Saturday, January 7, 2017

Some Problems & Prospects Of Building A Radical Movement In The Mid-Willamette Valley

We talk a great deal here about building unity in the face of Trump’s victory, resistance and organizing. I’m not sure that these words and concepts resonate yet with large numbers of people. And the words may resonate with some folks but can mean many different things to them or might be applied in various ways. I can’t speak to a national or regional picture, but I do want to share a set of observations formed from local organizing work. I'm going to try to do this by framing some of what is happening locally in a national or international context.

People who think about the big picture from the left are likely to believe that capitalism is at the root of our problems. Richard D.Wolff recently mapped out why this is so and what an achievable alternative might look like. I share in his “worker-centric” formulation of what the alternative might look like, but I’m troubled by him not talking more about race, gender and intersectionality in analyzing current conditions and putting forward an alternative. I have the sinking feeling that even talking about a “worker-centric” alternative to capitalism puts me in a minority on the left, a movement which was once worker-centric at our core. The Guardian points out the disparities in wealth and the consequences of such disparities, but we’re stuck when it comes to finding a programatic solution from the left. Jake Johnson puts the problem in more starkly class terms but we are still left without solutions. Protests and strikes might be searches for solutions, but they really work best when they are organized to fight for a program which can win. We are lucky to have locally a movement, however small it is, which works well with policy and goals. Readers can see here a recently posted list of upcoming local protests to plug in to.

Michael J. Sainato recently noted that many of the ideas pushed forward by Sanders and his supporters have taken root and are advancing across the U.S. He gives a needed and optimistic take on things now, but he does not take up the idea that there are core forces in the Democratic Party who welcomed these ideas and are still pushing them forward: he can only see light and darkness among the Dems and not struggle. On the other hand, I think that we could also argue that many of these ideas or proposals were present and in motion before the Sanders campaign was really established and underway and that there was a healthy and critical relationship between the grassroots and liberal AstroTurf movements and the Sanders campaign which pushed everyone forward, including at least some of the people Sainato sees as the enemy camp. If we put that aside, we are still stuck with two problems on the left. One is that some of Sanders’ critics on the left make a strong case that his populism or social-democratic proposals are not sincerely and broadly anti-racist. A second problem for us are the ultraleftists, Greens and cynics or pessimists who criticize anyone who relates positively to the Dems, the Sanders movement included. Under current conditions, then, the ultraleftists gain not because their programs have worth or validity, but because the barrage of attacks and dissension undermines discourse. A left-activist majority cannot consolidate or form easily under these conditions.

We hoped to build on the Sanders campaign and other campaigns locally but this has not been possible in the way or at the speed I thought possible. Responsible people from local campaigns have not united, extended a hand or even shown up in numbers needed to move forward. I thought that people who stuck with Sanders and the movement through the hardest days would emerge with some added credibility, but consolidating that credibility locally has not been possible in large part because of an absence of leadership and organizing. In fact, some of the forces who benefitted from these campaigns most directly and immediately are blocking organizing from below. One of our jobs is to find away around those blocks and build alliances.

Class politics---in my thinking this means seeing workers of all nationalities and genders at the core of social change, overthrowing capitalism and constructing its alternative---may not make sense to people who work in jobs which have been outsourced, are viewed as essentially entrepreneurial ventures or exist at the margins of the economy. This is a problem the left and unions should struggle with and focus more on. But even in union circles we see a tragic absence of class politics in unions, where class politics should be dominant. For instance, a local union leader told me earlier this week that she is more interested in building a community consensus around issues basic to her union than she is in helping to build even a liberal political base to support those issues and her union in the community. A union staffperson told me that she will not attend demonstrations unless her safety can be guaranteed. In a conversation with some union staff this week it was made clear that many union leaders and staff will not participate in the movement unless they get paid to turn out to demonstrations and meetings. Some unions are making a turn to “movement unionism” from the so-called “organizing model,” but at this point---again, I am speaking from a local perspective---this feels like an attempt to get out in front of protests, negotiate on behalf of social movements and dominate political campaigns.

Moving somewhat away from class politics, we also have the long-held belief on the left that a distinctly left party needs to be formed, either a social-democratic or socialist party or a communist party. Some on the left would argue that this project of party-building is very much a part of class politics, and I agree with them, but under current conditions the debate on the left is more often over why Clinton lost the election, the possibilities of making the Democratic Party work and where Sanders and his movement are in all of this. And since we do not have a majority-activist camp in any corner of this debate, at least not locally, the Dems are able to hold their own as potential activists either pursue their own projects or get discouraged. They show few signs of taking up the fightback against Trump in the ways most needed. The Liberal Party of New York has put forward a populist analysis that will resonate with many people---and will take them nowhere. Just so, the Oregon Working Families Party did the right thing by putting forward Shanti Lewallen for Senate and backing Teresa Alonso-Leon, but WFP comes up short on program and victories of its own.

Chauncey DeVega has provided a helpful analysis which shows how complicated matters stand---and also shows that we are slowly building a correct analysis. A portion of our movement will stand with the analysis that Clinton lost because she was a neoliberal Dem tied to the establishment and war policies. And a portion of that tendency will see the election as a revolt against the establishment and neoliberalism, and celebrates Clinton’s loss. I regard that as irresponsible, but I take the point that Clinton could not win the activists at the base. Naomi Klien did so much to argue for an alternative to capitalism and push the environmental movement leftwards, but I feel somewhat betrayed by her emphasis on neoliberalism and her de-emphasis on racism as a critical factor in the election. She says, “So let’s get out of shock as fast as we can and build the kind of radical movement that has a genuine answer to the hate and fear represented by the Trumps of this world. Let’s set aside whatever is keeping us apart and start right now,” but that is exactly the problem---we need a radical movement, but it won’t be founded on and succeed with downplaying racism, which keeps us apart. Nancy Fraser shows that something has been lost---goodbye and good riddance!---and gives us a good history, but comes to rest in a subjective place. Fraser’s analysis may be of interest to Salem-area radicals. Rebecca Solnit concedes more than I am ready to, but I respect her analysis. Ajay Singh Chaudhary speaks with the kind of high moralism which gets most of its facts right but inhibits organizing and leaves us isolated. Yes, let's isolate Trump and anyone who apologizes for him or who seeks to normalize authoritarianism---but where is the line in "normalizing" and what are the tactics and strategy and who drives those tactics and that strategy forward? 

And perhaps after all is said and done George Monbiot has a point which will echo with many local activists. Are we now struggling with social isolation and mental illness as a class or as an exploited majority or as a nation without realizing it?

Elitist and populist factions on the left both blame class and “identity” politics for the Clinton loss, and these criticisms help block building alternative parties even when they are intended to support party building. Other sections of our movement rightly emphasize the pernicious role of racism and say, again correctly, that white radicals and progressives need to follow the lead of people of color in political battles. Leadership in this area is lacking. The analysis provided by Ajamu Baraka is unhelpful here; his facts are mostly right, but his stereotypes and broad sweep are obstructive, and he claims a legacy which he does not fully analyze. We are indeed the heirs of the National Negro Congress and Civil Rights Congress, and Paul Robeson, W.E. B. Dubois, William Patterson and Claudia Jones. That legacy demands of us that we build a left party from the grassroots and try to split and win over the center, starting with the core forces who support social change. Baraka and so many others are predisposed to walk away from that strategy of engagement with the center. Ta-Nehisi Coates hardly looks left, and then most often to criticize. There is some support for these views locally, most often put forward without much critical examination. Destiny Lopez puts forward the reproductive rights movement as an almost vanguard force in the fight against Trump, which may be too optimistic and may be demanding too much from that movement. Baraka, Coates and Lopez are not entirely wrong. What is missing, again speaking locally, are points where engagement with their ideas is most productive and can be tested in practice. We should avoid the kind of engagement with the center which is driven by opportunism and compromise and make room for the kinds of engagement which build unity of action.

Salem's biggest rally since the election has been the womens' rally and march. It was an event without working-clas politics, with mixed messaging and which unintentionally fortified acquiesence. Still, it was people in the streets at a crucial moment and we could not have done better in organizing. Perhaps I was too critical in writing about it. Our response should have been to offer help next time and not give up if we can't get to engagement which creates unity of action. We did offer future help but have heard almost nothing back. The next big action here will be the January 14 immigrant rights rally and we have approached this as builders and contributors, taking direction from the rally organizers. We have been the only left group represented in the room. Where is everyone else?

Sam Webb, long associated with the Communist Party, made a point of supporting Clinton and attacking Sanders in ways which I consider at least unhelpful. Still, we run into working-class people locally who would support Webb and the Communist Party from more principled points of view. Webb had this to say recently:

Trump will soon be in the White House, Republicans as of last week control Congress, and the Supreme Court by the spring will be back in possession of right wing extremists. A similar situation is found in a majority of states. And the power and reach of the right doesn't end here.

Our side, on the other hand, has a well spring of political, cultural, media, and people resources and experience as well as the majority of voters who cast their ballot for Hillary Clinton in the election (and many more who didn't vote at all) to prosecute our struggles. But our political and organizational capacities don't match our adversaries at this moment.

We have our hands on some levers of power that we should utilize (witness the actions of Governor Cuomo of New York and Governor Brown of California in recent weeks), but far, far fewer than the other side. This can and will change. And hopefully sooner than any of us think, as each of us in our own way contributes to assembling a broad and diverse small "d" democratic coalition that includes the Democratic Party exercising a major influence in any realistic casting of this far flung and loose coalition.

The main terrain of struggle will pivot around the defense of democracy and democratic rights. And, where possible their expansion.

It is against this, but not only this, background that the women's march in DC and cities around the country in less than two weeks takes on such importance. I can't think of a better way for this coalition to begin a difficult journey.

Webb is making a correct assessment here, regardless of where he has gone wrong in recent months, and we can measure the correctness of his position easily. Ask yourself if we are fighting a defensive or offensive fight, if we're about resistance at this point or something else, and find out what those around you think. I believe that Webb's main points will be validated as we look at our situation here. His optimism regarding Cuomo and Brown are overstated, and he continues to give too much credit to the Dems, but it would also be wrong for us to share the anarchist forecast that the Dems are no longer a factor. The question of  relating to the Dems for us should rest less on predictions concerning the Democratic Party's viability and more on how and where we locate the line which separates principles from opportunism and how we build an inside/outside strategy around those principles.

It is a sad measure of a backward slide on the left that we have to again explain to ourselves that "economic" issues are not separate from "identity" issues. It is one thing to stand up at, say, your union meeting and make this point, but that we are again, or still, debating this across the left shows what happens when we are detached from class struggle, have no leading left party and get taken away with abstractions. Systemic Disorder did a great job of taking this on recently but had to abbreviate a Marxist analysis of what capitalism is in order to do so. I applaud their patience. How far will we get by not meeting people where they are and responding to what matters to them? And how far will we get if we're forced to patiently and repeatedly explain to people on our side of the fence why intersectionality is real and necessary? In the Mid-Willamette Valley it should be clear that workers---the working-class---are women and men and gender-variant, people of color and white, immigrants, and are chiefly employed in healthcare and government and services, and that manufacturing employment here is flat and will stay flat for the next 20 years while white-collar and "pink-collar" employment will increase. A "middle-class" person here is a worker with a union card. It's that simple.    

There is a certain alienation or contradiction between people of color and local progressives just now, and we need to be careful and patient in approaching this division. White progressives often lack the necessary humility and self-critical attitudes needed and are insensitive to divisions between local people-of-color organizations. We missed an opportunity to engage with the base during the Obama presidency and the Sanders campaign and we're paying for that. The most radical---and the most successful---local people-of-color local organizations exist in the Latino/a community, but there is also sometimes a tendency there to ally with conservative white forces rather than with genuinely progressive and allied whites because so few white radicals have offered the necessary trust-building work. The pro-marijuana vote was also a vote against the drivers' license bill, a vote we need to own and make up for. I believe that behind the scenes the Salem Leadership Foundation and its associated churches and social service organizations, along with the banks and the real estate companies and the Chamber of Commerce, work very hard and with some success to keep us divided.

The resolution of these contradictions may not be as problematic as we think at present. The Movement For Black Lives Platform contains the analysis and proposals needed to move forward in many areas. Some of its key items are already in place in local or regional union, Democratic Party, socialist, feminist and LGBTQIA programs. We do not have to invent the wheel; we have to make connections and agree on who’s driving. There are lots of maps out there (here and here, for instance, and look at the Facebook page about how to organize a general strike), but locally we’re not at a place where we have majorities asking for maps and doing mass organizing. We have to ask why this empty space exists and remedy it. “Movementism” has its limits, and a limited application here and now in the Mid-Willamette Valley. What value does a movement really have if it is not about winning demands and building political power for the oppressed?

We have been in a hurry to resolve contradictions and in our rush we are doing great harm to ourselves. A wait-and-see attitude in some areas would benefit us all. For instance, whatever our criticisms of Sanders we should be supporting his call for pre-inauguration protests and urging him to support the building of a labor party of some kind starting at the grassroots. The actions of protesting and party-building will take us beyond Sanders’ insufficient analysis; he opened a bottle and a genie is emerging. We need to look back a few months and record and remember who did the hard organizing work in the pre-election period; those folks should have more credibility than, say, the ultraleftists, elitists and populists amongst us. The pre-election criticisms of groups like the national NAACP have been shown to lack validity; witness the NAACP leaders who took action against Sessions and ask what it would take to bring that spirit here. Nothing stops us from taking the intermediate step of, say, going to a local union meeting or a community meeting and asking that The Movement For Black Lives Platform be adopted in whole or in part after we have done the necessary prep work. The “stfu” attitude of local anarchists and their opportunistic support for Black Liberation will likely lead to bad ends, but it is not our place to predict the future or to fix every problem while engagement is possible---and it's apparently up to us to offer engagement.

We also have problems to our right---the ultraleft is not our only problem. Governor Brown has been terrible on environmental issues and is slower than molasses on immigrant rights issues and not great on raising the minimum wage and linking that to other needed reforms. Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum, on the other hand, gave us some reason to be hopeful this week. The fallout from the Erious Johnson case and the upcoming protests give us the means of testing her and, by extension, the entire Brown administration. The problem to think through is how we do this and win over the liberals who defend Brown in spite of her poor record. Ajamu Baraka’s ideas and their local application will be proven correct or incorrect in our struggle with Brown and Rosenblum. What we need to watch for is that the Bud Pierce-Jackie Winters faction of the Republican Party do not benefit from this struggle.

There is good reason to be concerned that capitalism is entering a particularly dangerous period of decline and conflict and that we are not up to the challenge of the moment. But ask yourself: does debating the outcome of the election or projecting populism of one kind or another or not taking up intersectionality with class politics help us meet the challenge or not?

Very few people on the left are so wrong that they should have no voice in the debates and no place in our protests and resistance. We are at a point where we need clarity, but we cannot summon it out of thin air or, for that matter, out of our fractured experience just now. We have to find another way to the truths of organizing and struggle. And perhaps this is a moment where the united front needs to be offered and put forward and those who accept participation pick up that banner and run with it regardless of who objects.

1 comment:


    I think Coates is much more of a leftist than you give him credit for being. His criticism of Sanders is the same as the one you offer in that post (never does he suggest that Sanders is too radical or too far to the left). And Coates has been very critical of Obama, Clinton and similar Democrats. He's no centrist, nor am I.

    I've read the Klein piece previously. She, like so many others, ignores the fact that Clinton won among the working class, among individuals who make $50,000 or less per year, among those who said 'the economy' was their top concern (meanwhile, Trump won among those for whom immigration and terrorism were listed as top concerns). Reading Klein and others, you'd think all of Clinton's support came from millionaires and that all of Trump's support came from low wage workers with their economic angst (who somehow figured a billionaire and the most Wall Street friendly candidate *ever* was what they needed). The facts point in the opposite direction.

    My saying that could be interpreted as a defense of Clinton or neoliberalism (a piece I bookmarked 2+ years ago: "Neoliberalism has brought out the worst in us"), but that would be a false interpretation. My only point is that facts matter, and the facts point to bigotry (particularly racism) playing the biggest role in the presidential election. When millions of jobs don't come back from overseas or other campaign promises aren't fulfilled, Trump won't lose any support. Mark my words. But if he were to suddenly become a supporter of Black Lives Matter, Planned Parenthood, LGBTQ rights and so on, then and only then would you see a substantial crack in his wall of support. As Solnit wrote, "hate has been given a license."

    I think Trump actually did better than a more mainstream Republican like Rubio or Bush or Kasich would have done, and not because of anti-establishment sentiment. After all, the establishment did very well. The re-election rate of incumbents was even higher than normal, including victories by major proponents of the TPP. Meanwhile, those candidates backed most strongly by Sanders (presumably anti-establishment candidates) underperformed Clinton in their respective states. Again, that's not a defense of Clinton nor is it an attack on Sanders. The point is facts matter. Too many election analyses I've read are rooted in a false narrative.

    As one author put it, "Trump’s appeal is cultural, rather than economic. It’s a mix of anti-elitism, anti-political correctness, and white identity politics, not carefully cultivated policies. The fact that we’re talking about the white working class, instead of just the working class, is a pretty big clue."

    I'd point to a pathetic mainstream/corporate media as another enormous factor. Once again, the opening to the November 5 episode of SNL would be funny if it wasn't so spot-on.

    I've certainly got the "plagues of anxiety, stress, depression" (and anger) that Monbiot wrote about.