker you’ll still end earning less than the full value of what you make; if you don’t, the company has no reason to exist. Having to sell your labor means that you can’t determine the conditions under which you work. You can form a union to try and gain some bargaining power, but ultimately the people that own the company decide if it’s going to continue to exist at all or not. This unequal balance of power also means that workers will tend to lose any gains that they make in terms of wages and benefits. We’ve seen this a lot over the past 30 years or so with union busting, we’ve seen it with the rise of the gig economy. Any rules that you make for worker protections, the capitalists will try and find ways around. Not just because they’re terrible people but because that’s sort of how the system works; it incentivizes them to find ways around it.

So as I said 90% of Americans consider themselves the middle class and in Marxist terms the middle class is a little bit different, it’s a little bit smaller, it tends to correspond more to what would normally be called the upper-middle class, and it tends to mean workers like, you know, managerial workers, highly paid professional workers that have skills that are rare and in high demand. These workers are – they’re working class in that they’ve been hired by a company to do a job and they need that job in order to get by, but they tend to have a lot more power within the workplace than most other workers.  The thing that is middle in the middle class in Marxist analysis is that they’ve kind of got – it basically refers to people that have a little bit of power on both sides of this power dynamic. It’s not that they’re in the middle income distribution; they’re usually not.

The other sort of section of the middle class is petty capitalists: small business owners, people that control their own means of production, but their sphere of influence is limited. Again, there’s a big kind of propaganda push lately to kind of call everyone a small business owner, like all kinds of precarious and gig work and freelance work is getting told, “Congratulations, you are a small independent consultancy that sells this one person’s labor.” And that’s generally not what we’re talking about here; we’re talking about people that own a store or own some kind of material – if your startup required startup capital, you might be petty bourgeoisie.

So why do socialists care so much about class? Socialists believe that challenging capitalism is in workers’ self interest, that they would be better off in a system where they weren’t exploited and where they controlled their own workplace and they had access to the full value that they create. We believe that workers have the power to challenge capitalists; even though workers depend on companies for being able to have a job, the companies also need workers. So we believe that when workers stick together, and involve themselves in the class struggle, we can eventually take over our own workplaces, be our own bosses, and watch Monty Python all day.  Not really.

So there are a lot of differences within the working class that are based on other systems that exist in our society simultaneously, such as racism and sexism. These result in certain kinds of workers being funnelled into different fields, it tends to result in certain kinds of workers getting paid less than others, getting less media attention when something happens in their industry, and basically experiencing the oppressions of capitalism differently. Lately in the news a lot we’ve been hearing a lot about sexual harassment in the workplace. That’s highly gendered; it’s also – certain industries have higher rates of sexual harassment than others, so this is something that socialists would need to think of and to work through when we’re advocating for workers, that it’s not only stuff about pay, it’s also working conditions, and that these intersections between class and these other systems mean that we have to address these at the same time because they all affect working people.  

Not all workers may be equally interested in challenging capitalism; the people that are in the higher strata, professional managerial workers, may be more likely to benefit from the system, they may be more likely to identify with the owners of the company than with other workers that they supervise, but they still have structural commonalities with the rest of the working class. And there are a number of occupations that are currently in the process of being proletarianized, basically their unions are being busted, their worker protections are being stripped away, positions that used to be in-house are being made freelance or adjunct or something like that.  So these occupations might be more open to joining the working class struggle. Colleges are a big site for this right now since there’s been a move away from tenured faculty, which is a pretty solid position, towards leaning on adjuncts for everything, and adjuncts are very, very underpaid.

It’s important to look at all of these specifically and figure out how they tie together, because capitalists exploit these differences to keep workers divided. A big vein of this right now is “the immigrants are coming to take your jobs”, though immigrants are also workers, they’re also being exploited. So immigrant workers and non-immigrant workers ought to be realizing what they have in common and standing together, but instead we have a lot of fear-mongering and trying to get workers to blame other workers for their conditions.

This is sort of the conventional image of the working class that you see in a lot of media, a lot of movies, the op-ed page of the New York Times if you read it today, which you probably shouldn’t have. They devoted the entire page to letters from Trump supporters – I was like, why are you doing this to me? The reality looks a little bit more like this. White men are the least likely to be working class and the most likely to be bourgeois or middle class. Approximately 50% of white men are working class, 67% for white women, it’s higher for black men, and it’s the most high for black women. These numbers are a little bit old; it’s very hard to find more recent data that uses a Marxist analysis. You can find a lot of stuff that just breaks down what field people work in. But it’s unlikely this has really changed substantially since this book was written.

Does anyone have questions just on class before we get into intersectionality theory?

[… sidebar about microphones/sound]

Comrade #2: Why do you think it’s so hard to find literature that gives you accurate data as far as class goes?

Clare: I mean, the glib answer is that most people working at government labor offices are not Marxists. It’s much easier to just quantify “these people are in this field, they are making this amount of money, this amount of people work there”. Marxism has not really been in fashion for a while, especially with the government.

Comrade #2: So the stats in the previous slide were for ethnic race, right –

Clare: Yeah, race and gender. And class.

Comrade #2: So 87% of black women are working class.

Clare: Are in the working class, yes. And about 13% of them are – at least, as of 1997 – were in the middle class, or in the bourgeoisie. There’s like three black women in the bourgeoisie, in the high capitalist class. So yeah, it’s just an analytical system that’s not very popular with most governments, so it can be hard to find data.

Comrade #3: Do you know if – going back to that last slide, the stats on that – if there were further delineations of the levels and how those were broken up racially? Like were white men at the higher end of the working class spectrum?

Clare: Yeah – I don’t have the paper on me, but if you start looking at just data that is on income distribution, you can get a lot more. And yeah, white guys are generally on average better off than other groups. Obviously there’s a pretty white variety within white guys. Even among the very highest levels, folks like the Koch brothers and Warren Buffett, it’s mostly white guys, but that’s still only like twelve people.

Comrade #1: Would it be possible with – I know there’s a lot of Marxist breakdown of middle class in current analysis – but to take the current analysis and convert it or reverse engineer it to look at what actually look like under a Marxist analysis?

Clare: We could, and I’d start doing that and I’d run out of time.

Comrade #1: Just a thought, I was just curious.

Clare: That’s how that guy [Marx] did it – it only gets done every now and again. I would really be interested in seeing how – we talk a lot about how after the recession the middle class got hollowed out. And that’s usually a definition of “middle class” that means people with money and jobs – basically like people with jobs, people with a full-time job. I’m like, okay, well, most people with full-time jobs, they’re still just regular working-class jobs.

Comrade #4: How does Marxist statistics as far as the working class differ from census data? I’m just curious how vastly different that is.

Clare: I really don’t have the number-crunching ability to have a really solid answer for that. A lot of this stuff is done in academia by people who, this is their job to figure it out. I’m pretty much reading what ends up getting published, and I don’t have a lot of insight into their process for crunching their numbers in order to update them.

Dean: This might be for the discussion, but the Erik Olin Wright that you reference, he claims that Marxists need – to be a Marxist, you have a more nuanced understanding of what class is than just purely a relationship with the means of production. Do you think to attain Marxist analysis you have to abide by a really strict understanding of what class is under Marx, or can you be nuanced and Marxist?

Clare: I think it’s always better to have more data and to figure out more nuance in what’s going on. Our current phase of late capitalism has sliced and diced everything and made it very, very complicated. And I know some more modern Marxist analysts have, you know, 6 or 7 classes. But I think there’s value in still not losing sight of that original question of “who owns everything, and who has to go out and be dependent on somebody else for a job”. I’m really interested in the weird edge cases, especially with the rise of platform monopolies that are geared towards telling people they can be independent. Like you can have your own store on Etsy. Or like you can make your own art on Patreon, and then Patreon changes its fee structure, and it’ll like, screw over 80% of people there. So it’s like, okay, well, clearly you’re not as independent as we told you you were. So I think those things are very, very important questions; I also think that it’s useful to not lose sight of the basic analysis of “these are the two things we’re looking at, and we know that there are squishy bits in the middle”.

Comrade #5: To the question of who owns everything – people who have 401ks and index funds, we’re technically owners of these big corporations. Is that material in this kind of understanding of your worldview, or in terms of how it affects your actions? … you probably want to be a good Marxist.

Clare: This is what I said about we’ve made everything really, really complicated. So ultimately, when we’re looking at ownership, the reason we’re looking at it is because we’re looking at power. So if you have some small portion of your salary in a 401k, it’s for the purpose of eventually being able to retire on it. But we’d basically look at questions like, do you actually have enough money in it to live off of it? If you’ve got a savings account and you’re making 5 dollars a month in passive income, I don’t think that puts you necessarily – means you’re a capitalist now. Otherwise, everyone would be capitalists, and capitalism would be working out great for way more people than it is. But the idea is – “Can you live off of it?” and “Can you exert power over other people?” are sort of the core questions that we’re looking at.

The 401ks and getting regular people getting to put parts of their income into the stock market was part of a whole mass investment project in the 20th century that was a little bit after Marx’s time, and trying to figure that out really confuses the heck out of me. So I think a good rubric is just, like, can you live off this passive income or not? If you can’t, and you have to get a job, you are probably a worker of some kind.


Clare: So, intersectionality theory is something that has made its way out of the academy and into a lot of mainstream social justice discourse, and in the course of doing that it’s gotten very confused. The concept of intersectionality was developed in 1989, I believe, by a sociologist named Kimberlé Crenshaw, who was doing research into employment discrimination against black women, specifically. So her definition – one of the shorter definitions I can find – was,

Intersectionality is a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or an LGBT problem there. Many times, a framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.

So the metaphor of intersectionality she uses is of, you know, the intersection of multiple different roads, where each road is a particular system or axis of power. So we’ve talked about the road that is class, with the rich people at one end and working stiffs at the other. Intersectionality helps us look at what happens to people who are part of multiple marginalized groups, and the things that happen to them specifically. Race is a big one, gender’s a big one class is a big one, disability, age and generation – all of these are things that can change the kinds of experiences that people have.

Into the complicated stuff: why is intersectionality important for socialists?

A complete analysis of capitalism has to include the roles of unpaid and unfree labor in the creation and distribution of wealth. So this includes things that are traditionally considered women’s work that happen outside the workplace, such as, you know, housework, childcare, childbearing – creating new little workers for the system and raising them. [Audience laughs.] That’s basically what it is! Everyone’s like, well, it’s natural, so we don’t need to pay you for it. So that kind of unpaid labor, and then what happens when that unpaid labor becomes paid, and the fact that it’s seen as natural for women gets used as an excuse to pay people less for it. So these are the kinds of things that we need to look at in order to have a complete analysis of capitalism.

Another thing we need to look at is the role of unfree labor. The United States was founded as a slave society, and this has had far reaching impact on how our economy was built, how the wealth of the United States was created, and the legacies of that are still with us today. Including the rise of mass incarceration – which in addition to everything else wrong with it – there’s a financial incentive to grow that system because incarcerated people can be made to work for less than minimum wage and sometimes for no wages at all. So these are things that will affect the formally free labor market and that we need to look at in order to understand how it works.

We also need to understand that capitalism is a global system, and so in order to understand that we have to account for the role of imperialism and colonialism, both in settler countries – think of the the United States and Australia – and in countries in the Global South. Both historically and today we’re still interfering in other countries in order to make them run their economies the way we want them to run their economies.

Comrade #6: What do you mean by the “Global South”?

Clare: The Global South is basically what is often called developing countries. A lot of leftists just don’t like the term “developing countries” because it makes it sound like they’re being left to develop on their own, whereas what’s really happening is that bigger countries just keep messing with them and there are financial incentives for big wealthy countries to make sure that the markets and resources of these smaller countries are exploitable for our businesses. Governments interfere with other countries for the benefit of private businesses all the time, and that’s a really important thing to understand.

Another reason that intersectionality is important is a lot of mainstream social justice initiatives tend to lack a class and material analysis. A lot of big nonprofits are hamstrung and limited in the work that they can do by their dependence on wealthy donors. This is not solely limited to identity-based items. I know a person that works at a company that is doing a green initiative; but they wanted to go fossil fuel free, and the company is blocking that because there are people that they get money from that don’t want them to do that. So one thing that socialists can contribute to these other initiatives is to basically follow the money and to point out when that class analysis is lacking.

More on why it’s important: because different systems of oppression exist simultaneously, people experience them simultaneously and the experiences they have under them cannot always be easily separated. Socialism has a theoretical model where capitalism is the basis of everything we do in society and the rest of it grows out of that, but then it’s all of this at the same time, and people don’t feel like when things happen to them under capitalism that they can easily separate out what was sexism and what was racism and what was class oppression.

The only way to overcome divisions within the working class is by acknowledging and addressing people’s different experiences. We have to work through the different experiences people have and figure out how they’re related so that we can stand for and help people based on what it is that they actually need, even if one person’s experience under capitalism is different than someone else’s.

The big pragmatic one is that it’s important to learn from the mistakes of earlier movements and commit to not leaving anyone behind. History is littered with movements where certain people burned out and left because their concerns were not being taken seriously.

Alright, so this is sort of a brief recap of terms we’ve gone over. Socialism is a political project that takes class as its primary lense for analyzing relations of power and takes the economic system as the foundational form of oppression for any particular society. Democratic socialism presumes that class oppression needs to be tackled through democratic means, through mass bottom-up organizing, and with democratic ends in mind.

Intersectional democratic socialism basically says that in order to do that we need to tackle class oppression in concert with other kinds of oppression such as sexism, racism, ableism, homophobia, and transphobia because they’re all related. They all feed into each other, they reinforce each other, and they can’t be easily separated out. So they all kind of have to be understood as one big matrix.

I wanted to leave y’all with something a little bit actionable, as they say, because there’s a lot of information here to understand how all of the different forms of oppression in society work together, and most of us don’t have time to commit ourselves to doing that full-time. Basic things to keep in mind going forward when you’re in an organizing space or just when you’re running into people that are of different demographics than yourselves.

One of the big ones is to listen to other people’s experiences. They may be very different from yours, and you can always leave analysis and theory [for] a bit little later and just listen genuinely to what people are telling you about the way that they experience life in this whole matrix of power structures.

Assuming good faith is another one that sounds a little trite, but can be difficult since most of our political discourse in this country is completely dominated by bad faith. It’s very important, especially if you’re within a particular group within an organization, to realize that for most of the time if someone is coming to you with a complaint, a way that they say they’re feeling excluded, something you’ve forgotten, they are trying to tell you how to organize with them better.

Getting comfortable with being uncomfortable is basically just a way of saying there’s not really any shortcuts to doing the hard, long work of coalition-building and realizing that whatever experiences you’ve had that have politicized you… For a lot of folks in DSA, we’re a very young organization – we have a lot of young people – and for a lot of it, it was this experience of entering the workforce after the Great Recession, and so that’s something that politicized a lot of us. And other people may have been politicized by things that happened to them that you were completely unaware of, and it can be very uncomfortable to realize that there was all this stuff going on that you just had no idea about, or that you might have done something that made it worse and harmed people. And it’s important to just get comfortable with realizing how little you know.

One thing you want to train yourself to be able to do eventually is to notice when analysis seems flat, or when somebody is missing. This can be a little trickier, but with time, you’ll be able to notice like, “Okay, we’re talking about reproductive justice, and we’re talking about it like everyone who needs abortion care is a young girl in college who doesn’t already have kids.” Not all women are young girls in college who don’t already have kids; something must be missing here. And if you can train yourself to notice when an analysis is flat, then you can start going forward to say, “Okay, what’s going on here?”

Try to resist the urge to decide there’s only one real issue to a situation; it’s often much more complicated than that. If you ever find yourself saying, you know, “Oh, this isn’t about racism, I think it’s about sexism”, or “This isn’t about sexism, I think it’s about class,” just… just don’t. [Audience laughs.] Like, stop and make sure that you really have a full reason why this is the case, and not just that you want there to only be one cause. A lot of things have multiple causes.

Another one is just to be aware of what you’re asking from others in terms of educating you, in terms of reliving traumatic things that they’ve been through. There’s pretty much no better way to learn about what other people go through than to have them talk to you about it, but if someone’s trusted you with telling you about something awful that’s happened to them at work, try and be sensitive to how much personal information you’re asking them to divulge, how much you’re asking them to defend their own experiences. It can be very, very exhausting trying to educate other people about stuff that was personally difficult for you.

And the last one is – you know, there’s a lot of information; we don’t actually have to be an expert for all of it in order to show solidarity. You can still show up for people even if you don’t have a really good grasp of their issues, as long as you step back and let them lead and let them tell you what to do.

If you do want something to read to start with, the Combahee River Collective Statement is a… It’s pretty short, it’s maybe 5 or 6 pages long, it’s available for free online, and it was a statement written in the 1970s by a group of black feminist lesbian Marxists that met right here in Boston. So there’s a little bit of local history, to start researching them. And it’s pretty readable, unlike some of the things that were written in the 19th century, so I would suggest googling that if you want to start with a primary document on intersectionality theory from the perspective of some socialists.

That’s the end of the presentation, and so I’m just leaving us with a quote from Emma Lazarus that I think sums up the importance of solidarity, and the importance of making sure that we include everyone and don’t leave anyone’s concerns behind in socialist organizing.

Until we all are free, we are none of us free.


  • Emma Lazarus