Sunday, December 25, 2016

Questions of Composition: The Working Class, the IWW and the GDC

Where other organizations on the Left are content to pick a “line” and defend it to their graves, the IWW has always been a big tent organization, which allows for many different tendencies, organizational approaches, and perspectives to coexist. This is one of our strengths. It allows us to be experimental. It gives us an organizational flexibility that other groups lack. Engaging each other in our ideas is one of the things that makes the IWW so great. Critique, feedback, and conversation are how we keep everyone in the big tent in dialogue with each other. In this spirit of ecumenicism, I’m very appreciative that FW Erik D has recently published his analysis of the recent history and organizational approach of the Twin Cities General Defense Committee. As a member of the Twin Cities IWW but not of the GDC, I’ve watched as comrades have spent an increasing amount of time developing the GDC locally. I’ve been supportive of their efforts, asked questions when I had questions to ask, but in general have remained mostly removed from them. I think Erik’s piece is very well written and puts forward important questions facing the GDC and the IWW.

A fundamental premise of the comrade’s article is that unions are not attractive to workers who experience multiple oppressions. He writes “many women, People of Color, immigrants, non-English speakers, and trans workers, for instance, have good reasons to suspect that unions won’t fight for them.” This is an important claim, and one upon which FW Erik rests his argument that the GDC, by engaging in social activism outside of the workplace setting, can transform the demographics of the IWW.

There’s a persistent idea in the Left, and its one that periodically creeps into our own thinking, that because unionism had a specific character in a certain time, that it retains that character today. In the IWW, we sometimes amplify the sins of the labor movement as a side product of our critique of the mainstream labor movement. Railing against the corruption, the bureaucratic ineptness, and the cowardice of Big Labor, we sometimes end up taking positions that are not supported by historical fact or contemporary reality.

Nowhere is this clearer than on questions of race. We tell a story about the labor movement that sometimes runs like this, “The first US unions were racist, exclusionary vehicles for white men’s advancement. The historic IWW was different because it accepted everyone.” And that’s where our story ends. This means that Wobblies sometimes don’t realize how the labor movement has evolved since the early 1900s.  Especially with the push to organize the public sector, which started in earnest in the 1960s, the racial framework of American unionism has changed.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the highest union density in any racial group in America is among black workers. Black workers are more likely to have interactions with unions than white workers are. The IWW in its current form is actually considerably less racially diverse than the mainstream labor movement. Beyond simple membership as a proportion of total group size, there’s also the question of whether unions work for their members. Here again, workers of color have many reasons to support unions. Both black and Latino workers receive greater benefits from union membership than white workers do. Latino workers who are union members are paid 32% more than non-union Latinos, where white union members are paid only 20% more than non-union whites. At least then on a national scale, and by the very crude measurement of wages, the data does not support the comrade’s assertion that “people of color…have good reasons to suspect that unions won’t fight for them.”

It’s worth pausing here to consider the important struggles for inclusion within the mainstream labor movement that have been fought by people of color, women, and queer workers. The mainstream labor movement has been just as plagued by institutional discrimination as the capitalist system that it lives within. As revolutionary unionists, we are not content to be a better version of mainstream labor, we see ourselves as a fundamentally distinct movement that seeks the abolition of the wage system. Perspectives on our differences have been effectively laid out by IWW comrades before, especially in these two pieces. Nonetheless, as we are a marginal force in the capitalist economy, it’s important to recognize that the majority of workers who have experiences with unions have those experiences with the business unions.

Despite the errors of the mainstream union movement, it’s simply not true to say that marginalized members of the class have less interest in unionism than white male workers. Opinion surveys carried out by the capitalist media show exactly the opposite to be true. One survey, carried out in 2015, showed that black workers are much more likely to have a positive view on unions than white workers. The amount of white workers who approve of unionism is almost even with the amount who oppose them. Black workers approve of unions by an almost two-to-one ratio. Latino workers also have significantly better perspectives on unionism than white workers do. The fact that the IWW remains less diverse than the working class generally is something for us to analyze and develop strategies to change. But the failure is not with a lack of interest in unionism, it is with our organization.

Towards the end of the piece, FW Erik engages with those, such as myself, who struggle to understand why the work of widening the IWW’s membership in the working class should be a task relegated to the GDC:

“But a person might still ask if it wouldn’t be better to accomplish the goals of growing the IWW in both numbers and diversity by organizing diverse workplaces. The implication is that such organization will result in the transformation of the IWW. We think the IWW should continue to pursue this strategy, but note that it has not been effective yet.”

I think this claim is debatable. In places and times when we’ve spent serious time organizing in diverse workplaces, we have had varying amounts of success of bringing members into the union who are representative of the workplace. In recent campaigns like Stardust in New York and Mobile Rail in Chicago, membership in the IWW has been reflective of the demographic diversity of the workplace. We’ve been involved in shops where the majority of workers at a workplace are actually workers of color, such as 2004’s Troquero campaign in Stockton, the cleaner’s campaign in London, or the recycling shops in the Bay Area. The recent development of IWOC has tremendous portents for racial diversity of the IWW, focusing as it does on a specifically racialized instrument of control that assists the capitalist class in its disciplining of the working class.

It’s absolutely true that we have failed to bring in and promote workers of color in the IWW on a mass scale. And it’s unquestionably true that by engaging in anti-police brutality struggles, the GDC has brought a layer of black workers into the IWW locally who we would not have met otherwise. But it’s important to remember that we’ve barely done anything on a mass scale in the past decade. Though we are growing, we remain a tiny organization, with extremely limited resources and personnel. On a timeline where campaigns take years develop and a branch may only see one public union fight every few years, a failure to do effective organizing that brings in workers of color from the shop floor can be read as a systematic failure of labor unionism to speak to the issues of workers of color. We should be vigorously self-critical. It’s not acceptable now, nor was it ever, to fail to recruit and promote comrades of color. But at such a tiny scale, it seems to me that FW Erik is unfairly applying a critique which should be leveled at specific campaigns upon the idea of organizing at the point of production in general. Towards the end of the piece, the comrade acknowledges that this lack of data makes it hard to make strong conclusions, but this is undercut by his earlier implications to the contrary.

I should here repeat my original stipulations: I support the important work of the GDC, its transformation from a mostly moribund prisoner support organization into a proletarian defense organization that serves the union. I think it's good for the IWW. I don’t raise any of my disagreements with this article to the level of disagreements with the GDC as a whole. We’re all on the same team, pursuing different strategies within a broader IWW approach towards organization and struggle.

That said, I think the idea that diversifying the IWW through building a defense organization is debatable, and the notion that we’ve failed to do so previously is similarly debatable. If we look at one point of data and amplify that into a strategy, we may pursue strategies that aim at reproducing that single data point. Rather, we should look to our organizing to show us how to fix our errors and to our critique of the political economy to show us where we have power.

It is our class who has the power to abolish capitalism. Not because we are more numerous. If that were the case, regions with massive populations but high rates of income inequality would be where we expect to see revolutions. Instead, in those places we tend to see massive instability and the rise of religious-populist reactionary forces. Neither do we have the power to abolish the system because we can outfight the state. If that were the case, we’d think that the U.S., with its high gun-to-civilian ratio would at the forefront of the global revolutionary movement. Instead, we are about to inaugurate Donald Trump. We will never be able to win a battle in the streets with the state in its current form, we will always be outgunned. The Spanish revolutionaries were beaten in the field by the Francoists and that was before the advent of nuclear weapons. The Zapatistas put down arms almost as soon as they took them up, realizing that they would be massacred if the followed armed struggle as a strategy. The capitalists would never allow a massive, armed communist society to exist. (I don't have room here to run through the wide range of experiences of struggle that take on these two forms or regions where they've haven't appeared, for that there are many other analyses and histories.) Mass approaches tend to shunted towards nationalist populism and militarist approaches tend to reduce struggle into adventurist forms and/or will be simply be outgunned.

Our class has the power to abolish capitalism because we are the class who makes capitalism function. The ruling class provides almost nothing productive into the global economic system, they only prey upon those of us who do all the productive work. Our particular power to withdraw our labor gives us our true advantage of the capitalist class. We don’t need to struggle on their terms, we can struggle on our own. Some may choose to label this strategy with the term "workerism," a term which has lately become a slur in some circles in the Left. I choose to call it "communism" or "anarchism." Regardless, that doesn't make it's fundamental insight any less true. Further, there’s no doubt that this struggle will need to involve billions of people and will definitely need to be militarily defended. The struggle must be both mass and armed. But those approaches can and must be as secondary, and indeed as the name of our GDC even suggests, defensive in nature.

The weapon of the working class is work. Through chronic unemployment, mass incarceration, warfare, and instability, the capitalist class seeks to divide us, and some classical theorists have indeed been confused between the categories of “productive” and “unproductive” work. Perhaps it is to among these orthodox and outdated thinkers that the term "workerist" should be applied as a slur. But in the IWW, we don’t see this difference. We are not reductive in our reading of the concept of class. Every prisoner being paid pennies to do a job that was once a union job is the brother or sister of that worker on the outside. Every refugee displaced by imperialist war who draws a pittance on a welfare check is the brother or sister of the working class taxpayer whose money the government steals to build bombs. Work is the secret to the capitalism, and those of us who do it or are excluded from it have the power to take apart that system, if we work together.

It is this interconnectedness of the working class which currently perpetuates our relative weakness but could be the foundation of our power. We are all each other’s potential fellow workers or each other’s potential scabs. The IWW accepts this challenge, answering it boldly with our program of revolutionary unionism. Only by uniting the diverse (indeed mostly from the Global South and female) working class will we be able to bring the final overthrow, not of one or another particular government or form of exploitation, but of the economic system which underpins all of these them.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Appeal to the Not-So-Young

(I don't write this piece to insult or condescend to anyone. If it comes off that way, it's a fault of my lack of ability as a writer. While I am certainly not that old myself yet, I write this from several years of experience doing various kinds of work in the IWW.)

You are new to the organization. You have been in the IWW less than three years. Perhaps you joined when you were in college. You heard about the IWW in the history books or in the news, found the nearby branch and joined up. You tried to find a role that fit you while you were a student, then graduated or dropped out, and found the whole terrain of possibilities for organizing work in front of you opened up. You jumped in, taking the ideas of the IWW into your job, perhaps even finding a job specifically because it fit your notions of where the IWW should be. Now you find yourself questioning how an organization like the IWW could have ever survived as long as it has. Outdated approaches to questions of identity, of organizing, of structure frustrate you to no end. "Don't they see the possibilities of the organization, and how they're not fulfilling them?" you ask yourself.

Perhaps you joined when you were working some job. Your coworker, someone who seemed cool and genuine, approached you one day to sit down off work and talk more about the problems that you'd been having. One meeting turned into many and before long you found yourself a member of the IWW. You and your coworkers took some actions at work, perhaps raising the union banner, perhaps remaining under the radar but together in solidarity. You transformed some lives, not least of which was your own. You saw your boss realize that his power to intimidate had completely evaporated in the face of your pissed-off, united coworkers. Over time you've noticed that the IWW, which once seemed to have such great ideas about organizing, seems to have run out. You've pushed your organizing as far as the Organizer Training taught you to go, now you find yourself struggling to find new strategies to bring the boss to the table, to expand your organizing to other arenas. "Don't they see how close we are to doing something at the next level, and how they are content to stick with first-day stuff?" you ask yourself.

Perhaps you joined when you were working with, or for, another social justice project or union. You were always vaguely concerned about the project that you'd signed on, even though you recognized the intentions of your fellow staff as fundamentally good. You heard about the IWW from a friend at a party full of social justice folks. You followed up, found the local branch and you joined up. Here was an organization that took the skills you had been learning and actually did something meaningful with them, something that pushed beyond the narrow confines of what your bosses thought the movement was capable of. You took the direct actionist approach to your job, you tried to directly empower your membership, you stopped talking about "fair wages" and started encouraging people to think about a fundamental shake-up to the system. Maybe your bosses have tolerated it, maybe you've had to find yourself a different job, one where they don't yet know how different your organizing ideas are from theirs. But frequently you keep seeing how the IWW's great ideas fall apart when it comes to implementation. The ways in which the organization leapfrogs beyond conventional trade unionism inspire you but the futility of the constant shake-ups, resignations, and straight-up ball dropping drives you crazy. "Don't they see what a great thing they could have, and how they let their long-held practices get in their own way?" you ask yourself.

You have new ideas. And you're lucky, because your new ideas are probably better than the old ideas. You are experiencing the organization's limits for the first time. You are discovering where we fall short and coming up with possible solutions to push us beyond where we are. Whether its in something as dry as record-keeping and accounting, as exciting as organizing strategy, or as emotionally complex as mentoring newer members, you have critiques of the way things have been done. In many cases, you notice that things just aren't being done. Not even that they're being done wrong, rather that no one seems to be doing the pieces of work that you are realizing are so crucial to getting the organization on its feet towards where it should be going. You are becoming not just a member, but an emerging leader, not just someone who has opinions, but someone who can show why their opinions are the right ones.

You have the eyes that people who have been around for longer have lost. Our sense of the circumference of the organization has calcified over time. Where we once saw the organization's limits of the organization as constantly in flux, without real clear definition, where things could be contested and completely new approaches could be tested, time has made things more stable for us. We know who does what, we know what the IWW is and does, we know what the nature of our work is. We've seen so many projects fail, some failing well and some failing poorly, we've seen so many members come and go in the constantly churning mill of 1 month wonders, 3 month flare ups, 6 month burn outs. We still believe, we still have skills, and we still work hard, but we have lost some of the wonder and fire that motivated us in our first months and years. We may not recognize you as who you are because we've seen or talked to hundreds of IWW members once, then had them disappear back into the working class, or worse flee it, and our eyes have gotten foggy. We apologize. Please let us know who you are.

But please remember this: It is not the end of the world. The IWW is neither on the precipice of disaster nor on the edge of a great leap forward. It sometimes feels like the end of the world because this thing of ours is so important to us and any one who seems like they are threatening it must be out to destroy it. But they probably aren't. They probably just have different ideas, ideas that may even be wrong, but they are probably not out to hurt the organization. There are lots of people who have lots to say and do in the IWW. Most of it is paddling water, some of it amazing, and a very small bit is actively counter-productive. You are not the first people to recognize the counter-productive bits, not the first people to try to fix them, nor are you the first people to be frustrated at how difficult they are to solve. Believe this.

Your ideas are probably better than ours because you are new and our ideas haven't yet worked. But make sure to find out if your ideas are actually new or not. You'd be surprised. Things that I thought were cutting edge approaches to solving our problems when I joined the organization didn't work, and from time to time I hear what I thought were my ideas or my words coming out of someone else's mouth. I talk with older members and hear them say the same things were true when I was saying these things for the first time. It frustrates me to realize this because I thought that I had all the answers (sometimes I still think that I do!) but in reality things are more complicated. We need your new eyes and your new ideas to solve our problems and push our work forward. 

On the flip side, there is no magic bullet. One thing I've learned over my short seven years of the organization is that there are no short cuts, or any way no short cuts that actually work. It was incredibly disappointing to realize this but I've since taught it to every organizer who will listen to me babble about it. If short cuts worked, we'd already be in the cooperative commonwealth. If short cuts worked, our organization would already be reflective of the working class around it. If short cuts worked, we'd have a strategy that never lost, tactics that never failed us. But they don't. We need to make sure we interrogate the difference between new ideas and short cuts. If you find yourself saying "all we need to do is this one thing and everything else will work itself out," you should pause. Don't you think that at some point, some other Wob said the same thing? And yet here we are, a work in progress. (My experience was exactly that of the first paragraph of this piece. I am not better than you.)

It is on you to build something new. We will work with you. We may also spend a lot of time keeping the things that have worked well before going strong, and we invite you to join in that effort, because it's a lot of work and it's tiring. For this organization to begin to reach out at its possibilities, and for the wider inheritance that is our class's cross to bear and hopefully unshoulder, we need to build an actually revolutionary praxis. We can't import praxis, believe me it's been tried. If the academy had theorized its way towards communism, we wouldn't need real flesh-and-blood organizers. If the social justice activist scene had solved issues of identity, it wouldn't be so completely out of touch with the working class and the real world. And hell, if the labor movement had a clue what it was doing, we wouldn't need an IWW at all! Its the task of all of us, but especially those of you who have new ideas, to build an authentically Wobbly revolutionary praxis.

Don't be afraid to shake things up and don't be afraid to clearly say what you think, but remember that we're all in this together and that no one in this organization is an enemy. Differing currents, groups, circles, cohorts or factions may have differing ideas or approaches, but we are all on the same side of the class war. We need to stick together and experiment with new ideas together, collectively and reflectively, taking the lessons from the past but not allowing them to overshadow the possibilities of the future. It's a great thing that we have here but we can make it better together.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

On being eaten by the young

Like all organizations, the IWW has its problems to contend with. One of the ones that I've been observing recently that I think we continually cycle back towards is the problem of "being eaten by the young." Despite its name, its a problem that has nothing to do with age (I've seen people in their 20s be eaten by the young and I've seen retired people eat the old).

I can think of probably a dozen examples of members being getting eaten by the young, but they all follow the same general pattern. A member has been around for at least four years (sometimes many more), has done some organizing, and has been active in some way in the international union, either through Convention, an international committee or an officer position. During this time they've weighed in on various controversies as part of their position or just as an active member with a sharp mind. They've taken controversial stands, or pushed new and challenging ideas. Their name is known around the organization because of their activities, people may even use their name as a shorthand for a specific idea or tendency. In short, they are popular.

But suddenly, and its impossible to tell exactly when, they cross a threshold and start finding that people, especially new members, talk behind their backs. Their actions become imbued with bad motives (of any sort: reactionary, reformist, careerist, out of touch, academic, impossibilist, etc). The positions that they have taken in the past come back to haunt them in the present. The amount of knowledge they have, whether it be the number of people they know, the workings of the internal union rules, or their capacity to advance ideas in the organization, becomes suspect. And so newer members, who don't have personal relationships with them, see them as a gate-keeper and an old guard. Someone who is holding the organization back. The member's reputation is slowly stained and so in response they find themselves tightening up, becoming suspicious, finding enemies, real or imagined, and further confirming new member's beliefs about their stodgy nature, their "old beard"-yness. Before long, the member quits in frustration, provokes open conflict, or disappears into the wider world, retaining their membership just out of longtime loyalty. They've been eaten by the young.

I've been the young, eating the old. I've rolled my eyes, felt not taken seriously, condescended to, and have whispered, caucused, schemed. Now, about to celebrate my 6th year in the organization and coming off a two year officer term where I've taken controversial positions, I wonder if I'm next. I worry about when my experience will become a liability. When will I be eaten?

How do we stop having the young eat the old? Not I think with the usual prescription, which is encapsulated by the statement "Yeah he's a problem but he's done so much stuff, just ignore it." Yeah-he's-a-probleming things just means we ignore disruptive behavior because of someone's experience, which is foolish and just encourages other young people to eat him. Yeah-he's-a-probleming is the primary response to this problem today and it's use exists in perfect harmony with being eaten by the young, each supporting the other's use.

I don't have any firm thoughts about how to deal with this but want to sketch out a couple of possible directions to think through.

1. Talking more openly and clearly about mentorship and what it means. It should be an expectation that more experienced members mentor newer members, but it should also be clear to new members that everyone in the organization has learned from someone before them. There will always be more experienced people to learn from and there will always be people who are new and need to learn. We should be clear with up-and-coming organizers that they have a lot to learn, even if what they're doing is new and interesting. I feel like nobody ever really told me "Stop, listen to this person, it's important." For Wobs who came up in my "cohort" as it were, I feel like the message was, "You're great, go forth!" I don't really know how to do this, but I do think that talking more about how we learn organizing and political skills would be a good idea.

2. Save history from the historians. None of us was the first person in this organization, we're all indebted to those before us. Yet many people like myself start nodding off when someone starts talking about 1915 like it was yesterday. The fact that so many of us have come up in the organization fighting against the "Joe Hill Memorial Society" culture means that we often think of history as a kind of opponent, something against we are constantly measuring ourselves to see if we're worthy of its mantle. We fear and avoid history.

We need to talk more and louder about our recent history. An experienced member just seems like a boring person with lots of opinions to a new member who doesn't know where those opinions came from and what forged them. We need to produce more written accounts of our struggles, contemporary and historic, and have them available and accessible as part of a Wobbly's first year in the organization. If I would have known more about some members who I have taken part in eating at the time, I would have eased back.

3. Smash the gates. This ties in with both previous points, but experienced members need to do a way better job of avoiding both the appearance and the reality of gatekeeping. This is way harder than it sounds. The more time and energy you've spent on the union, the more you start using shorthands and jargon. You have more relationships with individuals who you've deemed worth your time and you sometimes ignore people you don't know, especially in an organization where turnover amongst new members is astronomical. You don't want to waste time arguing with someone with stupid ideas who you know won't be around 5 months from now.

There's a million reasons why gatekeeping is easier for experienced members, and that means we need a million ways to fight it. I don't know what they all are, but I'd be open to suggestions.

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Socialism in Minneapolis: Thinking about Elections

Having just survived an election season in Minneapolis's 9th Ward, the various arguments about Socialist Alternative's candidate for City Council are fresh in my mind. Here I'm going to weave (or more accurately, stick together) together two separate pieces of thinking about what this stuff represents. The first is more an analysis of what's going on in Minneapolis right now on the left, posing some questions to think about going forward. The second, more wandering bit is about why I think electoralism in America is a false problem radicals to worry about.

The “MK Dialectics” of Ty Moore for City Council              
I’ve spent the past few months sitting on the sidelines of the emergent campaign for Ty Moore, a candidate from the Trotskyist political party Socialist Alternative (SA), for City Council of Minneapolis. Socialist Alternative, which has a reasonable base of mostly students and a minority of worker militants, has a good track record of participating in various social struggles in the Twin Cities, moving from their work in the youth anti-war movement of the early 2000s to a variety of causes including school closures, GLBT activism, and most recently, a serious orientation towards working inside Occupy Homes Minnesota (OHMN). I’ve always had good relationships with members of SA and they have supported the IWW in various struggles we have been involved with and we have in turn attempted to turn out to their events. While there are obvious political differences between the two groups, SA has, up to this point, not emphasized electoral politics as part of their practice, outside of “getting out the vote” for Greens or Nader-types come election time. Socialist Alterative is also notable locally for being a party that identifies with the Trotskyist tradition formally, but downplays their revolutionary socialist politics in their publicity, unlike other Trotskyist groups. Since their Seattle section ran an unsuccessful but exciting campaign for a candidate for Washington State Senate, turning out 14,000 votes, SA has around the country started to look more towards electoral possibilities, and this has culminated locally with Moore’s candidate for City Council.

We have a comrade who goes by the name MK. He’s a smart and savvy organizer, and at some point identified a way of analyzing situations that have since been colloquially and partially-jokingly termed “MK dialectics.” MK dialectics consider the political situation by noting that there are often three layers of reality, each a level deeper than the last. Or, to put it differently, each level of analysis sees a more obscure reality hidden behind it, and uncovers it by interrogating the relevant information about the level that is currently visible. It’s also just an amusing way of simplifying political analysis into a pithy refrain. In MK dialectics we ask the questions “what’s going on?” then “what’s really going on?” and then finish with “what’s really, really going on?"

Having tried to keep in touch with what’s happening locally with the Moore campaign, and in discussion with some comrades, I’d like to offer what I think is a way of looking at what’s happened with this campaign, using the framing of MK’s dialectics to understand the situation.

What’s going on: Socialist Alternative ran a campaign for City Council, pushing demands like $15 an hour minimum wage and an end to foreclosures as educational demands that it hopes will inspire people to both vote for Moore and come around the politics of SA.

What’s really going on: A group of “militant reformist” organizations, led by Occupy Homes, came together to support Moore’s campaign. SA has played an important role within Occupy Homes and in supporting these other organizations and there are strong links between SA and the militant reformists.

What’s really, really going on: The left-wing of the NGO-labor-community organization scene in Minneapolis, having struggled with the DFL establishment in the past few years, are attempting to consolidate their organizing successes and political power in a figure in City Hall, using SA as a front group with broad and vague enough politics to fulfill this desire.
I think this analysis effectively flips the appearance of what’s going on its head and I’m fairly confident that I’m correct in what I’m saying here. I don’t say it to be a jerk or to put people down, but I think it’s important to analyze what’s going on in my city, even if I know and have worked with many of the people involved. I think the entire Moore campaign is actually the result of the success of organizations, most clearly Occupy Homes, but also SEIU and the Centro de Trabajadores Unidos en la Lucha (CTUL), which is SEIU and (I believe) non-profit-funded, and the post-ACORN organization Neighborhoods Organizing for Change (NOC) becoming a New Left, primarily centered around staff organizers within these and allied organizations. SA serves as a useful vehicle for the campaign because they’re excited about running electoral campaigns, excited about what it could do for their party, and have a public face that can accommodate both reformist and revolutionary supporters. But it’s also important to analyze the material forces that represent the biggest backers and most powerful players in this situation. What’s really, really happening is this campaign is the manifestation on a formal political level of the work that the left wing of the non-profit/labor complex has been able to accomplish with Occupy and beyond it.

I do think it’s important to be cogent about what’s happening below the surface because of what it means going forward. I attended part of a post-election wrap-up of the campaign where multiple shot-callers pushed people towards working together on social movement projects and the short term, and returning to run candidates in the long term. In what ways would a representative of the “militant reformists” in the Twin Cities sitting on the Minneapolis City Council mean for the way that struggles, both reformist and revolutionary, move forward? What are the limits that taking political power (even if that power is only one seat and a seat replacing a liberal Democrat) puts these organizations vis-à-vis the repressive apparatus of the state and what openings does it create? Will the organizations which constitute this base push for radical demands or will they be content with merely calling for them for educational purposes? How will radicals who see themselves as outside the electoral arena relate to a formally-constituted Left which finds itself for the first time with political representation by both moderates (SEIU-backed candidates all around the state) and radicals and how will these two different forces relate internally? These are questions for us to return to going forward, assuming this current wave of electoralism continues.

Electoralism: A False Dilemma

Just a few days before the City Council election in Minneapolis, a group of comrades from the 1st of May Anarchist Organization put out a statement condemning electoralism and attempting to identify the weaknesses of an approach to politics that includes running candidates for office. A good statement, it sums up the general anarchist approach to the electoral issue. The one place where it is weak is when it tries to show the specific political problems raised in SA's campaign:

“First, movements across the city were already raising the issues of low-paid service work, the foreclosure crisis, and immigrant rights… It will not be City Council resolutions that prevent foreclosures or raise minimum wages, but a mobilized community willing to physically block sheriff’s evictions, and organized workers willing to strike.”

Later M1 says:

“What we notice is that at the core of this coalition are organizations influenced and funded by SEIU leadership, and sharing their top-down, staff driven, reformism with a militant veneer. It seems that SEIU leadership recognizes in Ty’s campaign a similar approach and made the calculation that a break with the DFL here would help solidify the hegemony of this kind of politics over community, labor and social activists in Minneapolis.”

As my analysis above lays out, the people identified in the first paragraph are the same people maligned in the second. It's not that there are malicious reformists attempting to subvert radical movements from above through electioneering, it's that most of the movements in the city in the current moment are reformist movements interested in electioneering and the veneer of militancy that they wear brings radicals to believe they're something that they're not. The specifics of the polemic aside, the critique is shared all around the far left by comrades who see electoral campaigns as distractions from the real work, what M1 calls the "main lesson" of the SA campaign being "[h]ow to participate in this unjust system."

I think though that this traditional anarchist and ultraleft position on elections has the bad fortune of being simultaneously right and wrong. That is to say, the position is correct analytically but incorrect strategically. Yes, running elections is a distraction from radical organizing amongst the working class and teaches people that politicians can save them from their problems. That's true. The first part of the critique has maybe more to it, but arguing that the idea of left electoralism will teach people to be dependent on left politicians serves no purpose.

In a country where we have never had an electoral socialist movement which came anywhere near the reigns of the state, and in which the rules of electioneering have been set by two major capitalist parties for its entire existence, the "threat" that electoralism poses is a false one. There's simply no way, under the current system of gerrymandering, machine politics, and campaign finance rules, for socialists to constitute a serious threat to the capitalist political parties on a wide scale. Ward 9 in Minneapolis is probably the most left ward in the city and certainly the one with the highest density of left activists and organizers per capita. The whole country, indeed the whole city, is not Ward 9. And even there, the campaign lost.

We're living in a fantastically interesting moment of capitalist political power in this country, where the Republican Party, besieged by demographic changes, is rewriting laws in states and in Washington to make sure that they hold their grip on power after they have become truly unrepresentative of the people they claim to govern. The Democratic Party, ascendent demographically if not politically, has its opponent on the ropes but cannot figure out how to land the knockout blow. In this moment, with the capitalist political parties figuring out how to continue their game in a situation that is rapidly changing, there is definitely going to be a left flank that opens on the Democrats side and which allows for people, some socialists and others "progressives" to exist and even to win elections. Indeed SA's campaign in Seattle is achieving a lot of press because of their success in a city-wide race.

But this attention remains, on the long term, insignificant. The realignment of the capitalist political class and its current internal crises, will not lead to a reconfiguring of how electoral politics works at a fundamental level because these dynamics are centuries-old juridical frameworks of U.S. politics. The only thing that could possibly open up electoralism as a viable, widely-spread avenue for the far left in the U.S. would be a revolution of some mixed-class type. 300 years of capitalist legal control with no widespread electoral opposition have solidified a system under which left electoralism cannot win. The only thing that has terrified the capitalist class and their lackies in government in this country's history has been mass, widespread uprisings of working people, and before them, slaves. Left electoralism has never challenged U.S. capitalism in a meaningful way even when millions of people self-consciously saw themselves as anti-capitalist radicals, why would it suddenly do so now, over a hundred years since socialism's highest electoral turn out of 6% for Eugene Debs in 1912's presidential election? (And one hundred years through which the two major parties have used even more sophisticated maneuvers to disenfranchise working people.)

Urging people to fear and oppose the specter of an electoral turn of the left in this country is simply not worth one's time. Furthermore, it invites reformist forces to marginalize and dismiss anti-electoral radicals as out of touch with reality. Of course, it is those self-same reformist forces who delude themselves by thinking that despite the international failure of the Second International, Eurocommunism, and more recently Bolivarianism (in its varied forms) to bring about anything resembling a cooperative commonwealth of labor, they will somehow do things differently. The far left should heed the lessons of the Socialist Party, forerunners of SA and various political party's sojourns into electoralism. The party never again regained the strength it had after it forced the IWW and other syndicalist and direct actionist forces out of the party and lost much of its electoral strength as a result. The lesson for radicals should be clear: the choice between electoralist utopianism and actionist puritanism is a false one and obscures more than it clarifies. In a moment where some of the most militant forces are the most conservative and bureaucratic on the left, the idea that who our allies and opponents are can be seen clearly through which field of action they mythologize most is difficult to maintain. The question should be what tactics, strategies, and organizational methods move our class closer to a communist future and how can we work towards those ends? It's not that electoralism is wrong, though it is, it's that its unimportant.