Dump Capitalism 6: not easy being Green
A short tale from 1980:
Back in the day when Barry Commoner was running for President as the nominee for the Citizens Party, I was heading up the San Francisco branch. We were petitioning to get Commoner on the California ballot. So on a beautiful Saturday morn, I cunningly organized our petitioning thus: We would meet at a member’s home, have coffee and donuts, go forth to petition in pairs, then return to hand in our signatures and share our experiences in anticipation of next week’s foray.
There were those who called this “cockamamie”! They argued that people should just drop in, get their petitions, and go forth at their own pleasure, returning sigs to the office when they had filled out as many petitions as they chose to get filled out.
It might have been interesting to have done a controlled study of the effectiveness of each method, but to my thinking, efficiency was not paramount. The critical task was to build the chapter, to build organization. Utilizing the Heroic Individual model, one started with a collection of individuals, got signatures, and ended up with pretty much the same collection of Heroic Individuals. No, that’s not actually true. You ended up with a number of burned-out individuals who were not available for doing anything for the Citizens Party itself until the 1984 campaign. Oh wait, there wasn’t any 1984 campaign, bummer, man.
The coffee and donuts approach was able to build ongoing activity, and develop a core of people willing to continue working to build the party AFTER the election. Was it a rousing success? Well, the Citizens Party itself was not a rousing success, particularly weak in large urban centers, and in any event, Commoner moved to drag his followers back into the Democratic fold the day after the election. Bummer, man.
But the difference in approaches is nonetheless profound.
Fast forward to today
I have for years argued for working in the Democratic Party primaries to sharpen contradictions within the party and strengthen the base for an independent breakaway. On the face of it, this approach has failed, as I have explored in previous posts. On the other hand, this very failure makes the case (though not necessarily the base) for going independent stronger than ever. But one response to this failure is to eschew electoral politics altogether. I strongly disagree.
Dial back to 1905
The Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) at one time were the leading edge of the U.S. labor movement. One debate that raged hot and heavy was over the merits of signing contracts. Radicals argued (correctly, for the record) that signing a contract after a particular struggle was to enjoy their gains WITHIN the boundaries of capitalism, rather than continuing to try to overthrow it. This approach was effective while the movement, qua movement, was on the upsurge. However, as the movement waned from time to time, as movements do, the bosses waged counter-offensives that rolled back those gains and worse.
The more conservative American Federation of Labor (AFL) did sign contracts. And during the employer counter-offensives, they were better equipped to hang on to their gains through having signed contracts to defend.
Fast forward to Occupy, I would argue that electoral politics, as treacherous as it is, is a means of consolidating the gains of the Occupy movement, by impacting the electoral process even if not actually electing their own. In saying this, I hope I have made clear, but state again, that I am not advocating that Occupy itself turn to electoral politics. Rather, I argue that Occupy should maintain its radical stance while building a relationship with independent electoral forces that support Occupy, while not BEING Occupy. Bottom line: direct action/electoral politics is not an either/or.
It’s not easy being Green
What really riles me is that last summer, all sorts of people were saying things like I’ve had it with Obama. I’ve had it with the Democratic Party. I’m never voting for a Democrat ever again. I’m voting independent. I’m voting Green. Socialist. 3rd party. Jill Stein. A contemporary version of this was posted today (April 15), drawing a hefty 149 comments as of this writing. But since then, those people have largely ceased to be an effective force, at least in the aggregate. They have made their individual decisions. They call on others to make similar, but I would argue nonetheless individual, decisions.
Recall the little story I began this post with. What is not happening, as far as is manifest on the pages of FDL, is concerted, organized, collective action to support a 3rd party.
FDL’s pages have, however, featured some earnest discussion of the Greens. In my opinion, the Greens are the only independent game in town, with some following, organization in many states, and ballot status in a significant number. However, there are many criticisms.
(1) They are over-invested in program, the disease I ranted on in Dump Capitalism 5, and hence have a history of unnecessary sectarian squabbling over programmatics.
(2) There are many accounts of people trying to become involved with the Greens, only to be either ignored or even rebuffed.
(3) Some state Green parties only campaign in states that are not considered battleground states, i.e., states where they could be accused of costing the Democrat the win.
(4) There are accounts of party meetings that are badly organized, utterly unable to take effective action.
(5) The Green stance towards the rank-and-file of the Tea Party is highly sectarian, missing an opportunity to form alliances at the base.
(6) Overall, there is a sense of overwhelming bureaucratic inertia, evidenced by the total lack of impact they have had on the current presidential race to date.
(7) Accompanying point 6 is a glorification of localism. Right now, there is an opening for independent politics you could drive an armored division through, and throwing it away is hardly a virtue.
(8) Personally, a while back, I repeatedly tried to reach the Green national office, tried all their national numbers. Could not get a live human. Left messages. Couldn’t get a call. This is localism in action?
The complaints reflect a deadly passivity, from, at best, “I’ll vote for them holding my nose,” to “This is why I don’t support them [despite wanting to vote independent].”
On the upside, these criticisms do not seem to apply to Jill Stein, the leading contender for the Green Party nomination. By all accounts, she is campaigning vigorously, despite her receiving little support from the party organization itself. And there are murmurings from the Greens that they might realize that this could be their year.
So I repeat …
The Greens are the best independent game in town. But what is to be done? Again, the San Francisco tale. People are making individual decisions. People are calling on others (a step forward, to be sure) to make independent decisions. But the problems listed above are serious.
Disclaimer: I don’t say this about all of the Green Party organizations, but accounts of the exceptions are not filling the pages of FDL, though posts and comments concerning Jill Stein’s candidacy seem to indicate that she is doing what needs to be done, despite the lethargy of the Green organization.
I can’t accept this state of affairs. To my thinking, the Greens are OUR independent party, whether any of us are registered Green or not (I am). Whether we like it or not. Whether they like it or not.
… and again and again and again! I repeat that key is the organizational question, which has been the question from Dump Capitalism 1 to this one to Dump Capitalism 99. So I could gnash my teeth and rail against the nattering nabobs that “you all ought to get in there and build the damn thing! Energize it! Reach out!” But then I would be committing the very sin I see in others, i.e., appealing to individuals to take individual action, even if it were the individual action I prefer. Sorry, doesn’t work that way. The only way “independent” independents are going to have impact is through collective action. And collective action happens through organization.
A likely outcome to current exhortations to go Green is that INDIVIDUALS may try to become involved in actually building the Green Party, only to be absorbed into what already is — and is insufficient. Or individuals would be INDIVIDUALLY rebuffed by bureaucracy and indifference, and become more dispirited than ever.
I throw it to you
Yes, here I throw it open. I have made serious and solid proposals in the past, but got insufficient buy-in to make them work, however brilliant they may have seemed to me on paper. We need something, something new, but what? We need a process. I have at times been critical of the New Progressive Alliance (NPA). But the NPA was a serious attempt to crystallize something out of the discussions on FDL. Does that experience provide us any guidance? One of my main concerns is that any process not get bogged down in programmatics. When I was trying to start the Full Court Press, it took me about 5 minutes to come up with a few main thrusts:
WPA-style jobs program
Healthcare for all
Full defense of abortion rights
U.S. out of Iraq and Afghanistan
Various people raised issues they thought should be added, but nobody ever actually lifted a finger on the basis of their favorite program point being added or excluded.
The Bolsheviks did it with Bread, Land and Peace
As long as an effort is anywhere near left-of-center, I don’t give a rat’s ass (do I lose the PETA vote here?) about programmatic details. The Greens have all sorts of program points, and very good ones, I might add. Huge effort has gone into it, and it is often argued that we must offer real solutions to the issues of our day.
But the key word is “offer”
Having great solutions on paper is useless unless they are truly offered, i.e., broadcast, campaigned for, taken to the streets and door-to-door. The Greens are OUR organization and we need to organize ourselves to make it work to the max.
So to paint some very, very broad strokes, I believe we need some kind of organization, an organization that is NOT the Greens, but which supports the Greens, or supports Jill Stein, to make it work to the max.