Organizing for Tomorrow

Anti-Trump demo. Washington, January 24th.

Predictably, a lot of the talk these days on the American left has to do with dissecting how we came to be in such a horrible situation. With all three branches of government now firmly in the hands of the Republicans, there is a not unreasonable desire among their opponents to know how this happened and what can be done about it.

From the interminable debates about the failings of the Clinton campaign (or about the candidate herself) to broader discussions of the transition from mainstream neoliberalism to the current Trumpian variant, liberals and progressives are engaged in a desperate process of trying to parse how they went from the prospect of slam-dunk victory to the very edge of political relevance in the course of a few months.

And if some of these reflections do get to key issues in the collective Untergang of the left, the question still remains as to what is to be done about it.

One group definitely intent on having their say about how things might have been different are the supporters of Bernie Sanders. Partisans of the long-time New Hampshire congressman, who admittedly constitutes the closest thing to an actual democratic socialist in American public life, are intent on putting forward a collective “We told you so,” often expressed with the same breathless demeanor with which they assailed their Clintonite opponents during the primaries, and generally with the same pollyanna-ish assessment of Sanders’s actual prospects if he had been allowed to contest the general election.

The most measured post-mortem of the Sanders campaign can be found in Becky Bond and Zack Exley’s Rules for Revolutionaries: How Big Organizing Can Change Everything. Bond and Exley are experienced operatives from the progressive wing of the political spectrum. They each evince a commitment to the possibilities of electoral politics in the current system to generate outcomes better than the ones heretofore accomplished. For Bond and Exley, the revolution to which progressive efforts should be directed is that of mobilization and engagement of the full measure of liberal and progressive sentiment in such a way as to cause the institutions of the Democratic Party to give birth to something better that itself.

The central thrust of Rules for Revolutionaries is that the failures of Clintonism could have been avoided by more effective grassroots organizing of the kind that they undertook with the Sanders campaign. Their book is very much about political technique, about the proper means for setting up organizations that can be upscaled via effective use of phone banks and house parties.

The story that Bond and Exley tell about their work in trying to overcome the anointment of Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee is about how to get people to actually do things without having to (or being able to) spend large amounts of money capital making it happen. Rather than relying on copious amounts of television advertising, or trying to triangulate a winning position via the use of opinion polls, Bond and Exley focus on the nuts and bolts of how to use free and low-cost media resources to connect with supporters and prompt them to action.

Inauguration day protest. Minneapolis, January 20th.

There is a real idealism involved in this approach. The authors clearly believe that there is a wellspring of progressive sentiment abroad in the country that could be mobilized in a way analogous to that tea party types have been doing for the best part of a decade.

Although they focus on politics at the level of the presidential election, the clear (if mostly unstated) implication is that this variety of organizing could be used at a range of levels throughout the political institutions of the United States (and perhaps elsewhere). If they were ultimately unsuccessful, this has mostly to do with the failure of more traditionally oriented elements of Sanders’s campaign to embrace their organizing strategy, as well as to the inbuilt advantages of Clinton as the insider candidate.

They are not exactly wrong in holding these views. But the underlying premise of Bond and Exley’s approach is that effective organizing could allow progressives to colonize the Democratic Party in a way perhaps analogous to that in which Trump and his supporters have colonized their Republican opponents. The salient difference is that Trump’s “insurgency” was, in point of fact, merely an intensification of what the Republican Party already was.

The racism, sexism, xenophobia and other regrettable traits Mr Trump displayed synergized with the views that were widespread (if seldom so openly expressed) among the Republican base, and not only there. Trump’s views in no way threatened the economic position of the party’s funders, and in fact, that main worry was simply that his brash expression of views more appropriately conveyed with a nudge and a wink might make him unelectable.

For the Democrats, by contrast, the prospect of a Sanders candidacy constituted (and continues to constitute) an existential threat. The movement of the Democratic base to the left is a much bigger problem for that party’s establishment than the move of the Republican base to the right. The spread and traction of progressive ideas among rank and file democrats (if such a thing can be said to exist in a party that doesn’t actually have any members) could lead to all manner of dangerous things, particularly of a redistributive nature.

As much as Bond and Exley have some interesting and worthwhile things to say about how grassroots organizing can be done effectively, one gets the impression that (to paraphrase Berthold Brecht) if the Democrats became disappointed with its supporters, it might simply dissolve the party and elect another.

Ted Cruz, confidence man. Texas, February 2016.

In Hegemony How-To: A Roadmap for Radicals, Jonathan Smucker presents an altogether different approach. Smucker, a veteran of organizing work from the Catholic Worker to the Occupy movements, sees the problem as one of creating viable extra-party organizations.

Much of Smucker’s text is devoted to a thoroughgoing, if decently sympathetic, sociological critique of radical groups. His insider description of the ways that the Zuccotti Park Occupy camp became fascinated with process at the expense of building a scalable organization that might achieve things and establish organizational continuity should be distributed as a handbook to radical organizers everywhere.

Smucker points out the tendency of people with political opinions that are marginalized by mainstream political discourse to form social safe in-group spaces. While this is the sort of thing that can offer succor to those excluded and punished by deviance from dominant narratives, they also function to limit practical capacities for generating political action beyond the small scale.

A second but clearly related issue is that of the varieties of ethical commitment that tend to be involved in radical activism. Smucker, who has added an academic credential to his extensive organizing experience, effectively employs Max Weber’s distinction between ethics of conviction and ethics of responsibility to illuminate the ways that ideological rigidity can often limit the capacity of radicals to achieve effective, broad scale organizing.

One is here reminded of the scene in Monthy Python’s Life of Brian (one of the most devastating critiques ever directed at the British New Left) in which five members of one radical party scream abuse that the one member of an opposing faction. The demand for ideological purity is irritating enough among intellectuals for whom, it is often noted, the severity of the conflicts are generally directly proportionate to the paucity of the stakes involved. For radical organizers, it is a recipe for irrelevance.

If one takes as a premise the idea that the central issue of political action in the US today must be breaking the control of the far right at the state and municipal level (assuming for a moment that playing within the bounds of the system is a worthwhile endeavor,) then Bond and Exley have important lessons to teach. Smucker, by contrast, gets at deeper issues. His arguments are more relevant to those who which to move beyond the constraints of the bourgeois liberal democracy and to effect change at a systemic level.

The point to be taken going forward, and this is very much commensurate with Smucker’s view, is that it needn’t be a question of one or the other. There is nothing to be gained by weeping for the defeats suffered by civilization at the hands of Mr. Trump, his revolting supporters, and his political and media abettors. The point now is to organize.

The point to be taken going forward, and this is very much commensurate with Smucker’s view, is that it needn’t be a question of one or the other. There is nothing to be gained by weeping for the defeats suffered by civilization at the hands of Donald Trump, his revolting supporters, and his political and media abettors. The point now is to organize.

Photographs courtesy of Stephen Melkisethian, Fibonnaci Blue, and Michael Vadon. Published under a Creative Commons license.