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.


  1. The one thing we do have to worry about a reformist NGO/electoral front is the very real fact that they seek to distance themselves from, and often, subvert true radical organizations. In my experience, such organizations use police and other state apparatus against radical activists; they trot out fake campaigns that mirror the goals of radical ones, only to disappear and take the energy with them after they have successfully pulled participants away or their rhetoric has weakened support. They will get people involved in long-term time-wasting actions that rely on corrupt city and state system green-lights at every point, and then simply shut off the juice when their goal of looking busy and undermining the competition have been accomplished. In the latter, I would look at the Goldman Sachs divestment proposal that was brought by several institutional actors claiming to represent a split from Occupy driven by too-radical politics. At a time when the critique was that Occupy was incapable of creating results of any kind, here was this group that in one fell swoop managed to get the council to agree to deny Goldman Sachs and related companies any future contracts. What a triumph of liberal forces. It didnt' work of course, though it did distract people for quite a while--the city council effectively killed it. And the group that offered the idea in the first place disappeared completely from the issue. Make no mistake, these organizations view real radical organizations as the competition and they have no compunctions about eliminating the competition.

  2. Good writings, and I'm glad to see this kind of analysis being put out there. You're take on the reformist unions and nonprofits seems correct and important to me, and think we need to be clearer about that distinction. Too often radicals get blindsided because they perceive things as being a plot by those forces, when in fact it is a reflection of the situation responding to objective circumstances. That isn't to accept it, but to reframe where we direct the critique.

    I take issue only with one aspect of the argument. I think you may be underestimating the potential of electoral reformism as a living possibility. Within today's balance of power everything you write is true, but I don't think its a distant possibility that popular support and disagreements in the political establishment could make some partial electoral bases a reality, and definitely without a revolution. More importantly, I don't think we should base our assessment of electoral threats on their impossiblity of success since that effectively blunts our ability to respond to them. The problem isn't that they are irrelevant, never make gains, etc., it's how they function and what they build which creates problems down the road even while recognizing they can do good humanistic stuff along the way. It's a deeper critique to recognize that sometimes they do have real impacts and in fact can offer more than direct action in certain contexts.

    Our critique of electoralism needs to arise from its strength and all the potentials it can offer people so we're not surprised if we ever face that. The material gains that some experienced say in Brazil and Venezuela in the early 2000s was significantly disorienting and destructive in many ways to movements there. There's two arguments that need to be overcome, and that we need to have our own alternative to: (1) Material gains are the business of politics, and electoral politics can be one tool amongst many for delivering them, (2) we do better with the left in power not as the main strategy, but simply as one factor in the movement towards socialism. Both are wrong, though not wholly wrong. If we accept that electoralism can have real impact in people's lives and offer things we cannot at times, it makes us look to our tasks more thoroughly.

  3. Nifty analysis. One thing overlooked here which makes Minnesota different is the third-party history, in particular the Farmer-Labor Party and Gov. Floyd Olson who spoke of worker ownership in mines etc., as well as Gov. Ventura. The role of Green city council member Cam Gordon (along with the fed sting on earlier Green Zimmerman) in the city equation should probably be addressed as well. [if you get in, you get fed stings. Surprise!]

    There is even a recent enough path even to statewide success outside 2 parties blazed by Ventura which includes quirky ads, a good appearance at the State Fair, and worse-than-average candidates in the two parties. That is not the same as launching a winning campaign from the left, but it delivered outside the two-headed hydra in MN at least once. (Drawing heavily on areas at times mistrustful of the two parties including Anoka suburbs and the north shore - mistrustful at least of the metro DFL).

    I worked with new Pirate Party candidates in the Minneapolis election. Despite very little press and not raising money, still netted 4.7% on first choice, 10% on 2nd, and 25% on 3rd on average. There is a whole argument to be made for filing candidates and *not* putting any money into it, as it seemed Pirates benefitted at least a bit from filing a bunch of them. Possible middle road: Don't dump in resources expecting to win, but consider it may not be a huge distraction from major political goals simply to file candidates??

    If one can attract about 1.5x the votes of the *difference* between the two leading candidates in a race, this can put pressure on the candidates to coopt the alternative message in an effort to not lose. Whether or not this gets actual results, it can be a tug on the broader political environment. Cheers keep it up!

  4. MK sent me this in an email:

    Jefferson should get some of the credit for "MK Dialectics." My
    bigger contribution was pointing out those cases where What's Really,
    Really Going On turns out to be the same as What's Going On, in a kind
    of full circle. I now refer to this kind of multi-leveled reality as
    "Chinatown," after my favorite scene in the movie:


    Gittes pulls the plaster off his nose, stares at it in the
    mirror. Evelyn takes some hydrogen peroxide and some cotton
    out of a medicine cabinet. Evelyn turns Gittes' head toward
    her. She has him sit on the pullman tile adjacent to the

    Doctor did a nice job...

    She begins to work on his nose with the peroxide. Then she
    sees his cheek -- checks back in his hair.--


    -- Boy oh boy, you're a mess

    -- Yeah --

    (working on him)

    -- So why does it bother you to talk
    about it... Chinatown...

    -- Bothers everybody who works there --

    but to me -- It was --

    Gittes shrugs.

    -- Hold still -- why?

    -- You can't always tell what's going on there --

    ... No -- why was it --

    I thought I was keeping someone from
    being hurt and actually I ended up
    making sure they were hurt.

    Could you do anything about it?

    They're very close now as she's going over a mouse very near
    his eye.

    Yeah -- make sure I don't find myself
    in Chinatown anymore --

  5. hey John,
    Great post. I think the first half of this is excellent, great points about what's really going on here. In the second half, you argue that electoral efforts are inherently limited, from the perspective of complete liberation/communism/whatever we call it. So, elections are a dead end politically for people with our perspectives. At the same time you argue that electoralism isn't a problem, because it's so marginal. Do I understand correctly? If so, I don't think that's exactly right. I mean, I'm sympathetic. To some extent you're like "elections? meh" both in response to the electoral effort and in response to critics of the election. That resonates with me in a pretty big way. But I think that elections might become able to deliver the goods in a slightly (and only slightly) expanded way, and I think that they may become a more important problem on the left. Like the Obama election campaign in 2008, that sucked up a lot of time and energy that was wasted IMHO. If there's more of a push toward local election stuff in response to the Sawant win in Seattle, I think electoralism could become a more significant distraction.

    To put it another way, I feel like your piece is like "under present circumstances, electoralism is a dead end because of the limits of what can be achieved through elections" and also says "under present circumstances anti-electoralism is mistaken because electoralism is so irrelevant." That means that for you, I think (and sorry if I get you wrong, I don't want to put words in your mouth), there are no conditions which will make elections a real political opening. But are there any conditions under which electoralism could become a real problem to deal with? If so, what are they, in your view?

    take care,

  6. I commented here: http://libcom.org/library/socialism-minneapolis-thinking-about-elections#comment-529206

    Solidarity, K