If “the system” treats people like shit, they will feel like shit.
If they feel like shit, they will treat other people like shit.
Some people focus on changing the way the system treats people. In my terms, those people are advocates--people who speak in behalf of others who they think aren’t able to speak for themselves, or lack the power to speak for themselves. Some lawyers, union business agents, social workers, politicians and executive directors of advocacy organizations are among those in this category.
Others are providers of services--people who offer something to alleviate feeling like shit or even making the shit go away. Some counselors, trainers, therapists, healers, affordable housing builders, inner-city teachers and child-care center workers are among those in this role.
And other people challenge those who are being shit upon to organize themselves to act to change the shitty system and change the shitty circumstances in which they find themselves. That requires of the people being shit upon by the system that they take responsibility to change the way political, economic, social and/or cultural power are exercised. Since most of their efforts in trying to change the system have been rejected or otherwise unsuccessful (“you can’t fight city hall”), organizing them is difficult. The talent for doing it is rare; I don’t find it too often. The people with this talent are community, labor, interest and identity group organizers. I distinguish organizers from those who might occasionally get the shit-upon to show up for a march or demonstration but then return to their previous condition; I call these people mobilizers. The line separating organizers and mobilizers is fuzzier than I’m making it appear.
Among advocates, service providers, mobilizers and organizers are some people who excuse the shitty behavior of shit-upon people who shit on others by pointing at the shitty conditions under which the shitters live. I think that’s both an intellectual error and a strategic mistake.
Yet other people condemn the people shit on by the system for being shitty. They (accurately) say of these people that they possess choice. They omit, however, any understanding of what living in shit does to people. I think that’s a big intellectual error and a strategic mistake as well.*
Shit-upon people of the world unite! You have nothing to lose but the shit in your lives.
*An amendment was offered by one of the readers of this paragraph:
"[T]he people that condemn SOME of those shit on by the system for being shitty themselves to other people also being shitted on by the system, understand what living in shit does to people, but also understand that removing the shit from those shitted on people sometimes requires removing the shittiest people from their environments. The people that make this condemnation understand that the union of shitted on people of the world and their organization toward a system that is not shitty is what will make the world less shitty, BUT with the shittiest of the shitty being allowed to terrorize the shitted on, the shitted on will have to continue their focus on mere survival in shit, rather than on fixing the shit, or they might be killed by those shitty people. The shittiest of the shitty, just like those shitty people who benefit most from the shitty system simply don't care about the desire of those living in shit to not live in shit. Both of these shitty groups are obstacles to the shitted on not living in shit. One adds to the shit sneakily, the other adds to the shit in the open."
In the recent (5/16/17) Los Angeles Unified School District—second largest district in the nation—Board election, pro-private charter/voucher candidates defeated the incumbent school board president and a candidate who shares his basic views. Some $14 million was spent, most of it by the winners—which will no doubt be the reason given by many for their victory. I think it is more complicated than that.
Here is a framework for understanding the Los Angeles school board election (a framework that I think is also applicable to Trump’s victory and other electoral results with which most readers of these comments are not pleased). The framework has three parts: (1) the crippled programs syndrome; (2) the erosion of civil society, and; (3) the failure of organized labor to be much more than another interest group, and of broadly-based, multi-issue, community organizing to reach what I think is its potential.
1. The crippled programs syndrome
I wish I could claim this appellation as my own, but it comes from a paper with that title written in the early 1970s by Steven Waldhorn (a long-time friend of mine) when he was at Stanford University. The paper’s essential argument is that government programs for the poor are often inadequate because of crippling legislative, guideline and appropriations constraints imposed upon them at the outset by conservative legislators and administrators. Having crippled them, these conservatives then widely trumpet the failures of government programs.
Inner-city schools are among the crippled programs. (Imagine the difference in outcomes if teacher salaries were doubled, classroom size halved, breakfast and lunch provided for all students, and program monies were abundantly available for things like the Algebra Project.)
2. The erosion of civil society
This subject is at the core of what I do and think. We cannot have a vital democracy without vital, voluntary associations, democratically constituted and funded by their members. It is these groups that are the underpinning of democratic politics. Without them, politicians are dependent upon media to reach voters, and media costs lots of money which, as few would deny, makes those politicians increasingly dependent upon those who fund their campaigns.
Without these associations there is nothing standing between individuals and families, on the one hand, and, on the other, mega-institutions like large corporations, government and large nonprofits (as in the health-care system). In the absence of these “mediating institutions”, everyday people are disconnected from civic life as citizens. Instead, they are “recipients” or “beneficiaries” of programs about which they have little voice. Their voicelessness makes them prey to demagogues who exploit it and promise to stand for “the people” against the mega-institutions that dominate society.
(Note that this framework excludes from civil society the typical nonprofit which—whatever its merits, and they are often many—is part of the problem, not the solution. In the low- and moderate-income communities in which I worked during the years of the poverty program, model cities, and a number of other federal programs aimed at alleviating poverty, there emerged a plethora of “community-based non-profits”. In general, the purpose of each was good. And many of them did a good-to-excellent job implementing that purpose; others were simply part of a patronage machine. Whether excellent or worthless, their cumulative effect was to erode voluntary civic associations which had a “bottom-up” character and substitute for them the particular structure and character of most nonprofits: self-perpetuating boards of directors, no or non-voting membership, total dependency on external funding—all of which resulted in no participation and no community accountability.) Cumulatively, they are an example of the sum being less than its parts.
3. The labor “movement” and broadly-based community organizing
When I was a boy, my parents did not miss voting in elections. Their guide to how they cast their ballot was the west coast longshoremen’s union slate card. The International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) was a Communist-influenced/left-wing union; it was expelled from the CIO during the post World War II red-scare period. My folks were part of that left-wing world. Even though not members of ILWU, they trusted it. They had personal relationships with members and leaders in it. They were part of a vibrant community in which politics was regularly discussed, social gatherings took place, educational activities were numerous, and action for social and economic justice was central. My parents voted for those slate card-recommended politicians no matter how much campaign money was spent by their opposition.
That ILWU was part of the John L. Lewis-led Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO), and the CIO of the 1930s was part of a broad “progressive” movement that spoke for the common good and general welfare. Whatever its weaknesses, and they were surely there, these unions cared about more than the narrow, though important, workplace interests of their members.
When Saul Alinsky organized Back of the Yards Neighborhood Council (BYNC), one of its principal activities was to support a strike of the Packinghouse Workers Organizing Committee (PWOC). And BYNC, whose members were for the most part eastern European “ethnics”, was an outspoken supporter of racial justice—for example, providing testimony for fair employment practices.
Sad to say, most parents don’t see teacher unions as outspoken supporters for the education of their kids. And for good reason. If it were otherwise, the 25,000+ teachers (60,000+ total employees) in the LA School District would have been the base for a door-to-door/home visits/small house meetings face-to-face election campaign that would have convinced the number of voters needed to win: 31,000 for Zimmer, and 14,000 for Imelda Padilla (the union-supported, anti-voucher/private charter candidates). And nor would there have been a mere 11% (that’s not a typo!) voter turnout in the election. And that doesn’t even count unions with no direct relationship to public schools.
The self-identified “labor movement” (which isn’t moving very much, and sometimes moves backward rather than forward) has become another “interest group”. Its word doesn’t mean much to the general electorate, and in some cases not even to its own membership.
Broadly-based community organizing in what might broadly be defined as “the Alinsky tradition” is now almost 80 years old. The current veterans in the field have been engaged in the work for 50+ years. I count myself among them. For reasons that are beyond the scope of what I want to say here, we have not reached the people power capacity, nor broadly expressed the vision, that characterized the CIO at its best.
Without substantial change in these two arenas, the present situation in the country is likely to persist. Electoral victories by even the most “progressive” of candidates are not sufficient to turn the country around; they don’t have the power to combat things like capital strikes that are likely to follow any significant efforts at reform.
Combined, these three factors—crippled programs syndrome, erosion of civil society, and failures and weaknesses of organized labor and community organizing—create the circumstances in which “neo-liberalism” is now the dominant ideology of the country (and the western world). While I think it rests on shaky foundations, this point of view is the underpinning of shrinking government (except for the security-military industry complex), charter schools and vouchers, market solutions to all human problems, rugged individualism and a consumer culture. The results are the present vast inequalities of income and wealth, the largely unrestrained power of corporate and Wall Street America, and growing hostility toward “The Other,” whomever she or he may be.
Fortunately, a majority of Americans do not agree with significant parts of this ideology, and they want something different from their politicians than they are getting. In poll after poll, voters express views that are far more consistent with a notion of the public welfare and common good, as well as unity in diversity, than they are with “watch out for number one” or any of the “isms”.
So I do not despair. But there sure is a lot of organizing work to be done.
Of course we should resist Trump (and Obama and all those who preceded him) in their efforts to deport “illegals”, most of whom came to this country because U.S. negotiated “free trade” agreements eliminated their jobs or farms in their home country. How are we to do this in a way that goes beyond symbolic protest?
In what follows I want to briefly outline what I think will be the likely sequence of events to the present course of action that seems to have the full attention of the resist movement, and consider a different course, or at least an additional course, that might have a different outcome.
Non-Cooperation and the Likely Trump Response
Across the country local, and now state, governments are adopting policies to refuse cooperation with ICE. In response, the Trump Administration is rattling swords and threatening dire consequences, the most likely of which will be cutting of federal funds to state and local governments that don’t back down from their non-cooperation positions.
Will Trump follow through? There is little reason to think he won’t. Will court challenges to what Trump does stick? Even if upheld in District and Circuit courts, there is little reason to think they will when they reach the Supreme Court new majority with Trump nominee Neil Gorsuch.
If I am right in that appraisal, who will get hurt when funds are cut? For the most part, poor people, and those public employees whose salaries are paid by the grants that will no longer be. Here’s the dilemma: if it were their decision to take the cuts—as, for example, it is the decision of workers who vote to strike to forego their wages and risk their jobs—that would be one thing. But it’s not. Those who are hurt are not those taking the action.
The local and state governments responsible for the loss of their programs and jobs are likely to fold under this pressure. And the argument against folding is not all that strong. We are talking about national policy. There is just so much that state and local governments can do to buck it. Even the once powerful Dixiecrats finally had to crumble in the face of federal intervention against legally-sanctioned racial discrimination in the south. Further, if these governments don’t fold they are asking very vulnerable people to make a sacrifice in whose decision they played no part.
Could these governments make up the loss in revenues? Maybe. It would probably require adoption of new taxes, which would have to be substantial to compensate for hundreds of millions of lost federal income. Will they do it? And even more pertinent, will they do it with “progressive” rather than “regressive” tax measures? None of them have adopted in any substantial way that kind of tax reform thus far.
Conclusion: the end game doesn’t look very good in the present scenario.
Divide and Conquer From the Bottom Up: An Alternative Or At Least A Complementary Strategy?
Our side cannot win this fight or, for that matter, any major fight in the national political arena at the present time, and the picture isn’t a lot different in the states. The cards are stacked against us: conservative Republicans control all three branches of the federal government, as well as a majority of state houses where they are using their authority to devise ingenious measures to limit the franchise for historically Democratic Party voters—particularly African-Americans.
If we don’t have a direct shot at the corner pocket, is there bank shot on the table? (Or, if you don’t know pool, are there other targets?) I think the possibility for those lies in the corporate sector, in particular in businesses or business associations that were public supporters of Trump, in general, and of his immigration policy, in particular.
What would be done in relation to such businesses? Call upon them to publicly demand that the Administration back off its family-breaking policy. What if they won’t go along? Boycott their products and/or services, and use non-violent direct action tactics to publicly shame their executive officers. (A symbolic “don’t buy” day might be used to supplement the “don’t work” day that is now to be engaged in on May 1 by immigrant workers and their allies.)
Could this work? I don’t know. Neither does anyone. But in the 1960s and 1970s when boycott activity seriously damaged the profits of California agribusiness, growers suddenly became friends of collective bargaining legislation. (Up to that time, farm workers were able to engage in secondary boycotts because New Deal legislation creating the national collective bargaining framework excluded them—the direct result of the Dixiecrats who were protecting the near-slave status of southern black plantation workers. But 30 years later, in California, the shoe was on the other foot. Governor Jerry Brown got an excellent collective bargaining law passed by the legislature. (In fact, Cesar Chavez, leader of the United Farm Workers of America, initially opposed legislation. He had the power, via national boycotts, to directly force growers to the bargaining table; he didn’t want to give it up to a third party. History proved him right when a newly elected Republican governor appointed pro-grower votes to the Commission that implemented the law.)
If profits are the leverage, then a whole new set of demands on government is possible. Local and state governments or substantial purchasers of all kinds of goods and services from the private sector; they are depositors in banks; they invest in pension funds; they subsidize various businesses. More research would no doubt uncover more levers.
A General Point
On a broader front, I think those who are now fighting defensive battles over affordable housing, budget cuts in social programs, job losses to offshoring and similar issues should consider direct action aimed at corporate targets—not symbolic action, like picketing a building where a corporation is located—but action that hurts the bottom line. To do that will require mobilizing on a level not yet reached by most protest action. Those who consider themselves the organizers of thee actions need to look at how to add a zero to their numbers.
Government in the present time is not a likely arena for victories. Perhaps head-on confrontation with business is.
Dr. Carol Anderson is a professor of African American history at Emory University. She was recently awarded the National Critics Circle Award for her book White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide.
This is a brief commentary on Pamela Newkirk’s review* of Anderson’s White Rage, and on her 2014 Washington Post op ed article, “Ferguson isn’t about black rage against cops. It’s white rage against progress,”** which was the forerunner of her book.
I haven’t yet read Carol Anderson’s book, only the review of it and her article that led to the book. All her facts about what happened to African-Americans in the United States seem right to me. But I also think there is a serious problem with her interpretative framework. The latter is what I address here.
Undifferentiated White People
“Rage,” “resentment”, “fear” and even “anger” seem to me unusual words to describe the conscious and deliberate efforts by powerful “white” people, and their coopted allies of a variety of other colors, to keep what they have: power, status, wealth and income.
As Anderson puts it in her Washington Post column that led to White Rage, “the real rage smolders in meetings where officials redraw precincts to dilute African American voting strength or seek to slash the government payrolls that have long served as sources of black employment,” and “…white rage doesn’t have to take to the streets…to be heard.” She could have added bankers who draw red lines that determine who gets what loans at what interest rate (or doesn’t get them at all). Or school administrators who fail to adopt policies and practices that don't track bottom quartile kids into dead-end jobs or prison.
Her words are more accurate when applied to her post-Brown v. Board description: “But black children, hungry for quality education, ran headlong into more white rage. Bricks and mobs at school doors were only the most obvious signs.”
Isn’t there an important difference between the angry demonstrators who sought to block black student entry to Little Rock’s Central High School and the white plantation owners who sought to reclaim their power after the Civil War, the white politicians who want to keep the power they have, or the white bankers whose decisions destroyed more than half the wealth of the country’s black and Latino communities? More on that question in a moment.
Pamela Newkirk, The Washington Post reviewer, of Anderson’s book accepts the framework Anderson presents, and adds “rebellion” and “revolt” to its language: “Anderson, a professor of African American history at Emory University, traces the thread of white rebellion from anti-emancipation revolts through post-Reconstruction racial terror and the enactment of Black Codes and peonage, to the extraordinary legal and extralegal efforts by Southern officials to block African Americans from fleeing repression during the Great Migration. She continues connecting the dots to contemporary legislative and judicial actions across the country that have disproportionately criminalized blacks and suppressed their voting rights.”
The old Confederacy’s institutional/economic back was never broken: the plantation owners retained ownership of their land. Forty acres and a mule was an unkept promise. When 1877’s great compromise took place, the political revolution that might have taken place was betrayed. The power of the oligarchy re-asserted itself. The destruction of the nascent alliance of freed slaves, African-Americans who were Freedmen, and white yeomen farmers who choose to become Republicans is detailed in the book, The Union League Movement in the Deep South, by Michael W. Fitzgerald. Read it and weep. But please read it.
In more recent times, Democrats haven’t been any better when it comes to the scandal of what the banking industry did to minority community wealth. And Obama was part of it. Indeed, in Chicago he was part of the community development corporation-banks-builders-local politicians complex that undermined independent black community organizing that had been going on there. Like most of the black clergy, he was, indeed, complicit in it. Ditto on another scandal: his appointment of Arne Duncan as Secretary of Education.
Newkirk quotes Anderson, “The GOP, 'trapped between a demographically declining support base and an ideological straitjacket...reached for a tried and true weapon: disfranchisement'." Both of them should include as part of the problem those black politicians who drew 80% black-voter districts to make their re-election a certainty.
Absent from Newkirk, and, I suspect, Anderson, is any critique of the Democrats whose policies, including those of Obama, contributed to the rage of white working class people and to the disengagement from the 2016 election when minorities stayed home in droves—even in states where there was no voter suppression.
Divide and Conquer from Below
Also absent in this framework is anything to explain why the Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and other Rust-Belt state white ethnic Democrats voted TWICE for Obama before voting for Trump. To explain that requires adding mainstream Democrats, including Obama, but not for the reason of his being black, to the source of their rage.
As long as these two groups—white elites and white working class—are treated as indistinguishable, there is little hope to divide them—which is what people who want racial and economic justice have to do.
(To download the full text of this blog: "A Review of Fred B. Glass, From Mission to Microchip: A History of the California Labor Movement." Oakland: University of California Press, 2016.)
In this comprehensive look at California workers—their job experiences and living conditions, antagonisms among them and with the powers that be, their leaders and the rank and file, politicians who claimed to speak for them and some who actually did, their unions and allies, and much more—Fred Glass does for this history what Taylor Branch did in his trilogy account of major portions of the civil rights movement, The King Years. From Mission to Microchip is filled with stories, analysis, history and data. It is a good and important story, well told.
In Glass’s telling, the Franciscan Fathers, often portrayed by others as benign protectors of California’s Native Americans, are anything but. Shepherded into the string of California Missions along the state’s coast, Indians were exposed to diseases to which they were not immune, removed from their villages, forced to work long days at tasks foreign to them and their way of life, denied the right to practice their beliefs, and exploited in many other ways. Their numbers quickly dwindled to a shadow of their pre-colonization presence. When the Fathers were not directly the exploiters, they provided the direct abusers with the rationalization for treating “heathens” as less than human. The Gold Rush is a similar tale of woe for many. Contrary to the myths, most of those who rushed to the mountains to pan its streams and rivers for riches ended up working for others, and receiving a pittance for their labors.
Glass takes us through other major moments in the state’s labor history: the struggle for the 8-hour day; the Workingmen’s Party, which briefly governed San Francisco and then rapidly declined in corruption; the growth of the Los Angeles labor movement, and its demise as a result of the bombing of The Los Angeles Times building by labor union activist James B. McNamara who confessed to the event that killed two dozen people; the 1930s farm labor organizing history; the growth of the Hollywood unions, and the anti-Communist campaign that dramatically weakened them; the San Francisco and Oakland general strikes; the growth of public employee unions; the revolt of women workers, the development of “equal pay for equal work” campaigns, and the formulation of “comparable worth” as a strategic idea for organizing women at work; the decline of industrial work and unions in the state; the dramatic SEIU “Justice for Janitors” campaign… and more.
Throughout most of this history, ethnic and racial antagonism divided California’s working class and made it easy for employers to play one group against another. Among the contending groups: Chinese, Japanese, Mexicans, Irish, “Okies,” African-Americans, Filipinos. Glass emphasizes how destructive these divisions were for organizing. There are moments when racial and ethnic rivalry and hostility are overcome, largely as a result of visionary labor organizers and leaders who persuade workers that they will not win justice without solidarity. Among the examples: the International Longshoremen’s & Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) and the United Farm Workers of America (UFW). Glass provides rich stories and analysis on how these moments of unity, sometimes stretching into years, were achieved.
Like the Taylor Branch trilogy, this book has its weaknesses. No book attempting to cover such a span of history can do so without omissions, exaggerations, errors and other problems. I found some of these particularly in the areas where I have the greatest expertise and direct experience. A significant bibliography directs those wanting to delve more deeply into particular pieces of this history.
Although Glass does mention the religious factor, the book exhibits a strange tone-deafness to the role religion plays and played in California (and other) labor history. For example, during World War II, it was Catholic leadership in ILWU Local 10 that led efforts to maintain earlier won and contractually agreed upon workplace rule gains. There is no mention of Fr. Andrew Boss and the Jesuit University of San Francisco’s Labor-Management School. Ditto for the Association of Catholic Trade Unionists’ ILWU member James Kearney who won ten single year terms as president of Local 10 (by constitutional rule, elected officials can hold full-time office for only two consecutive years before returning to waterfront work). The ironically named Boss challenged Harry Bridges and other leadership close to the Communist Party, and kept that leadership on its toes in the protection of workplace gains by offering a rival center of leadership training.
Missing in Glass’s ILWU account is the fact that the International supported urban renewal (known as “Negro removal”) in San Francisco’s Western Addition, and that a rank-and-file Local 10 vote overcame Bridges post-World War II recommendation against accepting temporary African-American workers into “A-Book” (first class) union membership. (Bridges feared major post-war layoffs.)
In the case of the United Farm Workers, the problem is greater. There is no mention of the Protestant California Migrant Ministry, and the roles played in UFW by Reverends Chris Hartmire, Jim Drake (who led the union’s boycott division), Gene Boutillier (who was, for a period, the union’s legislative lobbyist) and other of its staff members who were important full-time workers for the union. Nor is there mention of Marshall Ganz as UFW’s director of organizing and his rootedness in the Jewish social justice tradition and faith.
The controversy caused within UFW by Chavez accepting an award from Philippines’ dictator Ferdinand Marcos is acknowledged, but its devastating impact on church support for UFW is not. (It also alienated Chavez from key Filipino leaders and other rank-and-file union members, as well as from many of the student volunteers.)
The meaning for Chavez of “the march” from Delano to Sacramento is also misunderstood in its portrayal by Glass. It was an important factor in the passage of state collective bargaining legislation for farm workers. However, “Peregrinación” (pilgrimage) and “Penitencia” (penitence for sins) were intended for exactly what the words mean. It was secular people who called it a “march.”
Frank Bardacke’s book, Trampling Out the Vintage: Cesar Chavez and the Two Souls of the United Farm Workers, is central to understanding the union. Bardacke explains why: “What many of the liberals and radicals on the staff of the union could never understand was that all the fasts, the long marches and the insistence on personal sacrifice…were not publicity gimmicks, they were essential Chavez.”
Chavez emerged from the Community Service Organization (CSO), where he started as a rank-and-file member and became Executive Director. CSO, Glass tells us, “was supported by the Catholic Church….” The conservative Los Angeles Archdiocese, whose Archbishop was characterized by Saul Alinsky as a “pre-historic muttonhead,” was anything but supportive. However, local priests, religious women and lay leaders were. That distinction is central to understanding Chavez’s training.
Alinsky’s central role in all this history is only tangentially mentioned by Glass. In addition to hiring Fred Ross and funding CSO, Alinsky’s training was the underpinning of the Migrant Ministry’s support for the union. And other bishops did support Chavez. Unfortunately, Bardacke’s book doesn’t help much in clarifying Alinsky’s role either.
Recognizing the impossibility of gaining official church sanction for CSO, and having had an earlier negative experience with a “coalition” organization, Alinsky-staffer Fred Ross developed an “individual membership” organization, rather than Alinsky’s usual “organization of organizations.” It was the discipline of one-to-one conversations, followed by house meetings, then a large membership meeting that taught Chavez how to build the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA)—predecessor to the UFW.
Glass is in good company. There are small, and some large, errors in the aforementioned King years trilogy by Taylor Branch. No single writer of broad histories like this can master all the facts. No matter. Both Glass and Branch make major contributions. And from these rich resources, those interested in particular aspects of the histories can dig more deeply into various periods, organizations, campaigns, and histories.
Thank you, Fred Glass, for this important book.
(For a more in depth conversation on this topic, see "Response to 'Resistance to Trump Will Separate Progressives from Neoliberals,'" by Peter Olney & Rand Wilson, Stansbury Forum, February 5, 2017.)
There is a great deal of talk these days about framing the right message to reach Trump voters, progressives finding a voice by criticizing Trump’s program, effectively communicating with white working class people, and similar formulations. The problem is deeper.
There is a large, alienated white working class part of the electorate with whom “progressives” have no relationships. To rebuild those relationships is the pre-condition to turning these voters away from Trump’s politics. As Carey McWilliams, Jr once said, “politics is with whom and for what, and in precisely that order.”
A friend of mine recently wrote that we need to “carry a message of popular and economic democracy to the heartland and explicitly challenge…neo-liberal orthodoxy”. Is that really the language that speaks to people with whom we need to be in a conversation? Doesn’t “carrying a message to them” make them consumers, continuing their status as objects of politics (only in this case, objects of the good guys) rather than participants in, and co-creators of, it?
There’s now a frenzy of “exposing Trump hypocrisy.” He relishes a lot of it: red meat for his constituency. The problem we are now in is deeper than Trump, though he is its most alarming feature. The problem includes his successful appeal to resentment by people who feel ignored because they have been ignored; who are told one thing by candidates before elections only to experience something else after they get elected; who are the object of polling, focus groups, direct mail and door-to-door solicitation—none of which engages them directly to act in their own interests and on their own values by doing anything more than voting, clicking a computer key or occasionally being part of a “demo”.
“[E]xposing and discrediting” Democrat “neoliberals,” as my friend wrote, is necessary but not sufficient. “Going forward” requires far more than “labor and the left [adopting] a convincing program to truly advance working class interests”. It begins with listening and developing relationships, an orientation that has been missing now for some time. Progressive isolation from constituencies crucial to its success has deep roots. The seeds that led to that isolation were planted in the 1960s. It will take a while to dig them up.
The outpouring of anger and frustration in the present period is understandable, and necessary. It provides a sense of solidarity that, one hopes, will help people for the long march through the institutions that lies ahead.
The success of the right is not new, nor is it particularly American. We need to understand why that is. To blame it on xenophobia, racism, sexism or any other ism is insufficient. Why are people voting against their economic interests? Why are people voting against government programs that often serve them, their neighbors and their children? Why are people enthralled with the visible display of wealth rather than considering it morally repugnant?
The answer to all these questions requires more than demonstrations, whatever the number of those marching. The fact is that Trump did get elected. He campaigned in states where the electoral college votes he needed were to be found. That Hillary Clinton got two plus million votes more than he doesn’t tell us anything, especially when we consider the fact that conservative Republicans have been winning elections all over the country for the last dozen or more years. They now control both houses of Congress, and a large majority of state legislatures and governorships. And there’s no discrepancy in these between popular vote and election result.
My major point: the "movements" haven't deeply rooted themselves in the constituencies for which they claim to speak. At its heart, that requires building human relationships, one-by-one; listening to people and their interests rather than "educating" them about how they should think; fostering relationships that bridge historic lines of division among "the people", rather than creating ever-increasing silos of particular interests (each legitimate in its own right) that use invidious distinction to separate themselves from others--particularly with the foundations or wealthy patrons upon whom they depend for their financing.
Membership-based fundraising because nothing has more debilitated promising movements and organizations than dependence upon foundation, corporate and government funding for their core organizational budgets. The means for accomplishing this kind of fundraising are well known. In fact, their use can contribute to solidarity and organization building. Contrast this with the self-perpetuating board of directors non-profit that has a narrow agenda and its own particular patrons which it jealously guards against encroachment by other, similarly constituted, “community-based nonprofits”!
We need multi-issue organizations that are membership based. Multi-issue because different people experience different problems at different times in their lives. The way relationships are initially formed is when they negotiate how to support each other in relatively small, but important to them, issues that aren’t important to others. These are called “you scratch my back, and I’ll scratch yours” deals. As solidarity forms among diverse groups it is possible to join in larger, and longer-term, campaigns that address issues more deeply embedded in the status quo.
All that is proposed here can be framed in a small “d” democratic language that is the language of a MAJORITY of Americans. It is a strategy for reversing the present dangerous times in which we live.
In the article, “Trump, Brexit--The West in Crisis” (in “Symposium/America After Trump,” Democracy--A Journal of Ideas, Winter 2017, No. 43), Ed Milliband, defeated British Labor Party candidate for Prime Minister, likens the Brexit vote to the Trump vote, and puts both in an international context of failure by progressives to offer a meaningful challenge to neoliberalism. In his words:
Wherever we are, we should learn from and not deride the insurgents from the left who are attempting to build a new participatory politics. The crisis for social democratic and center-left parties is partly one of its base: a working class no longer tied to it by tradition and by unions. The only alternative is to rebuild the base with a different form of politics—organized in and mobilizing communities.
Just as we need an answer on economics and politics, so too on nationhood. If there is one area where the left has been truly left behind, it is this. The appeal to belonging is all the more potent when people have such a strong sense that power and control have left them, their communities, and their country. We see it in the allure of the Leave campaign’s slogan “Take Back Control” and, in its own way, in “Make America Great Again.”
This is the hardest nut to crack, but unless we present a vision of who we are—a story of us—to our own public and the world that is consistent, believable, and attractive, we will struggle. If we are not on this pitch, then the right clearly will be—at worst, presenting an anti-immigrant, race-based, xenophobic, narrow-minded view of who we are. But what is our alternative?
It must somehow be about combining a sense of fairness at home with relative openness to the world. A globalization narrative that emphasized the latter but seemed too often to forget about the former won’t do. We must be the people who combine both and see them as mutually reinforcing. And the former must precede the latter; otherwise, we are reduced to being technocrats or worse.
This combination of economic fairness, political change, and national vision is a tough combination to get right. But they are the fundamentals of answering the world after Brexit and Trump.
Here’s what I think is striking about what is quoted. Note, first, this point:
“a working class no longer tied to it by tradition and by unions. The only alternative is to rebuild the base with a different form of politics—organized in and mobilizing communities… The appeal to belonging is all the more potent when people have such a strong sense that power and control have left them, their communities, and their country.”
Then note this huge leap:
“We” [progressives must] “present a vision of who we are…to our own public…It must [combine] a sense of fairness at home with relative openness to the world…This combination…[is fundamental to] answering the world after Brexit and Trump.”
First, Milliband tells us (I believe with a good deal of accuracy) that tradition and unions are dying or dead, and that we have to rebuild the base (the job of labor and community organizers) because that’s important for “the appeal to belonging” which is now captured by the right because people have a sense of powerlessness (again an accurate observation).
But Milliband then tells us that “we” must present to these powerless people a vision that combines fairness and openness. Who is the “we”? Politicians? Advocates? Intellectuals? Media? His own analysis tells us that none of these, nor anyone else you might add to the list, can accomplish what needs doing. That requires that the people who are now voting for the right as an expression of their powerlessness must claim power so that they can act on the best of their values and an understanding of their interests that evolves from the conversation that takes place in democratically constituted organizations.
How is that power claimed? The answer is simple, though its realization is not easy: organization. People power organizations, in addition to whatever specific accomplish-ments they achieve in the world—i.e. material benefits—are the vehicles in which participants realize themselves as citizens, agents who can act in the world on their own behalf.
Milliband, on the other hand, seems to think progressives just need to do a better sales job.
Writing in the Arab Studies Journal, Gilbert Achcar offers a moving reflection on the meaning and tragedy of Arab Spring. His views echo those of many who participated in defeated revolutions or major reform movements—whether violent or nonviolent—of the post-World War 2 era. In reflecting on the Arab experience, Achcar says, and I quote him at length:
"The tragedy is that this wave of protests did not bring the renewal that was promised by the branding phrase 'Arab Spring,' but rather what followed were more of the old calamities, aggravated to a frightening degree in some cases. It is necessary therefore to emphasize two crucial issues regarding the sad condition under which we commemorate the sixth anniversary of the Arab uprisings.
The first issue concerns a view that has spread quite understandably in the Arab region, according to which the lesson of the past six years is that the old order, despite its huge problems, was better than the revolt against it since the latter only managed to create a bigger disaster. The truth is that if we were to apply the same logic to any of the great revolutions in history, assessing them only a few years after their beginning, we would condemn them all...
What started in the Arab region in 2011 actually is a long-term revolutionary process which, from the beginning it was possible to predict, would take many years, or even several decades, and would not reach a new period of sustained stability short of the emergence of progressive leaderships capable of bringing the Arab countries out of the insuperable crisis into which they have fallen after decades of rotting under despotism and corruption.
This brings us to the second issue that it is necessary to emphasize on this anniversary of the uprisings. To say that the old Arab regime is better than the revolt against it is like saying that the accumulation of pus in a boil is better than incising the boil and letting the pus out. The tragedies that we are witnessing now are not the product of the uprising, but indeed the product of decades of accumulation of rot in the heart of the old regime. The 'Arab Spring' provoked the explosion of this accumulation, which inevitably would have happened sooner or later. The truth is that the longer the explosion was delayed, the more rot accumulated. If there is indeed one thing to be regretted in the Arab explosion, it is not that it happened but that it took so long to happen—so long that the old Arab order managed to achieve, to a great extent, its dislocation of Arab societies by means of tribalism, sectarianism, and various forms of cronyism, not to mention tyranny, state terror, and the lesser counter-terror provoked by governmental violence.
...The lesson that must be drawn from the recent historical experience by all those who suffer or have suffered from the Arab order that has been in place for decades—and this is the vast majority of the inhabitants of Arab countries—is rather the urgent need for an emancipatory progressive alternative to the rotten past that started to crumble six years ago, and will not cease collapsing whatever attempts to stitch it are made by its rulers. The year 2016 bears witness to this truth: it was not restricted to the tragedy of Aleppo, but started with a local uprising in Tunisia and ended with massive social mobilizations in Morocco and Sudan.
The danger that threatens the Arab uprising is not the continuation of the revolution—its termination would indeed be much more dangerous than its perseverance—but the persistence of its lack of organized progressive forces capable to rise to the huge historical challenge that it faces. We are like a people that started coming out from the land of slavery and now face the threat of getting lost in the desert to be aggressed by ferocious beasts while searching for the promised land. To guide us towards this goal, we need a “modern Moses”: not a heroic individual leader but rather a collective emancipatory and democratically pluralistic project that champions the image of the new society to which we aspire."
I think something important is missing in this powerful narrative. Achcar would have us see Arab Spring as a minute in the hour of revolution-making, an hour that has its reversals but moves relentlessly across the clock of history. But is it so clear that we are watching the same clock? Or, rather, is it the case that such major defeats create a vacuum on the side of “progressive forces” that requires starting anew—from the beginning of time, as it were.
If that is the case, or, perhaps better, to the extent that is the case, we should have a more careful view of when to spark uprisings, a better understanding of the rootedness of our forces in the depths of the lives of everyday people, and a more conscious view of the requirements for organizing a successful revolution, before we call upon “the people” to topple existing regimes.
My concern is especially focused on what happens in the United States in the wake of both the Trump and Sanders campaigns. Too much depression about the former is one danger; too much euphoria about the second is the other.
We are in a period, both in the US and the world as a whole, when we need to carefully build opposition at the base of society, develop relationships between oppositional groups so that relationships of solidarity can be forged and action be taken that is aimed at the middle-levels of power, and only as a third act to a nonviolent (at least in the US) revolutionary drama attack the centers of oligarchic power that now rule the world.
I share Achcar’s hope for “a collective emancipatory and democratically pluralistic project that champions the image of the new society to which we aspire.” I caution against thinking demonstrations in Tahrir Square, the Capitol Mall, Tiananmen Square, Puerta del Sol Square or its counterparts throughout the world are sufficient to reach that goal. No, the organizing task is a more complicated one than that. Everyday people and their everyday institutions (unions, centers of worship, clubs, interest groups, sports teams and more) need to own the effort so completely that society cannot move forward without their aspirations being taken into account.
(A longer review of the great political photographer Danny Lyon's photo show at San Francisco's De Young Museum is available on the Stansbury Forum.)
I met Danny Lyon in 1963 in Ruleville, Mississippi. I was on the staff of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) visiting the Delta town in Sunflower County (home of Sen. James O. Eastland, one of the most notorious racists of the period) with Bob Moses, SNCC’s Mississippi Project Director and Martha Prescod, a young African-American University of Michigan student volunteer who was there for the summer. Danny took a picture of us talking with a local woman sitting on her porch. The picture became well-known because it was used on the cover of a widely distributed SNCC flyer. The story it told was that we were trying to convince the woman to register to vote. But Martha recently reminded me that we were asking directions!
“You put a camera in my hand, I want to get close to people.
Not just physically close, but emotionally close, all of it.” – Danny Lyon
“Clifford Vaughs, another SNCC photographer, is arrested by the National Guard,
Cambridge, Maryland,” 1964. Collection of the Corcoran/National Gallery of Art,
CGA1994.3.3 © Danny Lyon, courtesy Edwynn Houk Gallery, New York
Of his civil rights movement photos, Julian Bond said, “They put faces on the movement, put courage in the fearful, shone light on darkness, and helped to make the movement move.” Lyons was one of a number of photographers assembled by SNCC Executive Director Jim Forman to be chroniclers of The Movement (we always capitalized the letters “T” and “M”); he and Matt Heron are the best known of them.
Mike Miller has had almost 60 years experience as a community organizer. Before founding the ORGANIZE! Training Center in San Francisco in 1972, he was a founding member of SLATE and an SNCC field secretary. In 1967, he directed one of Saul Alinksy's community organizing projects.
(The quote at the top of the
page is by Desmond Tutu.)