Syriza, Podemos & Outside Organizing

SYRIZA’s big victory in Greece this weekend is an exciting moment for left political activism. They are an anti-austerity party that has actively campaigned on a promise of leftist reforms and a rejection of Greece’s fealty to multi-national banks and the Troika of the ECB, IMF, and the European Commission. Syriza failed two seats short of an outright majority and chose to partner with a rightwing, anti-austerity party to form their government. The results are to be determined, but we should know relatively soon, as Greece’s loan comes due soon and they will presumably have to quickly renegotiate an extensions. Syriza, despite much hyperventilating to the contrary, does not seem intent on leaving the Eurozone, so they are likely to behave in a less radical fashion than a party with “radical” as part of their name might otherwise be expected to behave.

Taking a step back from the politics and the global economics of the situation, I want to flag something which strikes me as far more important beyond Greece. Prior to the Greek election Sebastian Budgen interviewed Stathis Kouvelakis, a Syriza committee member and professor at King’s College London, for Jacobin. It is a very long interview, with lots of internal history both of Syriza and the Greek left. But it touches on a point which I think is critical to the prospects for exporting whatever has made Syriza a success in Greece to points beyond.

Do you think that the social movement that we saw with the city square occupations in Greece is linked to Syriza’s advances at the ballot box?

Absolutely. Some people believed that these movements were not only spontaneous but even anti-political, that they stood outside and against politics. But while they did indeed reject the politics they saw in front of them, they were also looking for something different. The Podemos experience in Spain as well as Syriza in Greece shows that if the radical Left makes suitable proposals, then it can arrive at an understanding with these movements and provide a credible political “condensation” of their demands.

The idea of a merging or condensing of radical, in the streets activism that happened around the globe in 2010 and 2011, into functional political parties that win elections is tantalizing. What is key to me is that Kouvelakis doesn’t talk about coopting the energies of young people and workers in the streets for one party’s gains. He doesn’t talk about individual leaders stepping forth to harness these popular movements. He instead talks about the onus being on political parties to speak to the popular movements and be sufficiently responsive to be credible to the activists.

A different way to put this is that it’s not up to activists in the street to come up with a policy agenda that politicians respond to, but the other way around. It is up to politicians and political parties to listen to what people in the streets (or online, for that matter) are saying and respond with the knowledge and skills that they have with the machinations of governance, of regulation, of legislation to provide a political outlet to protest movements.

Also posted at Jacobin, Pablo Iglesias of Podemos has a speech in which he highlights the extent to which winning elections is not the same as governance. The close workings of Podemos and Syriza speak to the ways in which electing multiple left governments that reject austerity can build off of each other. Iglesias offers good reminders that if they win, they have to actually succeed at delivering what people are counting on their governments for. It’s insufficient that they are opposed by wealthy elites and banksters. He says, “a society [must] be able to provide the basic material conditions that make happiness and dignity possible.” And as he admits, this is not a radical idea. It’s only radical in the context of decades of ascendant neoliberal governance that have sought to do the opposite.

Organizing & Occupy Sandy

Yotam Maron has a good piece on Occupy Sandy and turning community organizing in response to a crisis into organizing to produce proactive policy solutions that we need. It’s definitely worth reading.

Community-based organizing around mutual aid creates a tremendous opportunity to move people affected by crises to a new political viewpoint that is informed both by what happened to them and by who and how they were aided in response. That’s why organizing victims of bank greed in the foreclosure crisis and fossil fuel company greed in the climate crisis makes so much sense. Finance capital and the fossil fuel industry are two of the most powerful sectors in our country and the world. We will only be able to shift power from these few massive corporations to people in a democratic way when opportunities to organize and provide aid are seized in moments of crisis. Think of it like a reverse shock doctrine.

Occupy Sandy & the climate crisis

Yotam Maron is must-read on how the Occupy Sandy response is a real-time model of what anti-climate crisis social movements look like:

Welcome to the climate crisis. There’s nothing abstract about it. It isn’t some apocalypse decades away or an event that comes down like one big hurricane to wipe us all out. It’s Hurricane Sandy. It’s all the economic, political and social conditions that were already in place. And it’s the opportunity for forces of profit and repression to push their agenda forward in the aftermath.

But guess what: The climate justice movement isn’t so abstract either. This is it. It’s dedicated organizers recognizing how their work can be aligned across issues. It’s relief providers and hard-working volunteers transforming into activists and community leaders. It’s the hardest hit neighborhoods taking control of their own liberation. It’s local community institutions with deep roots and long histories connecting to one another and mobilizing their efforts as part of a movement. It’s all of that alongside so many other fights for climate justice — from the blockade of the Keystone XL pipeline to the fight for water rights in Bolivia, from Indian women standing up to corporate seed monopolies to youth from launching campaigns to divest from fossil fuel companies.

There is much work to do. But people are doing it — day by day, block by block. Windows of opportunity have opened here in New York, just as they have in other places around the world. Many people are working to keep those windows open and continue the transformation that is already underway — from volunteer work to organizing, from emergency response to a genuine recovery, from relief to resistance.

Occupy’s Mutual Aid Efforts

Occupy Wall Street has bred a number of offshoots that are specifically focused on providing mutual aid to members of the 99% who are in crisis. I’ve been involved with Occupy Our Homes for over a year – it’s a housing justice campaign aimed to keep people in their homes and stopping bank theft of houses. More recently, Occupy Sandy has provided crucial aid to affected areas following Hurricane Sandy. And now, Strike Debt has launched a Rolling Jubilee, a campaign meant to leverage the cheapness of debt to reduce it for others:

We buy debt for pennies on the dollar, but instead of collecting it, we abolish it. We cannot buy specific individuals’ debt – instead, we help liberate debtors at random through a campaign of mutual support, good will, and collective refusal.

Projects like this are critical for three reasons:
  1. Occupy off-shoots like Occupy Our Homes, Occupy Sandy, & Strike Debt’s Rolling Jubilee are providing services which government at all levels has failed to provide. Mutual aid is filling the gap that policy makers and politicians have tragically left open, resulting in massive human suffering.
  2. By providing mutual aid in moments of crisis, these Occupy offshoots have the opportunity to turn people they have aided into activists and leaders for these causes. We’ve seen it time and again with Occupy Our Homes, where people who have been helped become gung-ho community organizers afterwards.
  3. Additionally, by providing mutual aid, these groups succeed in radicalizing the people they help, educating them on the root causes of these crises and the sorts of solutions which are needed to address the problems. These are not things which are part of normal American political discourse, so this step is significant.

All of this work is slow. It’s oriented on helping people one individual or one family at a time. But it has tremendous power and potential, not in the least because each of these efforts provide frameworks of a vision for a better America. One where banks can’t steal homes, where debt doesn’t destroy peoples’ lives, and where natural disasters aren’t exacerbated by human failures. In short, these are the sort of projects which have the potential to create a real, sustained new movement that can create massive change in America.

More than any electoral outcome, these developments make me hopeful for the future of our country.

Occupy Our Homes on HuffPost Live

Home occupiers Deborah Harris of Occupy Our Homes DC and Bobby Hull of Occupy Homes Minnesota appear on Huff Post Live to talk about foreclosures and foreclosure resistance. Also in the discussion are David Dayen, Richard Zombeck and Anthony Randazzo. They get at a real discussion of the foreclosure crisis and the failures of the mortgage settlement to do anything approaching what was needed to hold banks accountable. It’s a long segment, but definitely worth watching in my book.

An accurate use of the word “cynicism” in politics

Matt Taibbi, in a highly enjoyable Q&A with the Village Voice about Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, makes the rare move of accurately using the word “cynicism” to describe its appearance in American politics:

I think a lot of what Occupy is is disappointed idealism. A lot of the people who thought, in Hunter terms, that Obama was the “Great Shark” who was going to come and right all the wrongs. And then they realized that he was very much, for all his good qualities, a conventional Democratic party politician, and all the negatives that that comes with. I think people were extremely disappointed, and that’s why they’re all out on the streets right now. There’s a tremendous cynicism embedded in mainstream American politics right now, where people who are in Washington and live on Capitol Hill really don’t think they have any obligation to be truly honest. They think that everything is a compromise. They’ve lost touch with what people actually want. And they really do want somebody who is idealistic.

This is an accurate description of why it is Barack Obama, not his left critics, who are cynical.

The tragedy of our circumstances

To close out a very strong piece on the lack of honesty in public discourse around housing and the economy, Matt Stoller writes:

There is no honesty among our political elites, and by that statement, I don’t mean that they are liars. There are liars everywhere, and truthtellers as well. Most of us are concurrently both. What I mean is that the culture of the political elite is one in which a genuine conversation about the actual problems we are facing as a society simply cannot be held with any integrity. Instead, we have to chalk up problems in a very busted housing market, and a generation saddled with indentured servitude disguised as a debt, as one of “hormones”.

It sounds cute that way, I guess. Eventually, we will see integrity in our discourse. It’s unavoidable. You can’t operate a society solely on intellectual dishonesty because eventually all your bridges fall down, even the ones the rich use. For a moment, from 2008-2009, there was real discourse about what to do. We’ll see a moment like that again. Only, the environment won’t be nearly as conducive to having a prosperous democratic society as it was in 2008. There will be a lot more poverty, starvation, violence, and authoritarianism when the next chance comes around. Catastrophic climate change, devastating supply chain disruptions, political upheaval, geopolitical tensions and/or war – one more more of these will be the handmaidens of honest dialogue.

The tragedy is not that our circumstances will worsen dramatically, but that it just didn’t have to be this way.

I think that this is one of the most important aspects of what’s happening in America today. I also think the forceful, honest description of what is wrong with our society is what propelled the Occupy movement to popularity last fall. What we need now is not just accurate descriptions of the problems we face, though, but honest discourse on what we need to do to get out of this situation. Stoller’s right – it’s a tragedy that we’re in a moment where it is not happening and only by things getting worse is it likely to change.