The Woodstock Conservatism of Lana Del Rey

By Kumars Salehi

In January, pop star Lorde responded to pressure from advocates for Palestine by canceling a scheduled concert in Tel Aviv, prompting outrage (including an Israeli lawsuit against activists in her native New Zealand). Lorde joined a growing list of music artists — from Elvis Costello and Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters to Lauryn Hill and Talib Kweli — who have refused to violate the cultural boycott of Israel demanded by the international movement for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS).

On September 9, Lana Del Rey is scheduled to perform in Israel for the first time at Tel Aviv’s Meteor Festival, and it is regrettably unlikely she’ll join that list. The list of headliners, meanwhile, also includes Pusha T, the former Clipse rapper and president of Kanye West’s GOOD Music label, who has already demonstrated his willingness to compartmentalize politics for the sake of professional relationships when he distanced himself from the substance (if it can be called that) of Kanye’s recent statements about Trump and slavery.

Like Radiohead’s Thom Yorke, Lana has responded to pressure to cancel by pro-BDS fans and other activists by doubling down. First she tweeted a twopart statement of rationalization, “I understand your concern I really get do [sic]. What I can tell you is I believe music is universal and should be used to bring us together. We signed on to the show w the intention that it be performed for the kids there and my plan was for it to be done w a loving energy w a thematic emphasis on peace. If you don’t agree with it I get it. I see both sides.”

This isn’t the first time Lana has faced calls to boycott Israel, but it’s the first time she’s felt compelled to respond. In 2014, during the Israeli Defence Force’s month-long massacre in Gaza dubbed “Operation Protective Edge,” her scheduled show in Tel Aviv was postponed indefinitely, ostensibly for safety reasons. Ticket holders were told their tickets would be honored, but nothing further came of it — until now.

A second statement, posted to Instagram, finds Lana in a defiant mood: “My views on democracy and oppression are aligned with most liberal views,” she writes, “I just wanted to let you know when I’m in Israel I will be visiting Palestine too and I look forward to meeting both Palestinian and Israeli children and playing music for everyone.” She even refers to Waters’s direct appeal to her with a revealing bit of misinterpretation that is, if not callous, then sincere in its ignorance: “Also Roger Waters, I read your statement about taking action even when you believe in neutrality, I totally understand what you’re saying and this is my action.”

I take Lana at her word when, instead of taking action despite her supposed ideological neutrality, she serves up a steaming side of wacky spiritualism: “But could a person as good intentioned as I,” she replied to a fan account on Twitter, “not perhaps with my presence bring attention to the fact that something should change and that a singer with a loving energy can help shift the energetic vibration of a location for the higher good even if it’s just for a minute?”

The new-age sentimentality of Lana’s anti-boycott statement is consistent with her trajectory as a nominally apolitical musician. In 2014 she responded to criticism of her artistic embrace of traditional gender norms and a passive, subservient femininity by declaring that “the issue of feminism is just not an interesting concept. I’m more interested in, you know, SpaceX and Tesla, what’s going to happen with our intergalactic possibilities. Whenever people bring up feminism, I’m like, god. I’m just not really that interested.”

Her music has only recently started to feel the pull of U.S. pop culture’s now explicitly political center of gravity. Beyond the sultry vocals, gorgeous hooks, and the sonic melange of orchestral pop and hip-hop production that accompanies them, the thematic appeal of her music is a brutally romanticized negativity. This negativity isn’t a superficial “negative energy” that can be dispelled with positive thinking, as Lana’s spiritualism might explain it, but the gaping lack of being pulsating with loneliness and frustration in the core of her being. It’s the feeling of lack that pushes us away from a waking life in which we have no power and towards a fantasy in which we never needed it.

Lana’s is a self-absorbed interiority that drowns its anguish by immersing itself in the nationalistic and patriarchal tropes of the American imaginary, even making it her signature to perform and pose for pictures with an American flag in the background. Only with Trump in office did the flag start to represent something more sinister than romantic for Lana, as she told Pitchfork in a 2017 interview:

It’s certainly uncomfortable. I definitely changed my visuals on my tour videos. I’m not going to have the American flag waving while I’m singing “Born to Die.” It’s not going to happen. I’d rather have static. It’s a transitional period, and I’m super aware of that. I think it would be inappropriate to be in France with an American flag. It would feel weird to me now—it didn’t feel weird in 2013.

Trump has even moved Lana to political action, prompting her participation in the mass hexing of the president. Yet it may not be obvious from this newfound political engagement why Lana Del Rey in particular is unlikely to be moved on the issue of the cultural boycott of Israel, which is styled after the cultural component of the boycott that in the ‘80s led American stars like Miles Davis, Bob Dylan, Run DMC, and Bruce Springsteen to boycott the Sun City luxury resort — apartheid South Africa’s equivalent of a concert in Tel Aviv.

If you asked Lana about her political views, based on her reference to her “liberal views” on “democracy and oppression,” it sounds like she would tell you she’s a liberal. And yet, perhaps not atypically for white Americans who describe themselves this way, but certainly more spectacularly, Lana’s work and image are even now shot through with the reactionary implications of her preferred tropes.

. . .

Born Elizabeth Woolridge Grant to a millionaire internet entrepreneur in Lake Placid, New York, Lana Del Rey graduated with what she describes as a “degree in metaphysics” as a philosophy undergraduate at Fordham University. Metaphysics, the arcane-sounding subfield of philosophy concerned broadly with the nature of being, may partly explain the ethereal clichés Lana calls upon to deflect criticism of her politics, but her appeals to the power of an abstract universal love ring hollow.

The thematic gaze of her work is turned inwards, towards almost exclusively romantic feelings and interactions, the drive towards self-destructive hedonism, away from the problems of the world: the interior monologue of a modern subject caught in a vicious cycle between a frustrated but unending search for pleasure and the death drive, the aggressive and indeed self-destructive instinct that Sigmund Freud posited as the countervailing force to our erotic, social inclinations towards gratification and acceptance.

The death drive is the unconscious impulse of our tortured, riven psyche to return to inertia. As Freud points out in his 1932 letter in reply to Albert Einstein, who had consulted him on the topic of war on behalf of the League of Nations:

The death instinct becomes an impulse to destruction when, with the aid of certain organs, it directs its action outward, against external objects. The living being, that is to say, defends its own existence by destroying foreign bodies. But, in one of its activities, the death instinct is operative within the living being and we have sought to trace back a number of normal and pathological phenomena to this introversion of the destructive instinct.

That our will to live is opposed by a will to nothingness is clear for Freud when we act out aggression against ourselves and others even against our own apparent interests. Lana’s death drive, with the rare exception that finds her shooting down paparazzi helicopters, is very introverted.

“I wish I was dead already,” Lana once told The Guardian, prompting Kurt Cobain’s daughter Frances Bean Cobain to publicly reprimand her, tweeting that “the death of young musicians is nothing to romanticize.” Lana clarified only that the discussion of her suicidal thoughts was unrelated to her music idols, blaming her interviewer for “hiding sinister ambitions and angles,” but it’s clear that for Lana the tropes of romantic self-destruction and self-objectification are the bedrock of her thematic engagement with the world. Even on her first (now scrubbed from the internet after a rebrand) studio album, Lizzy Grant AKA Lana Del Ray [sic], an uncritical fixation on abusive and asymmetrical relationships with clear references only to landmarks of American culture should be familiar to fans of her later, revamped persona: “Come on, you know you like little girls / You can be my daddy,” she sings on “Put Me in a Movie.”

Developed to staggering effect on her next two studio albums, 2012’s Born to Die and 2014’s Ultraviolence, as well as in the highlights from her 2015 album Honeymoon, Lana’s brand of Americana pulsates with death drive, rushing headlong into the dark night of the soul. Sexualized fantasies of domestic abuse and toxic relationships (“Video Games,” “Sad Girl,” “Pretty When You Cry”), suicidal thoughts laden with references to tragic celebrity deaths and Los Angeles landmarks (“Born To Die,” “Summertime Sadness,” “Heroin”), ambiguously tongue-in-cheek manifestos for the gold-digging femme fatale (“Off To The Races,” “Fucked My Way Up To The Top,” “This Is What Makes Us Girls”), odes to drugs dripping with listless disdain (“Cruel World,” “Florida Kilos,” “High By The Beach”) are all set to haunting minor-key melodies that make a retreat into the nostalgic dream of 1950s and ‘60s Hollywood aesthetics sound like the answer to our suppressed, primordial drives.

Her strongest work to date assembles and presents these themes in a way that’s both ominously distanced and wistfully earnest, like an airbrushed David Lynch vision of America — the first two thirds of “Mulholland Drive,” the nightmare lingering just below the surface of the nostalgic desire for a lost past. The eroticized motif of the patriotic patriarch, the father figure who guarantees meaning and pleasure in national and gender identity, promises to make things right — but only as long as Lana conforms to the impossible shape of the girl of her man’s dreams, makes herself the object of a distinctly American male gaze.

This motif shows up throughout Lana’s oeuvre from “American” on the follow-up to Born to Die, the Paradise EP, to “Lolita,” the Born to Die cut that betrays at best a misreading of the Nabokov novel, to “Ultraviolence,” which finds Lana pining after an abusive lover: “Jim raised me up, he hurt me but it felt like true love / Jim taught me that, loving him was never enough.” Lana says she no longer performs the most controversial lyric in that song (“He hit me and it felt like a kiss”): “I sing ‘Ultraviolence’ but I don’t sing that line anymore.”

An equally iconic song from the Paradise EP has also become untenable for Lana, so much so that she has stopped performing it entirely. Lana explains that the single “Cola” was partly inspired by Harvey Weinstein, which makes sense when you hear the lyrics:

My pussy tastes like Pepsi Cola

My eyes are wide like cherry pies
I got sweet taste for men who’re older

It’s always been so it’s no surprise
Harvey’s in the sky with diamonds and it’s making me crazy
All he wants to do is party with his pretty baby

“When I wrote that song, I suppose I had a Harvey Weinstein/Harry Winston-type of character in mind,” she told MTV a month after the first of the Weinstein revelations had broken. “I envisioned, like, a benevolent, diamond-bestowing-upon-starlets visual, like a Citizen Kane or something. I’m not really sure. I thought it was funny at the time, and I obviously find it really sad now.”

Trump and Weinstein can force her to rethink some of her aesthetic choices, to describe censoring her setlist as “the only right thing to do.” But Lana doesn’t consider that it’s not just the big-name associations that reflect poorly on the underlying worldview behind the hypersexualized, reactionary dreamscape she evokes. The second verse of “Cola” starts, “I fall asleep with an American flag, I wear my diamonds on skid row / I pledge allegiance to my dad, for teaching me everything he knows.”

. . .

Maybe now the American flag is gone too, but it hasn’t been replaced with a sense of political responsibility so much as a fear of seeming impolitic. Her most recent album, Lust for Life, announces Lana’s arrival in a wax museum of the late-60s counterculture, in some instances trading reactionary, solipsistic despair for a vague liberal concern. The more upbeat, almost triumphal melodies and numerous ham-fisted stabs at social commentary confirm our image of a revisionist Lana, no longer willing to sneer and give the finger to the idea of social responsibility, nor to present her music exclusively through the filter of her tortured interiority. Now, for the first time, there are an array of featured guests: The Weeknd, A$AP Rocky (twice), Playboi Carti, Sean Ono Lennon and Stevie Nicks — all of whose tracks sound like they were more fun to record than listen to and add little to the album but embarrassment.

“Is it the end of an era? Is it the end of America?” Lana asks on “When the World Was at War We Kept Dancing.” It is not clear which war she is taking as a model, but the titular motif already showed up in the lead-up to her album release when she debuted another track, “Coachella – Woodstock in My Mind.” In a now-deleted instagram post, Lana digs deep into the well of her positivity and comes up with virtually the same answer she gave her fans and Roger Waters on BDS:

I’m not gonna lie—I had complex feelings about spending the weekend dancing whilst watching tensions w North Korea mount. I find it’s a tightrope between being vigilantly observant of everything going on in the world and also having enough space and time to appreciate God’s good Earth the way it was intended to be appreciated….I just wanted to share this in hopes that one individual’s hope and prayer for peace might contribute to the possibility of it in the long run.

Once again Lana’s commentary on issues outside of the Woodstock in her mind, her private Hollywood Neverland, is limited to trite and feckless sentimentality. What was in reality the death knell for ‘60s radical counterculture is, against the backdrop of her conservative fatalism, itself the most beautiful triumph of aesthetic enjoyment and good intentions. Asked about her previous political apathy, she doesn’t just suggest that the 2016 election and Trump made her rethink the importance of politics in her music, but rather that politics itself simply became more important: “It’s more appropriate now than under the Obama administration, where at least everyone I knew felt safe. It was a good time. We were on the up-and-up.”

Now Lana struggles to reconcile the nationalist and anti-feminist imagery she draws inspiration from with her impression that not everyone she knows feels safe in Trump’s America. As she told Elle, one of the musical highlights of Lust for Life, “God Bless America – And All The Beautiful Women In It,” is a reference to the state of women’s rights under the threat of a Trump administration: “It would be weird to be making a record during the past 18 months and not comment on how [the political landscape] was making me or the people I know feel, which is not good. I wrote God Bless America before the Women’s Marches, but I could tell they were going to happen… I realized a lot of women were nervous about some of the bills that might get passed that would directly affect them.”

The overarching shortcoming both of Lust for Life and of Lana’s newfound interest in politics is that it’s glaringly obvious that she has no skin in the game and nothing but clichés to draw on: The mournful darkness of nostalgia gives way to caricature and sentimentality. She shares the basic assumption of the conservatives and liberals who have united in the #Resistance that the Trump presidency is an aberration and a departure from America’s innocent past.

If Lana Del Rey did a full accounting, she would find that her entire oeuvre is implicated in the outrage, not over Trump and Weinstein, but over the culture and institutions that created them — including the themes and soundscapes that gave her inarguably haunting voice its power and allure. The menacing distance that comes across in Lana’s best work, in both its hip-hop and orchestral pop inflections, comes in part from a sense that the identifications she derives meaning from in life and art are impossible to sustain, because in each case she gladly identifies as the object, not the agent, of whatever arcane myth sustains her.

What allows Lana to surrender her agency to the providence of traditional authority even in the very act of protest is her abstract identification with the mysterious negative, the secondary role carved out for her in a fairy-tale society that exists only in the fantasies of reactionaries. Songs like “Sad Girl” are painful to listen to in part because they speak to a fatalism that transcends mere passivity: “Being a bad bitch on the side, it might not appeal to fools like you / We’ve been around when he gets high, it might not be something you would do / But you haven’t seen my man.”

What Lana has yet to discover is solidarity beyond the shunning of disgraced personalities, beyond the over-identification with the existential embrace of powerlessness that makes “neutrality” in the case of Israeli apartheid seem like a liberal position, and makes a spiritual kumbaya seem like all the action a person who believes in “neutrality” can take. Freud called the energy created by the pleasure instinct, the pro-social instinct, the libido — Lana Del Rey has indulged its counterpart, the lust for death, on far too structural a level to really grasp the inadequacy of her “loving energy” to counteract the material darkness that lurks behind every myth, every great man.

It isn’t that Lana (or Lizzy Grant) was ever a self-identified conservative — her earlier immersion in reactionary nostalgia, and the indifference it engendered, were no less characteristic of millennial liberalism than her post-Trump politicization. Lana’s “Blue Jeans” paints her AWOL lover as a spitting image of James Dean: What could be a more conservative, stereotypically American form of rebellion than a rebel without a cause?

If the new Lana has a cause, it’s clear that it ends with the removal of a despised figurehead and a return to normalcy. While she censors the most explicit line of a song romanticizing domestic violence, far more innocuous lyrics from the bridge speak volumes about what Lana would prefer to do  when faced with radical choices — to return to the neverland of an idyllic America: “We could go back to New York / Loving you was really hard / We could go back to Woodstock / Where they don’t know who we are.”

While Palestine advocates should not waver in their demands on Lana Del Rey, Radiohead, or other artists who have crossed the international picket line, the challenge of appealing to Lana for solidarity is a valuable case study in the ideological obstacles that remain before Americans who think like her are reachable. Deeper than Lana’s statements of concern about the Trump administration is her own reliance on nationalistic and patriarchal imagery that leaves no political avenue for resistance but that of passive, sentimental nostalgia — a Woodstock conservatism that can never go home again.

I’m a Postal Worker. Bernie’s Plan Won’t Save Us.

Green mailbox. The old green mailbox on the wall with big shadow.

By A Rural Carrier Comrade

I work as a Rural Carrier Associate (RCA) with the United States Postal Service. RCAs (and our city counterpart, City Carrier Associate, CCAs) are casually known in the service as “subs” because our main purpose is to cover a regular carrier’s days off. We learn multiple routes, work on-call, and rack up to 60 hours a week.

In this job, I experience more unpredictable scheduling than my time in the food industry; the physical exertion and hours rival my past farm labor; and management practices are more exploitative than my past private sector jobs. Ten-hour days are normal, twelve-hour days are common.

I was thrilled to get the job initially. A union job with decent pay and actual benefits providing a valuable public service sounded like the perfect solution to my unending series of alienating service jobs. The reality is I’m unable to make plans or appointments for my life outside work. I look at the schedule every day before I leave, hoping no one penciled in my name in an empty slot when I wasn’t looking. Every inch I drive and step I take is monitored by a tracking scanner. I’m told to behave as though I’m “always on camera, because you probably are.”

And I’m still in my trial period—which is 90 worked days or a year, whichever comes first—which limits my benefits and exposes me to abuse by supervisors. Without the same protections as regular carriers, I have to answer every call, work every shift asked, and be terrified of calling out sick or requesting a day off. I feel like a hostage.

So when I hear Senator Bernie Sanders’ new plan to fight privatization of the USPS doesn’t include a plan to save postal workers—I know it’s bullshit.

In Bernie’s letter to Steve Mnuchin outlining his proposal to reform the postal service, he bemoans the “slower mail delivery” and proposes restoration of speedier practices as one of his solutions. Meanwhile, postal workers are working six days a week or more, often 10-12 hours a day, just to barely manage their workload. Our supervisors already demand faster and faster delivery while parcel volume steadily climbs upward. Another sub said our postmaster recently told her, “You’re supposed to be getting faster, not slower.” She had just returned to work after treatment for a life-threatening illness.

One of my city comrades detailed his experience with the inhumane demands of postal service employment in his “Letter from a Red Letter Carrier,” including a story about how one woman had to sleep overnight in the office with her young child because of the outrageous hours. He also writes about the physical toll of the demands for speed:

The number one rule for CCAs was, ‘don’t get hurt.’ You may not read about it in the news, but USPS is number one for non-fatal work injuries, mainly from trips and falls…They work carriers to the bone, which drives them to work unsafely, which leads to injuries, but they then fire the carriers for ‘injuring themselves,’ in order to not pay compensation!

The USPS contract with Amazon accelerated the deterioration of working conditions. The USPS added a seventh day—aptly branded as “Amazon Sundays”—which was made possible by the introduction of a new position. Assistant Rural Carriers (ARCs) are non-career employees hired specifically to deliver Prime packages on Sundays and holidays. Without caps on days worked in a row in our union contracts, city and rural subs are often forced to join them. We could potentially work two weeks, a month, several months, without a day off.

It wasn’t always like this, my older coworkers tell me. “I used to love this job, before Amazon.”

We’re expected to be grateful to Jeff Bezos for saving our jobs and our salaries from the irrelevance brought on by digital communication. Unsurprisingly, some workers are grateful—capitalism has crushed the capacity of many wage laborers to collectively organize for creative demands by purposefully limiting our time and energy. We are dehumanized, driven to physical and psychological exhaustion, until imagination is replaced by the tired choice between irrelevance and a broken back.

Another component of Bernie’s plan for the postal service is the introduction of public banking services and, in a real stroke of innovation, gift wrapping. His letter is filled with references to “business,” “revenue,” and the need to “become more entrepreneurial.” This, all the while criticizing those who would wish to privatize the postal service.

But we are, essentially, private. The profit motive has already degraded what could be a public service, and adding new products or services will not save it.

Politicians in both parties talk about the USPS as though it’s a public entity struggling for relevance against private forces, but this is a misleading characterization of the entire distribution industry. The USPS is as completely dependent on private companies, as private companies are on the postal service. We have a contract with Amazon; we pay Fedex to fly our packages; and the USPS provides the “last leg” of delivery for many UPS parcels. As in other industries, the rhetoric of competition is a facade for the inextricable business interests of capitalists.

The postal service also has no federal funding. It is funded through postage and other services, not taxes, and is therefore private by any practical definition.

Politicians do not want to secure the future of a public service as much as they want to privatize it in a neoliberal, cynical fashion. Without challenging the unspoken, bipartisan agreement to withhold public funds, the “public” aspect of the USPS will further deteriorate. Without collective investment and subsidization, and truly democratic accountability to workers and the public, the postal service will continue struggling to maintain relevance within a volatile market.

The postal service, and postal workers’ conditions, will not improve through progressives’ continued fetishization of the service as a symbol of a well-functioning government. Even leftists are known to cry, “It’s the most popular government agency!” in defense of social democracy as a concept. But this service was built on the backs of exploited labor and capitalist practices, so adding duties without eliminating the existing pressures of profit is a temporary patch on a crumbling foundation.

Bernie is correct in his assessment that the right-wing plan to fully privatize the USPS would “devastate rural communities,” and that policies like the pension-funding mandate have obliterated the USPS budget. But instead of gift wrapping our way to the top of the distribution market, we need to opt out of the competition entirely.

Postal workers themselves must acknowledge the collective power we have to create a humane, public service. We need to revitalize the militancy of our union and challenge contracts that bargain for pensions but ignore the working conditions of RCAs and CCAs. We should make radical demands of our employer and state. Those demands should include federal funding — which would make the capitulation to Jeff Bezos unnecessary —, an end to constructed staffing shortages, predictable scheduling, a return to fewer delivery days, and a renaissance of the 19th century demand for real weekends.

USPS unions also need to join in solidarity with our co-workers in Amazon, UPS, and FedEx who experience similar (or worse) working conditions.

Our hands deliver medication, food, rent, and paychecks. Those same hands can stop cooperating with capitalist distribution systems if the ruling class, on both sides of the aisle, try to write our future without us.

You need to get in touch with your comrades and fellow workers and to become conscious of your interests, your powers and your possibilities as a class. You need to know that you belong to the great majority of mankind. You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are. You will be exploited; you will be degraded…You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor.

(Eugene V. Debs, The Canton, Ohio Speech)

 

Independent Power or Betrayal

Horace Vernet’s painting depicting the fighting near the Pantheon during the “June Days” in Paris in 1848

By Edward P

The PEWG Newsletter has carried one recommendation with a brief synopsis for a classic socialist text every two weeks since its launch. We’ll be a running a regular series where authors discuss why you should read and what lessons you can take from one of these classic works. If there is a book, essay, speech, or poem that is meaningful to how you understand socialism, please submit it here!

From the last two bolded words in the marxists.org translation, this is the PERMANENT REVOLUTION speech in my mind, but it’s actual, more pedestrian title, is the Address of the Central Committee to the Communist League. You should give it a read! It’s pretty short and like Karl Marx’s more popularly targeted works easy to read minus words like bourgeoisie and proletariat (the capitalist class and the working class).

Historical Context

At the beginning of 1848, Europe was a ruled by by an interdependent set of reactionary governments. The old aristocracy that seemed to have been swept away by the French Revolution and Napoleon’s conquests had reasserted itself, and built an above ground set of alliances and a below ground spy network intended to prevent a repeat of 1792. Where the representative government existed, enfranchisement was severely limited. In France, there were only around 300,000 eligible voters out of a population of nearly 36 Million.

The rising middle-class, the small merchants, doctors, and lawyers, chafed under the repressive regimes and agitated for having a say in government. When they finally took to the streets, first in Paris on February 22, 1848 , they were joined by a new class of people, the industrial proletariat, a group of urban people either drawn to the cities by new factory work or forced off their farms by the recurrent famines of the 1840s. They were pioneers in a new way of living where one had to sell their labor to live, but the opportunity to do so was not always a given.

This alliance of urban middle and working-class toppled or destabilized the governments of Europe one by one through the early part of the year. In France, it brought in a new government including the socialist Louis Blanc and the working-class leader Alexandre Martin (nom de guerre: Albert). However the desires of workers for reforms to the economic system were stymied by their erstwhile allies. Across the continent, the revolutionary coalition came apart and the forces of reaction clawed back the liberal democratic gains.

Karl Marx and Frederick Engels were active participants in these revolutions as well. Marx used his recently received inheritance to buy weapons for workers in Brussels, and both Marx and Engels moved from Brussels to Cologne (with the prodding of the Belgian government), where they pamphletted in support of the revolutionaries. Engels served as an aide-de-camp to August Willich, (who has an interesting story in his own right; he’d later split with Marx over whether workers should rise up immediately, then go on to be a general in the Union army during the American Civil War) in an armed uprising against the Prussian government.

Marx delivered this speech in 1850 as the revolutionary energy of 1848 had fully given way to reaction and counter-revolution. He was chiefly interested in what lessons the League of Communists, for whom he and Engels had written the Communist Manifesto in 1847 but had played little role as an organization in the 1848 revolutions, could draw from the tumultuous year.

Betrayal and Class Interest

Marx believed the main lesson of 1848 was the betrayal of the working-class by the liberal bourgeoisie, the section of the capitalist class that was kept out of formal power by either a lack of franchise or lack of a feudal title.

It was indeed the bourgeoisie which took possession of the state authority in the wake of the March movement of 1848 and used this power to drive the workers, its allies in the struggle, back into their former oppressed position. Although the bourgeoisie could accomplish this only by entering into an alliance with the feudal party, which had been defeated in March, and eventually even had to surrender power once more to this feudal absolutist party, it has nevertheless secured favourable conditions for itself.

The reimposition of the old order’s authority in Germany meant that another revolution was inevitable. Marx thought the revolutionary energy would come from another class, the petite bourgeoisie — meaning the shopkeepers, clerks, doctors, and small government functionaries. This was the class of people who agitated most for an expanded franchise in the 1848 revolutions. In France, they also made up the bulk of the National Guard — a militia whose participation early in the revolution toppled the monarchy, but who would then turn against the street protests when they demanded further reforms.

None of these classes — the liberal bourgeoisie, the petite bourgeoisie, and the workers — were powerful enough on their own to carry out their agenda. All had to act in concert with other classes to overcome the entrenched power of the state; though in the case of the proletariat it was a lack of consciousness and organization that stymied their power. In Marx’s conception, classes would only cooperate with each other to the point where they were able to achieve their ends, then turn back to the remnants of the old order; their gains and position secured.

The petite bourgeoisie — having failed to achieve their ends in the German revolutions — still looked to the working-class to bolster their strength for further revolution. Who would the workers look to in the next revolution? The petite bourgeoisie or themselves?

Institutions and Power

Institutions are never neutral. Political parties, companies, churches, schools, media outlets –  they are created out of the interests of certain classes or sections of classes and find their form and function based on the mode of production of production and the social relations that arise from it. Institutions built by the bourgeoisie serve their class interests — reproducing the social relationship, the wage laborers’ subordination to the holder of capital.

Take, for example, Northeastern University’s cooperation with ICE. Universities are institutions that make a pretense of neutrality — talking about academic freedom and the specialness of campus life, and, indeed, a Northeastern spokeswoman said, “Efforts to restrict which federal agencies a faculty member can approach for research funding are antithetical to academic freedom.” It is obviously ridiculous that any association with ICE could be neutral or a matter of academic freedom. The University aligns itself with a particularly brutal governmental institution because it is a capitalist institution and it is in the interests of capital to create an oppressed underclass of laborers.

Marx warned against the working-class being drawn into the institutions of other classes. He believed that ending capitalism, socializing property, and putting the productive forces of society toward the benefits of society were where the working class’s true interests lay. To accomplish these ends, workers had to build their own power independent from other classes.

Instead of lowering themselves to the level of an applauding chorus, the workers, and above all the League, must work for the creation of an independent organization of the workers’ party, both secret and open, and alongside the official democrats, and the League must aim to make every one of its communes a center and nucleus of workers’ associations in which the position and interests of the proletariat can be discussed free from bourgeois influence.

That isn’t to say they would be unable to, at times, make common cause with other classes. Democracy and basic freedoms that made open organizing possible did not exist in the German states in 1850. Marx felt that the workers could cooperate on narrow lines, “[the worker’s party] cooperates with [the petite bourgeoise’s party] against the party which they aim to overthrow; it opposes them wherever they wish to secure their own position.” But that they must always maintain their independence and not be draw into the institutions of opposing classes, even in the face of appeals to unity of the democratic opposition:

At the moment, while the democratic petty bourgeois are everywhere oppressed, they preach to the proletariat general unity and reconciliation; they extend the hand of friendship, and seek to found a great opposition party which will embrace all shades of democratic opinion; that is, they seek to ensnare the workers in a party organization in which general social-democratic phrases prevail while their particular interests are kept hidden behind, and in which, for the sake of preserving the peace, the specific demands of the proletariat may not be presented.

Workers, rather than being content with small wins whenever democracy was advanced or the power of capital curtailed, need to keep pushing for the victories to go further. One revolution in one aspect of society’s organization is not enough, they must keep the revolution going until they have won completely. Workers could only keep the revolutionary spirit going by being organized independently from other classes, building their own consciousness instead of taking it from capitalist institutions.

But they themselves must contribute most to their final victory, by informing themselves of their own class interests, by taking up their independent political position as soon as possible, by not allowing themselves to be misled by the hypocritical phrases of the democratic petty bourgeoisie into doubting for one minute the necessity of an independently organized party of the proletariat. Their battle-cry must be: The Permanent Revolution.

What Are We Building?

So what kind of institution are we building with our participation in the DSA? We are not yet organically of the working-class; we lack a base of support among working-class people such that we could claim to the speak for them. DSA isn’t yet a space for working-class people, as a class, to raise their consciousness and talk about their interests and positions.

We also lack independence from other class interests to establish a workers’ party. We should be very familiar with the calls for unity with petite bourgeoisie politicians and calls to work with the Democratic Party or other progressive groups rather than attempting to build our own institutions.

If we want to overcome these limitations, and really engage in a process of party building, we have to start by grounding our understanding of our situation in materialism. Recognizing that we are situated in a historical moment of class struggle, we have to examine what the class interests are at work in each task we pick up as an organization. We create a collective understanding of what these interests are, through study, rigorous debate, and democratic internal processes.

From there, we can move beyond our reflexive organizational alignment with progressive and liberal interests to establish independence as an organization. With a shared materialist understanding of these interests, what classes they seek to advance, we can understand how to engage with them strategically — when to ally with when they want to overthrow and oppose when they want to secure their position.

We should be building a working-class party. A party that advances only the interests of the working-class that is social revolution. We can’t simply decide to create this party wholecloth, but, by engaging in work that challenges the existing power of capital and by demonstrating a commitment to the interests of working-people above those of small business owners, labor bureaucrats, and other petite bourgeois elements that have historically made up the DSA, we can start the work of building “…a center and nucleus of workers’ associations.” Building independent, organized power should be criteria we evaluate our work by. Building a new workers party should be our end goal.

Their Dream and Ours: a Review of “The Dream is Lost” and a Path Forward for the Left

Three men standing around a car with signs for the Crusade for Voters

Mike B

The following is a short book summary followed by an analysis. This piece is the opinion of the author only and does not represent the views of any organization to which they belong. 

This piece was originally published on Medium.

SUMMARY

Julian Hayter’s invaluable book, The Dream is Lost,  provides the first monograph-length study (excluding several capable works which cover a much longer time period, including Rights for a Season) of the annexation crisis and the events surrounding it since Rutledge M Dennis and John V Moeser’s Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City in 1982. The Dream is Lost, however, also includes additional background that a slim volume like Politics of Annexation did not flesh out, and benefits from decades of hindsight in a way that Moeser and Dennis, writing so soon after the events described, could not.

dream-is-lost
Cover of Julian Hayter’s The Dream is Lost

Hayter insists that Richmond skipped the “protest” phase of the Civil Rights Movement (a notion that would surely surprise quite a few Virginia Union University (VUU) students and East End Neighborhood Association members!) and went straight to (electoral) politics. The Richmond Crusade for Voters, a middle class group, led the charge to the polls. When the Crusade was formed in 1956, the main impediment to Black suffrage was an onerous poll tax. The Crusade fought back by raising funds to pay the poll tax for indigent Richmonders and by going through Black communities on election day with speakers and megaphones exhorting residents to vote and excoriating those who did not. Numbers of registered voters skyrocketed and participation in city elections grew.

 

But, notes Hayter, “[t]he Crusade may have championed democracy, but it was not organized democratically…its decision-making process was almost entirely in the hands of its middle-class members.” Crusade brass determined for whom members would vote, and the organization’s committee in charge of selecting candidates would release their list of endorsements on the Sunday prior to the election (!), leaving little time for working class members to organize an opposition to the leadership’s slate.

Crusade priorities had initially centered on having Black voters cast their ballots as a bloc for progressive white candidates (be they Democrat or Republican), but, after a strong performance in the 1960 councilmanic election, the Crusade aimed for a more ambitious goal — winning a black majority council (BMC) in the capital of Jim Crow Virginia. In 1964, the Crusade saw its first Black candidate, B.A. “Sonny” Cephas, elected to City Hall along with several white candidates the Crusade had endorsed. After the Supreme Court struck down Virginia’s poll tax, the Crusade earned even greater successes, including the election of Henry Marsh, an outspoken civil rights champion, to City Council, along with two other African-Americans. Henry Carwile, a white progressive, joined his Crusade comrades.

henry_marsh_4
Henry L. Marsh III, second from left, during Richmond City Council meeting June 29, 1971. 1971 Times-Dispatch

Political defeats tailed closely behind electoral triumphs. Much of the Black middle and working classes were disgusted when a police review board proposal (already a compromise — the board would consist of zero members elected by the public, five selected by the City Council, and four police officers appointed by the city) was voted down 7–2, with Crusaders Cephas and Mundle siding with the white conservatives against Marsh and Carwile. Richmond Forward, the faction of the white right, rammed through legislation to run a new expressway through Randolph and Oregon Hill, sending residents to overcrowded public housing in East End and Southside. Route 64 had similarly destroyed the Navy Hill neighborhood without creating enough public housing to equal or exceed homes destroyed years earlier. It seemed as though too little had changed with Crusaders unable to counter the schemes of the white conservative Council majority.

Sensing the urgency of the Crusade’s plan to achieve a BMC, RF sought to annex portions of Henrico County containing tens of thousands of white voters. After five years (1961–1966) of tussling with Henrico residents, courts, and the Virginia General Assembly, the plan fell through. Richmond Forward’s successor, the Team of Progress, turned its gaze South to Chesterfield.

This plan to dilute the Black vote didn’t go unnoticed. Curtis Holt, a disabled former construction worker who founded a tenant association in Creighton Court, opposed the plan absolutely; the middle class leadership of the Crusade backed annexation, but demanded a switch from at-large Council elections to a ward-based system with enough majority-Black districts to ensure proportional representation. After a tumultuous legal battle that left Holt and some of his poor supporters at odds with the well-to-do Crusade leaders, Richmond annexed some 40,000 white residents of Chesterfield in 1970 (prior to this, the area West of Forest Hill Ave. was not part of the city). Responding to Holt’s charges of voter dilution, the Supreme Court issued an injunction preventing the city from holding new councilmanic elections until it had adopted a ward system. This wasn’t accomplished until 1977, meaning that the 1970 City Council was in power for the better part of a decade without standing for reelection!

In the next election, Crusade candidates swept five out of nine wards. At last, they had won a Black Majority Council. The new Council selected Marsh as the mayor and included newcomer Willie Dell, a Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) professor whose indefatigable anti-poverty activism, razor-sharp intelligence, and straight-talking brand of charisma endeared her to many of East End’s poor. The wind seemed to be at the Crusade’s back. It was not to be.

“The politics of Richmond are now controlled by Afro-Americans, [but its] economics [are] still controlled by white Americans”, lamented Maynard Jackson, Mayor of Atlanta (1974-1982, 1990-1994), who sailed to power on a wave of civil rights movement support, only to enact punishing neoliberal measures once in office. The campaign of obstruction and sabotage in Richmond was unrelenting — the press printed screed after screed against Marsh, white residents and white businesses left for the counties, leaving Marsh and his Crusaders with scant funds to rebuild and maintain homes and schools decaying from years of white neglect. Marsh felt he had little choice but to desperately pursue boondoggles to keep capital in Richmond — projects like shopping centers, the Project One disaster that gave Richmond an underutilized convention center on Broad and two overpriced hotels on either side, as well as the crumbling Coliseum, and Kanawha Plaza, the business center just West of Shockoe Slip on Cary with the hideous maritime statue.

White sabotage worked. Marsh failed to deliver an improved standard of living for the

Roy West
Former Richmond Mayor Roy West. C-SPAN

working class, and many well-to-do Black voters were eager to elect a candidate who was able to work more comfortably with the city’s white business establishment to prevent further capital flight. In 1982 the white power structure threw money at Roy West, a Black conservative, running for Willie Dell’s seat. Overspent and awash in invective from the white press, Dell’s working class base in East End was demoralized, but her district also stretched into more prosperous Highland Park, whose middle-class Black voters were anxious to dump Dell’s combative, left-leaning platform in favor of West’s promises to closely work with the white elite. West won, was elected mayor, and proceeded to privilege the desires of the wealthy above the needs of the working poor. The forces of reaction had triumphed.

WHAT HAYTER LEAVES OUT:

Jacquelyn Dowd Hall’s concept of a “long Civil Rights Movement” has become one of the most influential lenses through which to view twentieth century Black history. Hall contended that many of the roots of the “classical” Civil Rights Movement lay not in events immediately preceding the Brown decision, but can be traced back even further — specifically to the upsurge in Black activism and labor militancy in the 1930s. As Glenda Gilmore, among others, have argued, this means acknowledging the Communist Party USA as an influential institution in the rise of Civil Rights. It wouldn’t take much stretching to fit Richmond into the long Civil Rights narrative. The city was the home to a Communist-influenced union involved in major struggles to weaken the color line in industry and improve wages and conditions for black workers, and Richmond hosted the first headquarters of the Southern Negro Youth Congress, a Civil Rights organization that would later inspire groups like the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s.

Unfortunately, Hayter misses an opportunity to provide a “long Civil Rights” history of Richmond by instead focusing almost exclusively on voting rights and electoralism. This undertaking necessarily involves writing out or minimizing crucial political context at the grassroots level. Where, for instance, does Hayter mention the East End Neighborhood Association, the working class Black group whose uncompromising boycott campaign desegregated more than a few stores? Why is the reference to the Creighton Court Civic Association only in passing as a minor biographical detail of Curtis Holt? By analyzing only electoral politics Hayter neglects the myriad of extra-parliamentary ways the Black freedom struggle that provided the context of the Crusade’s work operated, and that may have provided a different, more effective road to lasting change and real power.

We on the left sometimes exhibit a similar lack of perspicacity when we regard working and oppressed peoples’ power as primarily stemming from their status as voters. In so doing, we fail to acknowledge the full humanity and the full capacity of people to remake their world with an array of different tactics and strategies, many of which have a higher batting average than municipal elections.

ANALYSIS:

Holt, Marsh, and other sincere advocates of progressive policies found themselves in a paradoxical situation — at the beginning of their journey, Richmond had a sizeable tax base, but Black residents had no electoral representation; later, Black residents won a majority on the City Council only to see funds (and therefore their ability to substantively support housing, education, and anti-poverty initiatives) massively depleted. Their voters realized this fact and became demoralized and demobilized, and their opponents seized on these failures in order to drive a wedge among Black voters, winning some of the middle class and small business owners to their agenda of neoliberal “reforms.” From Roy West to Wilder, Kaine, Jones, and Stoney, Richmond has seemed to have no alternative.

A socialist perspective can provide us with the tools to see why the representation-vs.-money zero sum game is such a dead end, and the strategy we need to create real and lasting change and break out of this trap. We sometimes refer to elected officials as “people in power” or even refer to winning office as “taking power.” The example of Richmond in the 1960s through 1980s shows this to be sorely mistaken. Elected office represents a position, but the ability to shape the city, sabotage the Black Majority Council with no real resistance, and the ability to make money on the backs of working class Richmonders remained in the hands of the landlords, real estate interests, employers, VCU administration, and businesses. These interests — the capitalist class — still held power, and still will hold power even if we were to get a socialist majority in the next City Council election.

The only way leftwing officeholders can legislate change and keep it is if the power of the capitalist class is already weakened by the building of a working class counterpower outside of the state. The capitalist class in Richmond has amassed tremendous wealth, but they have a huge Achilles Heel — they depend almost totally on workers to generate their profits and to pay them rent, and they need placid social conditions to reap their ill-gotten gains in peace.

Before seeking electoral office, we need to help build a base — a militant, committed, organized, and ever-expanding section of Richmond workers who are able to push for higher wages, better conditions, and an end to harassment and discrimination; neighbors united to push back rent hikes, successfully demand landlords perform needed repairs, and crush our city’s well-oiled gentrification and eviction machines; students, parents, teachers, and staff ready to strike against Jason Kamras[a] and his puppetmaser Thomas Farrell[b] and their plans to bring DC style privatization schemes to Richmond, and against Michael Rao’s[c] quest to colonize more of the city under the banner of VCU; Women, non-binary, and trans people, people of color, and immigrants and their allies prepared to weaken institutionalized white supremacy, patriarchy, and other structures of oppression. Even then, capital will defend itself and use capital flight. For this reason, we should never see electoral contests as an end in themselves, even after we have won a base. Rather, winning elected office should be seen a temporary, supporting tactic in a broader strategy for the total overthrow of capitalism.

While our current context is unique in some respects, we have better lodestars to guide us than the electoral work of groups like the Crusade. In 1937, tobacco stemmers (many of whom were Black women) began to rise up against low wages, hazardous conditions, and a rigidly-enforced color line in the industry. Communists like Frances Grandison, Chris Alston, and James E. Jackson met with workers in Rev. Queen’s church on Leigh Street and helped the workers expand their strike wave to other plants. The next several years would see the founding of the Tobacco Stemmers Labor Union (TSLU), a radical, Communist-influenced organization that successfully organized for raised wages and won the 8-hour day in the dark, Satanic tobacco plants of Southside. Just as importantly, they pushed back against the color line in tobacco — for years, white business owners had misclassified challenging work as “unskilled” to justify paying Black workers less than their white counterparts. TSLU managed to reclassify Black workers in some plants as skilled or semi-skilled, narrowing the wage gap against white workers. While automation in tobacco, divide-and-conquer tactics by Richmond’s captains of industry, and co-optation by less radical, more Jim Crow unions would eventually frustrate TSLU and the Richmond Communists, their achievements for the working class were tangible and undeniable. With more foresight, a better analysis of changing industrial conditions, and more stubbornness towards co-optation by the AFL and the Democratic Party, the Communist assault on capitalism and Jim Crow could have lasted longer and reaped even greater gains.

Our movement shouldn’t be dogmatic. Electoral work can play a supporting role to organizing, but must be at most a distant second. We need to make major strides in basebuilding long before we can engage effectively and intelligently in the electoral arena, or else we will find ourselves in the same position as Willie Dell and Henry Marsh — forced to choose between minor legislative victories as the city crumbles, or openly enacting the will of the capitalists. Richmond is far from alone in having progressive politicians reduced to administering harmful neoliberal policies — Communists in France and labor parties in Australia, the UK, and elsewhere have formed governments which have genuflected to capital and cut needed social welfare policies for workers and the poor. Even groups that claim to balance basebuilding outside of elections with running for office too often privilege the latter over the former, as Kali Akuno’s recent criticisms of Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s Democratic mayorship in Jackson, Mississippi make clear.

Hayter’s work ends on a depressing note — for the Richmond left in the 20th century, the decades-long quest for a Black Majority Council was achieved, only for them to realize too late that real power lies elsewhere, and the road to change must take a radically different route. The sun has set on this electoral path to “power,” but armed with our knowledge of the past we can bring a new dawn in Richmond by organizing for power from the ground up.

Sources consulted:

Moeser, John V., and Rutledge M. Dennis. Politics of Annexation: Oligarchic Power in a Southern City. Schenkman Books, 1982.

Randolph, Lewis A. and Gayle T. Tate. Rights for a Season: the Politics of Race, Class, and Gender in Richmond, Virginia. University of Tennessee Press, 2003

Julian, Hayter M. The Dream Is Lost: Voting Rights and the Politics of Race in Richmond, Virginia. University Press of Kentucky, 2017

Love, Richard. “In Defiance of Custom and Tradition: Black Tobacco Workers and Labor Unions in Richmond, Virginia 1937–1941.” Labor History 35, no. 1 (1994)

Cooper, D.B., Ed. “It’s All About That Base: A Dossier on the Base-Building Trend.” March 16, 2018. https://theleftwind.wordpress.com/2018/03/16/its-all-about-that-base-a-dossier-on-the-base-building-trend/.

Willis, Samantha. “A Leader from Leigh St.” Richmond Magazine. June 28, 2016. https://richmondmagazine.com/news/features/a-leader-from-leigh-st/.

Weaver, Adam. ““Electoral Pursuits Have Veered Us Away”: Kali Akuno on Movement Lessons from Jackson.” Black Rose Anarchist Federation. April 18, 2018. http://blackrosefed.org/electoral-pursuits-have-veered-us-away-kali-akuno-on-movement-lessons-from-jackson/

QUESTIONS FOR THE FUTURE:

In this article I attempted to summarize a recent work of scholarship on Richmond and use it to analyze the prospects for electoral work at this current moment. Given these limited aims I left many questions unanswered or even unexamined, including: the relationship between Black conservatives and Richmond’s Civil Rights Movement and the city’s Black population more generally; the role of parties in electoral politics; and how we might concretely begin a radical, basebuilding strategy in Richmond today. I also chose to be brief in explaining the demise of the Communist Party in Richmond, which was concomitant with its fall from influence nationally. Needless to say, there is plenty of room for future research and analysis for Richmond organizers.

I also pushed some of the broader questions of socialist theory to the background, namely: how does the capitalist state function, and how should socialists engage it? My own view is that the state is a machine for the domination of one class by other classes (in our society, it is an instrument of capitalist rule over workers and oppressed people). Merely purchasing a grip on electoral organs of the state, in my opinion, does not greatly change the overall function of the state and does not provide as many opportunities for building working class power or improving material conditions for masses of people as some assume.

So how can socialists use elections? I’m still studying that problem, but my perspective is that we should not have illusions about assuming office and administering capitalism, but rather disrupting its function and undermining its legitimacy. Campaigns like the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party’s Freedom Vote provide one topic for future study, as does the experience of the Russian Bolsheviks in the reactionary tsarist parliament, the Duma.

Though I have tabled those important subjects for inquiry, I hope I have shown that even to social democrats who view use of the electoral organs of the capitalist state as being the end point of the movement that we still have a lot of groundwork to do before we can even begin to think of achieving that goal.

[a] Jason Kamras is the new superintendent of Richmond Public Schools.  He was a former Teach for America kid who became a leading quisling of DC school czar Michelle Rhee, attacking teachers and privatizing schools.  He is the highest-paid superintendent in RPS history.)

[b] Thomas Farrell is the CEO of Dominion Energy, which is headquartered in Downtown Richmond.  Farrell, who has no children in RPS and no background in education policy, served in the committee to select the new superintendent of the school system.  Farrell made his fellow committee members sign a confidentiality agreement not to divulge details of the superintendent search to the public or even to the school board.)

[c] Michael Rao is the president of Virginia Commonwealth University.  With compensation topping $900,000, Rao was the highest-paid public employee in Virginia in 2016.  While administrative pay is high, VCU’s adjunct faculty and hourly staff make poverty wages, and while VCU continues to raise tuition, its endowment of more than a billion dollars is one of the 100 largest in the world.  Rao has aggressively pursued real estate projects that have contributed to the destruction and gentrification of several Richmond neighborhoods, including Jackson Ward, once the heart of the Black community north of the James River.dream-is-lost.jpg

On Endorsement

– Janet Malaime

Background

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

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

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

Goal-oriented Arguments, or vacuous arguments from material conditions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Action-oriented Arguments, or dialectical arguments from material conditions

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

Electoral action

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lessons from Boston DSA’s Prison Abolition Working Group

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion

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

 

We’re All Paper Members

by Katherine I.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Town Meetings: The Problems With Live Frameworks

Have you ever been to a town meeting?

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

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

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

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

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

It’s about Accessibility — Everyone’s Accessibility

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

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

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

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

A Praxis of Privilege

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

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

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

A Socialist Aristocracy

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

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

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

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

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

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

We’re all Paper Members

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

 

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

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

 

Open Response: BDSA Endorsement Process

By Kathryn A., Steering Committee

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

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

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

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

GM Vote on the Endorsement Process

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

The Endorsement Process

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Member Engagement and Collective Struggle

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

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

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

There Is No Mass Movement Without Prison Abolition

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two Sentences

 by Jonathan K.

Do things that work.

Get shit done.

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

Do things that work.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Get shit done.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do things that work.

Get shit done.

An older version of this post was originally published on Medium