Monday, December 4, 2017

A First Step for Organizing Counterpower from Below

I’ve been posting a lot of critical stuff on gaps and faulty assumptions in the rhetoric and strategy (such as it is) of the US Left.  A reasonable person might say, OK, enough already.  We know what we’re doing isn’t working, but what would?  What’s the alternative?

Good question—I’m glad you asked.  Actually, for about 40+ years I’ve had the same idea, which I’ll now try out on you. 

First, consider the basic conundrum of organizing the Left.  On the one hand, what’s needed is structure on every scale from your neighborhood or workplace to the whole country.  We need to bring the millions of people who share our outlook, in some general sense, into a common organization.  Conservatives will always have more money to draw on; those on the other side have to rely on numbers—and not hypothetical or once-in-a-blue-moon election numbers, but everyday, signed up and available for mobilization numbers.  In other words, the organizational basis for ongoing collective action.

But here’s the thing: the Left has had only flashes of success at this game because it has a powerful tendency to factionalize.  Every time it looks like an organization is getting over the hump it breaks apart.  Why this is so is an interesting question, but I won’t go into it here.  In some ways the dissentious character of the Left is a good thing, since social change is complicated and we need many points of view.  Still, it gets in the way of solving the organizational dilemma, and I will assume this will remain the case.

So how to build a measure of organizational unity on a fractious base?  Scale down the scope of this hypothetical organization in order to scale up across differences in beliefs and strategy.  Imagine an organization with many of the characteristics organizations are supposed to have, like membership rosters, officers, budgets, facilities, and activities, but prohibit it from taking sides in any electoral, legislative or judicial dispute, or promulgate manifestos as an organization.  Make it so there is no political program to fight over, nothing to make members want to quit or drive out those who disagree.  Then allow it to succeed at a more limited role.

And what would this role be?  Above all, it would make visible, countable even, the existence of a massive Left constituency in America.  People would feel differently—they would have more self-confidence and be willing to take bolder action—if they knew they were not alone but part of a movement with millions of supporters.  They could begin to think in “we” terms, where “we” is a fairly well-defined group with game-changing potential.  In addition, such an organization could create opportunities for networking, incubating smaller groups centered on particular issues or ideologies or self-identities, free to be as political as they want, and facilitate media with a wider reach than what we currently have.  It could schedule debates and film series, organize festivals and commemorations, and foster other activities to keep people informed and connected to one another.  It would not do everything—we would still need explicit political organizations to take stands, lobby, organize protests and win elections—but it would be a giant step forward.

The issue of membership is crucial, because it essentially defines what it means to be on the Left.  Here I think the key move is to emphasize values and not means.  What makes someone part of the big family of the Left is not adherence to a particular system of ownership of the means of production or support for any single strategy for social change, but acceptance of democracy, freedom and equality as the primary criteria for valuing any of these.  Wording would be tricky, but I can imagine a short list of core values that the organization would stand for and that joining it would endorse.  It would probably be necessary to make the values binding in the sense that a clear pattern of violating them would be grounds for being denied membership.  White supremacists or other bigots, for instance, should not be permitted to infiltrate, nor others whose underlying philosophy indicates their purpose is disruption or domination rather than collaboration with broadly like-minded activists.

Dues should be kept as low as possible, perhaps on a sliding scale to remove economic status as a condition of membership.  But some payment is needed so that members are making at least a nominal commitment, with self-financing a crucial buffer against external influence.

There should be chapters of this organization at every scale, from a few city blocks to states and the whole country.  Officers would need to be elected to manage funds, coordinate activities, communicate to the media and guarantee the principles of the organization are being followed.  Of course, there should be transparent procedures for recalling officers who prove to be deficient—but again it is crucial that the organization be prohibited from taking sides in any political dispute so that battles over leadership are not about control over political orientation.

A useful alternative to manifestos and official statements of political position would be frequent polling of the membership.  If a reasonable hurdle, such as support from a minimum percent of the organization, could be met, polls would be conducted to convey the range and weight of views.  In this way majorities would not presume to speak for the whole, and minorities would not be silenced, but the existence of both would be acknowledged.

I don’t have all the details figured out.  Above all, I don’t see an obvious solution to the problem of media.  One of the main functions of such an organization should be to stimulate the growth of left-oriented publications and similar outlets.  These would need to be curated, since there is already a superabundance of material directed at those on the Left (and every other political stripe), and there is no point to simply piling on.  At the same time, to select the “best” or “most important” content is to apply judgment over which factions will tend to factionalize.  I don’t see an obvious solution.

The general principle is that what we need to do, what we always need to do, is take the next step.  The step must be large enough to be worth taking, but not much more than that, since if we succeed we’ll be in a better place to take another step, and then another.


Bruce Wilder said...

What you are describing hypothetically sounds a lot like what the Democratic Party largely was for most of its history.

Peter Dorman said...

Bruce, the Dems were never, as far as I know, a membership organization. And they ran candidates and took positions. There has been a vibrant left, on and off, outside the DP for the last 100 years. Taking over the DP is a plausible project (this has been DSA's for some time, yes?), but that's an entirely different kettle of fish.

Bruce Wilder said...

I was a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party at one time. And, a lot of Party activity, from Jackson thru FDR -- rallies, conventions, etc -- involved trying to get people to identify with the Party, to think of themselves as Democrats.

The American political Parties were historically very weak on ideology and flexible on policy. When the country had reached a consensus on a divisive issue, both Parties endorsed that consensus; great reform campaigns and movements with specific policy agendas tended to run orthogonally to the Parties, which were, as you observe in the OP, organizations tending to factionalism.

The thing that held the historic Parties together -- their core constituency as it were -- were politician office-seekers and those seeking usually petty patronage appointments. The politicians and the patronage seekers had interests in policy, but not only policy. The thing that is dividing the Parties today is that the interests of the majority of the electorate is opposed to and by the donors that finance Party activity, lobbying, and the the networks of "policy" think-tanks that generate propaganda and policy entrepreneurship.

The challenge for your vision isn't just factionalism, but insulating the organization from the money of business corporations and billionaires -- the very problem that needs to be solved.

The factionalism can be dampened by bringing in "good soldiers" from the ranks of authoritarian followers. Lots of people on the left would fight against that kind of importing of nationalism, racism, religiosity, etc.

The money? That is very hard to fight effectively.

Calgacus said...

Yeah, about the money. The recent change afaik came about 30 odd years ago when Tony Coelho, as a Democratic party official, turned ardently toward fundraising from business, and therefore proportionally less from labor.

Melinda Wheeler said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Melinda Wheeler said...

Probably a very simplistic thing to say, but politics, whatever side they express, are a lot about ego and less about what is really good for people. Some politicians have a touch of the poetic (Obama). Some have an unusual amount of honesty (Bernie). There are people on the left who actually do care (Aviva Chomsky). But it can’t just be about positions on this and that, and paying dues,etc. There has to be some Earth, Wind, and Fire to it too. (Ha-ha). And some kindness. Otherwise, it’s headed for the usual power struggles... -Mel (Hope that made some sort of sense)..

Peter said...

unions supported and support the Democrats, but Bill Clinton and Obama didn't support labor and liberal pundits didn't call them out on it b/c Republicans are worse. That's their easy excuse for every betrayal: the Republicans are worse. The center left led us here.

So now the Republicans are going after the public unions.

Longtooth said...

I can see and understand your proposed means to create a factionalized group identity. I think of it in terms a group of tribes forming a coalition... to contain the factions. This has the already existing counterpart on the right as exemplified by what used to be referred to as the "Southern" Block or which is now more broadly understood to be the white supremacist individualism block extending across the U.S. with a concentration in the south or perhaps better stated a concentration in the former confederate states.

Membership criteria is formalized by dues, local block captain elections, etc. with some rules to maintain the boundaries within which the factions must adhere to be members. This is also, parenthetically, the Chinese Communist Party's tribal membership methodology -- membership within the rules describing the boundaries of membership factions, prevent in-filtration by those who would seek to undermine it, etc. The only difference is that this tribal organization has taken political control as well.

I don't see a problem in the concept but do see a problem in practice of maintaining the tribal coalitions on the Left.

Since membership is of course voluntary with the local elections (which are its foundation and supporting infrastructure) being required independent of other political activities -- local, state, national elections, the members must have a stake in the outcome as they see it, otherwise why bother? This leads to immediate politicization since the stake in any outcome depends entirely on political actors being elected to positions of legislative authority to enact the changes which are at stake.

So even before the economic clout & propagandizing machines of the Right come into play, and the Achilles heal of the "media" issues, the fundamental nature of people will break up the enlarged tribal unity on the Left that you envision.

The fundamental in any system of gov't is that changes sought can only come from either an overwhelming consensus of the entire population independent of other ideologies, OR by political party power. Even the Alabama election illustrates this principle... the margin of far Right to moderates and progressives was only 1.5% ... as shift of just 0.76% to the Far Right would have elected Moore instead. The effect of the people to come out and vote at all was to obtain an objective that was at stake... and the means of obtaining it is always and only about political power in the halls of government.. .which is to say it's always a political struggle so politicization is inherent and thus cannot be "ruled" out of the tribal organization's different factions seeking their own faction to be primary.

Longtooth said...

The issue as I see it is how the progressive side of the political spectrum can shift the population's incentives to support and promote the progressive agenda ... meaning move the fence sitters decidedly to the Left on a continual basis as well as perhaps moving some from the moderate Right (or those who vote that way simply because their family has always voted that way).

This is in its essence a division of incentives for cooperative social and economic fairness (equalities if you will) vs individualism and it's "freedoms".

These are mutually exclusive in the U.S.

So shifting incentives away from individualism and it's "freedoms" to a cooperative social political system is what is actually necessary to achieve by political majority consensus -- which btw, also has to be able to withstand the fact that half the electorate is not even remotely willing to do so ... and will perhaps decide on apolitical solutions (as history demonstrates is always the case).