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.

Supporting resistance


I’ve been an activist for half my life at this point. When I was in high school and college, going to marches and protests really fired me up. It was the realization of grassroots, campus-based organizing I was doing. It felt awesome and empowering. But once I because a full-time activist and organizer, I got over it. It got old. I don’t get excited about protests. I don’t go to them unless I really have to, it just doesn’t do it for me. I get enough from my day to day organizing work to feel like I’m making a contribution without having to be physically present at a protest or rally.

But marches and protests aren’t actually for me, not the me of today. They’re for the high school and college me, the one who may only have one afternoon a week or one day a month to be able to make a full political statement with my body, my time, my voice. I get it if you are cynical about mass mobilizations. I get it if you don’t see the value of marches from your perspective as a professional activist or organizer, as this is often a hub of cynicism when it comes to physical action. But they’re not for you, they’re for the people who don’t have jobs dedicated to change-making in a full time way (which is to say, they’re for almost everyone else in the country).

Last weekend’s women’s marches were big and bold and inspiring. People came out because they care about what is happening in America and want to resist against it. It was a loud statement of our values and such a needed one. These marches are helping people struggle through dark times. They are creating a vibrant, visual resistance to Trump. They are bringing millions of people into political engagement. They are 100% exactly what we need right now, because they will make so much of what comes next possible.

Senate Democrats aren’t going to save us. House Democrats aren’t going to save us. MSNBC isn’t going to save us. None of our tweets are going to save us. We are going to save us and the people showing up at these marches and protests are the “we” I’m talking about.

Let’s find was to build, inspire, grow these marches. For professionals like me, let’s lend our professional talents and tools to empower and enable the people in the streets. Let’s do that even more as people move from attending marches and protests towards building new organizations, local organizations dedicated to resisting against Trump and defending our values.

Bill de Blasio and political multitudes

Over at Jacobin, Samuel Stein has a review of Eric Alterman’s new book on Bill de Blasio’s first year as mayor. The whole piece by Stein is worth a read, in no small part because de Blasio has been held up as a populist progressive icon of the highest calibre, with little scrutiny on his whole body of work or how well his actual policies reflect on a rising left populist movement in America. But Stein’s closing line strikes me as critically important, not just for how the left thinks of de Blasio, but any Democratic politician.

Praising the mayor for his genuinely progressive accomplishments while discounting or disregarding his conservatism isn’t merely a cop-out. It’s a lie. It dances around the perils of his programs. And it puts the Left in the position of defending a figure it should be fighting.

To put it differently, politicians contain multitudes. Just because someone is good on one set of issues – rhetorically or in practice – doesn’t mean that they’re good on all issues. Elizabeth Warren is a brilliant advocate for the middle class, for breaking up Wall Street banks, and fighting rampant corporate power. But she’s pretty milquetoast on, say, foreign policy and has adopted some very establishment positions as a sitting senator that many on the left would disagree with. Likewise Howard Dean’s vocal opposition to the war in Iraq was critically important for the liberal wing of the Democratic Party in 2003-2004, while today he lobbies for Big Pharma and is squarely in Hillary Clinton’s corner. I say this not as a reflexive discount of Clinton, who will certainly be good on some issues and bad on others, but as a recognition that Dean is a fairly centrist Democrat who happened to be right on the Iraq War.

Politicians serve the public. They serve as ciphers for the political ideologies ascribed to them. It does no political movement any good to let politicians get away with behaviors that reflect negatively or are diametrically opposed to the movements they are presumed to represent. Celebrate a politician when it is deserved and criticize when it is deserved – that’s the role of a movement.

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.

This is what it’s about

At the tail end of an outstanding dismantling of Jonathan Chait’s recent hippy punching, anti-speech-that-makes-him-feel-uncomfortable screed against the so-called “pc movement,” Jessica Valenti offers up an excellent description of why it is so important to give space for historically marginalized people to voice their opinions and raise their objections to the policies, assumptions, and behaviors of the powerful and privileged. Valenti writes:

We are finally approaching a critical mass of interest in ending racism, misogyny and transphobia and the ways they are ingrained into our institutions. Instead of rolling our eyes at the intensity of the feelings people have over these issues, we should be grateful that they care so much, because racism, misogyny and transphobia can and do kill people. If the price we all pay for progress for the less privileged is that someone who is more privileged gets their feelings hurt sometimes – or that they might have to think twice before opening their mouths or putting their fingers to keyboards – that’s a small damn price to pay. That’s not stopping free speech; it’s making our speech better.

When I look around, I see tremendous progress being made not necessarily in policy (though sometimes things get better) but in sentiment and public culture. There is widespread, multi-racial support online for ending racism and fighting police brutality. There is pushback against misogyny, not just from feminists but from anti-racist and pro-worker activists. There is open support and love for transgender people who are helping to shed light on what it is to be trans, from Wikileaker Chelsea Manning to punk rocker Laura Jane Grace to former Navy SEAL Kristen Beck.

The rise of vibrant, vocal support for “ending racism, misogyny and transphobia” has meant things like the sports blog Deadspin and the celebrity(ish) blog Gawker are consistent sources of bleeding edge thinking on how to wage these fights and call out problematic moments. Which is to say, as Jessica does, that this is not a marginal movement, it’s cultural progress on a transformative scale. It might mean that white dudes (like, say, me or Jonathan Chait) are forced to feel uncomfortable sometimes, but that’s a miniscule price to pay for the elevation of dignity and equality to all people, especially those who have historically not been granted it by straight white dudes. It doesn’t just make speech better, but it creates space for more speech by more people. I’m pretty excited about these developments and if you’re threatened by them, you probably need to check your privilege settings.