Losing Politics: A Proposed Definition of Base-building

By Ben S. 

In Brief

In this essay I define base-building as political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders.

First, I provide some background on my understanding of base-building work, and the impulses behind it. I also explore its goal as a strategy of the Left. I then list some theoretical assumptions that are key to my understanding of the operation of base-building but are not directly connected to Left organizing strategy. After that I try to formally define base-building and also discuss tactics that have been described as base-building that I feel don’t fit the description. I then address two of the potential obstacles I see to implementing base-building as described. Following that, I describe hypothetical campaigns addressing two issues: an eviction from a medium sized apartment building and a campaign against a centrist city councilor; I describe a non-base-building approach and a base-building one for each of these issues. Finally, I propose open-ended questions around base-building that I feel are necessary for the Left to address.

Background

Base-building is the hot new term on the American Left. My first exposure to the term was through the writing of Sophia Burns, Tim Horras, and others (this packet, assembled by DB Cooper, served as my first formal exploration of the subject). The phrase “organizing the unorganized” is used as a pithy explanation of what the tactic consists of. The most formal definition of base-building I have seen comes from a piece published in the Philadelphia Partisan, in which Tim Horras describes base-building as work intended to produce “new and more experienced militants” and sketches out possible means for that to occur. This tactic, despite clear connections to historical organizing tactics, was exciting and seemed fresh in the face of the previous tactics of the Left (see Sophia Burns’ Four Tendencies for a good summary of some of the past tactics and issues with them). In DSA circles and elsewhere, the concept of “organizing the unorganized” made sense; it felt right. Base-building was how we could win. Projects described as base-building garnered more attention, and drew more people in to help organize. However because of this, everyone wanted their project to be a base-building project. Base-building became (and remains) a buzzword. It began to lose its meaning.

My understanding of base-building is that it is based on an acknowledgement of the absolute weakness of the modern US Left. The Left as it currently stands is a small, marginal group. Even the largest socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists (DSA), has only 55,000 members on paper. I have no evidence for this except my own experience, but I would put a generous cap on the number of people who have attended more than two DSA meetings since 2016 at 10,000 nationwide. For reference, the Communist Party USA (CPUSA) had 50-60 thousand members in 1919 immediately after its split from the Socialist Party. Given our numbers, our ability to make change is limited. We can consistently get the same couple of hundred people out to protests. But without masses of people behind them, our demands hold no weight. If the Left wants real change, the Left must be built. I believe that base-building is the way forward for the Left. But in order to be used, the tactic must be more formally defined. Words without meaning are useless.

Given the weakness of the Left, it is no surprise that we frequently fail in our campaigns. Personally, I have taken part in a losing BDS campaign, a losing city council campaign, and seen the most meager of reforms watered down and rejected by “progressive” law makers. To quote the Labor Notes book Secrets of Successful Organizers: “people are power”. “There’s more of us then there are of them” is the underlying theory of how any socialist project hopes to win and maintain power. So where are the people? The Left must build up revolutionary power, build up people’s understanding of themselves as part of a collective, build up broad, true solidarity. To refer to the organizing bullseye model, people must be pulled from being indifferent to being supporters; people that are supportive must be made into activists; and those activists who can must be given the opportunity to develop into core organizers, into leaders. I believe there is no more radicalizing experience than the experience of fighting for change in the capitalist system. There is no better way to learn how to organize than by just doing it. I believe that the definition of base-building proposed here provides a way to allow people to organize, to fight, and maybe, just maybe, to win.

Underlying Theoretical Assumptions

This section covers some ideas that inform my definition of base-building. These ideas won’t be explored or defended here, but are intended to serve to help explain my line of thought.

  • People have an inherent understanding of their conditions, although the language they use may not match that used by others. Paolo Freire’s discussion of “emergent themes”, the idea that in the process of working with people the manifestations of oppression will become clear and that a path forward will come out, in Pedagogy of the Oppressed influences my thinking here.
  • The state under capitalism is a tool of bourgeois oppression. Legislation from capitalist parliaments will never fulfill the needs of the working class. However, elections and the state can be used for propaganda purposes, and socialists in power can take actions to help lift the boot up a bit off of people’s necks.
  • The Democratic party and the Non Profit Industrial Complex are the structures through which left dissent is dissipated while leaving capitalism as a system intact. In order to preserve the possibility of a revolutionary horizon, the working class must be able to express itself outside of these institutions.
  • All of the Left’s analyses and theories are at best approximations of the actual processes and structures of society and revolution. There is currently no visible vanguard. The vast majority of the explicitly socialist Left (in the form of political parties and registered as non-profits) as it currently exists is separate from the working class and cannot claim to fully represent the working class.
  • The most likely way in which radical change will occur is through crowd events like the Gilets Jaunes, the bus fare protests in Brazil, or a large scale version of Occupy. Masses of people flooding in to the streets in a statement of “no, enough”, preventing the functioning of capitalism and demonstrating that another world could be possible (see Jodi Dean’s Communist Horizon and Crowds and Party for more information) create a space in which a socialist hegemony can emerge. These events are vulnerable to fascist entryism and co-optation (e.g.- in  France, or Brazil). Organized structures of the working class that can claim to speak for the crowd are necessary to prevent fascist cooptation of the crowd moment and ensure that the ensuing change moves towards a socialist horizon.
  • The end goal of socialism is democratic control of society and production by the people, and the elimination of all forms of oppression. The current goal of the Left should be to build up the capacity of the working class to self-organize and express its demands.

The independent structures created through base-building work provide a means for the concerns of the working class to emerge, and for an understanding of the working class’s collective interest to develop and be expressed. They can both provide for the working class’ immediate needs and make demands on the system as a whole. A network of these institutions could form the seeds of a revolutionary mass working class party, fit to claim the mantle of leadership during a revolutionary crowd event. In the event of a Left capture of state power, assuming that these institutions remain independent of any leading party, they can serve as a check on the power of those claiming leadership. As George Ciccariello-Maher’s description of the comuneros under Chavismo in his book Building the Commune  shows , even successful Left movements are vulnerable to bureaucratism, which can be corrected only by the assertion of democratic decision making on the part of the working class.  

Base-building: Fighting to Win, Planning to Lose

The guiding question for my definition of base-building is “What do we as organizers want to have remaining/standing if/when our campaign fails?” Too often, after a failed campaign, all that organizers can say they’ve built or achieved are strengthened friendships and connections among people already involved in political work. A new person or two may have found their way in to the organizing meetings through coalitions or social connections, but all that really remains are tired organizers, improved understanding of campaign tactics and local conditions, and an organization/affinity group at best one or two members bigger.

To further inform a definition of base-building, this is a non-exhaustive list of tactics I have seen described as base-building that I feel do not fit the description:

  • Awareness Campaigns
  • Protesting/Direct Action
  • Recruitment of members to an ideological organization/a front group of an ideological organization
  • Electoral Work
  • Mutual Aid

These are all valuable forms of work and can either be part of base-building tactics or undertaken as a base-building campaign, but in and of themselves these are not base-building activities. If any of them fail to achieve their explicit goals, there are no new organizers or organizations to strengthen future work.

So if these are not base-building activities, what are? Base-building activities are political work done in such a way that it either results in creating or strengthening of existing mass democratic organizations (independent of any other political organization or NGO) of the working class and that develops individuals not previously engaged in political work as organizers and leaders. This work can either be the explicit goal of a campaign, or intentionally pursued as part of a campaign around an agitational issue. The work we do must be pursued in such a way that at the end of the campaign the initial organizers can disengage, and have the work be self sustaining. Socialism is a collective project, anything relying on the long term presence of a single individual is doomed to fail.

Why democratic and independent? What is meant by those words here? The created structures must be vehicles for self expression of the working class. Without democracy, or with explicit or de facto control by separate political groups, the new structures will treat people as foot soldiers of a pre-decided cause rather than organizers of equal standing. The horizon of socialism is a stateless, classless society, it is the people in power. As organizers we must trust the people who we are organizing with to find the best path forward. We should not hide our radical and revolutionary politics, but neither should we expect the people we are organizing with to fall in line with our beliefs. We are working to create a means for the working class to express itself as a “class for itself.”  Direct democracy is the only means available for the working class to fully express itself, with all of its contradictions and complexities fully represented.

What does it mean to be a “mass” organization? In terms of formal structure, all it means is open membership. In practice this entails working to ensure that what is created has a mass character, that the membership of the organization is reflective of the complexities of the working class. This means approaching our organizing with an understanding of intersectionality and working to avoid recreating the issues of simply being a more organized vehicle for the “scene” to express itself (as described by Sophia Burns here). Despite its open membership, the DSA distinctly does not have “a mass character”, as described in the recent article on racial issues in the DSA. There is no way to guarantee a mass character, but working towards truly representative organizing likely takes the form of minimizing outside organizer presence in mass meetings, actively addressing racism, and engaging in coalition work with other organizations that have a mass character.

Under the above definition base-building is not inherently tied to any single issue, although some issues are easier to organize around than others. The ideal issue is one that directly affects the lives of those being organized and has an initial solution that feels achievable enough that someone not currently involved in political work would be willing to give their time to the project. As a revolutionary socialist, I believe that we cannot reform our way to socialism, but that is a belief based on study of theory and organizing experience. People may not share that belief, or they may feel that revolution is impossible. Knocking on someone’s door and directly advocating immediate revolution likely won’t be effective. But asking someone to join with their neighbors to fight the landlord, or discuss how to make change in their neighborhood seems doable. And if the structures created last until the revolution comes, they can provide a way for the people to express and organize themselves more effectively than they could based on spontaneity alone.

Obstacles

Legitimacy, Resources, and the NGO Trap

Canvassing is often a large part of most (if not all) base-building campaigns. In the case of DSA, this takes the form of primarily mid to late-20s college-educated, middle- and upper-middle class white men knocking on people’s doors. Someone like that knocking on your door is more likely to work for the landlord than want to help you fight them.

Adding to that, with the exception of members of labor unions (and most of those aren’t anywhere near democratic) most people in the US have no experience being in an organization of the type that base-building hopes to create. Especially when a base-building project is just starting up, and there isn’t much past success to point to, convincing someone that their participation in the project is worth their time is difficult. Coalition work with NGOs can provide a short cut to legitimacy, as well as access to resources when mutual aid is a portion of the project. However, most NGOs with resources are unlikely be supportive of the creation of autonomous structures with a revolutionary goal. I do not draw a hard line against ever working with NGOs on base-building work, but I think coalition relationships and partner orgs should be carefully studied, and the organizing focus must remain on building autonomous structures. The risk of a project drifting towards a charity and service model should be kept in mind.

Classism, Racism, and Patriarchy

Base-building organizations are made up of people. Without constant work, they will reproduce the structures and prejudices of capitalist settler-colonial heteropatriarchy. Sexual harassment will probably occur and will need to urgently addressed. Racist and classist statements may be made by individuals and will also need to be addressed. Groups may also choose to undertake projects that enforce systems of oppression, for example a tenants union choosing to take on a project of changing the behavior of “problem tenants” rather than identifying the landlord as the real target. Redirecting these frustrations towards better targets (landlords, bosses, etc.) is difficult to do while maintaining the democratic and independent nature of base-building, and the best way to handle this is an open question.

Hypothetical Example Campaigns

Tenant Organizing

Problem: Jane Smith’s landlord wants to convert her apartment in a ninety unit building into a jacuzzi room for the landlord’s son and files a no fault eviction of Jane. Other tenants in the building have issues with mold and water damage, as well as difficulty getting things fixed. Rents in both the building and the city as a whole have been steadily going up for years. The building is a mix of section 8 and market rate tenants.

Individual Aid Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and make contact with her and offer to provide assistance. The organizers recommend and assist in calling a legal aid service to provide legal assistance (If the service identifies Jane as having enough need, assistance is provided). If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Organizers recommend and assist in contacting city agencies to assess facts of the case/state of Jane’s apartment.

If Jane wins her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane stays in her apartment!
  • A relationship was built between Jane and the organizers (although she has no direct means of influencing future organizing work, short of joining the organizers political group).
  • Jane hates the landlord (more?).
  • Jane’s neighbors are likely unaware of the struggle, and may still not understand how their landlord operates.
  • No fault evictions are won by indicating that the landlord hasn’t held up their end of the lease to provide a habitable living space. This is typically shown by getting record of housing code violations (which most apartments have). If the landlord addresses these issues, the case could be refiled and the process started over again.

If Jane loses her case, what are the material results of the organizing work?

  • Jane contacts local public assistance agencies + NGOs for help finding additional housing (with the assistance of organizers), is homeless in the short term, potentially has to leave her neighborhood and community.
  • Jane only has her previously existing support structure of friends and family to rely on and the resources of assisting organizers.
  • No one outside of Jane and her immediate contacts are aware of the situation; other tenants are in danger of similar future treatment by landlord with no support.

Tenant Organizing – Base-building Approach:

Organizers find Jane’s case through reading the docket of upcoming eviction cases and identifying her building as a target for organizing. On the initial canvas, organizers knock on all doors in her building, and inquire about ongoing issues. Agitation is done around common conditions issues, rent raises, and general gentrification. If individuals are interested, tenant unions are mentioned as ways to fight back. Contact information is gathered. Contact with Jane is made, organizers assist with her case in a manner similar to the advocacy model, and provide court support while also working to unionize her. If any NGO identifies Jane as not being in need, the organizers still work to support her regardless. Canvasses are repeated; tenants showing interest are invited to help canvas. Agitation is done around Jane’s case, identified issues, and around the general issues of the area. An initial meeting is planned either in an apartment in the building, if a tenant is willing to host, or a nearby public space. Over a series of meetings, demands are articulated around conditions and Jane’s case. The tenants circulate and sign a letter that announces the formation of a tenant association and iterates their demands. This letter is sent to elected officials and the landlord. If similar tenants unions exist nearby, the tenant union is connected to them. The union takes democratically decided on actions as appropriate in pursuit of its demands, which would typically include dropping Jane’s eviction case. These actions can include forms of direct action, public pressure campaigns, or rent strikes.

If Jane wins her case:

  • She stays in her home!
  • She continues to work with the union to achieve their other demands.
  • Jane is connected to her neighbors, and there is greater awareness around her struggle/experience with the state when people are in conflict with landlords/capitalists generally.
  • The union continues to exist as a vehicle through which future tenant issues can be addressed, and its members gain organizing experience.

If Jane loses her case:

  • The union is in a position to provide material and emotional support, in addition to the existing assistance agencies.
  • The union can engage in direct action or a public pressure campaign in support of Jane, without relying on the legal system.
  • In the event of a future eviction, the union is in place to take action around that eviction.

Groups operating this way: City Life Vida Urbana (with Boston DSA) – Boston MA, the Philly Tenants Union and Philly Socialists, the Tenant and Neighborhood Councils (TANC) in the Bay Area, the LA tenants union, etc..

An Electoral Campaign

Problem: In Brockhampton, MA (pronounced “wooster”) – a gentrifying suburb just north of Boston has elected Tony Baloney, a cop loving pawn of real estate developers and landlords, as city councilman of Ward 3 for the past 20 years.

Data Based Voter Contact Approach:

Two or more years out from the election, organizers identify and target the seat. They choose a progressive local activist to run for the seat (the candidate may or may not self-identify as a socialist). The campaign managed by small number of staff people and highly active volunteers. Endorsements are sought from local progressive and socialist organizations. Likely and registered voters indicated by a voter information management service (such as Votebuilder) are canvassed. Usually voters receive two visits. First, an informational canvas, informing voters of the election, discussing issues of concern chosen by the campaign. Canvassers record if voter plans to vote, and ask if the voter would like to volunteer with the campaign. The second visit is a get out the vote canvas immediately before the election, canvassing voters who indicated they would vote for the candidate to remind them to vote.

If the candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice on city council.  Passing progressive or socialist legislation without compromise is unlikely, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The remaining infrastructure is primarily campaign staff, volunteers, who are likely personally invested in success of candidate. Some connections to endorsing organizations may persist as well.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged and heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The campaign staff and volunteers have more experience in running a campaign and have gained some social connections to the endorsing organizations.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Proposed Base-building approach:

This is based on adaptation of tenant organizing model to electoral issues. I have no personal experience in planning electoral campaigns, so this is very much a hypothesis. This differs from the models of the Richmond Progressive Alliance in that it does not rely on non-profits getting together to form a coalition focused on a pre-decided election or set of elections. It is most similar to the Cooperation Jackson model of neighborhood assemblies and allowing those assemblies to guide to organizing.

The campaign has a goal of organizing neighborhood constituent assemblies, who may elect one of their own to the city council seat. Two or more years out, the seat is identified as a potential organizing opportunity and canvassing begins. Canvassing is done for issue discovery and agitation around discovered issues and the general state of the city government. All residents are canvassed, regardless of their voter registration status. The initial canvassing ask is for attendance at a constituent assembly. Organizers can mention potential of challenging council member – but with an emphasis on that the selection of a challenger/decision to run will be made by constituent assemblies. Repeated conversations/relationship building through repeat canvassing of individuals are key. The long term vision and intent of the organizers can and should be shared with people who ask as well as being presented at the constituent assemblies, described as a way to amplify the voices of the residents. The strategy should not be a secret. The constituent assemblies are run democratically, with a structure decided by the assembly. All of the meetings are open. Initial organizers are present as individual members of the assembly, with no special privileges. The meetings serve three main purposes: community building (food and child care should be present at the meetings), issue discussion with participants sharing stories and frustrations, and discussion and planning of actions that could resolve identified issues (this is where challenging city councilman or other electoral work such as ballot question campaigns could be proposed). Only a small number of outside organizers should be present (aim for ~4, regardless of meeting size). Geographic area represented by the assembly is variable, dependent on local conditions. Organizers should work to develop leaders, and make the assemblies self-sustaining. If other assemblies/similar groups are present, organizers should work to connect them to the assembly being built. Who should the organizers connect to? Small d democratic, open, mass character orgs. NGO involvement is not an inherent stop, but careful study is needed if NGO involvement is in place in the other organization. Does the NGO leadership choose priorities then just mobilize the organization’s members or are members clearly in control? What is the connection to the Democratic Party (its progressive or establishment wing)?

If the Assembly chooses not to engage in the election:

  • Organizers continue building it until it is self sufficient/capable of engaging in its own recruitment/agitation canvasses.
  • Initial organizers mention recreating similar structure nearby, potentially request organizing assistance from the current assembly.
  • Initial organizers maintain involvement and communication with the assembly, maybe continuing to place the option of electoral work on the table.

If the Assembly chooses to engage in the election:

  • The assembly elects an individual to run for seat.
  • Campaign strategy decisions are made in open democratic meetings run through the assembly.
  • All formal campaign staff positions are filled by election as well (primarily spokespeople given permission to speak for the assembly).
  • Electoral canvassing operation should be done in a way that works to bring more individuals in to the constituent assembly. Fewer repeat visits are acceptable due to the need for additional contacts, but canvasses should still include registered voters and those who can’t vote.

If the Candidate wins:

  • There is one additional progressive/left-ish voice (connected to the mass organization) on city council. unlikely to win legislation without compromise, absent heavy external pressure. The candidate can use their new position to advocate for more radical changes, although they will be unlikely to make them reality.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed (including placing pressure on the elected candidate, in the likely event of co-optation/mission drift), or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

If the Candidate loses:

  • The City Council is unchanged, heavy external pressure is needed to pass progressive or socialist legislation.
  • The constituent assembly infrastructure is in place to provide pressure as needed, or to work on different projects as chosen by the assembly.
  • All members of the constituent assembly gain some experience in running a campaign/generally organizing, potentially radicalizing some not previously radicalized members in regard to the functioning of the electoral system.
  • There is a general raising of awareness around the campaign’s issues based on conversations with canvassed people and limited media coverage of campaign.

Groups operating this way: Cooperation Jackson. I believe the Cat Brooks campaign in Oakland may have come out of a similar structure as well.

Future Questions

My hope is that by proposing a more formal definition of base-building we can advance conversations around organizing tactics on the Left as a whole. If we accept the definition of base-building as the organization of mass independent democratic structures in the course of a broader organizing project, we are faced with a number of questions as to the applications and limits of this strategy.

Most directly, strategies for working through the obstacles mentioned in this piece, (and others I am unaware of) are not yet apparent.  These will require hard work, hard thought, and likely many failures on the part of organizers to be discovered. How can we as organizers work through the challenges of bringing people together? How can we build mass solidarity?

Next, this definition was developed out of my experience working in tenant organizing projects and on a municipal BDS campaign (not to mention countless conversations with comrades). The only concrete examples of campaigns proposed are a tenant organizing campaign and an electoral campaign. What would an ecosocialist base-building campaign look like? A prison abolitionist one? An anti-imperial one?

Thirdly, base-building campaigns are best suited to smaller scale local projects. But socialism is an international project. This piece is being written in the US, the current seat of capitalist empire. As leftists in the US, we have a duty to actively oppose and undermine the functioning of the empire. Where does base-building fit in to this context?

Finally, as all leftist writing should remember, we are living in the anthropocene. We now have only eleven years to prevent the complete collapse of the climate. Petro-capitalists and the bourgeois state appear to have made the bet that they have enough money and guns to survive the post climate change world. The scale of the problem is massive. Yet base-building projects are best suited to small scale patient work. How can we fight against something with the scale and urgency of the climate? We are faced with an updated version of Rosa Luxembourg’s question: Ecosocialism or Ecofascism? The world is clamoring for an answer, and time is running out.

The Coming Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks for Socialists

by Ben M

As we pass the 10th anniversary of the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the subsequent descent of the world economy into the Great Recession, the horizon is once again darkening for capitalism. While economic forecasts often resort to little more than reading tea leaves, e.g.- the regular predictions of a “double dip” recession during the early 2010s that never materialized, the warning signs of new and potentially greater recession are getting harder to ignore.

The last few months have seen noticeably volatile stock markets (oftentimes set off by a Trump tweet) as well as the total collapse of the cryptocurrency market (set off by the fact it was always a bubble and only fools thought they could cash out in time). But the economy isn’t the financial and stock markets- they are just the turbulent foam on top of deeper shifts in the world economy; rather something longer term has started to errode the capitalist class’ confidence in their own ascendancy.

First is the paradoxical fear of growth. The economy has technically been growing continuously since June 2009 (though you might not have noticed), which is an unusually long time without what capitalist economists like to call “self correction”, i.e. the capitalist cycle of boom and bust,  kicking in. During that time over 85% of that growth went to the fabled 1%, something you may have noticed. This has created a highly “efficient” and massively topheavy economy of low wage workers working harder than ever to make things they can’t afford for an uppercrust of capitalists with more money than they know what to do with. The rich can only buy so much, and with most of Americans sinking more and more of their paychecks into just paying off loans and for the essentials, there is a rising fear of what would happen when a glut in consumer goods occur. The extent of how far overproduction has oriented itself for the needs of the rich can be seen in the absurd scenario of the explosion in construction of empty luxury condos, helping to fuel the housing crisis.

On the macro side, the China vs Trump trade war, combined with the massive payout to corporate America through Trump’s tax cuts, was meant to fuel some form of nationalistic re-industrialization. Instead of this MAGA pipe dream, something very different has emerged. Major capitalist enterprises has re-invested their tax cut windfall not into expanded domestic production, but rather buying back their own stock, hitting records not seen since right before the last recession in 2007. At the same time General Motors (GM) has announced the closure of three plants and the layoff of 5,600 industrial workers, to help create the “lean” overly automated and disposable workforce for the future. Combined, these look like companies battering down the hatches for the economic storms to come.

While these problems alone could potentially set off a recession, changes to the US financial sector could have a bigger impact. The last decade of economic growth for the rich has been financed in part by dirt cheap loans at super-low interest rates set by the US Federal Reserve. Essentially this means the Fed has been printing money for a decade to keep the cost of the loans that keep the economy rolling low, but that is soon to change. With the Fed expected to raise interest rates to something more close to reality, the overly leveraged financial markets are freaking out that the days of easy money are gone. At the same time the International Monetary Fund is saying that they don’t have the resources on hand to meet a financial crisis when it hits.

Short term Treasury bond rates are closing in on the long term rates, meaning long term outlook isn’t looking good from the financial markets’ perspective, a typical early sign of a recession. Demand for raw materials is holding steady for now, though we are starting to see a flurry of bankruptcies in principal industries impacted by Trump’s trade war, an apparent slowdown in some manufacturing sectors, and lower homebuilder confidence. It is still difficult to perceive through the noise to the deeper trends, but once we start to see slacking demand for the raw materials and capital equipment needed to expand production, then we will know we are in trouble.

So what does this all mean? To help situate us and begin to see through the fog of often contradictory economic data, we can start with the classic theory of capitalist crisis first outlined by Marx and Engels as early as the Communist Manifesto,

Modern bourgeois society, with its relations of production, of exchange and of property, a society that has conjured up such gigantic means of production and of exchange, is like the sorcerer who is no longer able to control the powers of the nether world whom he has called up by his spells… It is enough to mention the commercial crises that by their periodical return put the existence of the entire bourgeois society on its trial, each time more threateningly. In these crises, a great part not only of the existing products, but also of the previously created productive forces, are periodically destroyed. In these crises, there breaks out an epidemic that, in all earlier epochs, would have seemed an absurdity — the epidemic of overproduction. Society suddenly finds itself put back into a state of momentary barbarism; it appears as if a famine, a universal war of devastation, had cut off the supply of every means of subsistence; industry and commerce seem to be destroyed; and why? Because there is too much civilisation, too much means of subsistence, too much industry, too much commerce.

What Marx and Engels are talking about here is capitalism’s inherent drive to over expand, to overproduce. Individual capitalist companies are in fierce competition to take over greater segments of their market or else risk falling by the wayside. Since there is no coordination between them, and their outlook is purely short term, there is constant habit of “supply to overstrip demand” to use the mainstream economics speak. Capitalism isn’t producing for human demand necessarily, they are producing to achieve profits. So there is a deep irrationality to production, seen for instance in the explosion of luxury condo construction that house no one because the housing costs are too high.

Simultaneously, there is a drive within capitalism to forever reinvest in production in such a way that undermines capitalism’s ability to realize the profits it is after to begin with. To stay competitive, capitalist enterprises since the early days of the industrial revolution have had a strong incentive to find ways to replace more and more workers with automated machinery to help lower costs (see GM’s recent announcement to layoff thousands of workers while still aiming to meet similar if not high production quotas). The structural problems hit when you start laying off and underpaying the working class to such an extent they can’t buy your products anymore. This drive to ever automate and an ever increasing pool of precarious workers with bullshit jobs was first called out by Marx when he said capitalism, “dispels all fixity and security in the situation of the labourer … it constantly threatens, by taking away the instruments of labour, to snatch from his [sic] hands his means of subsistence, … to make him [sic] superfluous. [T]his antagonism vents its rage in the creation of that monstrosity, an industrial reserve army, kept in misery in order to be always at the disposal of capital; in the incessant human sacrifices from among the working-class, in the most reckless squandering of labour-power and in the devastation caused by a social anarchy which turns every economic progress into a social calamity.

These factors of overproduction for a consuming workforce that have been edged out of their sources of a livelihood inevitably and recurrenly explode into a full economic crisis. As the late Marxist economist and historian Chris Harmen said, “Thus what makes sense for an individual capitalist—investment in new technology—plants the seeds of crisis for the system as a whole. Eventually the competitive drive of capitalists to keep ahead of other capitalists results in a massive scale of new investment which cannot be sustained by the rate of profit. If some capitalists are to make an adequate profit it can only be at the expense of other capitalists who are driven out of business. The drive to accumulate leads inevitably to crisis. And the greater the scale of past accumulation, the deeper the crises will be.1

Growth itself, paradoxically, then becomes the biggest threat to capitalism’s continued expansion.

Attempts to mediate these structural tendencies of capitalist growth through the financial market – using it as something of an emergency cushion – have mostly made had the effect to kick the can down the road. As Marxist economist Ernest Mandel details, the production cycle does interact and impact the financial markets, but often the two are autonomous. “Marx visualised the business cycle as intimately intertwined with a credit cycle, which can acquire a relative autonomy in relation to what occurs in production properly speaking. An (over) expansion of credit can enable the capitalist system to sell temporarily more goods that the sum of real incomes created in current production plus past savings could buy. Likewise, credit (over) expansion can enable them to invest temporarily more capital than really accumulated surplus-value … would have enabled them to invest … But all this is only true temporarily. In the longer run, debts must be paid.” Sooner or later the costs of capitalist over-expansion and overproductions come home to roost.

Looking at more historical examples, we see how and when each ‘boom’ is in a way creating the conditions for the next ‘bust’, that each recession is in part the creation of capitalism’s inability to fully “fix” the prior recession. The Great Recession came from world capitalism’s shift to the US housing market after the dotcom bubble and the wider financialization of capitalism as a means to address the stagflation of the 1970s. Too many eggs in one overproduced basket of the housing market, and a too highly leveraged financial market led to a spectacular bust. The 70s recession originated from the failure of Keynesian economics to overcome declining rates of profit in a period when the US was facing increased international competition. Keynesian demand side economics was adopted as a way to pull world capitalism out of the Great Depression of the 1930s but it would take a World War and the construction of a permanent arms economy to pull that off. And so on and so on.

The coming crisis in capitalism likely will have its origins in how the Great Recession was temporarily overcome by the capitalist class. The strategy the capitalist class pursued after 2007 largely followed the, “[t]raditional methods for the restoration of profits,” identified by Marxist economist Joel Geier at the time, of, “cheapening the elements of capital (plant and equipment, raw materials) and labor costs; using the reserve army of the unemployed to raise the rate of exploitation on the job; destroying inefficient capitals; and the healthier capitals buying up their distressed rivals on the cheap.” In other words, in order to return profit rates the capitalist class oversaw the total amelioration of the world working class through austerity to lower labor costs, combined with the massive influx of pure additive cash liquidity by capitalist governments to grease the wheels of corporate centralization. The temporary overcoming of what can be called the “Neoliberal Recession” of 2007 required the single greatest transfer of wealth from the working class to the capitalist class in human history. The current economy is a castle built on sand.

So when is the recession going to hit? No idea, and anyone who says otherwise is probably a charlatan. It could be 3 weeks, 6 months or 4 years before these contradictions start to hit. Many economists are talking about 2020, but that just speculation. The final economic trigger could be anything, but will likely be something ridiculous and petty in one of capitalism’s weak links, cause that’s just the times we live in. We don’t know when it will hit, but we know, due to the fact that capitalism is crisis-prone by its own profit motive fueled nature of perpetual growth, that it eventually will. By then we need to be ready.

We can already predict what Trump’s response will be – the wholesale destruction of what remains of the social safety net and a jingoistic campaign of divide and rule like nothing we have ever seen in the US (and that’s saying something). While it’s too easy to fall into hyperbole, we have already seen this monster erect kiddy concentration camps and deploy armed forces to the border to gas mothers and babies. Now imagine what he is capable of with a mandate from his fanatical base for a “final solution” to the sudden economic woes. Even if the crash happens after the new Democrat controlled House takes office, the logic of what Naomi Klein called the “shock doctrine”, combined with the history of the Democrats’ legendary spinelessness, indicates they will likely go along with the worst of what Trump comes up. “Bipartisanship” in the face of this crisis and this president will mean Democrats’ complicity in ethnic cleansing.

But it is the energy this will give to the fascist alt-right which is the most immediate threat. These killers who have shown their true intentions from Pittsburgh to Charlottesville will jump immediately on the opportunity to spread their nativist poison. We must prepare to confront the right at all cost. We can’t sit passively and hope people will naturally take anti-capitalist conclusions from the coming crisis. The right is perfecting its methods of taking the disenchantment of downwardly mobile pople and turning it towards fascism. But the same crisis that empowers the counter-revolutionary right can empower the revolutionary left. It all matters who is the best organized and the most bold. We must think of ourselves as actors, not just reactors to the titanic forces of world capitalism.

We will need to seize the initiative and capture the narrative of the coming crash. Protests, rallies, pickets, and organizing then is our first responsibility. Blog posts, videos, media spots, “memes” that articulare a anti-capitalist message are our next. There is an answer and alternative to more years of amelioration, austerity, unemployment, and low wages. The rich don’t have to get away with it this time. We can build a new world without borders, unemployment, debt, pollution, or crisis, and it is called socialism. And we can be ready this time to win it.

Now we have a left that has learned much in 10 years of post recession political struggle. Occupy taught us the importance of organization. The Obama wars taught us the value of anti-imperialism even in time of liberal warmongering. Black Lives Matter showed us a shining vision of uncompromising politics of human dignity that could seize the streets. #MeToo made clear that we either make our spaces accessible, safe, and intersectional, or we are little better than our enemies. And the strike waves of teachers from Chicago to West Virginia has proven again that workers have the power to bring this rotten system to heel.

For all of its room for improvement, Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) is in the best position to synthesize the past lessons, take advantage of the coming crisis, and go on the anti-capitalist offensive. It membership may be learning largely by building a mass socialist movement by the seat of our fucking pants, with a shoestring budget and prayer, but it is happening here. Our elected members are front and center, our protests are in your face, our message is spreading, and we are already shifting the “politics of the possible.” It is heady and confusing times, but by some strange decree of fate, whatever comes next in the American working class struggle will likely have its foci in part in the Democratic Socialists of America.

It is the job of every socialist to invest their time in analyzing the current political-economic climate and to figure out how to intervene in it. To that end there are number of steps the DSA and our local chapters need to prepare for the coming crisis built around the old Industrial Workers of the World tinirity: Educate, Agitate, Organize.

First we must deepen our political education. Comrades need to understand how capitalism works and how it doesn’t, why economic crises happen, and prepare to articulate this knowledge to a mass audience. With this knowledge we need to be thinking about how to prepare our agitational media. We need to be able to rapidly deploy our anti-capitalist  narrative through all means, from our elected members in Congress to our members holding placards at rallies, in order to counter and smash the fash right’s.

This, then, becomes a basis for our organizing. We need to take this time to deepen our relationship with local activists, our community neighbors, fellow socialists and progressives, all to prepare for a united left wing offensive. We must center and expand our labor organizing and immigrant solidarity work as our blood and air. In doing so we must be ready to flex our muscles and our direct action and protest organizing abilities. With 55,000 members, but only a fraction regularly engaged, member mobilization is critical. Chapters should be exploring all means to better activate their membership and get people out to protests, strike solidarity, ICE blockade actions, etc. Please forgive the pun, but real politics happens in the streets not the tweets.

And above all else, we must be adaptable, flexible, and our eyes fixed firmly to the political situation. As can be seen in France, things can rapidly accelerate in times of political and economic crisis. Shifting political winds can give opportunity or risk, and the ability for an organization to turn on a dime with tactics and strategies as the occasion dictates is no easy task. A lot will come down to local chapters and individual comrades making the right call on the fly as things progress. Preparing ourselves for the potential struggles ahead could help to make the difference.