The Hard Work of Change

In Jacobin, Alex Gourevitch has an interesting article challenging the resistance movements that are emerging in response to Trump to be sure to include a positive vision for the world we want to see.

I’m seeing frequent references on the Left to the need to do real politics; to build power through slow, hard work; to organize in impacted communities; to not attempt to take shortcuts to achieving mass actions. All of this is correct and worth noting. That’s why the start of Gourevitch’s article is frustrating to me:

Under Obama, Occupy squandered the initial hopefulness and general appeal when it let procedural squabbles sap its energy and undermine its potential for a real political intervention. No wonder there was little public support when the police showed up. The resurgence of activism associated with the Black Lives Matter movement marked another significant moment for the American left but, despite three years of protest and consciousness-raising, public attitudes towards the police have improved and there are few balancing accomplishments to point to.

These are valid objections to make, yet they miss that many of the things which have grown out of Occupy still exist. Mutual aid projects like Occupy Sandy, Occupy Our Homes (especially in Atlanta and Minneapolis), and Strike Debt did just the hard work we see demanded of now – and it paid off with sustained engagement and local presence.

Elements of grassroots political power that formed in the crucible of Occupy were there supporting and accelerating Black Lives Matter. Dream Defenders and the Wildfire Project immediately comes to mind, as does the persistent community-based organizing from Occupy Our Homes in Minneapolis and Atlanta. Local groups from BLM and OWS are out front in organizing the response to Trump, including through the Indivisibles and the Women’s March.

None of this necessarily amounts to sea-change in the political landscape, but it does speak to the ongoing hard work by people committed to create change through organizing in impacted communities. You can’t look at Occupy or Black Lives Matter and say that they failed to build power simply because they didn’t succeed in achieving all of their goals full-stop. It’s an unfair and unrealistic expectation that every movement that emerges in response to a major disruption be immediately capable of delivering lasting transformative change, especially when so few organic popular outbursts, let alone well resourced strategic ones, have reached this level of success in the US. This is and was what the hard work of organizing is about, these movements did it and there’s something to learn from them, and why they didn’t achieve their goals even while doing the sort of organizing that many from the Left want to see today.

I’m starting from a somewhat negative stance on Gourevitch’s piece simply because I feel these are comments worth making, not to disqualify where he goes with his evaluation of what we’ve seen from the Trump resistance so far. He writes:

The point here isn’t to bash the Left; it’s to take a sober look at the opportunities and limits we face. The truth is, this should be our moment. The Trump administration and Republican Congress are a fragile entity, whose control of the state rests less on mass support and more on the undemocratic features of our institutions.

Trump received a minority of the popular vote, the fifty-two Republican senators in Congress represent 44 percent of the population, and the eight-soon-to-be-nine ghouls in Supreme Court robes are even more insulated from actual majorities. Moreover, there are all kinds of internal divisions among Republicans on how to handle everything from health care to immigration. To the degree that Trump and the Republicans look like an unflinching, reactionary juggernaut it is because there is so little organized power to stand in their way.

This is exactly right. Admitting that moments that have felt transformative, but failed to be so, isn’t an attack, it’s the truth. There’s plenty that we should be encouraged by right now. And as I noted above, I still see much from OWS and BLM that indicates a positive direction of travel, if not outright victory.

Gourevitch raises a critical point regarding how the Left has actually tended to sit outside of the political realm, using only direct action tactics to have impact, while avoiding more traditional mechanisms.

[T]he downside of direct action is that it has often served as a tacit admission of the Left’s inability to translate social power into political control. The Left has generally been on the outside looking in and its celebration of direct action put it in static rather than dynamic opposition to the corruption and opportunism of existing parties.

Direct action is critical in terms of forcing people to think about the crises before them and respond beyond business as usual. But the whole point is that it occurs in a place of harm, at a moment when politics have failed. He goes on:

We can field thousands, sometimes tens of thousands, even occasionally hundreds of thousands, and then be safely ignored. We call it resistance, but any exercise of our agency that isn’t total cooperation with the status quo looks like resistance. It contains no internal measure of success or failure, which is why it is compatible with retreat or even resignation. And while it is “mass” politics in the sense of many people, protests do not require anything like the ongoing commitment to principle and organization that something like party politics does.

Our unwillingness to admit our own weakness is the flip side of not having a clear set of principles that can serve as the basis for a mass movement. Instead, we give ourselves the appearance of unity and purpose by resisting evil and by taking our collective “No” out into the streets. We find comfort in knowing that we are not them, that at least we are doing something. Trump is immediate and present, the evils are right in front of us, numerous, and ready-to-hand.

Being for something is the key counterpart to resistance and mass mobilization against Trump (or his corporate backers). The prescription is freedom:

The better principle is freedom. It is the interest everyone has in being free from the myriad forms of domination and oppression that most people face, and it is expressed by being part of a movement that seeks to transform society. Freedom is something everyone wants, but can only be achieved if we demand it and pursue it jointly. It is a principle that naturally bridges all those aspects of left politics that otherwise separate us. We are divided by the varieties of oppression and the proliferation of identities that are born out of that oppression, but we can be united by the desire for freedom.

Less abstractly, freedom is the principle that explains and unifies what we are for. We are more than being against Trump, racism, sexism, inequality, etc. We are also more than a list of demands, like universal health care, cheap and legal abortion, open immigration. We are only for those things to the degree that they are all the same thing: freedoms that everyone ought to enjoy.

The positive vision for society, through the lens of freedom, creates a powerful way to connect to those who are in the streets resisting, just as much as it does to those who didn’t feel energized to go out and vote in November, just as much as it does to those who felt attracted to Trump.It has a strong grounding in basic human needs and desires. It’s a strong organizing principle, one that can safely nurture and grow our intersectional values of equality, fairness, safety, and health. It’s a clear lens that can be used to condemn and resist against Trump’s agenda.

What’s more, while it may not sit as an articulated list of demands on many organizational websites, I’d hazard that you can ask most people who are resisting Trump what freedom means to them and you’d find it’s strongly oriented around similar real-world applications on a range of issues.

Gourvetich’s whole piece is worth reading in full. We’ve seen a lot of criticism of mass mobilizations under Trump so far and while he does make some fundamental critiques of where past disruptive movements failed to achieve lasting change, he provides a pathway towards hope in this moment. It’s certainly a start.

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