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.

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.