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.

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