I recently read a post on The North Star by Socialist Alternative 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 cool about Occupy is it is so inclusive of everyone’s politics. Talking about that sort of model, and applying it to elections, is a big deal.
The Nader 2000 campaign was good because it turned a lot of people onto politics. If Nader had been elected, what would he have been able to do? Some things, yes, he could do, 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? A lot of what he would have been able to do would have been undone by a subsequent Republocrat administration.
To that end, I think it was very effective.
Here’s three 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 social power your restaurant has to change things is really pretty small compared to what agribusiness is doing, or what the centrally planned, fossil fuel 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 SUVs and dreaming of a 30-mile commute from some home in the suburbs.
- Do you remember how British Petroleum (BP) co-opted the Green Party’s sunflower logo? Of course, we know B.P. is not a serious innovator of renewable energy, but the point is that they felt it was good for them to adopt that logo, because people are starting to care about that stuff. That is important. 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 today than there were 10 years ago.
- 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 than 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, saying “hey, it seems a lot of people who make the things we consume tend to get a raw deal. 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 raw 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 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 into 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 September 11, 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. Sheriffs have power. The federal budget is really, really powerful.
A lot of American leftists are busy trying to build the power of the people “in the streets.” Student power is easier to build because students are in a more intellectual environment than most people and they seem more willing attend meetings than most people. And of course, anyone who says they are for the working class is all about economic power. You can build that 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 Industrial Workers of the World. 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.
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 prefer 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. There is no doubt about that. And really, they are not all that different.
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 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 (i.e. lawyers) 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 it is really no different than the disparities in political power. There’s elections. Also something money, and bosses, are better at than you. There’s a state legislature, or a congress. Also hostile territory. 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 disadvantage, and what you can accomplish will always be limited by the boss’ rules. Yes. But 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.
Our refusal to fight for political power because of the fact that elected positions are places where people without money or with sensible ideas are in this country 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 institutions, 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 it exists in whatever form.
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 we can work to abolish the ones that do nothing productive but 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 earlier, 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. 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 Democratic politicians, 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 Web site that year when in 2003 he only showed up to vote on 3 of 11 abortion-related bills.
It’s the 2006 immigrants’ rights protests being channeled into support for Democrats in elections, who proceeded to leave the undocumented in political limbo for another six years (when they weren’t deporting them).
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, D.C. office somewhere where they can talk to Democrats on your behalf.
The flip side of this is more “radical” approaches, which I believe all generally boil down into one or another form of non-participation in elections. 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 him 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 fifth 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. 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 the Messiah.
I would love to invite the adherents of each of these mythologies to a nice campsite along 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, what 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 2008 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 honesty. You were still thrown out on the curb because some rich banker or stock broker you have never even met decided to screw you.
As you looked around you began to notice these same people had near total control of the government, and 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 the consensus between the classes, long known as “the American Dream.” Domestic imperial over reach occurred.
The 2008 recession laid bare for millions of people in brutally personal terms what the balance of power in this country had in fact become.
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.
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.
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 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 then there would have had to have been some shadowy group behind the scenes 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, 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. First, we have a real opportunity right now to connect radical left politics to millions of American people. Second, 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 this same conclusion.
Elections would be a convenient thing around which to congeal a unified, 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 it rises from its slumber to take its 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 relate to 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’s under that or another name I am not sure. But I’m 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.