What the American radical left needs in order to cure its penchant for whining instead of winning and move away from capitalism towards socialism is power. Money buys power, but because we’re (mostly) wage-slaves who don’t own money-making assets like businesses and properties, we can’t afford to buy it. We have to take it, snatch it, fight for it, and/or create it on our own using our brains and brawns through self-organization.
Power comes in many forms: political power, economic power, popular power, street power, moral power, cultural power, institutional power, legislative power, the power to inspire and capture people’s imaginations. We need to contest, own, create, and master power in all its forms, but not because we want to control or dominate others. As one British anarchist brilliantly explained:
Politics is a struggle for power. It is a struggle by those who have less power to have more of it, and once they have it, to retain it. In our case, it is the struggle to neutralize ‘Power’, spelt with a capital P, and to enhance self-power. In the long run, anarchist political struggle is a struggle to create a society where no one power is dominant, where there is a balance of power. This is the invisible goliath we are tackling.
But politics is also about the ‘polis’, or civil society; it is the art of actively planning, creating and managing the structures, institutions, customs and practices of the society we live in. In this way politics involves two different but intricately and inseparably connected facets. The sooner we understand this[,] the better for us. I say this because, as I mentioned earlier, there is a strong nihilist element in the ‘anarchism’ I’ve witnessed where politics is a ‘bad’ word; politics is something the lying, corrupt, power-mongering elites, or the long-discredited ‘Left’ (seen as a monolith) engage in, replete with its association of boredom and bureaucracy.
Could any self-respecting Marxist disagree with the content of these words?
All this talk about power is another way of saying that protest is not enough. Outrage is not enough. Being right against the two parties is not enough. Even broad public support for our agenda of single-payer health care, ending America’s wars abroad, or taxing the 1% is not enough when we lack the power to advance a single item on that agenda in the real world, even in some watered down form or on a small scale.
The American left is forever ineffectively protesting some injustice or other to such an extent that the word “protest” has become synonymous in the minds of millions with defeat, irrelevance, and pointless empty gesturing. Occupy succeeded where so many protests failed despite being focused on the same issues and despite being mostly a series of peaceful protests because it was born and raised as something other than a protest. It was militant rather than passive, defiant rather than submissive, caring rather than indifferent, passionate rather than boring, and as a result, it exerted power over people’s hearts and minds to such an extent that it drew hitherto passive, semi and apolitical layers of the 99% into their first confrontations with the state and capital.
Occupy created power out of powerlessness by taking bold, unorthodox action against a universally despised target: Wall Street. The 40 or more people who planned Occupy Wall Street (OWS) set into motion thousands and then tens of thousands in New York City and even greater numbers throughout the country. At its peak, Occupy was able to mobilize over 50,000 people at local marches in major urban areas, turnouts equal to what are generally considered to be respectably-sized national demonstrations in Washington, D.C. and managed to shut down Oakland’s port. This 30,000-strong port blockade was called by a 2,000-person General Assembly.
That was power — popular power, power emanating from the grassroots, but power nonetheless.
Power, not protest, is the key element missing from today’s left. We must speak power to power, not just truth to power.
Power on Campus
Campus-based left groups typically organize around a particular cause, issue, or ideology and draw students into their activities on that basis. Students filter into and out of these groups upon graduation, making it all but impossible for them to grow beyond handfuls of the like-minded into mass student organizations like those that exist in much of Europe, Latin America, and Canada, which are often organized and led by the left. When tuition hikes are announced, hundreds or thousands might respond to calls by the campus left to protest, but these protests usually dwindle after being ignored by school administrations and legislators alike, reinforcing defeatist, skeptical attitudes towards struggle among the student body. The reach and influence of the campus left over not only the mass of unorganized students but the students actively involved in campus life through ethnic, religious, and social clubs (fraternities, sororities) is usually minimal since there is little left interest in working in an ongoing way with ostensibly apolitical groups and people. Consequently, dual membership in a left group and non-political organizations is rare.
The result of the above organizing model is a campus left that remains politically isolated and numerically insignificant (despite its hyper-activism) while the student masses tend towards passivity, uninterested in the left’s doings.
A campus left focused on building student power aims to organize people to fight for their own wants and needs rather than persuade them to change their position on a particular issue or on socialist ideology the better to recruit them. This approach means listening and understanding rather than arguing and proselytizing. It means picking fights rather than converting individuals, focusing on agitation rather than propaganda, organizing the unorganized; our task is to change the world and the objective conditions we operate in, not the minds of individuals.
Only when large numbers of students come into motion and clash with the status quo can there be a mass basis for radical political formations and the creation of experienced militants (usually referred to as “cadres”). The sect form continually stands in the way of this process.
To develop roots on campus sufficient to survive attrition through graduation, campus left groups need to think seriously about engaging the powerful and enduring student institutions at their schools which, in most cases, are student government and social organizations like fraternities and sororities.
A left slate that wins enough popular support to control student government would make it very difficult for administrations to resist left-led protests for the following reasons:
- The left would have the power of a democratic mandate from the student body as well as legal or juridical legitimacy. Any hostile action by an administration would be almost automatically viewed as an intolerable violation of democratic principles, an attack on the student body as a whole, and engender publicity and support from off-campus forces on that basis. Instead of denigrating bourgeois-democratic illusions that prop up 1% rule, we must make use of them to dismantle it.
- Student governments generally have more money, resources, power, and therefore influence than campus groups with officially sanctioned club status, all of which would be tremendous assets in fighting tuition hikes, attacks on affirmative action, or defending left professors or student groups from rightist attacks. Left student governments could enact hate speech-free zones, banning the likes of Pamela Geller, Ann Coulter, or Daniel Pipes from speaking on campus, a more effective tactic than picketing outside their events or briefly disrupting inside before being ejected.
- If left governments on campus were elected within the same university system (CUNY, SUNY), they could link together and begin to function like the student federation CLASSE in Canada to fight austerity measures in a coordinated, system-wide way.
An alternative organizing strategy to creating left governments on campus (since there are many campuses where the left will not win enough support to take over student government) or proselytizing and recruiting individuals to a revolving-door sect would be to create something like a left fraternity or sorority. This might seem to clash with or contradict the power-centric approach advocated throughout this essay, but creating sustainable institutions is a form of power-building, a long, slower “war of position” (to borrow a phrase from Gramsci) rather than a short, quick “war of maneuver”.
It would be a mistake to dismiss the idea of left social organizations as absurd or a non-starter without first considering the fact that, aside from student governments, these organizations have endured on American campuses for decades and wield significant influence over student life through their activities. How many campus-based left groups can truthfully say the same about themselves? Not since the 1960s has there been a mass-based left on campus. Unfortunately, Students for a Democratic Society mushroomed too quickly and exploded into a dozen sects before it could sink roots to become a lasting institution and a continual organizing node for successive generations of student militants.
Of course, we would not aim to replicate the reactionary political culture of fraternities and sororities — just the opposite. Students join these groups for social not political reasons, to access a ready-made social network of friends and associates in an otherwise new and strange environment, and to plug into activities (parties). There is no reason the left cannot create its own version of these institutions to meet these entirely legitimate needs while combining that with progressive values and practices. Many students would probably gravitate towards or at the very least appreciate a competitive alternative to reactionary and sadistic frat party culture, one that combines fun with anti-sexist ethos, hardline anti-racism, and zero tolerance for homophobia. The last of these is especially important, given the spate of suicides by LGBTQ college students in recent years. Such an organization’s volunteer work could be working with local chapters of Food Not Bombs or Catholic Worker or visiting picket lines instead of spending time in Salvation Army soup kitchens, for example. Solidarity actions, constructing community gardens, or repairing/building homes in low-income communities could replace hazing as a means of building esprit de corps.
Although perhaps less ego-boosting than more-revolutionary-than-thou radicalism, creating left institutions on campus with real, lasting roots would go a long way towards undermining the alienating, stultifying campus culture that creates the context for suicides, rapes, hazing, binge drinking, and bullying that have become “normal” elements of “growing up” when they are anything but and begin to turn campuses into citadels of the left. Left social organizations would enjoy a much larger membership than existing political groups because their appeal and activities are more social than political and their ideological and labor-time requirements less rigorous. In addition, left social organizations would be in a position to regularly work with and influence the non-political ethnic, religious, and social clubs that make up the vast majority of student groups, spreading left influence throughout the student body rather than restricting it to the ever-slim ranks of the converted, convinced, and committed.
In practice, this model might (with modifications) look more like Philly Socialists than any existing two- or three-letter socialist group.
These two strategies for creating and building the left’s power in a campus setting are not mutually exclusive. A successful left social organization after a few years could change objective and subjective conditions to the point where it would be possible for a left slate to win control of student government and a left student government could facilitate the creation of a progressive social organization (or several) to broaden its base of popular support beyond the ranks of the super-political.
The Power of Elected Office
Emma Goldman famously wrote, “If voting changed anything, they’d make it illegal.” If voting changed nothing, corporations and super PACs would not invest billions of dollars into buying votes every four years or spend millions of dollars on lobbyists to influence elected officials. If voting changed nothing, generations of activists have fought and died for the right to vote. If who holds elected office made no difference what so ever, the 1% would not conspire to keep third parties and independents out the presidential debates after Ross Perot’s strong 1992 showing, continually restrict the franchise for minority voters, harass third-party electoral efforts, and create innumerable and expensive procedural barriers to electoral runs independent of the two parties.
Voting is a form of power, and in bourgeois democracies, ballots rather than bullets determine who exercises political power through the writing, interpretation, and enforcement of laws and control over the mechanisms of daily governance.
What our 1% fears most is a radical left that is powerful enough and popular enough to beat them at their own bourgeois-democratic game, to take power from them within their own state institutions. What they fear is a legislative army of Hugo Chávezes gumming up the works, taking the fight against lobbyists right to where the lobbying happens, turning business as usual into the battle of democracy Marx wrote of, with contending class forces mobilizing constituents and allies in the streets for or against legislation. This may sound prosaic or hopelessly utopian, but the rapid and explosive action by the immigrant masses in 2006 that culminated in a general strike on May 1 was not touched off not by the left’s revolutionary exhortations but by impending legislation. The simmering, ongoing immigration protests since around the DREAM Act is another example. The occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature in early 2011 to fight the governor’s union-busting bill yet another.
The power of elected office is one of the underappreciated lessons of the Wisconsin uprising’s defeat. The struggle began not as a militant occupation but evolved into one after a groundswell of mass opposition to Republican governor Scott Walker’s union-busting bill flooded the legislative process, resulting in a procedural dispute between Republican and Democratic legislators during public hearings on the bill. When Republicans broke with tradition by ending the public comment period on proposed legislation before the list of speakers was finished to stop a “citizens filibuster,” this shocked and radicalized opponents of the bill who expected “their” legislators to play by the rules and at least allow them to vent their feelings. With the two parties briefly unable to rule in the old way, masses of people from all walks of life poured into the capital to deepen the legislative logjam and make their opposition felt. The mass occupation of the legislature created the context for 14 Democratic legislators to flee the state and deny the Republican majority the necessary quorum to move ahead with passing the bill. As a result of their actions, Democratic legislators became the heroes of the occupation and they exploited the power of their popularity to bring the occupation to an end in favor of a recall effort against the governor. The far left denounced this betrayal and used it as fodder for propagandist rhetoric about “the need to break with the Democratic Party” while providing no alternative course of action for the stalled occupation to break the legislative stalemate.
This substitution of words for action, of verbal vitriol for practical leadership, revealed in stark terms the left’s utter failure to compete with Democratic Party politicians for power and influence among the capitol’s occupiers. Wisconsin proved that, on the field of battle, a sect is no match for a party even when the sect has the correct socialist doctrine and the party is made up of nothing but Judas Iscariots because parties wield power in the real world while sects only wield power over their own members.
Another example of the power of elected office worth mentioning is the role played by Jesse Jackson in enabling OWS’s encampment in Zuccotti Park. As autumn progressed, temperatures fell and made precipitation increasingly difficult to cope with. The need for tents and other structured shelters became felt acutely by all occupiers and this need became a source of intense antagonism between OWS and city authorities. From day one of the occupation, the Bloomberg administration and Brookfield Properties were adamant that no tent-like structures would be permitted. The New York Police Department (NYPD) ruthlessly enforced that ban, snatching whoever tried to pitch a tent and confiscating their gear. A showdown over these “nonpolitical” quality of life issues was inevitable — the occupation could not endure without tents, port-o-potties, and agreements with the neighborhood residents’ association over noise in the park while Bloomberg could not allow the most successful political movement in the United States since sit-ins swept the Jim Crow south to endure and develop unfettered.
When Bloomberg set a deadline for an eviction operation, unions flooded Zuccotti Park with their members, causing the mayor to blink at the last minute during the wee hours of October 14. This temporary victory fed feelings of invincibility in the encampment and on October 17, the first aid station decided to pitch a tent. When the cops moved in to smash and grab it, Jesse Jackson interceded, physically standing between the NYPD and the tent and locking arms with occupiers. Beating and arresting dreadlocked punk rockers or underemployed graduate students was one thing; doing the same to Jesse Jackson while the whole world watched was another. Now, it was the NYPD’s turn to blink and their officers stood down. After that first tent survived police repression, tents sprang up like mushrooms one after the other in the days that followed. Within a few days, Zuccotti Park was a tent city, ready for the coming winter.
The point is not that Jesse Jackson or other Democratic politicians deserve our vote but that the left in the U.S. has no comparable figures of its own who stand a chance at stopping an NYPD officers dead in his tracks. That is power. Unless and until the radical left gets power, we cannot expect opposition movements to do anything but fall into the orbit of social forces that do exercise power — elected officials, political parties, the union and NGO bureaucracies, the state, and corporations. Wresting the allegiance of 65 million workers, immigrants, LGBTs, women, and minorities from Obama’s party will take a tremendous amount of power of our own, and part of building that power is fighting for and winning elected office.
As it stands now, we hardly have any elected officials or even popular figures of either national or local stature. So when workers at fast food chains went on strike in Seattle, they solicited the support of local Democratic politicians rather than any left organizations and the support they received from those politicians was not just rhetorical. Democratic city councilman Mike O’Brien personally called striking 21-year-old Carlos Hernandez’s manager at Subway to remind (read: warn) him that firing workers for striking is illegal. Actions like that are the ties that bind the union movement to the second party of capital. Those ties will not break until leftists like Kshama Sawant win elected office, giving oppressed sectors an alternative power to gravitate towards for meeting their immediate needs and responding effectively to their urgent demands. Propaganda and rhetorical denunciation of the evils and vices of voting Democratic will never shift the allegiances of 65 million people and create a competitive alternative to the Democratic Party; only agitation and organization can do that.
The bottom line: the sooner leftists and grassroots movement activists win office at the local and state level, the better.
The more the merrier.