For a Truly Pluralistic, Big Tent DSA: A Response to Jared Abbott and Momentum

by Adam S, Bronx/Upper Manhattan DSA

The Monday before the Democratic congressional primary in New York, I slipped out of work early to make one final canvassing push for the long shot challenge to ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Getting off the train and heading down the stairs, past a notably unenthusiastic Crowley canvasser, I walked over to to the volunteer coordinator, my Queens DSA comrade Aaron, whom I had grown close to during the campaign. As the 7 train rumbled overhead, I saw the small clump of volunteers surrounding Aaron’s makeshift table: not just from DSA, but from other progressive groups who also had endorsed Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s long-shot bid for the House, as well as unaffiliated volunteers who were just inspired by Alexandria’s candidacy.

As the volunteers milled around, getting their turf assignments and chatting casually, none other than AOC herself showed up. She addressed the assembled supporters with a version of her stump speech I had heard numerous times before, talking about the need to get corporate money out of politics, Medicare-for-all, and a $15 minimum wage. As she wound down her pep talk, she individually shouted out the groups that supported her. She moved from Common Defense (a progressive veterans group), to Our Revolution, to Justice Democrats. Then, she turned to my red-shirted comrades and myself. “I’m so proud to be endorsed by a group like the Democratic Socialists of America; a group that is always on the ground showing up for people. Whether it’s immigrants, the LGBTQ community, or women’s rights, you guys are always there, in the streets, fighting for people.”

I think about AOC’s characterization of my NYC comrades often now as debates about the organization’s future unfold. What she identifies as crucial and special about DSA — the diverse nature of our work that cuts not just across issues, but also across the various leftist ideologies and tendencies within our big tent — is what I have grown to value as well. However, I have come to learn that this is not the vision shared by all corners of the organization — that some do not view our big tent nature and diverse array of member-directed work as an asset, but rather a distraction from what should be our core organizational mission. This essay addresses that centralizing tendency within the organization, and argues that while it may have been useful for a certain set of historical conditions, it is the wrong perspective for the current state of DSA.

A bit more about my own organizing history within DSA: Since Alexandria’s unexpected victory, I’ve pitched in on various work in New York as part of the Bronx/Upper Manhattan branch, particularly the Save Allen Psych campaign, the organizing committee of our branch political education working group, and volunteering to be a mobilizer. What I found I enjoyed the most about DSA was the relative freedom to participate in the wide variety of campaigns afforded by the organization’s big-tent nature. In contrast to the electorally-oriented Alexandria campaign, the Save Allen Psych campaign was a lesson in community organizing. Through my mobilizing work, I helped new members plug into working groups and projects across not just the geographical space in the city, but also ad relatively wide left ideological spectrum within the organization. In the political education committee, we read a wide variety of texts (including a socialist feminist led reading group of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, which to this day remains my favorite DSA event ever), and helped on a Currents in Leftist Thought forum, which sought to clarify at least a few of the major political tendencies within the organization’s big tent.

For personal reasons, however, my tenure in New York was to come to an end. The city had worn me down, so when my company floated the possibility of a transfer to Philadelphia, my wife and I jumped on it. This, of course, got me researching the Philadelphia chapter of DSA, about which I had only heard vague rumors. So, while visiting Philly, I went to a meeting of their Local Initiative, Local Action Committee (LILAC, for short), and found a small-scale replica of the way things looked like in NYC: people self-organizing around issues that they felt important in their community. They obviously had issues with their steering committee, but at this juncture I had not been following the back-and-forth of invective and counter-invective well enough to know besides the broad outlines of them getting censured for holding an unsanctioned reading group, which seemed exceptionally silly.

Regardless of my positive association with the LILAC folks, I sought to look at the Philly situation with an open mind. I am not an ideologue — I am happy to do electoral, community organizing/base building work, and mutual aid, and while anti-fascist counter-demonstrating, civil disobedience, and other direct actions are not necessarily for me, I’m more than happy that my comrades are willing to put themselves at risk to participate in those activities. In general, I take seriously the idea that DSA is a big-tent, multi-tendency organization, where one can protest the closing of a mental health ward in the morning, canvas for a candidate in the afternoon, provide mutual aid in the evening and build a tenants union after dinner, all while not becoming an anarchist, social democrat, or revolutionary socialist.

This is why I found the internecine fight going on in Philadelphia so alien: their way of running the chapter was in stark contrast to the more open local that I was familiar with. For example, to get the imprimatur of the chapter, be eligible for reimbursement, or to be included in bi-weekly membership blasts or get social media promotion, resolutions had to be approved in highly structured, quarterly general meetings. Unlike the working groups that could form on a whim in NYC by a group of interested in a particular campaign, get added to regular branch email blasts, collect funds, and generally work independently, committees in Philadelphia DSA could only be formed following a vote by a general assembly, and resolutions to form committees had to overcome quite a few hurdles. First they had to pass through a (closed, Steering-Committee controlled) Resolution Committee, then the SC-affiliated caucus would submit amendments oftentimes aimed at stopping those committees from undertaking campaigns (See: Amend 2018:11:06A on page 10, wherein a member of the SC affiliated caucus submitted a resolution to disallow the housing working group from being able to undertake its own campaigns), and then, if things did manage to make it to the floor, the SC-affiliated caucus would pass out literature whipping votes against resolutions they didn’t like.

It doesn’t stop there; while Robert’s Rules were used to run meetings, Philly’s Steering Committee had adopted a variation that prevented amendments from the floor, meaning that amendments had to be adopted or rejected wholesale, and one objectionable piece of language would ruin the entire resolution/amendment (and if it failed on the floor, better luck next quarter I guess). Without any chapter-wide communication platform (Slack, Facebook or otherwise), the debate had to happen entirely in these meetings, meaning that the stakes were incredibly high and that a great deal of power was given to the (SC-appointed) parliamentarian in shaping this debate. Lastly, the Steering Committee terms were two years long, with replacements for intra-term vacancies appointed by the Steering Committee, rather than elected (though their bylaws provided for an option to appoint or elect replacements, the SC had chosen the former option). Taken together, it definitely did not seem that there was a member directed, bottom up organization of heterogeneous political tendencies, but rather a relatively centralized, top-down structure where one tendency dominated and the others were sidelined. This was probably great if your politics generally aligned with the SC, but was likely to cause a great deal of frustration if they diverged.

This led me to ask the obvious question: why would a chapter choose to be run this way? It seemed silly that, with so many things to fight against with regards to the myriad injustices of our capitalism-dominated society, members should spend their time organizing internally against their comrades. Again, I sought an actual explanation, rather than assume bad motives, because I truly believe that assumption of good faith is essential to every interaction we have with comrades in NYC DSA. The Momentum-affiliated members on the DSA forums who came to argue with the (very vocal) Philly opposition were of no help in understanding the debate — they seemed to be speaking solely in terms of internecine conflict, of he-said-she-said interpersonal nonsense, assertions that everything was done “in order”; while the Steering Committee and its associated caucus was certainly allowedto take the actions described above, it seemed entirely separate from the central question of why the structure (which I viewed as the root cause, rather than individual actions of bad actors) existed in the first place.

As many may know, Philly’s steering committee is run by a caucus that is associated nationally with the Momentum Slate on the NPC. Members with the same ideological formation also comprise the leadership of East Bay (under the Bread and Roses slate), and many of their members work at the publication Jacobin. In a (laudable) attempt to make their vision for the organization transparent they’ve been publishing articles under The Call, with the purpose of starting a national, open caucus for members of their particular tendency. For the purposes of this essay, however, I’ll refer to them as Momentum, simply because I do not know what the Call’s caucus is going to be called. The thinking behind their ideal organizational structure (which aligns with the Philly local) is laid out in an essay titled “For a Democratic and Effective DSA” by Jared Abbott.

The article is long but the argument is as such: each chapter must balance out the need to be effective with the need to have members participate in decision-making, and this is done through members electing a steering committee to run most of the day-to-day organization, and voting on chapter-wide priorities that the chapter will be mainly focused on. All other high-level chapter business will be run through general meetings, which are very important, large productions because they are the main venue by which the general membership can exercise decision making power, but in the interim, the SC has a great deal of power and discretion compared to the rank and file (also, there’s a long digression about why you should cut leadership slack, but zero discussion of how to initiate meaningful oversight or transparency mechanisms, like a recall procedure, save for the suggestion that those unhappy with leadership simply wait their terms out).

Abbott sees the necessity of representative democracy to counter the “tyranny of structureless” wherein “leaderless” organizations devolve into informal leadership based on clique rather than transparent leadership. To hammer this home, he brings up the example of Occupy Wall Street general assemblies, where nothing got done because too much had to be run through direct democracy, leading to informal leadership hierarchies based on social status. (As an aside, there’s an irony in that the organizational structure proposed in the Jo Freeman essay is far more horizontalist than the structure advocated by Momentum. Read the “Principles of Democratic Structuring” at the end of the essay)

However, as the specter of Occupy fades, this structure has to contend with actually existing left formations, like the working group structure of my home NYC branch which has neither the level of power invested in the steering committee nor the bureaucratized democracy of a general meeting. Instead of “leadership,” we have a set of branch-level organizing committees whose responsibilities mainly include scheduling branch meetings, which mostly serve as educational events and pep rallies, with the odd candidate endorsement debate happening every once in a while. We have a Citywide Leadership Committee tasked with high level organizational decisions, but generally, they stay out of the way of the branch-level work. Our citywide convention sets priorities for the year, deciding who gets special resources like dedicated committees/working groups and extra funding, but working groups are able to to work independently on whatever campaigns they see fit. Pretty much all the actual “work” happens in branch and city level working groups, which make their own bylaws and elect their own leadership, and generally act as small-scale cells that allow for experimentation, both in terms of how they run campaigns, and how they choose to self-organize (Some, such as the Bronx/Upper Manhattan Political Education group, are themselves experiments in radical democracy). To get a sense of the wide variety of the work that goes on in our chapter: you can read our branch wrap up here and our working group wrap up here.

However, I find the charge that this “structureless” leads to tyranny and ineffectiveness to be puzzling. Far from being an ineffective, aimless organization, NYC has accomplished quite a bit, including electing Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Julia Salazar, and it is deep in the fight to push for stronger rent control laws in 2019. You’d be hard pressed to find people who feel tyrannized by our structure, as most people who want to can find their niche within the large amount of diverse and successful work that we are doing. There’s arguments and differences, sure (the debate to endorse Cynthia Nixon got quite a few hackles raised), but in general, the stakes of contested elections — positions on the City Leadership Committee, candidate endorsements, priority vs. secondary campaigns — are relatively low, so everyone can be relatively happy with the results of an election even if they lose it.

Regardless, the general meeting model does have a decent justification: as we grow, we should perhaps limit members from taking part in activities that would be detrimental to the organization as a whole (perhaps to head off the possibility of the DSA Class Collaborationist Working Group on one end and the DSA Weathermen 2.0 Working Group on the other), and GM’s can at least provide a referendum on those activities. However, that does not explain the hostility towards priorities that differ from those of the Steering Committee, as shown in Philly and East Bay, which seem extra-structural. After all, one could imagine a version of the GM model where pretty much every member-generated resolution sails through unless highly objectionable, which is what I believe is the structure of other large urban locals like MDC DSA, Chicago, and Los Angeles (my comrades in these cities can correct me if I’m wrong).

The answer is in The Call piece. In it, Abbott describes the necessity of focusing around a few, narrowly-defined demands.

“It is important to recognize both the considerable value of DSA’s character as a multi-issue, pluralistic organization and the fact that achieving our strategic goals as an organization requires significant concentration of resources and coordination. We only have so much capacity as an organization, so we must make difficult (often excruciating) decisions about which campaigns to prioritize. This is why it is crucial for chapters to develop a set of priorities, voted on by the entire membership, to serve as a strategic guide for the chapter’s elected leadership. Ideally these priorities will consider and significantly reflect the organizational priorities approved democratically by the most recent national DSA convention as well.”

Member-initiated work, however does not really constitute part of Abbott’s plans for a chapter:

“Committees and working-groups whose work falls outside the scope of the chapter’s democratically-approved priorities can serve the vital function of building solidarity with a wide range of social movement allies, but legitimately-elected chapter leadership must still oversee their strategy and orientation.”

This framing sketches out what I think is the most important point of divergence with my experience in NYC and the more closed structure of Philly and East Bay: the belief that narrow prioritization is essential for DSA’s success. Philly has had some great wins: good cause legislation, fair workweek, their near-miss in flipping Kristen Seale’s house seat, but so has New York, with far less restriction on member activity and less resultant organizational friction. This is also true of other medium-to-large urban locals: Pittsburgh, Chicago, Los Angeles, Boston and San Francisco all have put some pretty great numbers on the boards, while maintaining a robust culture of member-directed work. How does the existence of wins in these cities square with the idea that the only way to be effective is to focus narrowly on a set of priorities? And, if this restriction on member activity is causing more friction and frustration with no discernible benefit to the organization as a whole, what purpose does it serve?

I do not think that Abbott’s ideas are necessarily bad, but I do think they’re misapplied to current conditions. I fully believe Philly and East Bay models may have been effective in a particular set of historical circumstances: if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, for instance, and DSA became a recruiting ground for disaffected Bernie Supporters/ex-progressives who realized the limits of liberalism and the Democratic party and became actual socialists. Chapters in the structure of Philly and East Bay would’ve been useful for waging a focused, protracted people’s war for demands like Medicare-for-all and a large scale implementation of the Rank and File Strategy and the Ackerman Plan; I could see this structure of leadership cadre + rank and file being an excellent way to push for a narrow set of socialist demands by riding off of Bernie coattails, and as part of a larger broad left movement of which DSA was one part.

However, these historical conditions are not true in a post-Trump-bump, post-Ocasio-Cortez world, and the justification of limited resources is a bad one: DSA is not the Bernie-to-leftism pipeline envisioned by Momentum, but rather, has accumulated members who fall all across the (wide) ideological spectrum of the left. As a result, DSA suffers not from a lack of focus and a limited amount of member enthusiasm, but rather, a large, unengaged membership; though we boast 55,000 members, we have a ton of paper or marginally engaged members who have already taken the plunge and given us their membership dues, we just have to get them involved. When you have a lot of campaigns — some big, some small, most of which are self-started by membership interest with as little friction as possible, free bureaucratic wrangling and obstruction — you have more opportunities to engage your paper members who may have paid their dues, and are on an email list or two, but just need to find the right campaign that gets their juices flowing (this is why mobilizing is so important).

Not only that, but by offering the membership the opportunity to take part in the day-to-day strategic decision making of small-scale, locally oriented campaigns, you both grow their capacity as organizers and deeper their commitment to the organization. Democracy is a process that extends far beyond voting at an infrequent general meeting and handing off those decisions to an elected representatives, it’s about exercising sovereignty over the structures that shape our society, including the organizations we are a part of. I did not sign up to DSA to simply be a footsoldier in Momentum’s Left-Kautskyite program, I joined precisely because there was no party line so there was less pressure to define exactly where my politics lie. However, it’s pretty clear that, if able to seize control of a branch (not to mention national) levers of power, Momentum’s ideal vision does not include the full spectrum of left politics, but rather, an organization singularly focused around their own priorities and ideology.

Which brings me to my own organizing history: what might have seemed like a long and self-indulgent diversion of my organizing experience earlier in this essay is illustrative of an important organizational point: by having multiple ways to plug in, you have far more openings to grow as an organization, both by bringing people in and by deepening the engagement of people already in it. As a mobilizer, I took great pleasure in following up with a mobilizee I hadn’t seen in a while, only to find that they were deeply involved in an entirely different part of the organization. The Save Allen Psych campaign did wonders for strengthening our connection to local community groups — we deepen our connection to medical students and the nurse’s union who were outraged at the closing of the psych ward, local progressive activists who found the work as a dovetail to talk about the New York Health Act, and DSA members from around the city, who had a personal connection to the importance of access to mental health services.

Allen Psych is an especially interesting counterfactual: it is my understanding that Save Allen Psych grew out of New York Health Act (our version of M4A) campaigns, because locally, the conditions were not right to canvass for NYHA (Our local state senator supported NYHA) and there was a pressing issue of the closing of a Psychiatric Ward in our backyard. If Bronx/Upper Manhattan was run the way Philly or East Bay was, would Allen Psych have gotten off the ground, or would we had to stay the course on the original canvassing-first strategy for M4A/NYHA? Would our political education working group been willing to try something new and run a fiction reading group, which brought a whole new set of paper members on the socialist feminist listserv, many of whom are now active DSA organizers? Would we have been able to run a political education event that highlights differing political tendencies, or would we be too focused on running a night school that focuses around a bibliography to highlight a particular political tendency shared by those in leadership?

As a final point of illustration, take my comrade in the anecdote in the beginning of this essay: Aaron, now on the Organizing Committee of the Queens chapter (congrats, Aaron!) has put his organizing skills built on the Ocasio-Cortez campaign towards the fight against Amazon’s HQ2 deal. The Queens branch has turned the skills and expertise built on a national campaign to bear on a local issue, and engaged the community in ways that electoral canvassing never could. This is the vision I want for everyone in DSA, the vision that Alexandria pinpointed as the special quality of the organization: to see the various manifestations of capitalist domination, and to engage our heterogeneous membership to join in solidarity with the local, on the ground fights against it. That’s not to say we should take our eyes off the prize of legislative and electoral wins, but rather, that we should reject the framing where these trade-offs need to be made in the first place. The labor and engagement of our members is not a finite resource to be parceled out among a narrow set of priorities, but rather, a pool that deepens and widens as their skills and commitment to the organization grows.

I hope that I’m not pissing on my chance to have a positive, comradely relationship with my future Momentum-affiliated Philly comrades by writing this essay — after all, the Call’s editors themselves have stated that they encourage clear, open, and principled debate within the membership and I feel like this essay has fallen within those parameters. I also do not want this to come off as an anti-Momentum sectarian screed; I consider members of Momentum and the Call to be my comrades, and I have done a lot of work to model one of our core community agreements of “assume good faith, but challenge” to give these ideas a fair analysis. I think that their focus on mass action and mass demands should definitely be part of our work within DSA, and perhaps could even form the backbone of our national organizational strategy (but with freedom to adapt to local conditions). But I what I strongly believe is that their perspective on how the organization should be run — top-down, centralized, with member initiative stifled by bureaucracy and decision making power generally taken out of the hands of the rank and file — is anathema to what made my experiences in organizing in DSA so great, and would impede the process of member development that turned me and many of my close comrades into the organizers equipped for the long term fight to secure a socialist future.

In conclusion, I quote Abbott himself:

“Given the limited experience most of us have with collectively building democratic spaces of a significant size of course, it’s no wonder that some of our democratic experiments are less successful than others, or that we sometimes proceed momentarily down paths that in hindsight might not have been the most productive.”

Indeed, the Momentum chapter structure was a noble idea and a worthwhile experiment but ultimately, its structure leads to organizational friction, member frustration, and, if left unchecked, complete foreclosure of the multi-tendency nature of the organization. I am glad for the work Momentum comrades put into the organization — I’ll probably even work with them on some of their priority campaigns. I consider them valuable comrades, and if the open caucus they are forming is oriented around connecting like-minded members and sharing best practices for those of their ideological and political tendency while still respecting the federated, big tent structure of DSA, then the development of their caucus in my view is a wholly positive one for the organization. However, if their caucus results in seeking out power in order to proliferate their vision for attenuated chapter democracy, and their internal organizing is aimed at imposing that vision on the National organization as a whole, then I fear it will irreparably hamstring our efforts to build a diverse, multi-tendency mass movement necessary to build our socialist future.

Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on the author’s personal Medium – https://medium.com/@adamschlesinger1/for-a-truly-pluralistic-big-tent-dsa-a-response-to-jared-abbott-and-momentum-48cc12a6b500

Fundamentals of Ecosocialism

by Becca M, Chris H, Michelle Y & Nafis H

On Ecosocialism

On Wednesday, August 22nd, about 50 people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear four members of Boston DSA speak on an introduction to ecosocialism.This article is a recap of the concepts discussed at the panel and discusses the central tenets of ecosocialism, and ongoing ecosocialist struggles within DSA nationwide.

Basics of capitalism, socialism, and ecosocialism

Marx described society as divided into two classes – the bourgeoisie who own and control the means of production and the proletariat (worker) who sell their labor in exchange for wages (source). The wages paid to workers are always less than the value of the labor provided to ensure capitalist accumulation on behalf of the owner. While today, many of us cannot imagine a society without capitalism, this system of economic and social organization hasn’t been around for most of human history.

Capitalism was, in part, pioneered by the Spanish and Portuguese through their genocidal colonization of the Canary and Madeira Islands in 1400s. Madeira was uninhabited, but the Canary Islands were home to the Guanches people who were either killed or enslaved by the colonizers. These islands initially served as sources for timber that would be sent to European mainland; in late 1400s, African slaves were brought to Madeira for sugarcane farming. Madeira quickly became the leading sugar producer for Europe, peaking at 2,500 tons in 1506. However, by 1530, output had dropped by 90% due to the depletion of the island’s natural resources (wood, soil), indicating the boom-and-bust nature of capitalism. Madeira served as one of the earliest examples of capitalist exploitation, and this model would be repeated by colonial powers in the New World (source).

madeira capitalism
Courtesy: https://daily.jstor.org/madeira-the-island-that-helped-invent-capitalism/

So how do we fight modern day capitalism that is driving us towards extinction? According to Michael Lowy, one of the leading proponents of the school of thought, ecosocialism is defined as “a current of ecological thought and action that appropriates the fundamental gains of Marxism while shaking off its productivist dross. For ecosocialists, the market’s profit logic, and the logic of bureaucratic authoritarianism within the late departed “actually existing socialism”, are incompatible with the need to safeguard the natural environment.” (source)

Simply put, ecosocialism envisions a transformed society that is in harmony with nature, and the development of practices that can attain it. Such practices are also aimed at dismantling socially and ecologically destructive systems such as fossil-fuel based economy, racism, patriarchy, homophobia, and ableism among others. An ecosocialist strategy recognizes that “a future reconciled with nature and the essence of humanity requires a radical change of perspective, a radical democratic change in certain means of production and consumption which puts in the central position of life the people’s basic needs, which should be determined democratically and in accordance to the biophysical limits of the planet.” (source).  

Examples of ongoing ecosocialist struggles

From North Dakota to Puerto Rico to Palestine, communities are rising up in ecosocialist struggles to protect their environment.For example, Standing Rock was a indigenous-led resistance against the construction of the $3.7 billion Dakota Access Pipeline, whose planned route was half a mile from the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. Standing Rock was more broadly a movement to oppose neo-colonialism and extractivism on stolen land that lasted from April 2016 until February 2017. Coordinated efforts between Energy Transfer Partners, the North Dakotan government, local police, private security forces suppressed the movement, including the usage of militarized “counterterrorism” tactics (source). Since the movement began, there have been over 50 anti-protest bills introduced across the country, including ones painting/tampering with infrastructure facilities as domestic terrorism, introduced by Republicans and Dems alike. The fight against new fossil fuel infrastructure continues in the US, Canada, and abroad including fights against the Bayou Bridge pipeline in Louisiana which is part of the greater DAPL system.

Puerto Rico is a case study in disaster capitalism post-Hurricane Maria, which ravaged the island in September 2017. The government has treated the post-hurricane context not as an environmental crisis, but as a way of accelerating certain austerity measures, like the privatization of practically all public services (e.g. water distribution, public utilities, education). Additionally, the government has been courting capital investors and entrepreneurs through low taxes. Note that most of Puerto Rico is still in a deep electric power crisis as recovery has been drawn out after the hurricane. In terms of pushback against disaster capitalism, PR residents and unions have been staging protests/work stoppages against austerity. For instance, the UTIER is a radical union operating the electric power authority. They are fighting against reduced pay, safety regulations, etc. and have consistently denounced the ongoing privatization, while calling for public control over energy and water utilities. There are also several anti-capitalist organizations and coalitions based in PR working to fight disaster capitalism (source).

Water in Palestine is almost entirely controlled by Israel, per the (supposedly temporary) Oslo Agreement of 1993, which stipulated that 80% of water from a joint Israeli-Palestinian mountain aquifer would be allotted for Israeli use, and 20% for Palestinian use. However, in reality water usage by Palestinians is closer to 10% due to problems with water infrastructure. The agreement also stated that Palestine can purchase an allotted amount of water from Israel – so water is not a shared resource, but a commodity and a means of control (source). Additionally, the water crisis is exacerbated by Israeli bombings of power plants, which have destroyed (among other things) water treatment capabilities. Israeli authorities often block construction of water infrastructure and sometimes even demolish existing infrastructure. As a result, much of the water that is available to begin with is polluted (source).

There are many more ongoing ecosocialist struggles than there was time to discuss, but it’s clear how environmental issues are extremely political, and used as weapons of oppression and of upholding capitalist interests. The relation between capitalism and imperialism is perhaps best encapsulated by The Belém Declaration, announced at the Ecosocialist conference in Brazil in 2009.

Environmental Ideologies

There exists a few different schools of environmental thought that include liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism, ecofascism, and degrowth as a means to ecosocialism. Understanding these schools of thought help contextualize the above ongoing struggles.

Liberal environmentalism

Liberal environmental organizations include groups like the Sierra Club, 350, or Audubon and World Wildlife Fund. They typically focus on campaigns with fairly narrow scopes that can be pursued by pressuring officials or passing legislation, with recent examples in Massachusetts that include campaigns to convince Governor Baker (R) to pass carbon pricing legislation, to pass a bill that would protect bees, or to ban the use of plastic straws. The movement to ban plastic straws, which some consider to have originated after a 2015 video showing a straw lodged in a sea turtle’s nose and has recently been championed by Starbucks, is a perfect example of this orientation. Banning plastic straws affects individual’s consumption habits and experts ranked straws 13th out of 20 plastic items in terms of danger to marine life (Wilcox et al, 2016). For comparison, fishing gear was ranked the most dangerous and comprises about 46% of the of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (Lebreton et al 2017). This singular focus on a winnable campaign around banning one consumer item has also ignored protest from people with disabilities who frequently have no good alternatives to single use straws and are already marginalized by our society.

In addition to typically favoring market driven and legislative approaches to problems, liberal environmentalists also have the perspective that humans are separate from nature, and pursue species and land conservation that isolates one from the other. In reality, indigenous people who use or manage a quarter of the Earth’s surface are more twice as likely to keep lands “natural” compared to other lands [sources – summary and Garnett et al, 2018]. When enacted as policy, this separation of humans from nature can cause displacement when land that is being used is turned into a conservation area if land tenure had not been established or if access to land is considered part of the commons. Enforcement of these conservation zones may require “special bodies of armed men” or other punitive measures. For example, park rangers shot and killed a man from the Batwa tribe in eastern Congo who had been looking for medicinal plants. The Batwa tribe had used this land for generations but had lost rights when a German-funded national park was put in place for species conservation.

Ecomodernism

John Bellamy Foster, in his review of the Jacobin climate change issue, wrote the following; “What is remarkable about the contributions to Jacobin‘s special issue on the environment and related works by its writers and editors is how removed they are from genuine socialism—if this involves a revolution in social and ecological relations, aimed at the creation of a world of substantive equality and environmental sustainability. What we get instead is a mechanistic, techno-utopian “solution” to the climate problem that ignores the social relations of science and technology, along with human needs and the wider environment. Unlike ecological Marxism and radical ecology generally, this vision of a state-directed, technocratic, redistributive market economy, reinforced by planetary geoengineering, does not fundamentally challenge the commodity system.”

ecomodernism
Source:http://www.ecomodernism.org/

Ecomodernism is the theory that our climate and environmental problems may be solved with little to no changes to our behavior because we will invent technological solutions (e.g nuclear, carbon capture and storage, afforestation, geoengineering, etc.), or what climate scientist and IPCC author Kevin Anderson calls a “shameful litany of technocratic fraud”. These technological solutions are purported to “decouple” GDP and carbon emissions, or more generally, GDP and environmental impact. As the Indigenous Environmental Network report on these methods describes, carbon offsetting, “clean development”, and cap and trade are market mechanisms that have not worked yet and often cause harm under capitalism with market forces.

Ecofascism

Back in 1798, in “An Essay on the Principle of Population”, Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus theorized that exponential population growth with a fixed growth of the food supply would result in catastrophe unless preventative measures were taken. These preventative measures include methods of birth control or suppression, which as you can probably guess usually ends up with race, gender, and class based oppression. Karl Marx was a critic of Malthus, calling him a “lackey of the bourgeoisie” who blamed workers for capitalist excess.

The belief lived on as society became dedicated to the idea into the late 1800s to early 1900s, partly thanks to the rise of eugenics and racism against non-white people. The discovery of the Haber-Bosch process that produces synthetic nitrate used in both bombs and fertilizers, and the resulting “Green Revolution” that industrialized our agriculture, cast doubts on the theory of linear food growth. Paul Ehrlich’s 1968 book, “The Population Bomb” revived the idea of population control. Written at the recommendation of the director of the Sierra Club at the time, Ehrlich connects population with environmental impact . He also advocated for forced population control and was one of the influences behind forced sterilization programs. Otherwise, the legacy of Malthus’ concern over population is commonly manifested in “eco-nationalists” or “eco-fascists” who are very concerned with birth rates, immigration, open borders, reparations, or emissions reductions. We should all know this originates from xenophobia and white supremacy, and as socialists that see the connectedness of struggles against oppression and the threat of fascism, we should be in the forefront of countering these eliminationist ideologies [example].

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Ecofascism is even prevalent in liberal discourse. The United States, which remains “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world”, considers climate change to be a “threat multiplier”. Under Obama, the Department of Defense released a report that said climate change will, aggravate existing problems — such as poverty, social tensions, environmental degradation, ineffectual leadership, and weak political institutions — that threaten domestic stability in a number of countries. In other words, climate change will make it harder to uphold American imperialism that enables our unethical consumption.

Ecosocialism through degrowth

Is the earth’s balance, for which no-growth – or even degrowth – of material production is a necessary condition, compatible with the survival of the capitalist system?’” – André Gorz (1972)

In advanced capitalist economies there is a strong correlation between increases in GDP and carbon emissions. Decoupling is the idea that GDP can grow without increased CO2 emissions because of things like increased efficiency. However we can’t just count on efficiency gains, because as the Jevons Paradox [reference] suggests we might simply use more energy/resources as efficiency increases. For first world countries, degrowth means the intentional downsizing of our economy by limiting energy, material, and labor inputs, and by shutting down socially unnecessary or harmful industries. Degrowth means a shift away from growth as a strategy of developing or organizing society.

In her article “Living, Not Just Surviving”, Alyssa Battistoni argues for reorganizing society to promote traditionally feminized type of labor, which also happen to be low carbon intensity, including care, education, and creative work. Much of this work is currently non-compensated or made invisible by gender relations. This means that degrowth in an ecosocialist, feminist society also needs to recognize and re-work gender relations. The vision of a society practicing degrowth is actually richer, with more time to do what you want to be doing (cooking, art, music, dance, seeing family, hiking, etc). For socialists in the imperial core, degrowth is an important component and first step toward climate reparations. For the Global South, degrowth means being allowed to choose their path. Right now global markets forces control their choices to a large extent. Examples like “Buen Vivir” from Andean indigenous culture (Aymara & Quechua) reject development through growth, and envision a fulfilling and radically democratic way of living.

Liberal environmentalism, ecomodernism and eco-fascism all fail to realize the solution to climate catastrophe cannot be individual change alone. Only through system change will we address the root cause of climate change.

How does the DSA practice ecosocialism?

The DSA has several ongoing ecosocialist projects across the country, particularly around divestment, public banking, and energy justice. Divestment and reinvestment campaigns aim to get rid of fossil fuel sponsorships, stocks, bonds, or investment funds that are morally ambiguous from state/union pension funds, university funds and religious institutions that use these funds to generate income to keep operations running. In New York, for example, Mayor Di Blasio announced in January 2018 a plan to divest $189 billion worth of retirement funds from fossil fuel corporations within five years, and to sue oil companies. This only happened with intense pressure from environmental groups, and it remains uncertain what the funds will be re-invested into. NYC DSA climate justice group was a coalition partner on work to divest from Wells Fargo and defund DAPL.

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Graphic showing major financial investors in three key pipelines in North America (courtesy: mazaskatalks.org)

A public bank is a financial institution owned by the government, funded with taxpayer money, and is directly accountable to elected officials and civil servants. They offer a transparent alternative to private banks, lower debt costs to city and state governments. There is currently only 1 in the US, the Bank of North Dakota; the bank loaned the state $6 million for law enforcement at DAPL protest site. Public banks are not a radical idea, they are a large part of the financial sector of developed nations like Germany and Switzerland. In Massachusetts, the BDSA Ecosocialist working group did some research around a public banking bill but ultimately decided against endorsing/putting energy and resources towards moving it forward because the bank can fund capital projects including new police stations and there are few transparency measures to keep the bank accountable to the public instead of industry.

#NationalizeGrid

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Image Courtesy: Providence DSA

More than 90% of Rhode Island is served by National Grid, which serves 3.3 million people for electricity, and 3.4 million for gas (source). The state’s public utility commission (PUC) is the only regulating body that keeps it in check. The PUC is made up of three appointed commissioners and serve to set the terms of debate around utility rates, tariffs, tolls, and charges, as well as the power to approve or reject proposed rate increases and infrastructure projects (source). Essentially, the PUC functions to ensure the profits of National Grid and give green lights to their projects.

Providence DSA started a chapter-wide campaign in 2017 to fight back against National Grid’s atrocious business practices. Providence DSA partnered with George Wiley Center on the campaign, given that the Center has been working on utility justice for over 30 years. Providence DSA and the George Wiley Center began doing research on the RI energy market and started organizing people from low-income communities to show up at town hall meetings hosted by the Public Utility Commission (PUC) to protest against National Grid’s rate raises and meter installment plan. Over the past year, the campaign has developed the following short term strategies: address the shut-off crisis due to smart meters by writing petitions to the PUC, joining the Wiley Center’s effort to reinstate Percentage Income Payment Plan, and engaging in militant and disruptive lobbying tactics at the PUC hearings against National Grid’s utility-rate hikes.To achieve this, Providence DSA canvassed South Providence about rate increase and upcoming public hearings to increase participation in the energy system. As a result of these efforts National Grid’s proposed rate increase was reduced by 75% and National Grid will be subjected to closer oversight of their grid modernization efforts (source). National Grid was also compelled to adopt a more robust low-income customer discount (source).

The longer term goal of energy justice work is to decarbonize, democratize and decommodify the energy grid and its generation sources. This would result in a statewide, publicly owned, decentralized, and democratically controlled utility. There is growing interest in energy justice work throughout DSA. Boston DSA’s ecosocialism working group has proposed a similar campaign as a chapter priority, and has been researching the landscape for several months. It is an especially poignant time for a campaign of this style in Massachusetts since members of two United Steel Workers unions’ local chapters have been locked out by National Grid for over three months and the recover from the Merrimack Valley gas disasters is ongoing. San Francisco DSA is currently working against a potential bailout of Pacific Gas and Electric after their inadequacy started the Camp wildfire.

To conclude, it is important to recognize that the struggle for ecosocialism must operate in solidarity with the struggle for indigenous sovereignty, anti-imperialism, and workers’ rights.

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