The Importance of Utopian Demands

Sarah Jaffe, in her newsletter (I highly recommend you subscribe), makes a really important point about the ways in which progressive movement organizations are trying and maybe failing to act on par with the sentiments of grassroots left activists that ostensibly would constitute their base. She writes:

I was chatting with a friend this morning, apropos of a meeting I attended yesterday, about the disconnect between the existing liberal/progressive infrastructure, political organizations and labor unions mostly, and where what I’d broadly call “the people” are politically. There’s the “Beltway Bubble” effect, certainly, but there’s also something more.

It’s no secret that I think the financial crisis was a turning point for a lot of people and for American politics. But that’s been hard for existing institutions to grapple with–even if they share that analysis, it seems, turning the ship around (so to speak) is not an easy task. And so we see people chaining themselves to barrels and shutting down highways and demanding not just the firing of a police officer but that we actually examine a system of white supremacy, and the response from the groups that exist to push policy is…what? Body cameras? The $15 minimum wage was a good demand in that it seemed almost utopian when the first fast food workers walked off the job and yet very quickly became achievable, at least in some cities. But what beyond that? It seems like a lot of groups are coalescing around the idea that Elizabeth Warren should run for president, but if there’s one thing we should have learned by now it’s that electing one person to office isn’t going to solve our problems, and it’s a little hard for me to figure out how throwing an endorsement to a person who doesn’t appear to want it builds institutional power for big changes.

Utopian demands don’t necessarily become policy, but they give us something to work towards, and maybe more importantly, they serve as a statement of values that, alongside a system analysis, is actually a basis for a politics.

I’m not an organizer, just a reporter. But the reporting I’ve done in recent years has told me that people are ready for big demands and big changes. I just finished a conversation with a group of workers who’ve been fighting for a union since 2011, and they’re connecting their struggle with all the other struggles happening right now, from other labor actions to Black Lives Matter. They’ve got big ideas. We can make some bigger demands. [Emphasis added]

The US is obviously a different political system than Greece or Spain or Ireland. But there’s a reason that Syriza, Podemos and Sinn Fein are gaining political traction – by offering people “big demands and big changes,” particular as what they are campaigning on is following from popular protest movements espousing similar utopian demands. These demands are a direct response to the economic collapse of 2007 and 2008, and the political response which fundamentally failed to hold the perpetrators of economic fraud accountable. Worse, the imposition of austerity that broke these countries’ economies, kept people out of work and in varying degrees crippled a generation’s economic progress.

We don’t know what will happen with Syriza in charge of Greece, nor do we know what will happen in Spain (or Ireland, Portugal, or Italy). But for people here in the US who are interested in creating progressive political change, the model of presenting ideas that approach the scale of the problem we face is likely one that needs to be followed here in America.

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.

#BlackLivesMatter + Net Neutrality

As I’ve noted recently, there is a need for left movements to recognize their intersectionality. While anti-racism, economic justice, and environmental justice may have strong claims at being the left ur-movement in the early 21st century, the only way I see towards achieving real transformational change is by building off of the intersectionality of these movements and pushing forward together.

Likewise, I believe there to be tremendous potential in marrying these thrusts into an agenda that also includes strong provisions for internet freedom and civil liberties, ideas which resonate in a transpartisan and transnational contexts.

It’s incredibly heartening to see the #BlackLivesMatter movement openly campaigning for preserving a free, open internet and network neutrality. Writing in The Hill, Patrisse Cullors makes a powerful case that net neutrality has been a prerequisite condition for the birth and growth of this anti-racism and police reform movement. Organizers and representatives also held meetings with Congressional leaders, including John Lewis and Hakeem Jeffries, as well as regulators at the FCC, to push for net neutrality.

“We were founded clearly in response to the murder of Trayvon Martin, on the key premise of the failure of the media to adequately report on the murder,” said Dante Barry, the director of the group Million Hoodies. “If we don’t have access to open Internet, and we don’t have net neutrality, then it limits the ability for black people to save themselves.”

Racism will persist if impacted communities cannot communicate and cannot organize online. Police violence, disproportionately targeting Black Americans, will persist if net neutrality disappears.

Movements are connected. Most of the time, issue-oriented movements tend to diminish this interconnectivity. But it’s hard to imagine lasting, meaningful change being possible while left movements remain atomized, isolated, and at odds with each other as to whose issues are The Most Important. Finding common ground to campaign on builds trust and trust creates opportunities for greater change.

Hat tip to Sarah Jaffe for sending these stories my way. It’s genuinely some of the most heartening activism I’ve seen in a while.

The Composition of a Movement

Excellent point made by Kaitlyn Dowling at Medium:

Though it doesn’t make for good gossipy blog posts, we should be less concerned with the leader of a left-wing movement within the Democratic Party and more concerned with the composition of that group. In the long run, the core of the movement will matter much more than a single figurehead. While Sen. Warren can easily rally around Wall Street corruption and crony capitalism run amok, those who wish to establish the left’s answer to the Tea Party must think more broadly about their strategy and consider who can contribute to the long-term health and influence of a left-wing movement and who has shown the ability to organize effectively online. These individuals bring an insightful, smart, powerful voice to social issues, and they could be the voice of a new American left.

Whatever left party exists in America, it should not merely be for historically marginalized communities, but of them. Dowling makes the good point that the internet has allowed for far more diverse voices to reach into political debates and discussions. I’d hazard offline movements like #BlackLivesMatter, Moral Mondays, Occupy Wall Street, and the Walmart and fast food worker organizing campaigns have done this incredibly well, too.

An additional challenge is making sure that people who primarily consume political life online learn about offline movements and connect to them. There is a wealth of young leaders – people of color, women, LGBT activists – who do their work directly in the impacted communities of which they are a part. Online thought leaders and influencers can’t pretend these folks don’t exist. Doing so diminishes the movements and speaks to a problem of privilege in the American online left. We need to expect of ourselves to seek out these leaders, be aware of them and raise up their voices. That is our responsibility, not the responsibility of the people doing inspiring work in the trenches.

On the 2014 elections & ideas

The Democrats got beat pretty badly in the midterm elections. This is not a big surprise. But the losses have generated countless pieces about why they lost, how they could have avoided losing, what messaging would work better, how Democrats can better convince the citizenry to put their faith in them and so forth. To me, it’s a massively unsatisfying oeuvre.


I came to realize a number of years ago that by and large the people and centers of power in the Democratic Party don’t share my set of beliefs. There are no doubt some leftwing and populist politicians in the Democratic Party – obviously Elizabeth Warren tops the list – but they don’t run the party, they don’t run the party committees, they don’t drive the legislative agenda. Power in the Democratic Party is centered in individuals who are conservative, who hold neoliberal views of work and the economy, and have deep ties to finance capital. The majority of Democratic office holders and their supporting infrastructure falls into this latter category and spends an awful lot of time talking about how Democrats are wrong to use populist or anti-bank messaging.

This is a realization of fact. There is no normative quality to this, it’s simply the world we live in. And it’s a world where the existence of a Warren or a Sherrod Brown or a Mike Honda within the Democratic Party does not mean that it is in fact a populist or even a left political party.

Here are a few other somewhat disjointed, post-election thoughts…


A common thread in election epitaphs has been that Democrats aren’t conveying their ideas well. As a counter-point, Noam Scheiber describes the nature of Obama’s ideology:

How could these two legacies coexist in one presidency? They emanate from the worldview that Jarrett and Obama sharecall it “boardroom liberalism.” It’s a worldview that’s steeped in social progressivism, in the values of tolerance and diversity. It takes as a given that government has a role to play in building infrastructure, regulating business, training workers, smoothing out the boom-bust cycles of the economy, providing for the poor and disadvantaged. But it is a view from on highone that presumes a dominant role for large institutions like corporations and a wisdom on the part of elites. It believes that the world works best when these elites use their power magnanimously, not when they’re forced to share it. The picture of the boardroom liberal is a corporate CEO handing a refrigerator-sized check to the head of a charity at a celebrity golf tournament. All the better if they’re surrounded by minority children and struggling moms.Is this not a perfect description of the Democratic Party today? Generally positive on social issues, but full-blooded in their support for corporations, for profits, for the 1% and the bottom line.

Notwithstanding his early career as a community organizer, Obama, like Jarrett, is fundamentally a man of the inside. It’s why he put a former Citigroup executive and Robert Rubin chief of staff named Michael Froman in charge of assembling his economic team in 2008, why he avoided a deep restructuring of Wall Street, why he abruptly junked the public option during the health care debate, why he so ruthlessly pursues leakers and the journalists who cultivate them. It explains why so many of his policy ideasfrom jobs for the long-term unemployed to mentoring minority youthrely on the largesse of corporations.

This doesn’t describe a problem of rhetoric. Plenty of Democrats ran and lost using populist messaging, just as plenty of conservative Democrats ran and lost using conservative, Republican Lite messaging. Focusing the debate on the impact of messaging not only ignores the fact that Democrats have a clear record while in varying degrees of power over the last six years, but has the unseemly quality of treating American voters like rubes to be moved by marketing campaigns.


Matt Stoller, in the course of a must-read book review of Al From’s The New Democrats and the Return to Power, makes a very strong case for the need for ideas. Opening on the occasion of the many hair-rending after action reports within Democratic circles as to what happened, Stoller writes:

Everything is put on the table, except the main course — policy. Did the Democrats run the government well? Are the lives of voters better? Are you as a political party credible when you say you’ll do something?

This question is never asked, because Democratic elites — ensconced in the law firms, foundations, banks, and media executive suites where the real decisions are made — basically agree with each other about organizing governance around the needs of high technology and high finance. The only time the question even comes up now is in an inverted corroded form, when a liberal activist gnashes his or her teeth and wonders — why can’t Democrats run elections around populist themes and policies? This is still the wrong question, because it assumes the wrong causality. Parties don’t poll for good ideas, run races on them, and then govern. They have ideas, poll to find out how to sell those ideas, and run races and recruit candidates based on the polling. It’s ideas first, then the sales pitch. If the sales pitch is bad, it’s often the best of what can be made of an unpopular stew of ideas.

Still, you’d think that someone, somewhere would have populist ideas. And a few — like Zephyr Teachout and Elizabeth Warren — do. But why does every other candidate not? I don’t actually know, but a book just came out that might answer this question. The theory in this book is simple. The current generation of Democratic policymakers were organized and put in power by people that don’t think that a renewed populist agenda centered on antagonism towards centralized economic power is a good idea.

Democrats writ large aren’t populists because they don’t believe in populists ideas. Expecting them to be a vehicle for ideas that they don’t hold isn’t a reasonable expectation.


Howie Hawkins, the Green Party candidate for Governor in New York, has a good op-ed in The Guardian that brings up a number of ideas that he sees as fertile ground for a resurgent American left, unserved by the Democratic Party.


Frankly I don’t care if the Democratic Party becomes a vehicle for leftwing ideas or if left movements emerge that can force policy action or if a left third party emerges that builds real, sustained political power. But I do hope there is a home for these ideas in this country.

There are potential sources for left ideas to be put forward and spread publicly. The ideas can be pushed for by left Democrats, by the Working Families Party, by #BlackLivesMatter, by Occupy, by labor, by environmentalists, by a new third party that represents workers, people of color, women, immigrants, youth… There’s a lot that can by done and is already being done. Like Stoller points out, it doesn’t really matter what we call it, as long as the issues that must be confronted are so confronted with good ideas, unbound to Democratic electoral frameworks.


There has been real energy come from youth and working people lead movements like Occupy Wall Street (and the notable mutual aid offshoots Occupy Sandy and Occupy Homes), the Dream Defenders, Moral Mondays, fast food worker organizing, direction action activists against the Keystone XL pipeline and quite powerfully, in the anti-racism, anti-police brutality protests surrounding the murders of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice and sadly many others.

But what needs to come first is the ideas, ideas that can weave these somewhat disparate but complimentary movements together. I’ve said for a long time there’s a potential political party/movement that aligns closely around the values of young people and people of color/immigrants. You end up going basically with Occupy + Millenials + Internet Freedom. Core issues, in no particular order, would include:
  • Anti-racism in general and anti-police brutality/profile in particular
  • Legalized marijuana, end the war on drugs
  • Marriage equality
  • High minimum wage
  • Student loan / debt reform
  • Workers rights on the job, particularly against fast food and app-based employers
  • Net neutrality
  • Regulation of financial markets
  • Spending for renewable energy development / ending fossil fuel state

These is a great list of issues that Democrats have thoroughly failed to serve their natural, historic constituencies on. Maybe there’s space for someone to bring forth ideas that address them. I don’t hold out hopes that this will happen within the Democratic Party, but I’ve been wrong before.

Get Lifeboat

My good friends Alia McKee and Tim Walker recently launched a new project together – Lifeboat. It’s a unique addition to the progressive movement landscape, focusing on an under-discussed yet very important topic: friendship. Tim & Alia explain what Lifeboat is and why they started it:

We’re in a friendship crisis.

The average American adult reports having only one real friend.[1] Paradoxically, in an age of Facebook and always-on connections, a growing body of science proves what we already feel deep in our gut: we’re actually lonelier and more isolated than ever before. The way many of us use the internet is only making the crisis worse.[2]

The solution isn’t to retreat from the web. It’s to aim higher—to re-think what friendship means in adulthood. Indeed, it’s time to explore uncharted relationship territory—academic research, philosophy, expert advice and our own heads and hearts—for a better path forward.

Lifeboat is a movement of people rediscovering deep friendships. We’re not offering grand solutions or complex schemes, but instead, simple things that work. Here you’ll find our unique content on the art and science of friendship—full of inspiration, learning and practice. It’s designed to help move us beyond fast-food-friendships and become self-assured friendship pioneers!

For those who choose it, Lifeboat is a pathway to living more fully with friends.

It’s an original project focusing on a real challenge that anyone who’s grown up in or on the internet can relate to. They’re developing useful and interesting content that explores their research and original ideas about friendship and the friendship crisis. They’ve even written a friendship manifesto that frames their project:

We believe in great friendship.
Friends electrify our lives —
And light us up with meaning, health and happiness.

We are no strangers to isolation and loneliness.
The puzzling paradox that in our hyperconnected age —
The average American has only one real friend.

We feel this friendship crisis. But we refuse to retreat.
Instead we dig in. Choosing to forego fastfood friendships —
And rediscover what great friendship really means.

We take friendship back.
From the Internet, from our schedules, from the breakneck pace of our busy lives —
Purposefully reinvesting in the people that matter most.

We explore the uncharted art and science of friendship.
Learning from experts and each other and practicing from our own heads and hearts —
How to be better, get deeper and live more fully with our friends.

We are on this path back to friendship — pioneering something greater together.

Are you in?

They’ve created an insider email list that delivers regular content. Toss in some great visuals, brilliant design, and the fact that they are the only people out there who are organizing and mobilizing on the issue of friendship, it’s very easy for me to recommend this project to people. Go check out Lifeboat. There’s a ton of great content and it’s one of the most original and fascinating projects I know taking place in the progressive movement space.

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.