Thursday, August 30, 2012

Occupy, Radicals, and Elections

I recently read a post about the idea of running "Occupy" candidates in elections.. I like this idea. That is not because I think the Occupy movement is cohesive, or particularly vibrant at the moment. On the contrary I think it's a bit stalled. But what is great about occupy is it is so inclusive of everyone's politics. The fact that anyone is talking about that sort of model and applying it to elections is a breath of fresh air.

I think maybe we, as the American far left, have today an opportunity to change the way we relate to elections. Let us consider our recent historical experience with the things...

Propagandistic Campaigns

The Nader 2000 campaign was highly effective at turning a lot of people on to politics. If Nader had been elected, what would he have been able to do? Some things, yes, he could have done, but the president is not a dictator. There are three branches of government and the other two would have worked as hard as they could to prevent his substantive changes from taking effect. If you think the backlash against Obama is bad now, what do you think the Republicans would be doing if the president actually had had open socialists working on his campaign, or perhaps, as his vice president? An isolated, one term radical president would likely find that a lot of what he was able to do in four years could be undone by a subsequent Republocrat administration.

But I don't think the Nader campaign ever thought it could actually win. That wasn't the point. The point was to talk about serious issues that there was a media black out on, and a political conspiracy of silence about. The real aim of that campaign was, you might say, "propagandistic". To that end, I think it was very effective. Here's a few examples of the way bold ideas, advanced in a confident political way, can get taken up and spread around society:

Today you and I can't go out to eat at a restaurant without the menu and the servers telling you what is local and organic, what doesn't have pesticides in it, and how that restaurant is trying to be sustainable. Of course, if you're a smart person, you may recognize some of that is tragic, because the power your restaurant has to change things is really pretty small compared to what agribusiness is doing, or what the centrally planned, fossil fuel dependent transportation networks are like. But the point here is that the basic stuff we were saying about sustainability back in 2000 is now common parlance. In 2000 no one cared at all about that. Everyone was driving SUV's and dreaming of a 30 mile commute from some home in the ever expanding suburbs.

Do you remember how B.P. co-opted the Green Party's sunflower logo? Of course we know B.P.'s renewable program is marginal to their oil exploration, and the adoption of the logo was a flagrantly offensive example of "greenwashing." However, the fact that they felt it was good business for them to adopt that logo was because people are starting to care about things like peak oil and global warming. Today there are several hundred thousand American students every year taking Environmental Studies classes. There are a lot more engineering students learning about wind and solar power than there were 10 years ago. The Nader campaign doesn't take full credit for this, but the word "Green" is certainly well integrated into our vocabulary and the explosive growth of the Green Party's campaign that year certainly provided a major boost for emerging eco-consciousness.

Fair Trade coffee is a third example. If you were part of some revolutionary left wing of the Nader campaign, you might have scoffed at Fair Trade coffee. Doesn't it seem a bit naive, and utopian, and a drop in the pail to address issues of poverty and exploitation? Well, sure it is. But look at how widespread fair trade coffee is today. More important that the direct effect- real or imagined- that fair trade coffee has on coffee growers is the fact that now whenever we get our cups of coffee, we're thinking, and maybe talking to each other, and saying "Hey, it seems a lot of people who make the things we consume tend to get a hard deal with it. It's a good idea to try and get them a better deal." Maybe the more thinking among us might even go so far as to think about the hard deals we get at our own jobs, and even consider for a moment that one day we might be able to change that. Even Wal Mart is selling fair trade coffee now.

So that is what a successful propgandistic campaign can do. You can get innovative, cutting edge ideas out there and for years after that election ends, those ideas work their way among people's heads and get incorporated into their lives. The Green Party and the 2000 elections were partially successful in making an ideological shift, in winning a political debate. Considering how reactionary this country got after Sept 11th 2001, and how many political people started to abandon politics after protests failed to stop the Iraq War, it is remarkable how many things we talked about as Greens in 2000 and 2004 are things we take for granted today.

To finish off this discussion of propagandistic campaigns, let's just consider how much time and money it took for Nader to run his 50 state campaign in 2000. That's a huge infrastructure. Nader had a lot of good things to say. Were workers' councils, socialist revolution, or the closure of all foreign military bases part of his campaign positions? I don't think so. But the fact the he built his campaign as a broad left / far left venture meant he could get a lot more support and built a lot more infrastructure. As a radical socialist in country where creationists win elections and sit on school boards, I think being part of a campaign where 75% of the things I really care about are being talked about among millions of people is a lot more important than being part of a campaign where 100% of the things I really care about are being talked about by 1,000 or 2,000 people. Let's not forget that lesson.

Fighting for Power Both Political and Economic

Now, what is a whole lot better than being propagandistic?

Fighting for power.

There is a lot of places where power is. There is power in the workplace. There is power in a school board. Sherrifs have power. The federal budget is really really powerful. Court clerks who load the docket with cases likely to overturn aggressive and illegal police convictions for marijuana posession have power. If you've enjoyed a joint without being harassed in Northern California in the past decade you can thank a clerk.

A lot of American leftists are busy trying to build the power of the people "in the streets." Student power is another form of power that is easier to build because students are in a more intellectual environment than most people and they seem more willing attend meetings. And of course anyone who says they are for the working class is going to be all about economic power. You can build some form of working people's economic power by hiring yourself out as an organizer for a large, corrupt, but real union federation. Or you can try and build a small, struggling upstart one like the IWW. Or you can be a card carrying socialist in a workplace trying to figure out how to relate politics to your workers, and how to win small victories around the injustices where you work whether there is a union or not.

We seem to "get" the idea of fighting for economic power. Yet political power still seems like a many- headed hydra we're afraid of and perfer to keep at arm's length.

What I will first say about that is that fighting for political power is essential to the fight for economic power. Anyone who saw the numerous Democratic Party mayors send in the police to arrest and brutalize activists protesting the domination of Wall Street can probably tell you something about the way the political system is used as a tool of class rule. It's absurd to consider that you can build your class' power in one area while ignoring it in the other.

But, doesn't power corrupt? And aren't those capitalist courts and legislatures and congresses? Sure. Isn't everything?

Let's say you go on strike, you form your union, and then you defend your gains and your union while the powers of capital try to whittle you down. What is a contract negotiation? It's something usually done on hostile territory. Just like elections.

For starters, contracts are usually negotiated and signed in some office, which if you are the working class is a place you might not feel comfortable. Offices are where you go when you are in trouble. It's where you stand with your hat in your hand asking for a job or a raise. It's where people who get paid more than you sit and read facebook all day while you take out their trash. Even worse, most of the time when contract negotiations happen you are wearing a suit. That's right. The guy representing the steelworkers and the janitors is wearing a suit. Now it may be prudent, as that is just the rules, that when you are in offices and you want to be taken seriously you wear a suit. But it's still hostile territory that you are on. If you're actually a working class person representing yourself there you will probably feel uncomfortable. A contract itself is not a rational thing that you might understand. Legal contracts are about fine print, loopholes, and ways to get screwed. They require experts to review and scrutinize. They are something that bosses and people with money will always be better at than you, as long as the bosses are the ones with all the money.

I contend that is really no different than the problems ready to envelope an isolated leftist upon his obtainment of political power. Elections are also something that money and bosses are better at than you. State legislature and our Congress are not known to be welcoming of upstart outsiders. On the contrary they are places you should feel uncomfortable if you are at all a rational or warm hearted creature. There, as an elected leftist you will be at some disadvantages, and what you can accomplish will always be limited by arhaic rules and procedures put in place by the candidates of money. Yes. But despite all of that, there are still things you can accomplish. Trillions in spending hang in the balance. Health care plans are decided. Wars are funded. Civil rights are awarded, or taken away. Hearings and investigations are held.

Why should it be so strange to image a few, or even a majority, of socialistic or anarchistic congressmen? I think the idea that the people who work the hardest shouldn't be the poorest is a pretty rational one. I also think that if you are sick, you should go to the doctor, and get fixed, and you shouldn't be financially punished for that. I also like the idea of taking food, and bringing it to hungry people, and feeding them. I have no problem imagining that despite our prejudices and fears, we in America could one day elevate these perfectly respectable philosophies to all the chambers of power- as they exist now or perhaps as they get transformed. So why shouldn't participation in these elections be a normal part of an radical's political perspectives?

Our refusal to fight for political power because of the fact that elected positions are places were people without money or with sensible ideas are disrespected and generally unwelcome is an intolerable legacy we have inherited from decades of defeat. This is capitalism. Every institution is dominated by money. All security guards guard the rich and all guns are pointed at the poor. There is no institution or business freed from the corrupting effects of money. Likewise it is precisely political instutions just as it is businesses where all decisions that effect our lives are made. We have only two choices. We can either try and eek out an existence in some precarious off grid apolitical lifestyle. Or, we can set ourselves to seriously contest all forms of power where ever they exist. We can take over what institutions make sense to keep around and use them for good (I for one am rather fond of sanitation departments and post offices), and where we are obstructed, we can at least prevent them from being used for as much bad. In the long term, we can even dream about abolishing the ones that do nothing productive but only cause harm (such as the School of the Americans in Ft. Benning, GA, for example).

Two Party System as Accepted Fact: A Historical Legacy of Defeat

One problem with the American left is that it seems very few have figured out how to fight for power in a way that aligns daily activity with a long term goal. Now we might say we've got a long term goal, as well as daily activity, but I don't think anyone really has a plan. It seems there is is always this great disconnect, as mentioned in the article I linked to at the beginning of this one, between "A" and "X", "Y", or "Z". Selling socialist newspapers on a street corner once a week, as step one, with a lot of hazy steps between you and "victory", is kind of the radical equivalent of volunteering every week at a soup kitchen or donating cans to the food drive or biking to work or voting for a Democratic presidential candidate. You hope that if you just faithfully show up and do your one small concrete step, that some how, eventually, things will get solved somehow by someone.

Now is that a value judgement I have made? Of course not. It makes total sense if you look at things historically. If you are the American left over the past 10 years or 20 or 30 years you have probably come to realize that you are small and weak and isolated. The enemy is large, well funded, and entrenched. People are apparently passive, when they are not completely unreachable.

Weakness gets expressed politically in different ways. On the one hand you've got liberal support for democrats, which comes in the form of door knocking, financial donations, lawn signs, democratic speakers at protest rallies, etc... We all know what that is and where it goes. It's Hillary Clinton and Madeline Albright speaking at the Emergency March for Women's lives in 2004. It's NARAL giving John Kerry a "100%" pro-woman voting score on their website in that year when in 2003 he only showed up to vote on 3 of 11 abortion related bills. It's the 2006 immigrant's rights protests being channeled into support for Democrats in elections, who have proceeded to leave the undocumented in political limbo for another 6 years. It's the politics of sending in donations from your hard earned money to keep some unelected president of some "non profit" well paid, well housed, and in a nice Washington, DC office somewhere where they can talk to Democrats on your behalf.

It's Barack Obama holding his tongue and keeping the military aid flowing while Israel bombs the Gaza Strip.

The flip side of this is more "radical" approaches, which I believe all generally boil down to non-participation in elections or various other forms of ultimate submission to the two party system. This comes in the form of people who proudly don't vote, people who with great demoralization don't vote, people who vote for Mickey Mouse, people who protest against Obama's escalation of the Afghan war but then secretly vote for them anyway because they can't stand John McCain and Sarah Palin, and finally people who deliberately run far left candidates in propagandistic campaigns that are only supported by, say, the Socialist or the Socialist Workers Party.

These latter campaigns fall but little farther in their effectiveness than any of the other methods I've already mentioned. The problem with small, far left campaigns is that those candidates with all their good things to say never are able to reach a mass audience. This is because they don't try to, because they don't try to build a campaign larger than their own small party. Now I've got nothing but love for anyone brave or serious enough to walk around in America and invite strangers on the street to come see the socialist candidate speak tonight. But I also realize that these campaigns are tiny and ineffective. It's like if you wrote a great book and you're ready to be a famous author, and you send it to twenty publishers and you get twenty rejection letters. Maybe someone then suggests you self publish. Then you go out and pay a thousand dollars of your own money to fill your garage up with a bunch of books. It's like the socialist candidate on the ballot. It looks like a real book. It reads like a real book. And it feels like a real book. But the difference between you and guy who is in this 5th printing is that people know and care what that other guy wrote, and you're a guy with a garage full of books that no one is going to read because you have no way to promote or distribute it.

Both the liberal and the radical forms of not struggling for power against the two party system are really two sides of the same coin. They both happen because both the liberals and the radicals feel they can never escape from the two party system. People are too dumb. Money is too powerful. This is all we have. So accept it, and learn to transfer your long term hopes to "After The Revolution", Dennis Kucinich, or the second coming of Jesus. Now I would love to invite the aherants of each of these mythologies to a nice campsite a long a river somewhere with plenty of Colordao microbrews and increasingly legal pot to go around and allow everyone to debate the relative merits of each. As a political scientist, it is my hypothesis that if this experiment were to be repeated three different times, we would come up with three different most likely paths to our salvation.

River beers aside, all of these intangible pipe dreams are what you develop when you are hopeless. There's nothing wrong with hoping for something that will never happen if the hope you get from it is going to allow you to deal with another day. But lying to yourself to be able to deal with another day is not exactly the road to power.

Occupy Changed Everything

Occupy did change everything. But the Zuccotti Park organizers can hardly claim all the credit. What is behind Occupy is many years of neo-liberal assaults on living standards. That was sustained by an elaborate apparatus of deception and denial, cheap credit, and racism. What the recession did was to finally convince everyone that things were wrong. It didn't matter if you were endowed with certain skin color, nationality, gender, sexual orientation, work ethic, or disposition to fair dealing. You were still thrown out on the curb because some rich banker or stock broker you have never even met decided to screw you so he could make more money. As you looked around you began to notice these same people had near total control of the government, and you began to think that that fact might be behind a lot of our problems.

The logic of capitalism is to never end the search for more money and more power. If you don't get it someone else will. The search for money and power has extended so far that it not only controls the government (it has done this, pretty much, for ever), but it has begun to dismantle a consensus between the classes, long known as "the American Dream." Domestic imperial over reach occured. The recession laid bare for millions of people in brutally personal terms what the balance of power in this country had in fact become. The second thing that happened was the Arab Spring. Suddenly, the people we've been bombing and funding the torture and oppression of for decades have started to rise up and teach us some very basic lessons on civics and participation in a democratic society.

Occupy was the political expression of these changes. If the planners of the Zuccotti occupation had flaked out and backed off, someone else would have planned something similar, and it would have caught on as wide spread as Occupy did. A certain level of understanding had been reached and a certain level of confidence, inspiration, and anger existed to break through the walls of our alienating society and act in a collective, political way.

Occupy is organizationally confused right now. But the people are still there, their problems are not going away, and we are waiting and learning and talking to each other and thinking. For the far left, the Anarchism of Occupy taught everyone else a very powerful lesson: that when we stop worrying about the purity of our politics, when we actually come together and join our voices, we can get a lot accomplished and we can connect radical, progressive ideas with mass activity among the disenfranchised classes. That is a very, very powerful lesson.

New Formations

The idea of running "Occupy" candidates is right. But the idea of isolated activists, in different cities, not talking to each other, each with their own fundraising and publicity campaigns, each with their own uphill battle against the corporate media blackout, that is not a winning idea.

What is different now that didn't exist before is that the far left has learned when it works together, it can connect its message and its politics to millions of "ordinary" Americans who have a basic understanding that the problem is, indeed "the 1%". That didn't exist before. What used to be of little more value than theoretical gymnastics about the roles of radicals in elections we now have an opportunity to actually implement.

There have been some attempts to cobble together some national formations out of the different Occupys. So far I hear they have not met with universal success. That is good. If something coherent and productive came out of it immediately there would have had to have been some shadowy group running the show, and we wouldn't have been able to trust it. Our intellectual inheritance as American leftists involves high degrees of mutual distrust, and little practice in working together across tendencies. We grew up, politically, in our own, isolated "holes" of localism. It didn't matter before if we couldn't work together, because we rarely had a mass audience to connect our politics to anyway. The fact that it has been difficult so far to congeal anything tangible or official out of Occupy is proof that we are dealing with real leftists- bless their hearts- inexperienced and fractious as they are.

This is the human material our historical legacy has bequeathed to us. Our primordial and challenged characteristics need not be fatal if we can realize two things. The first is that we have a real opportunity right now to connect radical left politics to millions of American people. The second is that we can only do this when we work together across sectarian barriers. For people who casually throw around such an impossibly inclusive slogan like "the 99%",  I cannot believe it is impossible for my fellow leftists to come to these same conclusions. Perhaps to unite we need not demand that all abandon what all have learned from their own adventures in political theory. Rather, it may be more useful to start from an understanding that theoretical correctness is very much less important than is practical effectiveness. If we were to judge the validity of each others' theories on the basis of what they have been able to concretely accomplish (rather than how they clash with our own preconceptions) we might all be a bit better off.

Elections would be a convenient thing around which to congeal a unifed, left, anti-wall street and anti-two party political formation. Should such a formation one day come into existence, it will have to deal with elections anyway as our class rises from its slumber to take increasingly confident steps to victory. We might as well learn to relate them any way, and I think national elections offer a great opportunity to reach people politically. With great excitement I look forward to the emergence of other "Occupy" candidates, if not even some sort of "Occupy" ticket.

Whether it would be under that or another name I have no idea and in fact I do not particularly care. But I am pretty sure complete ecological collapse will set in before any one of our "three letter" organizations wins a national election on the basis of its own, unique political purity.

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