A Socialist Approach to Mental Health and Well-being: Medicare for All and Beyond

by Andy Hyatt

While the state of the healthcare system in the United States is poor all around, our mental health system is its own particular brand of horrible. Even in a city like Boston, a supposed healthcare mecca where we have more therapists and psychiatrists per capita than almost anywhere in the country, it can be almost impossible to find a clinician you can afford, who takes your insurance, or with whom you feel comfortable (let alone all three at once); people are often paying hundreds of dollars out of pocket to see a psychiatrist to refill their depression or anxiety meds four times a year or waiting months to see a therapist who takes Medicaid. The situation is even more grim in smaller cities and rural areas, where there is even less access than in cities. This all comes at a time of veritable mental health emergency, as the toll from opioid overdose, suicide, and other “deaths of despair” continue to rise, and overall life expectancy is falling for the first time in nearly one hundred years. In short, mental health services are poorly planned, underfunded, inaccessible, and unaffordable for many people in our communities at a time where need has never been higher.

How did we get here?

In order to understand how to fix the shambles we’re in, it’s important to understand how this mess came to be in the first place. With the advent of industrialization and urbanization, persons with mental illness often lost support they would traditionally get from extended kin or village networks, and could be locked up in poorhouses or sent to live on the street. Even today, rates of mental health distress and disability are higher in industrialized areas compared to more rural or agrarian societies.

Modern efforts to improve the treatment of people with mental illnesses began in the 19th century, sparked by horrific conditions at hails, poorhouses, alhouses, and other institutions of social control that incarcerated people with mental illness and disabilities1. Middle class reformers focused on treating people struggling with mental illness with dignity by founding asylums and publicly funded state hospitals to treat individuals away from unsanitary 19th century cities, and advocated for treatment of people with mental illness by medical staff in hospitals as opposed to untrained police, prison guards, and other non-clinical personnel. Unfortunately, these efforts largely ended in failure due to underfunding, overcrowding, and usage of mental health infrastructure by elites to marginalize and control deviant populations without a focus on rehabilitation or support. Psychiatric hospitals became custodial holding environments where individuals were afforded shelter, food, and other basic necessities, but not dignity or support in efforts to live meaningful lives.

The 1950s and 1960s saw the rise of the community mental health movement, which despite its shortcomings, showed glimmers of what a just mental health system could look like.  It emphasized treatment in the community in a person’s existing social context rather than removal from society, and its greatest victory was the 1963 Community Mental Health Center Act, which envisioned a publicly funded, universally accessible community mental health center in every community in the country.  A local example of this was the Cambridge/Somerville Community Mental Health Center (CMHC), which met individuals for treatment wherever they were most comfortable, offered opportunities for socializing and forming meaningful relationships, and helped with job placements. The CMHC even owned its own cooperative apartments for people receiving its services. All of this coincided with a steady decrease in state hospital populations, and it was hoped that instead of locking people up for their entire lives, comprehensive social support would allow individuals to live meaningful, fulfilled lives in the community.

All this is not to idealize the community mental health movement, which had several flaws. Most importantly, clinicians and health systems could be overly paternalistic, often substituting what they thought of as “best” for individuals without truly consulting with the communities affected. These biases were challenged by the recovery and consumer movements, which emphasized individuals’ understandings of their own experiences and their own desires for purpose and meaning over biomedical concepts like “symptoms” and “illnesses.” By giving individuals agency over their own recovery, the consumer movement sought to place the concerns and values of mental health service users first, and let them direct the course of their own lives and their own recovery.  Unfortunately, given that the consumer movement arose in the 1980s and 90s, in significant ways it reflected the neoliberal turn of that era, and its vital emphasis on individual dignity and autonomy also prefigured a greater capitalist turn in mental health care.

The ascension of Ronald Reagan and the brutal regime of austerity that we are still living with today gutted continued funding for mental health services and halted federal spending on new community mental health centers. Laying the groundwork used for welfare reform in the 90s, Reagan cut and block granted funds meant for mental health and turned them over to the states to use as they saw fit. States (including Massachusetts) privatized vast swaths of the mental health treatment system, turning it over to a hodgepodge of private organizations and cut the community mental health centers off from their communities. Individuals now had more “choice” in which providers they could see (if they could afford to see anyone) while centers that served the community were starved of funding and became slowly more like other players in our corporate healthcare system

There have been some recent positive developments, although the scale of the crisis remains vast. The Affordable Care Act (ACA), especially through its Medicaid expansion, helped many people with mental health needs get access to health insurance for the first time. Unfortunately, large deductibles and copayments limit the utility of many insurance plans and people on Medicaid have an extremely difficult time getting access to adequate psychiatric treatment due to extremely low reimbursement of providers. The other positive development was the passage of federal mental health parity legislation in the late 2000s. This prohibited formal discrimination against people using mental health services, but unsurprisingly corporations still found ways around regulations to discriminate against mental health and increase their own profits.  Recent reporting has shown how insurance and managed care companies are flouting mental health parity laws and preventing their beneficiaries from accessing treatment.

Where to go from here?

For any reader that has made it this far through a detailed history of community mental health in America, I am grateful for your fortitude! While we cannot simplistically pine for an overly idealized past (as we on the US Left are tempted to do when remembering the New Deal or Great Society), I do believe that in studying past movements we can discover the seeds of a better future. In my opinion, recovering the best elements of both the community mental health and recovery movements can shed light on what a socialist mental health and wellness system should strive for. In learning from the community mental health movement, we can aspire to easily accessible medical and psychological services, embedded in the communities where people live, with a vision of care incorporating social needs like housing and employment. From the recovery movement, we learn the vital importance of giving mental health service users both agency in their individual recovery and a central role in leading the development of comprehensive freely accessible services for all.

Concretely, the fight for mental health justice is broad, and intersects with many of our other struggles in the Left. Ahead of the 2020 election, grassroots groups like the National Alliance on Mental Illness and other advocacy groups are forming coalitions to press candidates on forthrightly addressing suicide, substance use, and other aspects of the mental health crisis. Thus far they have not suggested any concrete policy goals, but the following could be a good start. Most obviously, mental health services should be de-commodified and made free for everyone at the point of use.  A good first step would be a true single payer, Medicare for All system, which would eliminate onerous deductibles, co-pays, and other unjust forms of cost sharing that discourage use of needed medical care. As a part of this, it is essential that as many providers as possible be brought into the government health insurance system, as the current glut of exorbitant cash-only practices places services out of reach of all but the wealthy. Equalizing wages for clinicians who work with low and high income patients will alleviate some of this, as will a dramatic reduction in the infuriating regulatory and paperwork burdens many clinicians face today. Moving forward, given the complex service needs of some mental health service users as well as the vital importance of coordinating healthcare with other social services, there is a strong argument to be made that the Left should be arguing for a true national community mental health service along the lines of the UK or Sweden. This must include true leadership by both front line service workers and by mental health service users, with the end goal of a truly democratically run health services. As the rallying cry from the disability rights and recovery communities goes, “nothing about us without us.”

While improving, decommodifying, and democratizing healthcare systems is a necessary first step to improving mental health, I don’t want my clinician biases to blind me to the vastly greater importance that structural factors have on the health of communities. Fundamentally, societal improvements in mental well-being have to stem from the lived conditions of communities and the restructuring of our societies to place human needs above market ones. While improving the mental health of communities intersects with nearly every area of our activism, I want to point out a few particularly important areas we should be mindful of. Firstly, we must fight against displacement and for truly affordable homes for all people, through rent control, community land trusts, and social housing. Not living in constant fear of displacement is of course good for one’s mental well-being on its own, but it also helps build the supportive fabric of communities and starts to reverse the incredible fragmentation of our society. We must also fight against all forms of oppression and the violence society inflicts to impose its forms of domination on the basis of race, gender identity/expression, sexuality, country of origin, religion, and more. These forms of domination cannot exist without the widespread traumatization of oppressed communities, and no amount of counseling will fully heal a depressed young girl who spent a year in a border concentration camp waiting for asylum or a person of color traumatized by police brutality and murder.  Finally, the fight for a livable climate and a just transition to a decarbonized economy must be central to our organizing, as there can be no mental health without hope for survival and a livable future.
Locally, Boston DSA’s healthcare working group is base building for healthcare justice by working with low-income communities saddled by medical debt with City Life/Vida Urbana. This Saturday (June 15), we’ll be canvassing in the North End to get conservative Democrat Steven Lynch to sign on to the federal Medicare for All bill (which would fully cover mental health care without any cost sharing). If you’ve been looking for a way to get involved, we’d love to have you join us!

Andy Hyatt is a member of the Boston DSA Healthcare Working Group and a psychiatry resident at a local hospital. 

Losing Politics: A Proposed Definition of Base-building

By Ben S. 

In Brief

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

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

Background

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

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

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

Underlying Theoretical Assumptions

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

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

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

Base-building: Fighting to Win, Planning to Lose

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Obstacles

Legitimacy, Resources, and the NGO Trap

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

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

Classism, Racism, and Patriarchy

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

Hypothetical Example Campaigns

Tenant Organizing

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

Individual Aid Approach:

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

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

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

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

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

Tenant Organizing – Base-building Approach:

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

If Jane wins her case:

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

If Jane loses her case:

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

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

An Electoral Campaign

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

Data Based Voter Contact Approach:

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

If the candidate wins:

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

If the candidate loses:

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

Proposed Base-building approach:

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

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

If the Assembly chooses not to engage in the election:

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

If the Assembly chooses to engage in the election:

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

If the Candidate wins:

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

If the Candidate loses:

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

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

Future Questions

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

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

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

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

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

The Coming Capitalist Crisis and the Tasks for Socialists

by Ben M

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

On Gun Violence

by Cam W. 

According to the online Gun Violence Archive, a non-profit organization that tracks all gun-related activity in the United States, there has been 37,000 shootings and deaths in America thus far in 2018 alone. While this number in itself is absurdly high, gun violence is only a culturally relevant discussion topic after mass shootings. Think of Columbine, Aurora, Sandy Hook, Orlando, Las Vegas, and, most recently, Parkland. The public discourse is always the same, with conservatives defending gun rights from any legislative action, while liberals demand gun control. Something needs to be done to address mass violence, but conservatives (embodied by the Republican Party) do not care and only make vague and meaningless gestures to addressing mental health issues. Thus, our attention will be placed on liberals, embodied by the Democratic Party, and their ideas.

In the buildup to the 2018 primaries, and even since the election of Donald Trump, liberals and centrists alike have been flooding social media with calls to vote. One of the main problems voting will fix, they emphasize, will be gun control. But, presupposing voting will solve or even address gun violence, who will we vote for? We assume they mean to vote for the Democrats, but will the Democrats disarm the police state in America, where the police essentially have military-grade weapons, so that people of color don’t have to fear for their lives everyday? How would gun control, which simply bans weapons only for citizens, affect the lives of those like Trayvon Martin, Philando Castile, and so many others who have felt the cruel and fatal effects of police brutality? Furthermore, would the Democrats, who sanction and support imperialist wars, suddenly turn back and denounce these same policies, which violate the autonomy of the global south and leave them constantly subjected to death, starvation, and Western domination? The Democratic Party’s history, past and present, tells us that they will address none of this. Inserting new individuals into the system, when the system itself is the issue, will not fix anything.

Thus, when people command us to vote to end gun violence, it is clear to us that they only mean ending gun violence for a specific class of people, in specific areas of the country. As socialists, we recognize that as long as capitalism exists, the culture of violence in this country will not be addressed. Capitalism necessitates imperialism, which includes wars and sanctions. It also necessitates that the repressive apparatus (the police, courts, etc.) reinforce the relations of production (bourgeoisie and workers). This is why the bankers that destroyed the economy in 2008 were never prosecuted and were actually bailed out by Obama. This is why those that have been murdered by the police have yet to find justice, and police officers are rarely ever held accountable. This is also why women who have been raped or sexually assaulted rarely find justice. In other words, overhauling the justice system, is unbearable to the ruling classes because it entails a radical change in society which would hold those in power accountable and fundamentally change the social order in America.

Of the 37,000 gun incidents thus far in 2018, only 241 of those have been mass shootings (the Gun Violence Archive qualifies a mass shooting as a gun incident where at least five people are injured). That leaves almost 36,800 gun incidents in this year alone that were not mass shootings. We must shed light on the real victims of gun violence. Every year, about 45,000 Americans commit suicide, and in half of those cases, the victims use a gun to end their life. Thus, about 22,500 people commit suicide every year in the U.S with the help of a gun. Every month, about 50 women are murdered with a gun by their partner, and in total almost one million American women alive have been shot or shot at by an intimate partner. Furthermore, in 2018 alone the police have shot and killed 798 people in the state’s campaign to terrorize the masses and people of color and leave them in a state of fear. Thus, the major gun incidents in everyday life are suicides, domestic violence, and police brutality.

While we believe the change that we need cannot happen under capitalism, this does not mean we will sit idle and do nothing. Now that we’ve shed light on the major victims of gun violence, we can begin to look for real solutions that go beyond banning the tool that enables this violence.

To address gun violence, we must address toxic masculinity and many other conditions that lead to domestic abuse. Toxic masculinity creates the patterns of abuse that women must endure, but part of the reason women can’t escape these abusive environments is that they would have nowhere to go. Due to the capitalist system in America where rent is very expensive, fleeing toxic situations would often mean becoming homeless or living in a precarious state. Thus it is understandable why many women have to endure abusive relationships. There is also the fact that there is little accountability or punishment for abusers. As we have seen in the case of Judge Kavanaugh, the justice system protects abusers and doesn’t believe women even when they do come forward.

To address gun violence, we must address mental illness, alienation, and the consequences of an individualistic society where many people have no support. This means enacting universal healthcare to ensure that any person can receive adequate treatment for mental illnesses. This means rejecting capitalism’s toxic individualism that enforces the idea that if you don’t succeed in the system, whether it be socially or financially, that it is your fault and not of a system that only rewards a small class of people. Furthermore, this means building relationships in our communities, where we support each other and a build a collective strength to make these changes. It also means eliminating the economic conditions that lead so many to have to struggle to survive, and where suicide can appear to be the only way out of a dreary existence. The victims of suicide encompass our entire society, with middle aged white men being the most common, and indigenous peoples being the second highest (a whole other issue that can be discussed elsewhere). There are so factors that can lead to suicide or suicidal thoughts, but fundamentally humans are social beings that thrive off the support of each other, but capitalism eats away at these relationships.

To address gun violence, we must address police violence, where police killed 1,147 people in 2017, and 25% of the victims (about 300) were black despite comprising only 13% of the population. We must not only hold the police accountable (they are rarely ever prosecuted for their crimes), but we must also work to demilitarize and abolish the police itself. The police has grown into a domestic military force, which is evident any time a protest (think Ferguson) breaks out and riot squads are called in. In order for there to be meaningful gun control, the police and military (who we haven’t even talked about here) must be considered in the process.

Real gun control would address the class positions and culture that create gun violence in the first place. Real gun control would address the nature of U.S. imperialism, police brutality, and the justice system. Socialists must address gun violence in a meaningful way by confronting all of these issues. Interestingly enough the only time gun control was ever bipartisanly supported was when the left, led by the Black Panther Party, advocated bearing arms. As Michelle Goldberg points out in her article on the Socialist Rifle Association, the left bearing arms has historically scared the Republicans and forced them into gun control measures. It’s clear that the state is only ever scared of guns when the groups who actually threaten power structures, socialists and communists, decide to use them.

An earlier version of this article was published on the Fenway Socialists blog. 

Collective Reflections on the Boston Housing Struggle

By Edward P

On Thursday, September 6th, 2018, the Boston DSA Housing Working Group (HWG) and the Political Education Working Group (PEWG) held a discussion about housing strategy in Boston DSA at the Democracy Center in Cambridge. The goal of the meeting was to talk about how to organize around housing issues to further the anti-capitalist cause.

The Story So Far

The event began with the HWG co-chairs Rose L and Mike L talking about the 13-month history of the working group. The HWG has, to this point, mainly coordinated canvasses of tenants in buildings identified as being likely to organize with City Life/Vida Urbana (CLVU). CLVU is a 45-year old organization that began as a socialist feminist collective that consciously reshaped itself into a movement-oriented non-profit in order to better serve their base in Jamaica Plain and East Boston.

Their relationship with CLVU started small — just sending people to regular weekend canvasses. As they earned the trust of CLVU’s long-time organizers, the HWG was able to operate more and more independently, planning an anti-eviction canvas based on public court records and attempting to organize tenants in the Seaverns-Brown building after tenants were hit with a large rent increase.

But neither of those efforts has been an unqualified success. Organizing around anti-eviction is difficult when cases are geographically spread out, and gaps and delays in the court records sometimes meant canvassers were arriving too late to help people. Likewise, with the Seaverns-Brown building, while HWG members made great progress in getting people to move towards creating a tenant union, they had arrived too late to get people together before the large rent raises hit.

Next Steps and Differing Visions

After the presentation from the co-chairs, the meeting attendees went around the room to the introduce themselves and talk about why they were there. The introductions were followed by a  breakout session of small groups and then a full group discussion.

A few major points of contention emerged across these discussions, such as how should the DSA handle its relationship to CLVU? Several attendees expressed concern that Boston DSA was not attempting to build something independent of another organization, citing Philly Socialists and their Philly Tenants Union project as an example of how a socialist organization could use tenant organizing for “base-building”. Others pointed out the necessary work CLVU did to help keep people most threatened in their homes and speculated on our ability to be similarly successful at helping people in need.

Some attendees also argued for concrete policy proposals the HWG could pursue. Members of Socialist Alternative were on hand to talk about the work they had done with Boston City Councillors to try to get more non-profits to pay into the Payment In Lieu Of Tax (PILOT) program. PILOT asks otherwise tax-exempt organizations, such as universities, to pay part of the property taxes they would have otherwise paid. Others talked about Somerville’s low home ownership rate (34.7% vs 64.2% as the national average) and if socialist policies could change that especially policies encouraging cooperative home-ownership.

Other people talked about the need for housing organizing to have a revolutionary perspective. One member made the point that any program must be focused on “serving the people”. For them that meant going directly to people who are hurt by the capitalist system and organizing around their needs. Others elaborated on this idea an argument for why we have to build independent power, saying an important question for the group was whether DSA should be serving as a source of canvassers for other organizations or building something of their own.

What can we do?

Throughout the discussion, members kept coming back to one question in particular — not what should we do, but what can we do? What are our capabilities? In the absence of any kind of national campaign from DSA, we’re relying on ourselves and what we can learn from history and work others have done to figure out an effective organizing strategy around housing issues.

This discussion lead to some practical thoughts about what a housing program would need, whether it was organized independently or not and whatever its political goals were. First, it needed to make realistic promises; we can’t talk about how great socialism is and make commitments we don’t have the ability to keep. Second, it needs to based on building community and solidarity. We have to be able to meet and talk to people repeatedly, share food, and get to know each other. Finally, any program needs to be flexible; we have to be able to constantly re-evaluate what we’re doing in order to find what works.

Self-Reflection and Moving Forward

While the different arguments presented at the meeting, independent work vs coalition work, working for reforms vs serving the people, seemed to represent opposites, the actual discussion, and general feeling of camaraderie and respect at the event, helped show that wasn’t the case.

Any program needs to take into account the practical lessons learned by the HWG over the last 13 months of organizing. It needs to find ways of organizing people around their needs, immediate ones like eviction defense and longer term ones like housing cooperatives. It can both work with established coalition partners and work toward independent power.

Most of all, events like this are important to developing any kind of program. As socialists, we have to engage in constant experimentation and revaluation of our methods on the road to finding a practice that moves the balance of power toward working people. When we meet together and discuss what is and isn’t working about our practice and debate ways forward, we’re engaging in the critical work of finding that way forward.

Only We Can Save Ourselves

A Boston DSA members marshal's at last year's counter-protests rally

By Edward P

“And there’s hope because we are going to save ourselves.” That was the message Sarah — a member of Boston Feminists for Liberation (BFL), delivered as part of a panel discussion and town hall on anti-fascism in Boston on August 15th, in the lead up to the rally to counter-protest fascists in Boston on August 18th.

Organized by a coalition of groups dedicated to anti-fascism and chaired by Boston DSA’s own Peter B, the panelists, Chip Berlet, who researches the far-right, Martin Hanson, of Black Lives Matter Boston (BLM), Sarah, Kitty Pryde from Boston DSA, and Michael Fiorentino of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) spoke to a crowd of between 60 and 70 people in the basement of the Arlington Street Church. The panelists discussed the rise of organized fascist groups in the US, why we have to disrupt their organizing, the current tasks of the anti-fascist movement, and how we win in the long run.

Who Are We Fighting?

According to panelist Michael, Trump was a trojan horse into the mainstream for fascist groups. His candidacy and subsequent presidency gave them space within the political conversation to operate openly. In Boston, the far-right has coalesced around Boston Free Speech (BFS) and Resist Marxism (RM). Both groups paint themselves as being “moderates,” but that only seems to mean they have swapped Nazi Germany iconography for memes about Pinochet, according to Kitty. Despite the way they attempt to portray themselves to outsiders and the media, they are still definitely fascists.

The panelists pointed out the links between RM and other far right groups, including Patriot Prayer who held a violent rally in Portland on August 4th. Michael pointed out members of RM were among the heavily armored fascists at that rally.

Kitty spoke about how fascist groups love to ‘disavow’ other far-right groups when these other groups are caught engaging in outright violence or using extreme rhetoric. They seem to believe it’s a magic word that dissociates them from whatever behaviour or action the media has focused on. There are still deep ties between RM, BFS, and the organizers of the Unite the Right (UTR) rally where Heather Heyer was murdered. Kitty talked about how a UTR organizer spoke at RM’s first rally in New York.

Finally, as Martin reminded us, the far-right is not so far right in the course of American politics. Groups like the Klu Klux Klan have been around for decades, always present at the edges. Fascism was, for black people, also expressed in a variety of mainstream, pro-white institutions. For Martin, the police and prison system represent another kind of fascism. “The police officer putting a finger on the trigger of their gun as they talked to me is militant,” he said.

Why Must We Oppose Them?

To figure out why we must oppose the far-right, we have to think about why they are holding these rallies. Panelist Sarah discussed how these rallies were organizing opportunities for fascist groups. The rallies allowed them to meet each other and network as well as build camaraderie and shared sense of identity.

Chip talked about how the fascist narrative feeds into more mainstream right-wing politics. Right-wing populism is a form of scapegoating, blaming some “other” for the ills of society, and fascist rhetoric gives mainstream right-wingers targets for their scapegoating.

Michael pointed out that all of us turning out last August put a huge break on their movement’s momentum. After tens of thousands of people took to the streets in Boston, a whole swath of Islamophobic rallies were cancelled around the country. RM’s demonstrations have been consistently smaller, but, as he put it, it’s better to facedown 12 to 20 fascists than a couple hundred heavily armed ones like we saw in Portland.

Sarah also said that we can’t just ignore them. Fascist aren’t just fascists when they’re in the streets. They’re the people who go home and abuse women. They’re they people who gay bash. So if we can’t stand up to them now when they’re most obvious, where else can we stand up to them?

What Can We Do Right Now?

All of the panelists emphasized that it’s important to turn out on Saturday. Sarah mentioned telling all your neighbors and bringing 10 other friends with you. Chip talked about building the broadest possible coalition to the oppose fascists. We shouldn’t limit it just to people whose politics we agree absolutely with. In terms of talking to people, Chip spoke about asking people questions and really just letting them talk. Lots of people are distressed about the rise of overt fascism, but organizers need to start by building a connection to someone else before asking them to turn out. Martin spoke on the necessity of using different tactics to oppose fascists and said we should be ready to fight them in any way we can.

In terms of logistics for the weekend, Peter — the event’s chair — talked about the the large number of marshals and medics who have committed to help keep the counter-protest as secure as they can. In response to an audience question, he talked about showing up and leaving with a buddy because fascists have previously ambushed people as they go to and from counter-protests. He also said that if you didn’t have someone to go with, you could reach out to any of the sponsoring organizations, and they would help find someone to go with you.

How Do We Win?

Martin talked about how we could not defeat fascism without building an entirely new world. Fascism is ingrained in institutions like the police and prison system and until they are destroyed, we will never be entirely free from its threat. Martin talked about building new systems of solidarity and economic justice as a path to a new society and emphasized — in response to an audience question — that we need to educate ourselves about economics and how the world really works in order to talk about new systems with people and demonstrate how nonsensical fascist ideology is.

Sarah similarly talked about how a world without fascists is a world without police, prisons, or rape and we have to have hope it is possible. She had that hope because, as she put it, “we are going to save ourselves.” She spoke about taking anti-fascism out of just organizer spaces like the one we were in and getting community members involved. It is possible, she said, because we saw thousands of people turn up last August, to the Fight Supremacy counter protest, to say, “Fuck No.”

Come out on Saturday

Opposing fascism is part of our duty as people dedicated to acting in solidarity with the oppressed of the world, wherever they are. If you are able, please come out this Saturday to remember the life of Heather Heyer and tell the Boston Fascists, “Fuck No” again.

Unite and Fight the Far-Right: From Charlottesville to Boston

By Kitty Pryde, a member of Boston DSA

Content note: This post contains graphic descriptions of police and street fascist violence

Introduction

This past weekend, I spent August 11 in Charlottesville, Virginia, and August 12 in Washington, DC, as a street medic for protests countering the Unite the Right 2 rally and commemorating the previous year’s attacks. A year earlier, I had spent the same two days in Charlottesville, as a street medic for protests countering the original Unite the Right. Then I went home to Boston, where over the course of the next week, the Holocaust memorial was vandalized, and there was a fascist rally that was opposed by tens of thousands of counter-protesters. I attended a vigil at the Holocaust memorial, and provided protest health and safety training to counter-protesters ahead of the rally, in a building where we got word midway through that there were fascists lurking at the door with cameras.

The organizers of that fascist rally, Boston Free Speech, have always claimed that they were and are mischaracterized, that they are benign supporters of free speech who disavowed what happened in Charlottesville that weekend. This has always been disingenuous. One of the intended speakers for that rally was Augustus Invictus, an attendee of Unite the Right. A few prominent figures from the previous Boston Free Speech rally had themselves attended Unite the Right. The Fraternal Order of Alt-Knights, founded by Kyle Chapman, who spoke at Boston Free Speech rallies, and founded the fascist umbrella organization, Resist Marxism (that Boston Free Speech was an original coalition member for), is a defendant in a lawsuit over the events of Unite the Right. It is a myth that Unite the Right was only the most overt nazis, though they were certainly there. Jason Kessler, the organizer, is a Proud Boy, from the portion of the far-right that tries to present themselves as ideological moderates. Anticom, the Pinochet-loving organization with a strong presence at Boston Free Speech’s first rally, was highly visible on both August 11 and August 12. ThinkProgress has documented both Boston fascists’ ties to more overt wings of the far-right, and the connections between them and the larger movement that produced Unite the Right (UTR) and Unite the Right 2 (UTR2) rallies. I write this both to provide a useful account for my comrades of UTR/UTR2, and to remind us of the importance of continuing to fight the far-right where we live, including this Saturday, when they march in Boston and other cities against “far-left violence.”

Charlottesville

On August 11, I wandered downtown Charlottesville with my medic buddy and his partner. Police had turned it into an armed camp with security checkpoints. They searched bags and argued about whether I could keep my blunt-tipped first aid shears. I got to keep mine, but some other medics weren’t so lucky. We visited the memorial at the spot where a nazi drove a car through a crowd, killing Heather Heyer and injuring many others. I wandered through the stretch of the road, looking at spots where I had kneeled to provide first aid to the wounded, and standing for a time on the precise spot where Heather had been given CPR.

We took a break after that, and visited the group from Jewish Solidarity Caucus, of which I am a member, that was displaying an anti-fascist banner outside the synagogue and attempting to provide solidarity and reassurance to people leaving Shabbat services. Then we went to the University of Virginia campus, to get oriented with the area before that night’s planned student rally. I had been there before, but not in daylight, or in circumstances that lend themselves to getting oriented.

The police had barricades up blocking off the entire Lawn and Rotunda area, including the plaza where the rally was scheduled for and where last year’s fascist torchlight rally on August 11, 2017 had surrounded and attacked a group of mostly students. I had been a medic then, trying to track the progress of the march with the rest of my trio because I didn’t know when or where counter-protesters were going to show up and possibly need a medic. That part of the UVA campus, full of arch-covered outdoor quasi-hallways, is like a maze, and I described that confusing scramble through it to my companions, a year later, as “Nazi Pacman.” The scramble culminated in arriving at the plaza right before the torchlight march did, sitting down on a bench trying to look innocuous, and then being trapped there by the march’s decision to circle the counter-protesters at the statue. I was trying to look innocuous some more while they passed by us a few feet away, shouting epithets, giving nazi salutes. At one point, in response to one marcher yelling “You leftist pieces of shit!” at the three of us, another passing marcher, looking at us, yelled “Let’s kill some commies!” and other passing marchers watched us and laughed. I hoped they would stay in their formation, and given that their formation was circling the students, I felt craven, even at the time, for hoping it. As the attacks started against the students, we were able to get behind a bench, and wait for an opening to bolt through the increasingly chaotic crowd and get to where the injured people were gathering, where we treated them until the police, who had stood back during all of this, suddenly decided that they wanted to clear the plaza of the remaining few counter-protesters and medics, and advanced on us while we were treating a woman in a wheelchair.

A year later, the same police who had stood by and watched fascists attack, until they became the aggressors themselves, had made it so that I couldn’t go in and reacquaint myself with the place where it happened, in a low-key, well-lit setting. In the name of safety. I became increasingly angry and unhappy as we walked around the campus.

That night, the student survivors of 8/11/17 who were running the rally, refused to abide by the terms – only small clear bags allowed, only a specified number of people allowed, everyone must go through a checkpoint – that the university and the police had set, and started to hold their rally in a nearby field on the campus. A few fascists who showed up were run off, without physical altercation. Police declared the rally an unlawful assembly – on the students’ own campus! – and lined up in riot gear. The students marched, and found an amphitheater in which to rally. More police lined up in the amphitheater. Someone noticed that police were gradually surrounding the rally, so it turned back into a march, which turned into multiple marches.  The one that we were in went downtown. We needed to drive to DC that night, so we left before the end, where police confronted and shoved marchers. The whole time, I couldn’t stop thinking about how unnecessary all of this was, how the police could have just let student survivors lead a rally on their own campus! And how much more vigilantly they were responding to this, than they did to nazis marching through the campus, beating people with torches, pepper-spraying them, throwing tiki torch lighting fluid on them. I’ve heard some “well they were criticized last year for not doing anything, what do you expect them to do?” comments. If, as defenders of the institutions of policing usually claim, they were there to protect people’s safety, then I would expect them to prevent nazis attacking people, and to not bother a benign student rally. But defenders of the institutions policing are wrong in this claim.

DC

In DC, we started out at the large coalition rally, providing aid to crashed skateboarders and people with heat exhaustion. Then we joined with the large march, working our way to the front to make sure that it had medic coverage. A contingent from the International Socialist Organization (ISO), just behind me, chanted to drumbeats, “Black! Latino! Arab, Asian, and White! Unite! Unite! Unite and fight the right!” The energy of the crowd was palpable.

The march arrived uneventfully at Lafayette Park. The Unite the Right 2 rally was being kept far away, by its protective guard of police. As usual, I have trouble imagining any leftist action, even a permitted one, being treated with the bells and whistles that fascist rallies get from the state. A few fascists were escorted away by police, and followed by portions of the crowd. I briefly saw a small group including a man with a canteen and a surgical mask, that I didn’t look closely at in the rain, but that I learned later, through photos, were part of a fascist “European heritage” organization from New Jersey.

My team eventually went around to the side of the park, where a number of unmasked Black activists and a racially diverse black bloc had assembled. I found out later that this was because this was where UTR2 organizer Jason Kessler was expected to enter. The group eventually started marching. Police started to follow it. My medic buddy and I had both been there on the day of the Inauguration protests, though neither of us had been swept up in the J20 arrests and prosecutions, and we became increasingly nervous about the possibility of a kettle and mass arrest. We walked on the edge, and when a large number of police on motorcycles approached the group from behind to box them in, we fell back.

There was no mass arrest, but I became alarmed and said so out loud, as the large group of police on motorcycles, only feet away from the protesters, started ostentatiously, threateningly, revving their engines, while pushing forward. I’ve seen a lot of awful behavior from police as a street medic, but I was still slightly stunned that they were threatening to hit a crowd out to counter Unite the Right 2 with vehicles, on this, the anniversary of the car attack at Unite the Right. Instead, they pepper-sprayed numerous people. We wrapped around the block and found people, some of whom had been pepper-sprayed, fleeing the area.

While all this was happening, I saw word that back in Charlottesville, police had prevented a march of mourners from getting to Heather Heyer’s memorial site, and that they had attacked a handful of community members. All of those security theater police precautions were implemented in Charlottesville in the name of safety. But whose safety were they meant to be promoting? Clearly not that of the people who had been the most affected by the lack of safety the year before. They were the ones being attacked!

People sometimes criticize anti-fascist work for being focused on street fascists rather than on institutions and structures, such as those of policing and deportation. But I don’t know anyone who does anti-fascist work who doesn’t understand that these are inseparable issues. Street fascists make all leftist organizing more difficult and dangerous. Institutions and structures both directly abet street fascist organizing, and oppress communities on a day-to-day basis. Street fascists seek access to institutions, to the levers of power.

Onward

Unite the Right 2 was a flop for the fascists, with the main issue being police response. And as a result, I have already seen similar commentary to what I saw after Boston’s and Berkeley’s large counter-protests a year ago. That there weren’t really any fascists, that their movement is pathetic and dead and unthreatening. Demonization of antifa. Assertions that when nazis rally we should walk by and laugh rather than countering them, because they are so small and pathetic.

But the primary issue, when it comes to the current wave of street fascism, has never been a few people throwing nazi salutes – as I said at the start of this, the wing of the far-right that publicly admits to being straight-up nazis was never the only show at Unite the Right, nor the original organizing force behind it. And since Unite the Right, we’ve seen the rise of the “‘Patriot’ Pinochet fans pretending to be benign moderates” wing of the far-right, the wing with plenty of fascist ambitions and nazi ties, and a taste for both street fighting and access to the political mainstream, which is able to draw in more people, and create situations like that in Portland on June 30 where they sent several counter-protesters to the hospital, precisely because they’re a big tent and people don’t understand what they are, what their organizing strategy is, how extreme their own views and their connections actually are underneath the “benign patriot” front rhetoric; how strong their ties actually are to infamous events like Unite the Right. The people providing the commentary seem to think that Unite the Right 2 was made small and pathetic by magic, or lack of interest in fascism, rather than by many hundreds of hours of organizing work behind the scenes, by consistent work against street fascists around the US over the last year, and by fascists’ understanding that thousands of people would show up to oppose them.

Oddly, even as they want to present themselves first and foremost as strong, contemporary fascists also have an interest in presenting themselves as small, a heroic underdog fighting off the vast leftist hordes against incredible odds, and also something that will play into mainstream “just ignore them” narratives and allow them to build. That has certainly been the narrative that they had promoted about the August 2017 Boston Free Speech rally. On June 2, at the Resist Marxism rally, a speaker from Boston Free Speech stated, among other things, that the counter-protesters would never have the courage to face them down badly outnumbered, as he had, if the numbers were reversed. When he said that, I thought about the Unite the Right torchlight rally, and the Nationalist Front charging through an anti-fascist line with bats and shields during Unite the Right, and the gloating over anti-fascists having been injured in Portland on June 30 of this year, and the constant, hungry, Pinochet-fanboy rhetoric. Indeed, I do not want those who oppose fascists to be outnumbered by fascists. We’ve seen how that plays out.

This Saturday, August 18, the fascists who were countered last year, in the wake of Unite the Right, by tens of thousands of people, are holding an anniversary march in Boston, as part of a national “march against far-left violence” happening in several cities throughout the US. They have tried to distance themselves from the Unite the Right rallies. I would encourage people of good conscience to come oppose them.

If you are interested in learning more about standing up to the far-right in Boston, Kitty Pryde will be speaking about fighting the far-right in Boston at a Town Meeting at the Arlington Street Church at 7pm on August 15th. You can find that Facebook event here.

There will also be a counter protest against fascist hate on August 18th at the State House. Details can be found here.

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)

 

Alex Vitale, Fatema Ahmad, and Samantha Calero on the End of Policing

by Corinna, for the PEWG Editorial Committee. Photography by Conor G.

On Wednesday night, one hundred and fifty people gathered at the Cambridge Public Library to hear three speakers make a case for abolishing the police, an event organized by the Prison Abolition Working Group of Boston DSA. Professor and policing historian Alex Vitale spoke alongside two local activists: Fatema Ahmad, deputy director of the Muslim Justice League, and Samantha Calero, an independent consultant, facilitator and writer specializing in violence intervention and community-based trauma response. Fatema and Samantha work together in the activist organization alliance #BosCops, created to track and combat the violent incursions of the Boston police into the city’s communities.

Alex Vitale: The problem is policing itself

Alex set the stage with an exacting analysis of the carceral state, but over the course of the evening his attention, and the audience’s, turned to focus on the two other speakers. If his book is a history lesson—a narrative connecting the dots to make sense of an issue rarely explained in the media—their organizing efforts in Boston are, in his words, “the work of prison abolition.” They show what we can do today, as socialists, to address a problem often referenced but never seriously addressed by our politicians: the violence police perpetrate against the people they are allegedly bound to “serve and protect.” This violence is often blatant and bloody, but it can also be bureaucratic, operating as both institutionally and individually inflicted harm. For this reason, some of the brutal effects of policing are widely known and publicized, but the logic of the whole system—and how specific incidents of violence enact that logic—is invisible and often escapes analysis. All three speakers spoke about language, and the terms used to hide the violent realities of this normalized and celebrated institution, the police, from the public, both populations targeted by it and also those who are meant to be its beneficiaries. All three speakers confronted the liberalism we eat, drink, and breathe in Massachusetts, and the excuses it finds for the oppressive outcomes of punitive approaches to social problems.

vitale1
Alex Vitale at the event, photographed by Conor G.

Alex’s book, The End of Policing, describes the blunt instrument of policing through many different lenses, with chapters on topics including homelessness, sex work, mental health, the war on drugs, border control, and the school-to-prison pipeline. In different areas of American society, Alex shows how police—always armed, always using the same ugly tactics—are the only agents the capitalist state sends into communities when problems arise. The police are not just a repressive government body, they are a hypothesis: that social problems must be the result of individual and group moral failures. Alex argues that any efforts liberals make to end police violence will fail, because even if they are ready to condemn the grisly outcomes of police violence—killings of young black and brown men, of the mentally ill, of the poor—they accept that same hypothesis. They must accept it because the only alternative explanation is that social problems are in fact the result of market failures—of capitalism.

The liberal response to police violence is always to call for more information: more trainings, more investigations, and more technology (like body cameras) to monitor and correct. Politicians and city councilors stand alongside the victims’ families one day, promising action, and the next go into office and vote for policies that find endless money, endless weaponry, and endless patience for police misconduct. These same politicians point to reformist measures like “implicit bias trainings” to show they are taking action. This comes from a fundamental misreading of politics which believes that the laws that created the police and now regulate their conduct are somehow neutral, and, if enforced and enacted by professionals, will generate outcomes without prejudice. It sees racism as a problem of individual behavior, not a structural feature of a white supremacist state—one enforced and perpetuated by police through violence. This misreading ignores the history of slave patrols that American police emerged from, as well as their historical role as a tool to suppress black radicalism and activism. Rather than being somehow an impartial ingredient of a peaceful society, Alex argues that the terms of policing have always been set by politicians pandering to a white and white-nationalist audience, from Nixon’s racially-coded calls for “law and order,” to “broken window” policing tactics that criminalize poor communities for their poverty.

Fatema Ahmad: This didn’t start with 9/11

After Alex built a case for police abolition, Fatema explained how police abolition already exists for some. The police protect property, and suppress the poor, but first and foremost they are a weapon of white supremacy. White populations can walk down the street and not fear arrest or harassment for their occupation of space. They can exist in American society without provoking suspicion and surveillance. She started from Boston, where the FBI piloted their Countering Violent Extremism (CVE) program, which rebrands frequently and currently goes by the name “Promoting Engagement, Acceptance and Community Empowerment” (PEACE) in Massachusetts. She began with an exercise, asking audience members to raise their hands if they had ever grown a beard, ever worn cultural or religious clothing, traveled to another country where their religious background was the majority, or protested US wars or Zionism. Nearly the whole room raised their hands for the last question, and there was scattered laughter when she told us the verdict: she should, by State Department guidelines, report us, to recommend therapy of some sort to deal with our radicalization, or after-school programs, or mediation meetings with law enforcement. Quickly, she commented on our laughter—this, of course, was a ridiculous thought, that we would all end up on a list. Only the black and brown people in the room would be targeted by programs like CVE.

This reality, that we are not targeted equally, and not situated equally to experience and understand these kinds of violence, informs Fatema’s work with #BosCops. Working towards police abolition means taking the lead from people who understand the violence of this system from having experienced it. The surveillance and criminalization of Muslims as radical Islamists in America did not start with 9/11, and the criminalization of black youth through discriminatory drug prosecuting is decades old. The infamous COINTELPRO surveillance program was based on a previous program observing “Racial Conditions in America,” which targeted the Nation of Islam and other Muslim groups in the 1930s and 40s. Before Obama‘s policies of deportation and incarceration, Bill Clinton proposed a “National Weed and Seed,” encouraging communities to report and “weed out” problematic youth, while “seeding” these communities with social services. This idea that, in Fatema’s words, black and Muslim communities only “deserve social services because we’re ticking time bombs” gets to the heart of the existing political consensus, which seeks to impose austerity at all costs while beefing up the means to control and suppress the disenfranchised populations austerity creates.

#BosCops is a response to the Boston Police Department, organizing around the violence they perpetrate locally, but their work has national implications. Fatema’s experience with a CVE initiative targeting Somali youth in Boston had directed her attention to the constant, insidious collaboration between local and federal forms of surveillance. Marty Walsh can call Boston a sanctuary city without a single legal result—if someone is booked in the city of Boston today, that person’s fingerprints will still be sent to the FBI and ICE. #BosCops, as a coalition of many activist groups sitting down to talk together, is in a unique position to recognize connections like these, and to fight them. They created a questionnaire for the 2017 state and mayoral elections, demanding answers from politicians about massive overtime budgets for policing, and well-documented incidents of police disproportionately stopping people of color to search and harass. They also created a toolkit to publicize these issues, and raise wider awareness of the tactics police use, and the nature of local-federal collaboration. #BosCops’ focus on the BDP allows it to connect different local struggles—the BPD’s gang database, for instance, connects immediately to the lists created by CVE programs—and unite activists working across different areas.

Samantha Calero: Weaponized systems of care

Not only are police meant to act in lieu of social infrastructure, but existing social services are completely entangled with policing. Samantha’s work at the Youth Advocacy Foundation shows the extent of this collusion. The #BosCops campaign #AllEyesonBPD exposed conditions at East Boston High School, where the school resource officers (SROs)—police officers stationed in public schools to surveil and punish teenagers—colluded with teachers to stalk and observe unaccompanied minor immigrant students. The reports these officers make, highlighting small incidents — talking to a known gang member, for instance — accumulate “points” which eventually add up to “gang affiliated” status for the students under scrutiny. The list these students are added to has no transparency, with no way to find out your own status before you are charged, and served to push many students into ICE custody and out of the country via deportation. The school is now the site of a class-action lawsuit, which Samantha’s work with the Committee for Public Council Services supports. This kind of appropriation of public services for immigration and drug enforcement is common, with professionals like therapists and social workers often serving as the front line of attack for the criminal punishment system. Samantha explained how systems of care can criminalize survivors of violence. For youth who commit acts of violence, that act is never their first encounter with violence. They have always experienced it first from the other side, as a victim or observer. Her work with community-based trauma response begins to imagine an alternative means of responding to violence, outside of police intervention, which seeks to short-circuit these self-perpetuating cycles of neglect, harm, and violence.

The night ended with questions for the speakers, the first of which asked what we can do instead: who we should call when we feel the need to call the cops. Instead of subjecting vulnerable people in our communities to threats of state intervention, we must work to develop alternatives. Who are the people in our communities who have the skills to help us, skills which the police do not and cannot have? Alex offered an existing model for inspiration: in the UK, the National Health Service’s mental health crisis services provide someone else to call, an alternative to inviting a police officer to the scene of a mentally ill person in crisis, and thus endangering that person’s life. Fatema gave some troubling context for this model: NHS mental health services are in fact used as a tool in the Prevent program, an “anti-terrorism” effort established by the UK’s Counter-Terrorism and Security Act of 2015. Therefore, under this legislation, someone seeking mental health treatment via the NHS could be “screened” for signs of radicalization, and reported at the discretion of the healthcare worker.

As a closing thought, Samantha reiterated a premise of Alex’s book: that we cannot wait for politicians to continue fiddling at the edges of the carceral state with their liberal reforms. Instead we must oppose the police wholly as an institution—one that defends patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism—and fight to overcome it.

 

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.