Revolution Is Not a Metaphor: A Response to Critics

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A barricade in the Paris Commune. March 18, 1871. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Leftists love youth organizing.

Why shouldn’t they? Contemporary activism descends directly from the youth and student movements of the 60s, so anything that recalls the glory days inspires activists. It gives them a sense that the US’s long rightward drift might be reversed.

No wonder so many of them cheered for March’s pro-gun-control “March for Our Lives” rallies. In the wake of a school shooting, what could be more uplifting than high schoolers coming together, launching a protest movement, and responding to their experience of violence with political organization? How could any leftist not support that?

But the “movement” was stage-managed by the Democratic Party. The protests were choreographed media spectacles focused on boosting Democratic voter turnout in the midterms. Further, the students’ demands were outright reactionary, calling for more police in high schools, the expansion of mass incarceration, and the loss of medical privacy rights for people with mental health diagnoses.

Political substance matters. The form taken by the March for Our Lives (“youth organizing”) drew leftist support, but the actual content was antithetical to everything the Left claims to value.

 


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Émile Friant, “Political Discussion.” Source: Wikimedia Commons

This week, two people have published critiques of my work, using it as a stand-in for the political tendency I’m part of: revolutionary base-building, exemplified by the Marxist Center network, Cooperation Jackson, and parts of DSA Refoundation. Revolutionary base-building means rejecting “activist networking” in favor of organizing the unorganized outside of elections. It involves independent workplace organizations, tenant unions, community self-defense, and mutual aid.

Antonio Balmer argues that base-building is just empty populism. He compares it to the Narodnik movement of 19th-century Russia, which saw middle-class anti-monarchists “go to the people” by moving to peasant villages and occasionally assassinating aristocrats. Balmer contrasts them with the Bolsheviks, who built an organized political party capable of leading a revolution, and suggests that base-builders pay too little attention to Marxist theory and revolutionary leadership.

Shamus Cooke takes a different angle. He quotes Lenin’s pamphlet Left-Wing” Communism: An Infantile Disorder to claim that I reject class struggle in favor of a depoliticized mutualism. (Mutualism is a flavor of anarchism that calls for worker-owned co-ops to peacefully replace capitalism by out-competing traditional firms in the marketplace.) According to Cooke:

Burns’ gradualist approach ignores the fact that revolutionary situations are often brief, requiring a battle for power at all levels of society. Nearly all revolutions begin as massive, mostly-spontaneous mobilizations, so it would behoove a revolutionary to understand the abc’s of organizing mobilizations. Mass mobilization, however, barely registers as an activity that Burns believes a revolutionary should engage in.

The term class war implies there is an open struggle between the classes. Burns wants us to only engage in guerrilla tactics that don’t attract the attention of the establishment. But if ever such tactics actually succeed in challenging power, the ruling class would aggressively respond, since their economic and political power would actually be threatened, at which point Burns’ approach would be rendered useless, requiring a completely different strategy.

The “completely different strategy” he advocates involves combining base-building methods, electoral work, and conventional activism to shift “the balance of forces” against “the establishment.” What does that look like concretely? Cooke repeatedly cites the city-level electoral and lobbying efforts of his own organization, Portland Tenants United.

Balmer and Cooke agree: revolutionary base-builders are anti-theory, anti-political, don’t believe in party-building, don’t believe in class confrontation, and don’t have a vision for socialism or revolution. Base-building means mutual aid, and mutual aid is another word for depoliticized charity work. Base-builders say they want socialism, but don’t have the stomach to fight for it.

Now, if you reduce revolutionary base-building to mutual aid, you’re misrepresenting it. Workplace and tenant organizing (along with community self-defense) account for much more of what base-builders actually do than mutual aid. But, it’s true that “base-building” is itself not a political strategy; it’s a set of techniques.

So, what defines revolutionary base-building? Is it just methods? Are Balmer and Cooke right – do base-builders really expect to win socialism without a strategy, without the bother of class struggle?

 


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Tools. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Means and Ends

Anyone can base-build.

How does any organization develop a base of support? It organizes previously-unorganized people. It campaigns against their enemies while offering mutual-aid, cultural, and social activities. It puts its own work above networking with the already-converted. Churches, businesses, political parties, and fan clubs all use some variant of the formula. Base-building methods, in that sense, are just how you build an effective organization.

Since revolutionary base-builders use those techniques and most of the activist Left doesn’t, they provide the tendency’s form. They don’t provide its content. Base-building is a tool, nothing more. A hammer can help you make a table; it can also smash a flowerpot. “Youth organizing” can mean the March for Our Lives. It can also mean the Black Panther Party. Without the methodology of base-building, you can’t organize a constituency capable of exercising social power. But who are you organizing? What is that social power for?

We are revolutionaries. That’s literal.

We seek “the forcible overthrow of all existing social conditions.” That includes the private ownership of economically productive property; the division of labor and benefits according to white supremacy, patriarchy, and empire; and the existence of the capitalist government.

That won’t happen by winning elections or voting for socialism. It won’t happen through one-cooperative-at-a-time mutualism, either. Rather, it means building up revolutionary capacity by cultivating a mass base within the working class. When the conditions are right, it will mean launching a revolutionary uprising to establish a monopoly on the legitimate use of force by participatory-democratic organs of the working class. It will mean restructuring the economy according to a democratic, ecological, and scientific plan based on production for human use, not private profit.

Our ideas don’t make us revolutionary. Ideology runs deeper than the things you think. What’s the long-term trajectory implied by what you’re actually doing? That’s your ideology. We build institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid outside of the state, against the state, and in order displace the state. That trajectory makes us revolutionary – what we are, not what we say. Electioneering, lobbying, and waving signs may well involve revolutionary slogans, taking the form of radical politics. But, they lack the content. What happens when activist leftists have a mass movement? They tie it institutionally to the state, cutting off its ability to exercise social power directly, on its own terms. That road doesn’t lead to collective power – just brokerage within the existing order.

We don’t base-build for the sake of base-building. Our practice flows from and, in turn, shapes our revolutionary agenda. We are not cultivating an electorate for “movement” politicians. Revolutionary base-building is a process of preparation for collective self-government, for the seizure of power by the working class. Sure, delivering here-and-now gains does matter, but it’s never the point. Socialism means more than “a chicken in every pot.”

 


 

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A line in the sand. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Drawing Lines

Government socialism can’t end capitalism. Structurally speaking, the capitalist state can’t be separated from its function; it serves the ruling class, bottom to top. Expanding it doesn’t advance socialism. At best, it just rearranges exploitation (while institutionally tying the Left to the survival and success of the state). The impulse to deliver real gains, even if they’re small, make sense, but government socialists squeeze the revolutionary essence, the political content, out of socialism.

Protest militancy isn’t up to the task either. Small-group heroics don’t make history. Organized power does. Confrontational protests feel “more revolutionary” to their participants because they’re more disruptive. But do they lead to oppressed people becoming organized in a durable way? Do they increase their long-term capacity to exercise collective power?

Government socialists want tangible benefits and ignore or defer revolutionary ideas. Protest militants treat their ideas as a substitute for mass organization. Revolutionary base-builders, though, synthesize organizing for tangible gains with the long-game commitment to literal revolution. That synthesis doesn’t mean talking like protest militants and behaving like government socialists, though. Rather, it’s built into the process of organizing the unorganized to change their own conditions and confront their enemies themselves, rather than mediating it through the nonprofits or the state. (Indeed, the Marxist Center network takes its name from the course between those two possible distortions.)

Base-building methods aren’t conventional activism. That matters, if only because “base-building” is another word for “organizational techniques that actually work” – but revolutionary base-builders are after more than just a social base. No matter what Bernie Sanders says, political revolution means replacing the government, not reforming it.

The point is to create organizational structures through which power can be transferred from the few to the many, from the ownership class to the dispossessed. That transfer doesn’t happen piecemeal. It isn’t a gradual process where reforms (or mutualist co-ops!) stack on top of each other until one morning, you wake up to find that capitalism is gone. The capitalist state can’t not uphold the rule of the capitalist class. Base-building just to create another electoral or activist constituency, without that revolutionary goal and opposition to the state, has nothing to do with socialism. It doesn’t weaken capitalism. It just creates another avenue for capitalist politics, even if you call it “socialism,” even if it takes the form of base-building.

And for revolutionary base-builders, that will never be enough.

 


Sophia Burns is a polytheist and communist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

On Community

“I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.”

From Emma Kathryn

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I love the little town where I live. It has beautifully old and historic buildings, a rich and vibrant history. I love its cobbled streets, its higgledy piggledy buildings, the huge church that dominates the skyline, a gothic affair with huge stained glass windows.

When my little sister comes home from where she now lives, down south, she says she’s coming back to the sticks.

Isn’t it funny, how the perception of a place varies from person to person. At work, my area manager thinks it’s a posh little town, mostly because of the historic architecture and the fussy town council. But recently, a BBC report named my humble little town as one of the most deprived areas in the UK and one of the worst places to grow up poor.

The report, which goes into great deal regarding my town, says that there is a lack of opportunity for young people, lack of job security and so on and so forth. The usual stuff.

I must admit, I was quite surprised at the negativity in this report. Perhaps it is because those of us used to being poor find nothing surprising about the situation. We’re used to it. It’s like when some middle class feminists talk about women and working and all of the issues faced, it comes from a middle class perceptive. They talk about the high costs of childcare and how it affects them; about pay disparity (only today, as I write this, a BBC presenter has resigned despite earning well over one hundred thousand pounds a year and being offered a forty-five thousand pound pay rise). All of those things should be addressed, of course, but to me it highlights a clear problem within the fight for equality. Those at the bottom don’t count.

I think my town and the people in it are no different to anywhere else in the country, or indeed, the world. Poor is poor. When you can’t afford to feed your family, or to clothe them, when you struggle to keep a roof over your head, it doesn’t matter where you live, and it’s hard to feel that the woman presenter, is akin to those women, those single mothers in council houses struggling to make ends meet; or the mother and wife, who works full-time and still scrapes through life on less than the basics, but it’s all very middle class isn’t it? Though she shares a gender with those working class women, that’s it. There are no other shared traits, no other commonality.

The council estate where I live probably has the worst reputation of anywhere in the town. But what we have is a sense of community. I know all of my neighbours, could call on them for favours in times of need. When there’s car trouble and no money for mechanics, you can bet that after a few minutes of tinkering under the bonnet, at least two neighbours will be out with their tool boxes, helping if they can. When a kid goes missing, the whole street is out looking. When trouble comes, we band together.

And it’s not just the street where I live. In recent years, and with the rise of social media, whenever there has been an accident in the town, when people have been left homeless with no belongings, with nothing to their name, the town has rallied round, with donations of money, bedding, clothes, kettles, cutlery. The basics of existence. The little things that help to make a hard life just that little bit more bearable, and all from others who have very little themselves. We have community.

Don’t get me wrong, the town does have its problems, but no more than other places, and there are many diamonds in the rough.

The problems faced by the residents of this town, and countless others, countrywide and globally stem from the same source. From an unfair, capitalist system. In the UK, if it’s not London, Parliament doesn’t care. The political structure is a corrupt machine, not fit for purpose. It doesn’t matter what political party is in power. Politics is a stage show, the politicians actors, our lives the stage on which these skilled deceivers sell us their lies. We, the vast audience are taken in by their show, kept quiet with the  power of the almighty vote. We think we are the directors of the show that is politics. We think we have control.

We do not.

But we can take it. And it starts at the grassroots. It starts with the land, and those with whom we share it. It starts at home.

When I talk about community, I think some people think I mean all love and light and all that nonsense. I do not. There are people I just cannot stand, who live on my estate. I just don’t like them. I don’t like the way they play into the hands of the media, acting the stereotype. I don’t like that they are apathetic. I wish they would take a stand, to fight back against  all of the detritus thrown at them. But I’ll tell you something, they are more honest than all the politicians combined. I’ll tell you something else as well, they would have my back and I theirs.

But community means more than people. What about the other beings we share the land with?

Once, on an outing with a couple of pagan friends, the conversation turned to the topic of animal welfare, or rather the lack of it. Now, I am a vegetarian, would be vegan but for eggs and honey, and so animal welfare is a big deal for me. We were discussing factory farming, specifically the production of meat. Can you guess what a fellow pagan asked me? She asked if I thought then, because of my stance vehemently opposing factory farming, that animals had feelings?

Yep, you heard right. Do animals have feelings? My response was for her to go home and kick her dog, and then to come back and ask again whether I thought animals had feelings. Now, obviously I didn’t actually mean for her to actually kick her dog, but it’s so strange to me how a pagan, or any one who shares their home with an animal could even think to ask me such a question. Do they not feel fear, or pain, happiness and sadness. Of course they do and anyone with a bond to an animal will tell you the same.

For me, community goes beyond those who live on the same street as you. Now I know some do not like the word community, seeing it as a category of people lumped together based on their postcode or some other shared trait, and in a sense, this is true. But again, for me community means more. I truly believe we, especially those of us who consider ourselves witches and occultists, have the power to create our own communities, ones based on mutual trust, aid and respect. Solidarity, if you will.

Today, distance need not separate us and we can connect with others thousands of miles away. This is community too.

Wherever you are in the world, seek out those other like-minded folk, and build your community based on solidarity.


Emma Kathryn

My name is Emma Kathryn, an eclectic witch, my path is a mixture of traditional European witchcraft, voodoo and obeah, a mixture representing my heritage. I live in the middle of England in a little town in Nottinghamshire, with my partner, two teenage sons and two crazy dogs, Boo and Dexter. When not working in a bookshop full time, I like to spend time with my family outdoors, with the dogs. And weaving magic, of course!

You can follow Emma on Facebook


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Strategize, Don’t Moralize

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Shortly after Trump’s election, I’m in a mass meeting. Several hundred people have gathered to establish a new organization meant to channel outrage into sustainable direct action, mutual aid, and radical municipalist politics. People are talking – expressing not only their fears about ICE and healthcare, but also their hope that our work can create something better. Several of them say it’s important to acknowledge “the people who’ve been doing this good and important work all along” (that is, established activists and nonprofit staffers).

No one asks why, if their work is so good, it didn’t keep Donald Trump out of office. No one asks what, exactly, that work is meant to accomplish – or, if its goals are worth supporting, how it envisions achieving them.


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

If you start nailing boards together without a plan, will that get you a house?

When you build a house, there’s a very specific goal: the physical structure needs to match the architect’s blueprint. The design’s details, in turn, depend on the concrete conditions, both current (e.g. available land and budget) and future (e.g. the number of people meant to live there). Then, the construction process itself is structured by clearly-defined intermediate goals and benchmarks. You first lay a foundation, then erect a frame, then install plumbing and wiring, and so on.

That’s strategy. You don’t begin with the notion that you want some vague, indeterminate kind of house. You have a concrete ultimate goal in the blueprint, with definite intermediate goals along the way. Now, unexpected disruptions might make you change your plan; what if you lose half your budget, say, or find an archeological site? But, that doesn’t mean you throw the blueprint away.  It means you revise it in response to changing conditions, because without the plan you can’t carry out the work. Strategizing means figuring out not only where you want to go, but how, precisely, you intend to get there.

The US far left loves to debate tactics (Is it OK to punch Nazis? Is the Black Bloc counter-productive? Is mutual aid just charity?). But how does it approach strategy?


 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Tactics follows strategy.

First, you set your ultimate goal, whether it’s building a house or social revolution. Once you’ve analyzed your conditions and resources, you put together a series of intermediate goals. You don’t pick them haphazardly – each of them has to set you up to advance to the next while, simultaneously, making you more capable of eventually reaching the end goal. Particular tactical decisions work the same way, but on a smaller scale. Is a tactic good? Well, is it the best way to achieve your next intermediate goal (while building up your overall capacity)?

To build a house’s frame, you first have to lay a foundation. To install the wiring and plumbing, you first have to build the frame. You might be excited about the carpentry and unhappy about mixing concrete and waiting for it to set, but if you skip the foundation the frame won’t survive. Does that make carpentry ineffective? Of course not – as long as you use it in the right context.

What makes Nazi-punching, Black Blocs, or mutual aid any different? Is your immediate goal to disrupt an alt-right event? If so, a Black Bloc might be a sensible tactic, but showing up with bags of groceries probably isn’t. But if you’re trying to establish a positive presence in a neighborhood with high food insecurity, groceries are going to work a lot better than hanging out on the sidewalk waiting for Richard Spencer to walk by.

When the Left debates tactics in the abstract, it sacrifices evaluating them strategically. You might decide that having plenty of outlets is what you want most in a house. Does that mean you can go ahead and install them before you’ve built the walls? When radicals draw lines of demarcation based on individual tactics, then supporting mutual aid (or antifa, or union work, etc) effectively stands in for a more holistic strategic analysis.

But what tactic is effective outside the right strategic context? Mutual aid without a larger political project is charity; it doesn’t build power. Antifa separated from mass work is self-isolating catharsis politics. Outlets only work when they’re wired into a wall.


 

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Tintoretto, “Allegory of the morality of earthly things,” 1585. Via Wikimedia Commons

US leftists tend to think in moralistic, rather than strategic, terms. To be clear, “moralistic” doesn’t mean wanting to be ethical. Rather, it’s the impulse to reduce every political question to an abstract, absolute, and non-contextual value judgment. Is it Good or is it Problematic to smash a Starbucks window or change people’s brake lights for free?

But when you isolate a tactic from its strategic context, it loses its meaning. No tactic is good or bad in itself. What counts is its ability to accomplish a particular goal in a particular situation.

Counter-strategic moralizing generally comes in three flavors:

  1. Inherent good. Every group has a limited number of person-hours and a finite amount of money. How should it choose what to do with them? “Inherent good” moralizers don’t ask what is most likely to bring a social revolution closer – instead, they look at whatever idea is in front of them and try to evaluate it in a vacuum. If it seems good in the short term, they’ll do it, whether or not it builds towards a long-term goal. Often, they’re “pragmatic” reformers, social democrats/Berniecrats, or Alinsky-style “community organizers” (for whom organizing is itself the point, never mind towards what end!).
  2. Representation. This means asking not “how does this fit into our strategy,” but “who is getting credit for it?” Whether in the form of identity liberalism or straightforward sectarianism, it reflects the career aspirations of media figures, academics, and professional-activist NGO staffers who need political credibility to enhance their personal brands.
  3. Catharsis. “Catharsis moralizers” chase the feeling of mass politics (whether it’s real or not). They’re drawn to emotionally-intense peak experiences, street demonstrations above all. Often, they’re “alphabet soup” sect-Marxists, riot-porn anarchists, or the protest scene’s radical fringe in general.

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

 

Communist theory discusses objective conditions and subjective conditions. A political group can’t control the objective conditions – is the economy in a boom or a bust? What’s the relative strength of other social forces? Objective conditions are the environment within which a political actor moves.

Subjective conditions, though, are under the group’s control – how good is its strategy? How effective are its tactics? Is it correctly analyzing the objective conditions and acting accordingly?

When both objective and subjective conditions are good, a movement can succeed. Otherwise, it fails.

US leftists have no mass base inherited from their precursors. However, for the first time in decades, the overall objective conditions are favorable: most Millennials would rather live in a socialist or communist society. They overwhelmingly support and/or participate in the labor movement. Liberalism and conservatism are both struggling to break out of a sustained crisis of legitimacy. If there ever was a ripe time to revive mass socialism in the United States, it’s now.

But, the subjective conditions are caught in a negative feedback loop. Because of counter-strategic moralizing, revolutionaries aren’t able to strategize how to make their movement a meaningful presence in working-class life. That, in turn, keeps socialists disconnected from the working class at large – and without that living connection, there’s nothing to force revolutionaries away from moralizing. It’s like having the supplies and equipment to build a house, but never having learned how to use the tools.


 

If capitalist realism is so seamless, and if current forms of resistance are so hopeless and impotent, where can an effective challenge come from? A moral critique of capitalism, emphasizing the ways in which it leads to suffering, only reinforces capitalist realism. Poverty, famine and war can be presented as an inevitable part of reality, while the hope that these forms of suffering could be eliminated easily painted as naive utopianism. Capitalist realism can only be threatened if it is shown to be in some way inconsistent or untenable; if, that is to say, capitalism’s ostensible ‘realism’ turns out to be nothing of the sort.

Mark Fisher

 

… it is easier to imagine the end of the world than to imagine the end of capitalism.

Fredric Jameson

Do you believe revolution is possible?

Mark Fisher talks about “capitalist realism” – the sneaking sense that even if socialism would be a better system than capitalism, it’s never actually going to happen. Not here. Not really. Capitalism seems like it’s built into the real world, as natural as the rhythm of the seasons, not like something contingent, fragile, and temporary. Mass socialism (rather than hobbyist socialism, fringe socialism) does not currently exist in the US. So, the prospect of a revolution – a literal, overthrow-the-government working-class uprising – holds a place in the radical psyche similar to that of the Second Coming for mainline Protestants. It may be an article of faith, but it’s comfortably hypothetical. It isn’t actually meant to leave the indeterminate but distant future (and “after the revolution…” is how you start a joke).

So, why strategize for revolution? Capitalism is not, of course, a law of nature. It’s loose and limited in ways that “capitalist realism” can’t admit. Socialist revolution is possible; it’s happened before and it will happen again. But, contemporary leftists haven’t gotten to learn through practice that the working class can organize towards a revolutionary goal, creating institutions, parties, and a culture of solidarity and struggle. And without that, socialism is just an idea in their heads, not a living reality straining to come into being.

Before 2008, socialism was marginal because the objective conditions prevented a revival of the mass revolutionary movement. That was true for decades – and from that context, there emerged the subjective conditions that still define the Left. Why is organized leftism so disproportionately academic and middle-class? Well, academics manipulate ideas for a living, but don’t have to translate them into social realities. Of course they and their students gravitated towards Marxism. Before 2008, who else would have? Since then, though, the objective conditions have changed. Mass socialism is possible again.

So, how can the Left break out of its self-isolating feedback loop? It begins with dropping conventional activism and finding ways to build institutions that can weave into working and unemployed people’s daily lives. It begins with taking on small projects that win credibility and expand capacity (then using that expanded credibility and capacity to take on larger and more daring projects, repeating the cycle and growing a base). It begins with strategy.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

Ode to America

On the delusions of American exceptionalism.

From William Hawes

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My own little world
Is what I deserve
‘Cause I am the only child there is.
A king of it all
The belle of the ball
I promise I’ve always been like this.
Forever the first
My bubble can’t burst
It’s almost like only I exist.
Where everything’s mine
If I can keep my mouth shut tight, tight, tight.

-Guster, “Center of Attention”

So much for the city on the hill. Narcissism has changed to nihilism and solipsism: “climate change isn’t real”, and the ravages of history continue down the rabbit hole of memory.

Take another look. Genocide and chattel slavery. The war against Mexico, the quite uncivil war, the Spanish-American war, the massacres in the Philippines, the two World Wars. Dust off a book and check out the post-WWII carnage. Three million dead in Korea, three to five million dead in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. A million or more in Indonesia where our CIA handed out kill lists to Suharto’s regime. Untold atrocities in Nicaragua. Juntas and death squads covering South and Central America, trained at Fort Benning, Georgia. Hundreds of thousands dead in Afghanistan, a million or more in Iraq. Refugees numbered 65 million last year, with 20 million worldwide at risk of starvation.

Welcome to America, where minorities are killed for loose cigarettes or burned-out taillights. Where kids are shot up in school after warning of the madman dozens of times. Where we are chided to “support our troops” as they massacre, where we’re told “blue lives matter” as black men are murdered in cold blood.

The only solution is to abolish the military and the police. There is no reforming to be done. Likewise the nation-state and the corporation must be banned as well. Banish capitalism to the dustbin of history. The neoliberal globalizers (yes, Trump, that means you too) have got to go.

This is the fourth world war, as Subcomandante Marcos explained brilliantly. Billions of people now are no longer needed in the global economy and form the reserve army of temporary, part-time, and seasonal laborers. This is the new precariat, which along with the ever exploited proles constructs and maintains the property of the oligarchs in our new gilded age.

The risks from global warming, nuclear war, industrial pollulants, new pandemics, and food and water shortages from drought, floods, and extreme weather all should remind us that we are constructing our very own abattoir as well. Seven and a half billion of us fighting and scrambling over the scraps and dregs of our fossil fuel age doesn’t paint a pretty picture when you step back and look at things with a global perspective.

There is an absolute nothing at the heart of Western life. This gets touched up in media and the arts, when terms like “Spaceship Earth”, “The Big Empty”, and “Lonely Planet” are used in a playful way, masking our sorrow. Projecting our own isolation and alienation onto the world, we anthropomorphize features and creatures around us and thus imagine that everyone and everything else must be feeling as helpless, bleak, and disturbed as we are.

Yet, it is just not so. Just because the universe is kind of a lonely and scary place does not give us the right to destroy the planet out of fear of our own mortality, our own sense of meaninglessness.

While our foreign wars mutate and mushroom out of control, domestically, America today is increasingly provincial and insular. Like many subcultures, the political realm is dominated by nostalgia, a return to a so-called Golden Age. From “Make America Great Again” to Bernie Sanders’ New Deal/Keynesian/Social Democratic promises, they are all based on delusions. These are delusions of isolationism, delusions that we can use a Scandinavian blueprint onto a population of 320 million, delusions of American exceptionalism, being the indispensable nation.

There is also a delusion regarding the “living wage”. There can only be a living wage coinciding with a radical restructuring of the economy towards sustainability and ecological living. Without this, what would happen? A wage hike to $15/hour would encourage everyone to spend more, consume more, go on more trips and use more fossil fuels. This would not help any single living thing on the planet, as our economy is built to destroy and degrade the Earth’s natural resources and ecosystems.

Comments on US Left Radicals, with Respect

I also sense a split between two strains of Leftist radical thought in the US: the activist/socialist Left and what one might call the counter-culture/spiritual Left. Turns out, each has much to offer the other.

The activists/Marxists will be instrumental in breaking the passivity, new-age hedonism, and tendency to harp on conspiracy theory of the spiritualists. Organization and discipline on the strategic and tactical levels are in short supply, and here socialists have a lot to contribute to the conversation.

As for the counter-culture/spiritual types, they have much to teach the social justice activists and socialist/communist organizers and academics as well. In a very practical sense, those in the counterculture who have “dropped out” are doing a great service by not contributing tax money to our war machine. Those who squat and occupy public land responsibly should also be applauded, not ignored, by the academic Left. The growing movement in permaculture and homesteading also is uniquely absent even in alternative media (is too much patchouli and yoga a repellant for otherwise intrepid journalists?).

There is also an idea as old as time, summed up by the saying “Man does not live by bread alone”. The constant focus of some on the socialist Left on only materialistic problems and solutions (exemplified by some Marxist and lefty economists, among others) and inequality does not give enough weight to questions of inner life in modern society.

Many of the activist/socialists cannot even be counted on to support full drug legalization. Additionally, many ignore the issue of, or are scared at speaking out in favor of, the responsible use of cannabis and psychedelics, even though study after study confirms their beneficial effects. Of course I’m not trying to inflate the heads of the credentialed experts, as any hippie on Haight-Ashbury or Rasta in Kingston could have confirmed this 50 years ago.

Speaking of the 60s, 50 years ago the French managed to scare De Gaulle out of the country, with an alliance of students, workers, feminists, artists, Leftists, and citizen protestors. Union workers in the US should be supporting high school students’ calls increased legislation to halt gun violence, as well as college students’ call to end student debt, creating free higher education for universities and community colleges, etc.

Then there are people who fit neither category, including environmentalists, peace activists, anti-nuke and GMO protestors, dissidents, anarchists, etc. For many here, the Greens are simply not anti-capitalist enough, and the socialists do not put enough emphasis on environmental concerns and ecology.

I have offered a respectful critique of one of the main Left parties, Socialist Alternative, in a previous piece, especially their call to “democratize the Fortune 500 companies”, instead of breaking them down to human-scale anarchic cooperatives and inherently questioning the nature of the consumer goods and production model, which contribute to pollution, misery, disease, alienation, and global warming. Also, their call for a living wage without structural transformation of the industrial system falls flat, for reasons mentioned above.

Last year, Alan Jones wrote a pretty epic essay dismantling the faulty thinking going on in the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in an essay here.

What is needed among radicals is more guts, and more imagination. We need more people like SPUSA 2016 presidential candidate Mimi Soltysik who called for the military and the police to be disbanded in the LA Times.

What is necessary is to become more grounded in speech and action. Technological utopianism has to be replaced by scale-appropriate bioregional and eco-centric Earth-based production techniques. To accomplish this, we will need to reorient our culture and pay respects to the main keepers of this wisdom, the First Nations of Turtle Island, the land we know as North America.

Visioning

What anyone with a heart wants is a rainbow nation, not in terms of a country or nation-state with borders, but groups of interdependent communities, aka intercommunalism as the Black Panthers called it, where our brown, black, white, yellow, and red sisters and brothers can live and thrive in a veritable kaleidoscope, a mosaic of multicultural and intergenerational cooperation and beauty. To live in cooperation with each other and live close to the Earth, we will have to learn from and adopt the rejuvenating and conflict-avoidant cultural practices of indigenous communities.

Land and property reform are at the center of this agenda, as is instituting a universal basic income. We must utilize the burgeoning fields of communal farming, permaculture, and agroforestry to feed ourselves. We must decentralize…Small Is Beautiful, as Schumacher explained.

Over the course of human history, the village was the central unit of society, where bioregional production, markets, and trading dominated. This is how unique culture is formed, where syncretism and blending is encouraged, not denigrated by xenophobic bigots.

The modern city is completely unsustainable as well as uniquely alienating as it divides citizens by class, race, as well as in the more subtle realms of social and cultural capital, as Bourdieu foresaw.

Holistic, ethical science can be used in tandem with decentralizing farming practices and renewable energy infrastructure. The dream of the primitivist, anti-civ, and “green anarchists” (funny how some have tried to appropriate this term, which can apply to a wide spectrum of theory) to go without any modern technology is ridiculous. Sustainably made labor-saving devises should be encouraged, not denigrated, and applied science based on the precautionary principle must be upheld.

Also necessary will be deliberative councils based on merit, publicly broadcast to stimulate citizen input and education, where scientists can openly debate and plan for strategies to mitigate global warming, industrial pollution, medical and psychological epidemics of suffering (drug abuse is rampant in this country and largely attributable to loneliness and alienation, as the Rat Park study showed), etc. Imagine how much more enlightening and interesting watching the top researchers in their fields resolve crises would be, compared to the absolute shit on CNN, CSPAN, FOX, or MSNBC.

Meritocracies are not utopian, and flourish in scientific research, in spontaneous social situations, as well as for open-source coders, engineers, and technologists. Arthur Koestler sketched this idea out a bit in his book Janus, dubbing it “holarchy”.

Global warming continues to be the number one threat to the planet. By opting out of the Paris Accords (a pitiful excuse for a climate agreement, but better than nothing), the US government has very clearly shown itself to be very clearly at war with the world.

Yet “America” does not exist. Borders do not exist. We must become ungovernable, semi-nomadic if need be, like many of our multicultural, cosmopolitan ancestors were. We should re-wild and reinvigorate our natural surroundings through sustainable communal-based agriculture.

This does not mean consigning every family to peasant-level subsistence farming, as likely only 10-15% of the population would need to work in a food-production based capacity and would be compensated for their hard work and dedication compared to our mass society, compared to the 1-3% in our mechanized agro-business model where laborers and seasonal workers are ruthlessly exploited. There must be a mind-shift from a culture based on scarcity to a culture based on natural abundance.

More and more people are waking up to the ever-increasing dangers of runaway climate change and nuclear war. If the Left does not unify and form a cohesive, coherent strategy that speaks to ordinary people, the proto-fascists in Washington as well as the alt-right will continue to scapegoat minorities for capitalisms’ failures in pursuit of their goal of a tyrannical white-supremacist state.

Possibly the most feasible solution to our interlocking crises is to address the elephant in the room: overpopulation. Instituting a global program promoting woman’s education, safe sex, and birth control, and redistribution of wealth to the Global South could help tremendously.

The fragmentation of the Western Left continues because ultimately it is rooted in Eurocentrism, in a Baconian/Cartesian/Newtonian view of science and the universe. The advent of capitalism as well as the cementing of the Westphalian ideology of the nation-state ultimately leads to oligarchy, fascism, and the destruction of the biosphere and natural resources. Revolutionizing the system of global capital and abolishing the nation-state cannot be delayed for reforms that seem more realistic. Our time is running out.


William Hawes

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is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. His articles have appeared online at CounterPunch, Global Research, Countercurrents(.org), Gods & Radicals, Dissident Voice, The Ecologist, and many more outlets. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com. Visit his website williamhawes.wordpress.com.


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Chasing Ambulances

 

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Source: Wikimedia Commons

Demonstrators flooded streets across the globe in public protests on Saturday, calling for action against gun violence. Hundreds of thousands of marchers turned out, in the most ambitious show of force yet from a student-driven movement that emerged after the recent massacre at a South Florida high school.

The student activists emphasized that they would soon have access to the ballot box as they hope to build support for candidates who support universal background checks and bans on assault-style weapons.

[Source: New York Times]

How should leftists have engaged with this weekend’s March for Our Lives?

Over a million people attended nationally-coordinated rallies calling for federal laws restricting the sale of firearms. Students who survived the recent school shooting in Parkland, FL headlined the main Washington, DC march (alongside performances by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Miley Cyrus, and other celebrities). Meanwhile, more than 800 satellite events featured Democratic office-holders, from Senators Elizabeth Warren and Sherrod Brown to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Plenty of socialists showed up as well, hoping to “put forward an alternative to this system that is built on violence at its core.”

Similarly, the recent teachers’ strike in West Virginia inspired enthusiastic leftist support, with radicals “stand[ing] in solidarity with the teachers of the state in their fight for better pay and better healthcare and offer[ing] our full support.” However, few of the leftist groups either attending the marches or urging solidarity with the teachers had done any prior work to speak of among either anti-gun high schoolers or West Virginian teachers. So what did “fully supporting” or “putting forward an alternative” concretely mean?

Any time a protest event receives significant media coverage, radical groups put out similar statements. Where does that impulse to endorse come from? Does responding in the same way every time obscure deeper differences between one self-declared “movement” and another?

What place should this “support” have in revolutionary strategy?


 

A political group employing an activist-networking approach is looking for a new campaign. They read the news to find “hot issues” that are being reported on in the media. Once they’ve determined the issue they want to agitate around, they look for an NGO they can “partner” with, providing warm bodies to show up at the NGO’s events and to help actuate the already-existing strategy of the NGO. Often this looks like showing up to City Hall or the state capitol, as part of a coalition of “the usual suspects,” to lobby legislators to support or oppose a particular bill, or showing up at a rally put on by the NGO in command of the campaign. Usually the passage of a law is the primary goal of these campaigns.

Maybe the group might try to recruit one or two participants from the action, but since most of these people are already organized and are members of one of the larger groups, only a handful of people are brought into the organization. As enthusiasm inevitably drains from the campaign in the face of setbacks, participation bleeds away, so the group ends up back at square one, or worse, end up with fewer people involved than they started with. At this point, groups usually cut their losses and look for the new “hot issue” of the day, thus repeating the cycle.

Tim Horras

While their desire to support popular movements is well-meaning, activist leftists are basically ambulance chasers. When they see the media cover something politically exciting, their instinct is to show up offering “leadership” and “the socialist perspective.” Generally, no one takes them particularly seriously when they do. Why should they? The radicals have no pre-existing relationship with them and haven’t shown why they deserve anyone’s attention. So, the socialists’ efforts go nowhere. They lose a few people, pick up a few more, rinse, and repeat. They come to exist for the sake of existing rather than serving a particularly useful role. If an organization’s practice boils down to providing “boots on the ground” for “movement” nonprofits’ campaigns and rallies, why bother with the organization at all? Isn’t it easier to just work with the nonprofits directly? That’s why so few people in a given movement join any of the socialist organizations that try to involve themselves. When a group has made itself superfluous, people can tell. So, leftists continue to exist on the margins of the activist subculture, never realizing that they’ve no one but themselves to blame for their irrelevance.

Your ideology is not the beliefs you affirm. It’s what your actions show that you value. If your practice consists of listening to podcasts and arguing on Facebook, then that’s the substance of your ideology, not the particular ideas you agree with. If you mostly wave signs at protests and issue calls for things you can’t deliver, then your ideology is about bearing moral witness within the activist scene (which, don’t forget, is just the organized infrastructure of the Democratic Party).

You are always promoting your ideology to the people around you. That doesn’t mean you’re telling them your opinions. Ideology isn’t made of opinions. Rather, you’re teaching them through example what you actually consider important – and that’s what will determine their perception of radical politics. Ambulance chasing teaches that leftists are basically flaky: they make promises they can’t keep and don’t stick around after the news cycle moves on. People learn that socialism offers them nothing because your actions have taught them that it means talking big and not following through.


 

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West Virginia teachers on strike. Source: Wikimedia Commons

The March for Our Lives and the West Virginia teachers’ strike were fundamentally different phenomena.

The former was a choreographed, slickly-branded rally organized and promoted by Democratic Party front groups, especially Everytown for Gun Safety and Giffords (named after a retired Democratic member of Congress). The teenagers from Florida weren’t actually calling the shots; the whole thing was run by a nonprofit called the March for Our Lives Action Fund, whose decisions were made by a board of professional Democrats (albeit in consultation with a powerless “student advisory board”), and the satellite marches prominently featured sitting Democratic politicians. That’s why they so heavily emphasized voting in the midterms for candidates who support the Democratic Party’s legislative priorities around gun control, and why explicitly left-wing and anti-police demands from student groups without the official March for Our Lives franchise (such as those in Chicago and Philadelphia) were generally ignored. The Democratic platform, after all, is more amenable to outright reactionary policies like the expansion of police presence in poor, working-class, and non-white schools and the abolition of basic legal rights for people with psychiatric diagnoses.

Conversely, the teachers’ strike was collective action, not media spectacle. West Virginia’s unionized teachers, not Democratic fronts or politicians, organized it themselves. It was a non-symbolic, illegal strike. The point was not media coverage or Democratic voter turnout. The teachers wanted better pay and benefits, so they withheld their labor until they got it. They used their access to meaningful social and economic power to improve their lives. They didn’t have to trust Democratic candidates to keep their campaign promises. Collective action works because class struggle defines class society. But high-profile Democratic Party rallies, like the March for Our Lives and the Women’s March, ultimately only benefit the Party itself.

However, leftist conversations about the strike and the march mirrored each other closely. Are their demands sufficiently radical? How much criticism is too much? How can leftists help? In both cases, the Left offered its support reflexively because “organizing is good.” But there was a category difference between the events. Where was the corresponding category difference between left-wing responses to them?

Well, when you’re an ambulance chaser, you lack a meaningful social base. You act as a club for hobbyists within the protest scene who happen to prefer a socialist or anarchist brand to a liberal one. So, whether it’s a Democratic media event or an actual instance of class struggle, you find yourself on the outside looking in. In either case, your “support” consists of waving placards at demonstrations and publishing official statements until the news cycle moves on. Ideology is practice and for you, there is no practical difference. So, your ideology considers them equivalent. Anything that feels like mass politics is equally attractive, whether that feeling is just PR (as with the March for Our Lives or the Women’s March) or has a basis in something real (as with the West Virginia strike).


 

A crisis will only catalyze a well-formed communications network. If such networks are embryonically developed or only partially co-optable, the potentially active individuals in them must be linked together by someone . . . In other words, people must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.

Jo Freeman

When a constituency mobilizes (whether it’s for a strike, a march, or a show at a nightclub), it’s not because all of the individuals involved just happened to show up at the same time. Just as a venue, sound equipment, etc have to be acquired and set up beforehand, attendance and participation have to be deliberately organized. When the West Virginia teachers struck, they did so through preexisting organizing networks: their union and a private Facebook group. When people attended the March for Our Lives, that was also done through preexisting networks: activist, religious, and campus-based groups went together as groups, and the march’s sponsors hired publicists to reach out to the unaffiliated. Similarly, the crowd at a show mobilizes through friendship networks of clubgoers, performers’ fan bases, and promoters’ advertising efforts.

The importance of organizing networks doesn’t mean that a constituency can’t act for itself on its own initiative, “from below.” Rather, an infrastructure of organizing networks is the means by which it’s able to do so. Leadership doesn’t impose itself from outside. It happens when people within those networks persuade others to act collectively. Distinct from leadership, organizing means constructing those networks in the first place.

Leftists often want to be leaders. They should instead prioritize being organizers. After all, by the time a strike or a rally is on TV, the participants don’t need radicals. They already have their organizing networks and their leadership within them. At that point, revolutionaries can express support in words, but from the point of view of the people mobilizing, they’re unnecessary. It makes perfect sense to ignore them. Then, when the leftists realize their efforts are getting no traction, why wouldn’t they move on to something else? So, radicals are always moving on. They never develop long-term political relationships or a stable base. That keeps them extraneous, marginal, and ineffective.

That’s the ambulance-chasing cycle. It needs to be broken.


 

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The mass line: a basic communist technique of social investigation and leadership. Source: Hope & Timmel, Training for Transformation: A Handbook for Community Workers, Book 1, via Revolutionary Initiative

Do you want to spread revolutionary ideas?

Remember what ideology is. It isn’t words – it’s a living, physical thing. It’s practice and what practice teaches. Don’t take words at face value, not even your own. The ideology you spread is the ideology you practice (whether you realize you’re practicing it or not).

Is a teachers’ strike important and exciting? Sure. Does that mean most leftists can participate in a meaningful way? By and large, no. They aren’t needed, so why should the strikers care what they have to say? Trying to piggyback on someone else’s organizing and leadership is opportunistic, and people can tell. So, they quite reasonably conclude that radicals are opportunists, not long-haul organizers. The same goes for events like the March for Our Lives (although the weakness of socialists at Democratic media spectacles is probably a good thing on balance. Leftists have no business supporting reactionary goals in the first place).

Being a revolutionary should mean, before anything else, building a revolutionary base. That means identifying a constituency in a neighborhood or industry and making a long-term commitment. Do you have even a small group of friends or fellow radicals interested in doing political work together? That’s enough to start! Go out and talk to people in your target constituency. Find out what their lives are like. What are their needs and aspirations? Then, come up with ideas for programs that tangibly address their lives, have a low barrier to entry (so that as many people as possible can participate), and that can grow your group’s membership and organizational capacity. Reach out – canvass, hold cookouts and potlucks, have public meetings for people to express their needs and views. Build organizing networks. Make promises and follow through. Win credibility. Then, in five or ten years, you’ll have a base of your own. You’ll have created the networks and you’ll have earned enough respect to provide leadership within them. You’ll be the ones putting together exciting mobilizations, and other groups will be the opportunists trying to tag along.

Working and unemployed people don’t need to be told they’re oppressed. They live it out every day – those from specially-oppressed demographics, even more so. But that doesn’t mean revolutionaries don’t have a central role to play! As feminist writer Jo Freeman says, “[P]eople must be organized. Social movements do not simply occur.”

No constituency automatically becomes a revolutionary base. Because liberalism and conservatism enjoy cultural hegemony – they’re so widely accepted that most people don’t realize there are alternatives – social movements tend to become conservative or liberal by default. But, if socialists, communists, and anarchists create the organizing networks through which a constituency can act collectively, then provide effective leadership within them, a movement can be revolutionary instead. Revolutionaries are just as capable of proving, through practice, the value of their ideology as conservatives and liberals. If that’s what your actions teach, that’s what people will learn.

But that means being more than “boots on the ground.” It means taking on the slow, patient work of knitting together a base, year by year, project by project. It means earning the ability to lead, not claiming to have it already.

And no amount of external “support” for the teachers’ strike, the March for Our Lives, or anything else can replace that.


Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism


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Assigned Faggot: Gender Roles, Sex, and the Division of Labor

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Source

A boy in eighth-grade math class walks over and says, “You sit like a woman. What are you, a woman?” We both know there’s no right answer.


 

When I was born, the obstetrician said I was male. So, growing up, that was the role expected of me. People told me I’d become a heterosexually-married adult man. I shouldn’t have long hair, wear dresses, or cry “like a sissy.”

At some point, though, that comprehensive set of expectations (that gender role) changed. By the time I hit adolescence, no one thought I’d marry a woman. Boys were supposed to like football and act tough, but nobody looked at me and thought I could ever do that. My classmates started calling me gay before I even knew what the word meant. More and more, people expected that I would behave different from my male peers.

Of course, their expectations carried a weight of moral condemnation. When they called me a “faggot,” they made it clear that it was a very bad thing to be. But, none of them seriously believed that someone who looked, moved, and sounded like me could be anything else. I was chastised and punished for filling it, but nevertheless “faggot” was the role I was pressured to fill.

Are gender and sexuality fundamentally personal identities, or are they imposed by a larger social system? How sharp is the line between them?


 

Walking down the hall in high school, it feels like every other word is “faggot.” An especially churchy classmate tells me that if I was a real Christian, I wouldn’t “want to be that way any more.”

In gym class, the coach sends the boys to one side of the room and the girls to the other to do different activities. No one looks surprised when I go with the girls.


 

On paper, US conservatism believes in a strict gender binary. You are male or female, birth to death. Men are naturally one way and women another. No one really falls in between. Men, of course, are naturally strong and unemotive. They sleep with women but socialize with each other.

And yet, people who embraced that ideology wholesale would meet me and assume that my friends were girls, that I was emotional and “sensitive,” that I’d defer to my male peers, and – perhaps most of all – that I was sexually available to men. But since they didn’t read me as cis female, why weren’t they bringing the usual male expectations?

When I had straight male friends, why did they expect me to be emotionally supportive and assume I had some special insight into “what women want?” They didn’t seek that from each other, and they’d have either laughed or gotten angry at anyone who asked it of them.

If their idea of gender was as binary as they believed it to be, why didn’t they place me into a male role?


 

Unfortunately, many women-particularly single women-are afraid of the perspective of wages for housework because they are afraid of identifying even for a second with the housewife. They know that this is the most powerless position in society and so they do not want to realise that they are housewives too…

We are all housewives because no matter where we are they can always count on more work from us, more fear on our side to put forward our demands, and less pressure on them for money, since hopefully our minds are directed elsewhere, to that man in our present or our future who will “take care of us”.

Silvia Federici

 

Did those people believe in genders besides female and male?

With their ideas, they didn’t. With their actions, though, they did. After all, they created at least one gender role besides “man” and “woman” – I know because they assigned me to it! My social position was not authentically male. I was failed-male. In practice, my gender was “faggot.”

When they said “faggots aren’t real men,” that was an is, not an ought. “Faggot” is a socially-real gender category distinct from “male.” It is imposed (like all genders) by a social system beyond the control of any given individual. Gender, after all, is more than either individual identity or cultural beliefs. Each gender role corresponds to a particular place in the overall social division of labor.

To be given a feminized gender (like “woman” or “faggot”) means to be given feminized work: emotional, interpersonal, domestic, caregiving, and sexual. When you meet someone, they read a gender onto you. Practically speaking, that means they either expect you to take on those tasks or they expect others to take them on instead of you. There are, of course, plenty of signifiers that help people make that gender assignment (speech inflections, clothes, names, communication styles, inferred secondary sex characteristics, etc). But all that only makes up half of what a gender is – the rest is being expected to do specific kinds of work, and you can’t cleanly untangle the two halves. Being conventionally feminine means being expected to wear makeup, long hair, etc – but also to have a less aggressive conversation style, to step aside for men on the sidewalk, to be “nurturing,” and to sleep with men. On the ground, the division of labor and cultural norms are united. Each upholds the other.


 

I sit in a therapist’s office and talk about how since transitioning, I’ve felt less and less connection with any sort of sexuality and I don’t understand why. He tells me I just need to accept that I’m attracted to men – once I do that, he says, things will fall into place.


 

Radical feminism talks about “compulsory heterosexuality” – the idea that heterosexuality is more than a sexual preference some people happen to have. It’s a political institution built into the gender system itself, through which all women (including lesbians) are pressured to treat sex with men as inherent to womanhood. This approach to sexuality cares about the pleasure of men, but leaves non-male desires as (at best) an afterthought. Without it, feminized gender roles (woman and faggot alike) would bear little resemblance to their current forms.

I faced that imperative, just like my cis female peers. To be sure, people delivered it to me on different terms. Attraction to men was expected of me, but never treated as though it were positive. However, it was still part of the role I was assigned. Accepting my lesbianism still entailed a process of soul-searching to break through some deeply internalized messages; it tracked closely with the experiences of the cis lesbians I know.

Sexuality doesn’t neatly come apart from gender. Gender is an overarching system, a way of organizing certain types of work within class society’s overall division of labor. My socialization into a feminized role brought with it certain sexual expectations, just as it carried emotional and interpersonal ones.

Neither sexuality nor gender floats free, separate from each other or from the overall organization of society. They aren’t (just) individual identities, and they aren’t (just) cultural ideas. These roles exist physically: the interactions humans have with each other and with the world re-create them every day. If you ignore that context, you’ll misunderstand the relationship between them.

Cultural norms about gender receive institutional support from the government, businesses, religious congregations, etc. After all, gender is an efficient and elegant way to get some people to do certain kinds of work for free. Sure, some aspects of contemporary gender predate capitalism. However, this gender system is still capitalist to its essence. Why? Capitalism digested those older components and turned them into something qualitatively different (as the historical research of Silvia Federici and other Marxist feminists shows).

Beliefs and practices aren’t merely ephemera. They aren’t fluff on top of an underlying economic reality. They’re part of economic reality because they’re part of how people carry out the daily work of existence. Their function within it is vital. Without them, it wouldn’t be easy to get anyone to do feminized work for free, but with them? People “spontaneously” enforce those roles on each other via social pressure, “common sense,” and violence. Why else do so many women punish each other for deviating from fundamentally-sexist norms?

Again, though, the ideas in people’s heads are only half the picture. The conservative Christians I grew up around believed wholeheartedly that only two genders existed. But when they couldn’t find a place in the male role for people like me, what did they do? They created another one for us (faggot). Did they call it a gender? Of course not, but ideology isn’t what you believe. It’s what you’ve internalized through what you do. And isn’t it telling that if you asked them about trans and nonbinary people, they’d say none of it was valid because “those people are just confused faggots?”


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Nearly all liberals (and more than a few leftists) arrive at their politics by first noticing an instance of oppression, then deciding to oppose it. They hear conservatives condemn gays, for instance, and think, “We’ve got to stop that prejudice. Gay people deserve respect!” That’s an understandable approach – disrespect, bigotry, and microaggressions are right there for all to see. Shouldn’t they be gotten rid of?

But when you remember that ideas and beliefs are only half of what’s going on, doesn’t something almost sinister emerge? We can remove the outward signs of oppression. But does that mean it’s gone, or just that it’s harder to see?

When you look at someone’s face, it doesn’t take its shape from the skin on the surface. It takes it from the bone underneath. If outright bigotry is the visible skin, the division of labor and the need to enforce it are the bone. Had I grown up in a liberal area rather than a conservative one, the people around me would have believed that women should be considered equal to men and that LGBT people deserved acceptance and respect. Those categories would have been enforced more gently – but they still would have been enforced. Since capitalism’s division of labor would have remained, feminized work would still have gotten assigned to feminized roles.

They wouldn’t have called me “faggot,” but they would have called me “fabulous” – and at the end of the day, the role expectations are the same either way. Respect and inclusion would have been nicer makeup, but the face beneath would have been no different.


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Radical politics should begin with the physical reality of class society and its division of labor.

The cultural half of the mechanism matters. It isn’t a question of “divisive social issues.” Norms and ideas are part of how the system works, and separating them from “economic class” just shows you’ve misunderstood both.

But because these roles are unified with the class system, the goal can’t simply be greater respect. Imposing them politely is still imposing them. The surface manifestations are an important part of the phenomenon, but they aren’t all of it. And ultimately, radical politics must seek to abolish the entire thing.

And if radicals forget that, then sure, they might find ways to make society look less oppressive.

But will anyone have actually gotten free?


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

No Individual Solutions

privilege
Source: University of San Francisco

When my partner and I walk down the sidewalk, we know people will sometimes shout that we’re “fuckin’ dykes.” When a straight couple goes out in public, they know they won’t get called “fuckin’ breeders” – they have that privilege.

Mainline social justice acknowledges that. It doesn’t pretend that straight and lesbian couples get treated equally, and it condemns the position of privilege enjoyed by heterosexuals relative to LGBT people. However, recognizing the need to end something is only half of a political position – you also need a way to make that change happen.

Social justice promises just that. Its strategy against not just straight privilege, but privilege in general has two prongs: anti-discrimination legislation on the one hand, and individuals changing their conduct on the other. People need to own up to their privilege; then, they must relinquish it.

But how, specifically, do you do that? Although social justice proponents are often light on the concrete details, one widely-shared article has an answer: if privilege is letting you do something, don’t do it.


 

If you have access to something and you recognize that you have it partly because of privilege, opt out of it.

Mia McKenzie

Now, that implies more than it says. This analysis begins with the experiences of individuals: this couple faces street harassment, that one doesn’t. Then, it generalizes those experiences to larger social groups (Black people, men, bisexuals, and so on). However, it never lets go of its initial individualistic assumptions – the experiences of a group are the experiences believed to be shared by its members.

From there, “opting out” follows logically. Is oppression about individuals being treated unequally because of their demographic position? If so, anti-oppression means working towards equal treatment. Is privilege is the sum of many individual acts of oppression (stacked, like the hierarchy of needs, from microaggressions all the way up to genocide)? Then ending those acts ends privilege. Some can be outlawed (hate violence, for instance). For others, though, you have to convince people to change their behavior. You couldn’t feasibly have a law against not taking women’s opinions seriously, for instance.

So, those with privilege must give it up. Not making use of it seems a reasonable starting point. The article quoted above, for instance, gives as an example not attending a conference that refuses to accommodate wheelchair users. You “opt out” of the benefits, and privilege weakens. To stop privilege, stop participating in it.

In practice, though, that doesn’t work.


 

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Source: GVSU Feminist Voices

But doesn’t fewer people taking advantage of privilege mean fewer people reinforcing it? Even if “opting out” isn’t sufficient by itself, isn’t it a necessary tool?

 

On the ground, “opting out” fails for two reasons:

  • “Opting out” is undesirable. When anti-oppression types say “privilege,” what concrete things are they talking about? Sometimes, they mean getting away with things no one should do – committing sexual assault with impunity, for instance. At least as often, though, they mean less-privileged people not getting to do neutral or positive things that the privileged take for granted – not acts of violence, but things that everyone should be able to do. My partner and I risk homophobic harassment when we go outside. Straight couples don’t. Should they “opt out” of leaving the house? After all, they can do so without being bothered by homophobes – that’s privilege. “Opting out” would mean never stepping out of their front door.
  • “Opting out” is impossible. My partner and I don’t choose to be harassed. Straight people don’t choose not to be. When some people get treated better than others, is it because they somehow control how strangers behave towards them? Should a straight couple say to everyone who walks by, “I know we’re heterosexual, but please treat us no differently than you’d treat lesbians”? If they did, would a homophobe answer, “Oh, happy to oblige! You damn dykes”? If individuals could just will these structures out of their lives (as “opting out” implies), this whole system would have died a long time ago. But that’s not how it works. The social order precedes and transcends the individuals within it.

 

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Source: Feminist Hulk via Comics Alliance

But if “opting out” is impossible, why does the idea persist?

Well, social justice’s individualism allows for no other conclusion. If privilege boils down to individual actions and individual experiences, then individual choices must be both the problem and the answer. Sure, social justice pays lip service to “structural issues” and “systemic oppression.” But the nitty-gritty of what it means by that always falls back on individual complicity. How “systemic” can a critique be when it doesn’t acknowledge that social organization is more than the sum of the individuals inside it? If “structural” oppression just means that every member of a better-off group is individually complicit in their privilege, doesn’t that reduce oppression to “bad apples?” The bad apples may number in the tens or hundreds of millions, but the essence is still there – the problem is rotten people making rotten choices. It’s still about each person’s individual moral failure. However, there is no mechanism by which you can stop being complicit. So, for social justice, there is no solution. There’s only condemnation without end.

 

Luckily, though, this framework doesn’t line up with reality. Oppression isn’t the sum of millions of immoral decisions. Liberation is possible. But, it takes something that social justice hates even more than privilege.


 

Only when men see our work as work-our love as work-and most important our determination to refuse both, will they change their attitude towards us. When hundreds and thousands of women are in the streets saying that endless cleaning, being always emotionally available, fucking at command for fear of losing our jobs is hard, hated work which wastes our lives, then they will be scared and feel undermined as men.

But this is the best thing that can happen from their own point of view, because by exposing the way capital has kept us divided (capital has disciplined them through us and us through them-each other, against each other), we – their crutches, their slaves, their chains – open the process of their liberation.

Silvia Federici

Privilege leads to unequal treatment, but that’s not where it comes from.

Capitalism involves more than fast-food chains and stock exchanges. It’s an all-encompassing division of labor. Every single task through which humanity continues to exist gets parceled out to one group or another. That’s the material basis of social categories that, at first glance, look either natural or merely cultural.

The “common sense” belief that race and gender are bio-cultural phenomena just masks what they really are: ways of assigning different work to different people, carried out under different conditions. Those divisions are then enforced by institutional discrimination, “common sense” ideas (promoted through media, education, and religion), and – should those fail – physical violence. “Woman” as a cultural category both emerges from and reinforces the way that certain people are expected to do care work and housework (mostly unpaid). The category “white,” similarly, both comes from and continually recreates the fact that some workers tend to have better conditions, jobs, and pay, a cultural sense of superiority, and de facto segregation from other workers. Through gender, capitalism gets a lot of necessary work done for free. Through race, it prevents certain workers from uniting with the rest of their class against the system by giving them relative advantages within it. So, privileged workers benefit in the short term. But in the long term, their privilege just prolongs their own exploitation.

Social justice will never realize that. Why should it? The activist subculture is mostly middle-class, not working-class. So, it reflects middle-class ideas and middle-class interests.

Do middle-class and ruling-class men and whites have a long-term stake in abolishing their own privilege? No – it gives them an unambiguous competitive advantage in the professions, management, and business. Why else do middle-class people from less-privileged demographics frame their politics in terms of unjust disparities and ethical imperatives? Without a shared material stake in ending privilege, moral self-sacrifice is all that’s left.

Middle-class and ruling-class reformers, though, find themselves in a contradictory position. On the one hand, lacking privilege makes their lives tangibly worse. But on the other, their class position depends on the continued existence of privilege, because the capitalist division of labor depends on it and they depend on capitalism.

So, they end up with equally-contradictory politics. Social justice has no way out.


 

On more than one occasion, Black workers have forced the employer to open a new job area to them, only to run up against the rigid opposition of white workers.

White revolutionaries must understand, and help the masses of white workers to understand, that the interests of the entire working class can only be served by standing firmly with the Black workers in such cases.

Noel Ignatiev

Does that mean that privilege will never go away? If social justice can’t overcome oppression, what can?

Class struggle.

Internal divisions notwithstanding, the working class as a whole carries out all of the tasks of human existence. Without workers, there is nothing. But, the working class doesn’t decide the way in which it does that labor. The ruling class of capitalists does – the investors, executives, and business owners who control the physical and social infrastructure through which all work happens (the “means of production“).

Capitalists dictate the social order and exploit the working class, accumulating wealth at workers’ expense. The working class has the ability to overthrow capitalism (since capitalists need workers, but workers don’t need capitalists). It also has an interest in doing so – replacing it with a system in which workers (paid and unpaid) control everything. Obviously, capitalists have good reason to oppose that. So, whenever workers try to collectively pursue their interests, the ruling class opposes them however it can. That ranges from shaping “common sense” to relying on state violence.

The division of labor within the working class both creates and relies on privilege. In doing so, it makes it harder for the working class to effectively struggle against its oppressors. Privileged workers are less likely to side with the rest of their class because, due to privilege, they’re comparatively better off. But, that’s only a short-term interest. In the long term, their interests are the same as other workers’.

So, there’s a material basis for workers to come together and organize against the ruling class – and when they do so, specifically fighting against privilege is ultimately good for them all, even if some are benefitting from privilege at the moment. But, to make that happen, working-class politics has to focus on the long-term goal of ending capitalism and exploitation. It needs the analysis that your privilege here and now is the enemy of your liberation in the future. In other words, if it sticks to “achievable” short-term reforms, it can’t effectively do that because it’s dropped the long-term aim. After all, you can’t focus on long-term interests if you don’t acknowledge them. Moderate socialism isn’t any more useful against privilege than social justice.

What can end privilege?

Communism.


 

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Communism can end privilege. Liberal social justice can’t. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Individuals can’t “opt out” of privilege because privilege isn’t individual. It’s built into the class system itself. To get rid of it, get rid of class.

But social justice is scared of that conclusion. Its social base is upper-class and middle-class – they’re either at the top of the pyramid or close enough to imagine themselves getting there. They need the class system, but the class system needs privilege.

Fortunately, abolishing privilege doesn’t depend on them. The working class can do it. No one else can. So, if you really want to see the end of privilege, don’t listen to social justice. Build institutions of working-class power.

Back in the 70s, radical feminists had a saying:

There are no individual solutions to social problems.

Privilege is a social problem. You can’t “opt out” of it. So, stop looking for individual solutions.

Fight for a collective one instead.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism

New California: Shithole in the Making (but not actually)

“The rule in business is, if it is generating revenue, don’t fuck with it.”

From Patacelsus

“What’s new in California?” you might be asking yourself. I wouldn’t blame you for missing this story, it ranks right up there with hornless unicorns on the “shit no decent or halfway intelligent human should care about” list. Let me explain some.

Did you know that California is “ungovernable”? Did you know that the middle class is leaving the state in record numbers? Did you know that the state is on a road to hell and jail? No wait, that’s me as a teen. Anyway, an individual named Robert Paul Preston (RPP) is looking to separate out the “good” parts of California, from the rest of it, i.e. “the hippy liberal illegal immigrant loving pot smoking parts.” Supposedly, according to RPP’s white paper on the creation of a new state, the largest problems that come from the state “being ungovernable” are:

“a decline in essential basic services such as education, law enforcement, fire protection, transportation, housing, health care, taxation, voter rights, banking, state pension systems, prisons, state parks, water resource management, home ownership, infrastructure and many more.”1

Wow, that all sounds really bad, I had no idea my state was in such bad shape; because it isn’t.

Should I address the half-baked lies or the half baked pastry man telling them first? You know what? This is so awesome, because I don’t actually have to do any work to address the half-baked lies. They are a common collection of the Right’s constant liturgy of disapproval, and therefore, this work has already been done.

Thanks go out to Kevin Drum, writing for Mother Jones, for his article, “California Is Doing Fine, Thank You Very Much.” In the article Kevin Drum addresses a lot of what RPP is claiming in his white paper, so I’m going to steal/cite highlights from his work and then move on to the slightly more interesting train wreck that is RPP, shining example of the Right in California. You might, if you have the time, also read California is Working: The Effects of California’s Public Policy on Jobs and the Economy Since 2011 written by Ian Perry and published by the UC Berkeley Labor Center. (But watch out! He worked on the Affordable Care Act, he might be one of those Nazi Commie Muslims!)

Now before I start going over the all the work someone else did for me, I just really need to point out that the white paper for New California, claims both that there is a general decline in basic services, but also, in the same paragraph, claims that California is #23 in the nation based on an aggregate score measuring economy, infrastructure, education, crime and all that crap. So it is an ungovernable nation, with a troubling decline in basic services (necessitating a completely new state to be made), that is better than more than half of U.S. states in those areas?

Yes, according to RPP, that is indeed the case; this is a level of cognitive dissonance so common for his everyday consciousness that he literally put that on paper unironically. Please keep this in mind as we continue forward.

“There’s a whole cottage industry on the right dedicated to the proposition that California is a hellhole. Why? Because California is the most liberal state in the nation, and the existence of a high-tax, high-service state that nonetheless has a great economy is an affront to their principles.”2

And that’s pretty much it. Kevin Drum’s article, which I implore you to read, Californian or not, is a debunking of the basic myths propagated by the Right. Within that context of propaganda vs. data, both matters of public record, is where RPP comes in.

He’s a talk show host that has a radio show. That show is about the U.N.’s secret agenda, Agenda 23, or something like that, and that the agenda is to destroy Capitalism and redistribute wealth and by the gods, bodhisattvas, and buddhas, why am I writing about this? Because it is literally from his “About” page.

So the U.N. is actually controlled by, …Islamic Communist Nazis? Hey! Pay attention! This is, important news. So the Islamic Nazi Communists are planning, or have been since 1992, to use environmentalism to steal your rights, redistribute wealth, and destroy Capitalism.

And I got to tell you, he fuckin’ nailed us. He’s got us cold. He (like us) understands that Capitalism and the environment can not, and have not, coexisted. The unchecked rapine of Capitalism has despoiled the Earth and is slowly making it a desert. He (unlike us) champions the continued rapine of the environment for the sake of American values. Which I have to assume, because Capitalism is the all important thing here apparently, American values are Capitalism.

He (also like us) is hip to the reality that there is no such thing as American values outside of the values of Capitalism. The two map to each other, one to one. That puts the environmentalist at square odds with the Capitalist. Or it should. I guess. Who knows what “environmentalists” get up to. I assumed doing the same things as people do. I never realized that caring about having clean air and plants and animals and shit like that made you a Nazi, or a Muslim, or a Communist.

All Communist Muslim Nazis aside, this is why I like my state so much. Stuff like this and the nice 80’s retro sunsets make the constant fire and drought worth it.

So anyway the goal is to redistribute wealth to the rest of the world and enslave Americans. So his greatest fear is that he’ll be made to answer for the crimes of his ancestors. I can empathize. When I found out my families DNA definitely filtered through Kentucky, and then later found out from my cousin that apparently all of us are descended from Daniel Boone, I did take pause for thought. But I do not believe in blood debts (yes I know, very brave of the white guy to take a stand on this), and instead call for the immediate dismantling of all remaining remnants of the dirty deed we call making America that continue the legacy of that string of crimes, and instead have a truly egalitarian society.

But this guys greatest fear is the modern day version of Dracula, in that there’s the “fear of reverse colonization.” I mean, yes, I write about corporations being vampires. But my fear is rich people eating the poor. His fear is the poor getting revenge. Totally different.

Also there is the fear of depopulation, to the tune I imagine of the depopulation of the Americas by diseases brought by Europeans. And actually, the humans that were here first were doing plenty with it. It just looked empty because they had suffered a biological apocalypse. And all that before Europeans actually even got started. So the U.N. is also trying to depopulate the Earth. I guess, because that’s easier, to force everyone to be, an, um, …Communist Nazi Muslim. Nailed it. Three by three, the spells complete.

No, for him it’s all about property rights, apparently. He mentions it on his “about” page. The whole thing seems like a diatribe against something personal that happened to him. Like his HOA voted on something they saw in a U.N. info pamphlet and that set him off on his mission to save the nation and the great state of California. “Why?” you might ask. Because he’s one of the idiots that lives in it–that’s why. But seriously I bet it’s property rights. I mean don’t get me wrong, I hate work, and that set me off on the adventure I call life. So I can’t fault him for being passionate. An asshole and an idiot, yes, but never the passion.

So the real story here is that the Right, or as I know them, the open and unashamed Capitalists, has been on a slander and libel campaign against the state for decades. Presumably because its existence proves them wrong. That the world doesn’t make any sense, that we’re all just making this up as we go along, and the best thing we can do for each other is help each other.

They hate it when that happens. They want you to believe that the world makes sense, that no one made anything up, and that the only thing left to do is step on one another. I assume to keep yourself out of the grave one minute longer. That’s how it feels to me, and I’m the same white guy in California that doesn’t believe in blood debts. But the Goddess Eris decreed that order and disorder, creation and destruction, are the watch towers of the universe. To arise in the universe is to be subject to these furies. But not the Erinyes and Demeter, another four furies.

So you die. And mindstate capture and reimbodiment is still only found in my favorite space opera series, so I die too. Everyone dies! So the moral question is, am I going to step on people, or hold them up (sometimes by leaning on them; are you holding me up, or am I holding you up?). Most people, because the trait that led to human ascendancy and the beginning of the Holocene epoch is our pro-social behavior, try to hold each other up.

The Capitalist claims to hold people up by serving them with the highest efficiency. An unsophisticated machine answer from an unsophisticated machine consciousness.

RPP, this is the man spearheading the “movement.” This month, anyway. He isn’t the first to suggest this, or something like this. I’m interested to see how far he gets with this. I guess it all hinges in how many of his listeners think it’s a great idea to form cells, I mean, county committees. It really hinges on whether or not the Archons are just going to be cool with some dude fucking with their cash cow. The rule in business is, if it is generating revenue, don’t fuck with it. That isn’t the official rule, modern businesses stress innovation and LEAN thinking. But it is don’t fuck with it.

If he’s lucky, this will come to nothing. Then Californians can get back to fighting the Nazis here.


Patacelsus

mal1A Discordian for 20 years, Patacelsus finally got comfortable when the 21st century “started getting weird.” When not casting sigils, taking part in Tibetan Buddhist rituals, or studying the unfortunate but sometimes amusing stories of the dead, he’s been known to wander the hidden ways of the city, communing with all of the hidden spirits one can find in a city. As Patacelsus sees it, we’re all already free; after completing the arduous task of waking up to that we can then proceed, like a doctor treating a patient, to try to rouse others from the bitter and frightening nightmares of Archism. He laughs at Samsara’s shadow-play in lovely California, in the company of his wife, two cats, and two birds.

 

The Democratic Party Is Not What You Think

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Hillary Clinton speaks at the 2016 DNC. Image: Wikimedia Commons

At first, my friend didn’t realize he was a professional Democrat. When he got a job canvassing for “progressive causes,” he took them at their word: they raised money for nonprofits so they could do community work.

During his last week there, we got coffee during his lunch break. He told me how once a year, they received a list of candidates to fundraise for – not from the NGOs they contracted with, but from the Democratic National Committee. The “DNC push” meant higher quotas and heavier pressure from field managers. Now, most new hires couldn’t take the extra heat. Those who could, though, would have a chance to rise through the ranks, eventually becoming Democratic Party “bundlers” (functionaries responsible for persuading wealthy Democrats to write checks for thousands of dollars). Officially, the canvassing firm was independent. In reality, it was integrated into the Democratic Party, following the Party’s directives and funneling its most promising employees into Party careers.

If you listened to political common sense, you’d get the feeling that the Democrats are hapless, incompetent, and disorganized in the face of Republican discipline. Supposedly, they’re a loose coalition, with little in common besides opposing the GOP.

That’s false. On the ground, the Democrats are a tightly organized party with strong central discipline – much stronger than either their critics or most of their supporters realize. And unless US leftists learn how the Democratic Party actually works, their organizing will continue to fail.


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27th Congress of the Soviet Communist Party. Image: Wikimedia Commons

Two concepts undergird this analysis. The first, drawn from Marxist-Leninist theory, is the cadre party. High school civics is wrong. Neither major US party is actually a heterogenous coalition. The tight-knit Leninist vanguard model describes them much more usefully.

The second concept here is the social and political base. Now, journalists often say “Democratic base” when they mean “Democratic voters.” However, a base is both more specific and more expansive than that. It isn’t simply the individuals who happen to support something. A base is a durable, organized community, capable of directing itself in a coordinated way. It’s brought into being by the set of social institutions whose day-to-day activities structure their constituents’ collective life.

What Is a Cadre Party?

According to Leninism, working-class revolution doesn’t happen spontaneously. It requires years of careful preparation, carried out by revolutionary leadership – dedicated Marxists who organize political struggles, spread revolutionary ideas, and (above all) establish a disciplined and militant organization capable of fighting and defeating the capitalist government.

That organization is the cadre, or vanguard, party. This party pursues the long-term interests of the entire working class, agitating for revolution while leading day-to-day struggles. It doesn’t let just anyone join – party members must not only commit substantial time and effort to the party, but also adhere to line discipline, enacting and defending all of the party’s positions (even those they privately disagree with). They become professional revolutionaries (also called cadres), completely dedicated to making revolution. Sometimes, that means literally working for the party full-time.

Now, there’s a contradiction emerging here. On one hand, the party has to inspire the support of as much of the working class as possible. To effectively engage in class struggle, it needs to bring as much of the class into its orbit as it can. But, it restricts membership to those who meet very high standards. So, most of the people it wants to win over aren’t actually eligible to join.

Leninism solves that by creating a second level of organization. The party proper forms a hard core of committed revolutionaries. At the same time, it directs a network of mass organizations (or, less charitably, front groups). While they follow the party’s lead, they have a much lower barrier to entry. So, the party can incorporate a large number of people without watering down its membership requirements.

When Leninist parties have historically been most successful, those mass organizations would lead to something greater than just a pool of supporters. They’d create a base.


 

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Protestant flag outside the Christian Right organization Focus on the Family. Image: Wikimedia Commons

What Is a Base?

Evangelical white Protestants – the Christian Right’s core demographic – only make up a quarter of the US. But somehow, the Christian Right exercises an outsize influence not just on government policy, but also on the overall social fabric of the areas in which it’s concentrated. Where conservative evangelicals are strong, they shape culture and dictate norms – but even in a place like Texas, where their influence is hegemonic, they’re less than one-third of the population. So where does their power come from?

In the 1970s, very few people were out as gay. Gay Liberation was a fringe movement, even in places with comparatively large gay communities. However, where gays were concentrated, they began to exercise influence – they sent Harvey Milk to the San Francisco city council, and over the years gay and countercultural values came to define the city’s image. But, San Francisco has always had an overwhelmingly straight majority – how did gay people get their influence?

In the 1800s, Irish immigrants were economically and politically marginal, even in cities with large Irish communities. But, they came to exercise not just electoral power via urban political machines, but also social and cultural clout – Boston has never been majority-Irish, but St. Patrick’s Day and Irish Catholicism have become integral to its identity. How did that happen?

Even in their core areas, each of these groups has always been outnumbered. In the latter two cases, they started out categorically excluded from social and political power. Yet, they all became highly-organized forces, dedicated to pursuing their interests with vigor and discipline. That let them grow powerful.

Each of them became a base. Conservative Christians aren’t simply individuals with private beliefs. They’re constituted into a base by a network of institutions: churches, charities, para-church groups, media outlets, and even businesses (anyone who’s been to the small-town South has seen the Jesus fish on everything from auto parts stores to restaurants). Those institutions then coordinate the community’s overall activities and goals, allowing it to act in a unified way. Because they’re integrated into the day-to-day lives of their participants, to opt out of them is to opt out of the collective life they facilitate. The same analysis holds for San Francisco’s gay bars, bathhouses, publications, and activist organizations, and for Boston’s Irish churches, mutual aid societies, labor unions, and social clubs.

With a coherent infrastructure of institutions, a disjointed population can become an organized and powerful base.


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Image: Polk County Democrats

On paper, the Democratic Party is a broad coalition. In practice, it is a cadre party.

It is controlled by professional Democrats – activist NGO managers, politicians’ staffers, “political operatives,” etc. These cadres set the Party’s priorities, oversee its day-to-day work, and keep any potential leftist competition under control. Some of them work for the Democratic Party proper, but most don’t. Officially, their “progressive nonprofit” employers aren’t Democrat-affiliated. Materially, they are the Democratic Party’s front groups. The small, self-selecting core uses them to bring in supporters. It’s not coincidence that the same person grant-writing for Greenpeace one year is working for Emily’s List the next. It’s the same people. They are their Party’s cadre structure, and they keep their front groups in line.

Sure, they align with different internal factions. Their competition is important enough to keep plenty of political reporters employed. But the drama of Bernie vs. Hillary obscures a deeper, more important reality. The faction fights and power struggles never step outside the overarching ideological boundaries of the Democratic “party line.” Sure, Berniecrats want comparatively more social programs, and Hillary supporters comparatively fewer. However, none of them deviates from the Party’s core program:

  • A capitalist economy with some regulation, but very little state ownership;
  • Collaboration between the government and businesses for “job creation” and social services provision;
  • Social liberalism, expressed through moderate affirmative action, anti-discrimination laws, official statements of support for oppressed demographics, and a few changes to police codes of conduct;
  • An expansive military through which the US enforces its global hegemony;
  • Nominal support for immigrants’ rights, but without full amnesty or open borders;
  • Opposition to expanding ballot access for minor parties;
  • A day-to-day political practice of lobbying, running campaigns for office, and symbolic “expressive protest.”

No member of the Democratic cadre structure would dare deviate from that framework. If they did, they’d risk losing their job; certainly, their career prospects would vanish. Do they always interpret the core program the same way? Of course not. But they do always uphold it.

Why does that matter, though? What, concretely, does their discipline mean? Well, nearly every activist organization in the US is a Democratic front group. After all, even if they didn’t want to be, their commitment to “conventional activism” demands it. When you spend your time waving signs and, perhaps, lobbying officials or supporting candidates, what’s your mechanism for enacting change? The only way you can bridge the gap between protest and power is through the support of Democratic politicians – and you can’t get that support if you won’t align with their Party. And, of course, activist groups don’t typically want to be independent in the first place. After all, their leaders and staffers are Democratic cadres. Their careers will take them across the whole extended Party structure.


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Image: Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition

The Democratic Party and its fronts don’t just have passive supporters. They’ve grown an entire community and social scene around their institutions. Because of that, they shape the social and cultural fabric of the places where they’re strong, wielding influence disproportionate to their numbers. In other words, the Democratic Party has a base, constituted through its fronts.

That base doesn’t overlap with the activist subculture – it is the activist subculture. There is no distinction. The activist scene exists because the day-to-day activities of the Democratic Party’s fronts bring it into being, providing an anchor for the informal activities and social networks that surround it. To participate in the activist subculture is to join the Democratic Party’s base.

That doesn’t just go for consciously Democratic liberals. Anarchist affinity groups form out of protest-based social scenes; concretely, they need protests in which to operate, and large protests only happen when the Democratic Party uses its fronts to mobilize people.  The anarchist scene emerges from the Democratic base and relies on the Democrats’ institutional infrastructure.

Leninist organizations run fronts of their own, attempting to imitate the more successful Democratic ones. However, they also depend on the Democratic base. They draw on the same pool of activists, advocate for the same causes, and usually show up at the same demonstrations. So, they only attract support when they hide their Leninist affiliation and follow the Democrats’ lead – as Refuse Fascism (a Revolutionary Communist Party front) discovered in November, when it called for protests without Democratic support and nobody came.

Of course, occasionally radicals do start an organization with the potential to break away from Democratic control. When that happens, Democratic cadres work very hard (and sometimes very ruthlessly) to co-opt it. Because of its institutional position, the Democratic machine can recuperate nearly anything that emerges from the activist subculture. Just look at the Greater Seattle Neighborhood Action Coalition. Founded after Trump’s election by an ad hoc left-liberal coalition, GSNAC explicitly took inspiration from the Rojava revolution. Officially, it committed to practicing direct action and mutual aid while abstaining from electoral politics. With that program on offer, GSNAC initially attracted several thousand participants. However, within a few months, a clique of professional Democrats seized control of the organization by undemocratic means. Without consulting other members, they not only began committing to liberal lobbying campaigns in GSNAC’s name, but also unilaterally filed incorporation papers, naming themselves as GSNAC’s officers. Within a couple of months, the overwhelming majority of participants left. They’d been promised something different than conventional activism, but the Democrats made sure GSNAC didn’t deliver that.

The US Left may not realize it, but nearly all of it is part of the Democratic Party’s extended machinery. However, leftists are excluded from the Democratic cadre structure; they can’t actually direct its course. That leaves them with two options: embrace the Democratic line, or marginalize themselves.

Do you support leftist politics? Leave the activist subculture.


The task of radicals, at present must be digging in deep to the class, going “to the masses,” building long-term relationships with layers of oppressed and working class people, and organizing in our neighborhoods and workplaces. This is the punishing, demoralizing grind work that activists prefer to avoid, but it constitutes the only way forward.

Tim Horras

The Left shouldn’t take part in conventional activism. But what should it do?

Well, what does the Left want? Strategy follows goals; tactics follow strategy. For revolutionaries, the goal is to literally overthrow the government. Revolution means replacing the existing political and economic system with a better one, based on the mass cooperative control of economic, cultural, and political life. The working class carries out all the activities that sustain human life and society. However, it’s excluded from power and subjected to oppression by the capitalist class of business owners and investors. So, it has the ability to carry out a revolution – the capitalists need it, but it doesn’t need them. Further, because of its position of exploitation, it stands to benefit from the abolition of class distinctions.

But how, exactly, can it go about that? If revolution isn’t on the menu yet, what’s the path from here to there? Well, the working-class must become a well-organized social force – so well organized that it can exercise power and assert its interests, even when the the ruling class uses violence to try to stop it. So, carrying out a revolution means first developing an institutional infrastructure capable of directly combatting the capitalist state. In communist lingo, a structure like that competing with the government is called “dual power.”

Now, obviously, a dual power situation can’t be willed into being overnight. Its constituent institutions must be built, piece by piece, however long that takes. Since the process of doing so means organizing the entire working class to act for itself in a coherent way, the working class must become a base. So, the “dual power strategy” for revolution is fairly straightforward: you develop autonomous institutions of class confrontation and mutual aid, through a process of base-building. Eventually, you reach a “critical mass” and can challenge the government directly.

When leftists engage in conventional activism, they pre-empt their ability to do that. Do you go to protests and wave signs? You’re competing with the Democratic Party on its home territory. You’re going to the Democratic base and telling it to stop being pro-Democrat. But it can’t stop. It only exists in the first place through the Democratic Party’s fronts. You have to go somewhere else and build a revolutionary base, instead.

Now, base-building is slow. It’s a grind. It’s not sexy and it’s rarely cathartic. You don’t get the high of being one of thousands of people in a big demonstration, chanting and raising energy. You don’t get the quick gratification of networking with established activists and feeling like you’re part of an “authentic social movement.” Instead, you spend your time serving the people: creating constituencies by creating institutions and knitting them together, struggle by struggle, project by project.

The dual power strategy is not for the impatient. This work is too important to rush. There are no shortcuts. The activist subculture may look like one. And sure, taking over a ready-made base looks appealing, next to the difficulty of creating your own. However, it’s a pipe dream. The Democratic base can’t be separated from its Party. It only exists through that Party’s institutions.

Now, the human cost of capitalism grows every day. And thanks to climate change, there’s an ecological clock ticking. Slow and patient, on the face of it, hardly feels appropriate. The need for change is urgent; can we afford such a protracted approach? The dual power strategy is an uphill fight, sure, but at this point it’s the only possible shot. There’s no more time to waste on dead ends.

So stop protesting. Build a base instead.


 

Sophia Burns is a communist and polytheist in the US Pacific Northwest. Support her on Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/marxism_lesbianism