Oh yeah! You and what army? A crushing retort when I was in the 3rd grade. Right up there with I’m rubber and you’re glue. But not really such a bad question.
You may recall from my last post, Dump Capitalism: beyond tactics (pt. 1), I made two main points: (1) capitalism is beyond repair, and (2) any response to the crisis of capitalism has to have an organizational component. Setting aside discussion of how this crisis will possibly unfold, or what it is to be replaced with, I would like to begin (and only begin) discussing just what kinds of organization or organizations dumping capitalism requires.
This requires a fresh look. We on the left are the remnants of a movement, inherited from the 60’s, which has failed, which is moribund in the face of the brutal assaults of finance capitalism. Yet when we talk about organization, the models we look to are not the vibrant if naive groups that stirred so much fire in the 60’s, but rather the rotting hulks still strewn about the field. Failed organizations, ones that (as organizations do) embody the state of the movement, which is unfortunately the state of death. Not that there are no signs of life sprouting here and there, indeed some very encouraging ones in the U.S. and in other countries, but not so encouraging here in what we used to call the belly of the beast. Still …
From time to time, we run across bold articles declaring “We Must Have the Courage to Examine Our Errors.” Of course, once we start reading, we realize that the title should really be “We Must Have the Courage to Examine YOUR Errors,” not the author’s own. Sigh. Well, let me try to actually look at some of my own, as I think they can be instructive.
A couple years back, I had created an organization called the Full Court Press (FCP). It hoped to run candidates in all 435 Democratic congressional primaries, on the basis of a short program calling first and foremost for a WPA-style jobs program, along with Medicare for all, and defense of abortion rights. The idea — as distinct from the ActBlue approach of trying to win a few target seats with watered-down progressives — was to lose all 435 races. The impact would come from the sheer number of races, that no party hack would go unchallenged. Death from 435 cuts, as it were.
I thought it a good plan. I still think it was a good plan. However …
… it failed
… and failed quickly. Wherever I posted it (particularly on OpenLeft and Docudharma), the FCP got a good measure of enthusiastic support. “Sign me up!” people said. But when it came to the actual activity required to build the legal and financial support apparatus to support individual candidates in ballot access work, it didn’t materialize (except for the stalwart metamars, thank you!).
First, what did “sign me up” mean? Though I was clearly calling for workers, people were more literal. Signing them up meant I would put them on the mailing list while they went running after the next shiny object. But there was a more fundamental problem which I did not anticipate. People claimed to support a plan to run losing races, but in fact they quickly went in two different political directions:
(1) some wanted to start targeting a few races where they could actually win, moving the Democratic Party left; or
(2) they were stone independents who liked me wanting to throw a monkey wrench into the Democratic gears but had no taste for dirtying their own hands in a Democratic race of any kind.
Neither camp actually supported the actual plan, let alone worked for it.
There were other difficulties, whether surmountable or not I do not know. If supporters had been willing to create the necessary financial/legal support apparatus, the 435 prospective candidates would still have been isolated from each other, and I think that isolation would have been terminal.
Plan within a plan
So I stopped the FCP. What had I hoped for, beyond the obvious? I had hoped that a cohesive organization could crystallize around the tactic, which could work in elections at every level from dogcatcher to president, Democratic Party or independent, embodying an alliance of progressive independents and progressive Democrats. In the process, there might be a possibility of developing an organization with the long-term goal of attacking the crisis of capitalism.
Next step: Dump Obama!
After licking my wounds a while, I began writing my Dump Obama series.
Dump Obama had two big advantages over the FCP. First, by focusing on one race, the presidential, it created the context for activists scattered around the country to pull together on a unified project, in part overcoming the deadly isolation that I think 435 separate small races would have faced. Secondly, it avoided me having to carry the effort on my own weary back.
I saw Dump Obama developing in either of two ways. If some moderately big name had entered the fray, I hoped that progressives could back the challenger, fight for a WPA-style jobs program, and after the challenger either backed out or was defeated at the Dem national convention, those progressives could have maintained some kind of operation that could pull part of the candidate’s base into the general election behind an independent, Green or otherwise.
The transition from Democratic primaries to independence in the generals would have been messy, but would draw from a large pool of campaigners betrayed by both Obama AND their primary candidate, who would ultimately pledge allegiance to Obama.
The second path, and the one I consider the most viable (especially in hindsight) was outlined in my diary Dump Obama: a Primary Focus. It would have required running a no-name candidate whose claim to fame would have flowed from the lesser task of getting on the primary ballot in maybe 20 states. The media impact would be much less, but control of the candidate’s message would be stronger. And, as with the FCP, making a WPA-style jobs program front and center, and the possibility of creating a core campaign organization able to work both sides of the Democratic fence would have been greater. It appears unlikely that either is going to happen.
I believe the combination of having the political savvy needed to work inside/outside, putting WPA-jobs as the key issue, and running to build organization rather than winning would result in an organization more sophisticated and disciplined than either Democratic reformers or denizens of the 3rd party ghetto.
It nonetheless moves forward
In fact, Dump Obama has been a partial success, as one of the threads leading to the emergence of the New Progressive Alliance (NPA), which will likely survive the 2012 presidential travesty.
I make the following comments about the NPA not antagonistically, but because it raises important issues in organizational development for all of us.
First, it has taken a bunch of commenters on FDL and created an actual organization that can put some boots on the ground. Additionally, it has leadership with an inside/outside strategy, calling as its website states:
We not only support a primary election challenge to Barack Obama in 2012, but will endorse an Independent or third-party candidate to oppose both corporatist marionettes in the general election, provided they publicly pledge to run on the Unified Progressive Platform and to govern based upon it when elected.
It has developed a solid platform, far more developed than the FCP’s, which prominently states:
We support a permanent, WPA-style jobs program wherein, when possible, public sector jobs are “green” jobs, or others which contribute to a more positive future for all. All work must pay at a minimum a local living wage that covers basic needs including food, shelter, clothing, healthcare, childcare, and transport.
… and challenges the limits of capitalism while locating itself solidly in the mainstream. Tony Noel and the NPA membership deserve great credit for having put this together.
While I am not an NPA member myself, and my view is therefore somewhat constrained, I see certain issues arising, as evidenced by the NPA’s public face (their website and comments on FDL). Despite espousing an inside/outside approach, I believe the NPA contains some of the political contradictions that arose within the Full Court Press, i.e., members who would reform the Democratic Party, and those most comfortable as straight independents.
Their website skews independent, as do their comments on FDL. Little mention is made on the site beyond “support a primary challenger.” While they claim to still seek a challenger behind the scenes, the fact that the search is “behind the scenes” is telling.
At the same time, many of the comments on their Facebook page had initially skewed Democrat, as evidenced by the slew of comments excoriating mainly the Republicans (who certainly deserve excoriating), setting at least a tone common to most Democratic Party-leaning sites. (This seems to have changed for the better, by the way.)
Method raises its ugly head again!
Then there is the matter of tactical method, quite apart from tactics as tactics. This requires explaining.
How does an organization grow AND advance the struggle. Growth alone is not enough. If it were, MoveOn would be the revolutionary vanguard, yet obviously it is a morass of Democratic Party hackery instead. Spontaneous mass action can dramatically advance the struggle, but if it does not lead to NEW forms of organization, then the advances are all too often not consolidated, and the powers-that-be generally prove to have greater staying power.
One example of integration would be a union issuing a set of good demands, and then striking or threatening to strike to back them up. Another proper integration would be to have a radical yet mainstream program AND run a primary challenge against Obama. Merely running a primary challenge with no left demands leaves someone like Al Gore as the revolutionary vanguard and, oh wait, Al Gore???? Sorry. But take all the organizations that have wonderful programs and won’t touch Dump Obama, and … There was once a cartoon where someone asked, “what would happen if all the stupid people got together?” and quickly answered himself, “probably not much.”
So to organize mainly on the basis of program without tactics leads to paralysis. You get members whose orientation is programmatic, while those who are more action oriented will either drift away or go quiescent.
I am not disparaging program per se. A campaign based on just personality or a single demand will tend to break up over time as differences ultimately arise. Nor am I unmindful of the limitations to building specific organization with actual living, breathing people. Once an organizer starts blaming his or her failure on human stupidity, it is time to get out of the business.
That said, the NPA so far has put the bulk of its efforts into developing a rather good program, but in my opinion insufficient effort into building a campaign organization. Thus if an acceptable primary candidate were to emerge, I fear the NPA would be slow to mobilize for the ballot access effort.
In fact, the NPA has a very interesting new post which actually embodies the tension between program and activity:
The New Progressive Alliance needs committed, serious volunteers to join our long-term, grassroots effort to reform the American political system. We don’t want neolibs, Clintonites, Obamabots and other Dem party apologists. We don’t want neocons, Reaganites, Bushies, and other GOP “true believers.” We want people who see through the two-party kabuki foisted upon us every election
Thus it calls for volunteers to be committed, serious and long-term. But apart from the positions it seeks to fill, it defines them by what they should not be: “neolibs, Clintonites, Obamabots and other Dem party apologists. We don’t want neocons, Reaganites, Bushies, and other GOP ‘true believers.’” Overall though, on the right track.
They said I should be committed …
A further issue is one of membership mobilization, getting the troops to work. Organizing around program leads to lesser commitment. Again, at the extreme are hustles like MoveOn, with a massive membership which signs online petitions but mainly puffs up the mailing list and hits it up for money. Left politics as a business. As usual.
At the other pole are campaign organizations (the Democrats love these) which turn out the frenzied election junkies. These creatures thrive on working themselves into a frazzle only to collapse on election day plus one, and then hit the bottle until the next campaign revs up. Unless they hold staff positions, organization building is too boring to catch their attention.
Prescription for paralysis
There are similar — and even starker — issues in coalition dynamics.
I consider primarying Obama to be (or to have been) the cutting edge tactic for progressives. Why? Read your typical Kos diary. “Obama is a dog, Obama is a Republican, Obama wants to gut social security, feed our economy to the banks, create a police state, keep us in perpetual Mid-Eastern wars. And oh yeah, Obama eats working class babies. However, however, however, I’m going to vote for the guy because …” Whatever. Mention a primary campaign and they start to squeal.
Typical across the blogosphere. Who among these folks wouldn’t like the NPA program, or the FCP 5 points, or the Progressive Democrats of America program? One can build coalition around platform easily enough. All that is required is for any group to say, “I’d buy that for a dollar!” But who among them has the heart to do real damage to the Democratic Party for its malfeasances? Or let’s say half of them really would. Can’t get the coalition to do it, because that action would break up the coalition. Thus the most conservative (chickenshit) elements would control the coalition tactically, just as Ben Nelson and his Blue Dog Gospel Choir controls the Democrats in the Senate.
Result: tactical paralysis.
In either case, whether we are talking about a mass membership organization or a prestigious coalition, if there is not a serious focus on how the platform is to be fought for, those members will be, or will become, largely inert. Those organizations will not put their memberships on the line for effective action. Yes, you can have “primary Obama” in the fine print, or a clause in the coalition preamble about taking action as necessary, but you know I’m not talking about legalistic weasel words, I’m talking about the centrality of either action or explicitly building for action (even if the latter process is quite extended).
[In this light, the proposed October 6 actions are an interesting case. They are recruiting both individuals and organizations around a specific set of actions. How this will hold together in the months to come remains to be seen.]
Further examining my errors
A key thread in all I have written above is the matter of the understanding, commitment and discipline of organizations and their individual members, though only lightly touched upon.
In my expectations for both the FCP and Dump Obama, I had hoped that a hard core would crystallize out of a larger organization, or mobilization around specific tactics. This, superficially, developed out of the movement of the 60’s. But that movement was more angry, more tactically aggressive, and frankly more ideologically developed (despite the pseudo-sophistication of today’s left). I now question that approach, of in a sense organizing from the outside in. It seems to lead from total mush, to crusty mush, but not the core of steel required to meet the challenges of today. Dumping capitalism is not a program — it is an activity!
And no, I’m not saying the people weren’t good enough. Rather, what it took on my part to develop the people wasn’t good enough.
In writing this series, I am trying to explore building from the inside out, starting with a much more solid core, and then expanding outwards. I do not despise broader forms of organization, but want to ruthlessly examine their limitations and develop something more tactically fine-tuned and committed.
Such will be the focus of my next diary. Stay tuned.