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.

Aiming higher

From the President’s State of the Union speech:

Seven years ago, Rebekah and Ben Erler of Minneapolis were newlyweds. She waited tables. He worked construction. Their first child, Jack, was on the way.

They were young and in love in America, and it doesn’t get much better than that.

“If only we had known,” Rebekah wrote to me last spring, “what was about to happen to the housing and construction market.”

As the crisis worsened, Ben’s business dried up, so he took what jobs he could find, even if they kept him on the road for long stretches of time. Rebekah took out student loans, enrolled in community college, and retrained for a new career. They sacrificed for each other. And slowly, it paid off. They bought their first home. They had a second son, Henry. Rebekah got a better job, and then a raise. Ben is back in construction — and home for dinner every night.

“It is amazing,” Rebekah wrote, “what you can bounce back from when you have to…we are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.”

We are a strong, tight-knit family who has made it through some very, very hard times.

This touching story of survival in the face of economic adversity was probably the single dominant thread in the President’s speech. The President referred to the Erler’s as a narrative device multiple times in the speech, complete with numerous shots of Rebekah in the audience. It truly is an impressive, though presumably common, story of how Americans worked their way through the economic collapse of 2008, the collapse of housing bubble, and the rise of debt and joblessness that accompanied it all.

Of course, you can also look at this story and see a depiction of how the American government utterly failed this family.

They were the victim of the bets of Wall Street banks, given license to gamble by bipartisan deregulation. Houses were overvalued, loans were inflated beyond what borrowers could pay, and when no one was buying houses, no one was building them. Wall Street banks were let off the hook – allowed to continue to exist despite being insolvent, while insolvent homeowners were told to quietly surrender their homes to these very same bankers. When stimulus spending was passed, it was small and limited, lest the deficit scolds be given optical license to scold the President and his new majorities in Congress.

There was no way for this family to get higher education without debt, so debt they took on. The risk seems to be paying off and the economy is rebounding. Things seem bright for the Erlers and that’s to be celebrated.

But how would the last six plus years of their lives looked differently if the government had actually sought to help people impacted by the economic crisis, instead of waiting for them to gamely dig themselves out of trouble? What if there had been stimulus spending to keep construction jobs from contracting? What if there were free community college (as the President has now proposed to the Republican controlled Congress)? What if there was a minimum wage that was a living wage? Surely all of this would have helped this family, kept them afloat and maybe brought them what they themselves earned painstakingly a bit faster and with a bit less pain.

There are many ways in which government is not like a family. Just as a government doesn’t have to balance the checkbook the way a family does, the characteristics of grit through austerity do not hold from the family to the government. Maybe this family got through it all, but I think we must aim higher than that. Maybe our country is getting through it all – though this is a highly contentious claim in my view – but again, we must aim higher.

In fairness, the President did call for Congress to aim higher, though more in the spirit of cooperation and civic duty than in pursuit of any particular set of outcomes.

I’m left with a description of a family’s trials that, while admirable, is not one that I would hold up as anything other than an example of the ways in which the Democratic and Republican parties have failed poor, working and middle class Americans.

#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.

Racism & Economic Justice

Jesse Meyerson and Mychal Denzel Smith have an excellent piece at The Nation on the intersectionality between combating racism in America and economic justice. It offers a number of prescriptions for fighting racism via economic programs which would help Black Americans.

The key for me is the acknowledgement of this intersectionality of racism and economic inequality. We can’t solve for one in the absence of the other. White left activists, myself included, have historically been quite guilty of treating economic injustice as the formative issue in solving for other injustices. But economic inequality in America cannot be discussed in the absence of the acknowledgement of racism and centuries of white supremacy.

The lines from Rage Against the Machine’s “Ashes in the Fall” have always struck me as a pretty concise explanation of the marriage of racism, white supremacy and economic inequality:

Ain’t it funny how the factory doors close
Round the time that the school doors close
Round the time that a hundred thousand jail cells
Open up to greet you like the reaper

The question which Smith and Meyerson raise, really, is how much of the above is the consequence of historic racist economic and political policy choices. The short answer: pretty much all of it.

To solve for racial and economic inequality, Smith and Meyerson put forward a number of concrete ideas. The pursuit of full employment, including guaranteed employment and a minimum basic income, would reduce poverty and create the opportunity for increased political and economic power in racially marginalized communities. This would create hope, economic security and stability. They also propose an overhaul to the tax code and the creation of baby bonds, both policies which seek to increase wealth in the black community and would reduce inequality.

The piece is building around what demands for the anti-racism organizing taking place in Ferguson and with #BlackLivesMatter can be concretely asking for (beyond the obvious and sadly necessary policy shift of American police to stop murdering young Black Americans). Having concrete demands is certainly useful, but having large demands that adequately address the scale of our problems is even more useful. The perspective Meyerson and Smith bring allows for the wide and far enough view to put forward big ideas.

This is not to say that the solutions are exhaustive or curative. But they’re a start.

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.