Election is not a Dirty Word

Guys, let’s win.

After all these decades of defeat, infighting, and general obscurity, the time is now for the left to develop a broad, cooperative national strategic framework. Ours is no age for complacent, self-satisfied defeat, ideological purity video games, or boutique dilettante circle-jerking. If we make a run at it, we’ve got a shot. No run, no shot.

I’d be the last to tout the inevitability of a tidal change that brings some justice (not to mention the potential for bare survival) into the integral systems of this world. Quite the opposite. It’s the mortal uncertainty surrounding the present moment that most implores action. And far be it from me to suggest that leftists abandon their arguments and dialectical explorations, but if we don’t at least acknowledge our separate actions alongside one another as valid and worthy, we’ll keep spinning in circles, going nowhere.

Everyone should read Jacobin

Kshama Sawant at Left Forum (stolen flagrantly from socialistalternative.org)
Kshama Sawant at Left Forum (stolen flagrantly from socialistalternative.org)

I wanted to talk about all of this strategy stuff last week but ran out of steam before I could finish, and it’s a good thing because then the Working Families Party debacle shook things up and speakers and attendees at Left Forum, which I couldn’t go to, spoke to my sentiments in more direct and thorough ways than I was or am capable. Then this morning, making things worse for me but better for the world, Jacobin’s bombastic new issue was released, featuring a strategy-centered editorial and a four-part special section devoted to strategy, including the strident “No Shortcuts” by Ntanya Lee and Steve Williams.

Since long clips from Left Forum started popping up on YouTube over the last day and a half, I haven’t had the chance to properly explore them. But jealous as I was in my inability to join the leftists of America, I devoured the missives I found on Twitter and, among certain common complaints and the to-be-expected snide sectarian superiority snipes, I sensed a certain mood – a mood that vaguely recognized a certain need for – well – solidarity between our disparate factions and causes. I’m sure many attendees would disagree with me, and after all, I wasn’t there. But I sensed from afar a certain recognition that there may be possibilities for a resurgent left if only we could establish a bare minimum of cooperation and mutual respect.

But hell, even if I’m just projecting that mood because it’s what I want to see, I’m right to want to see it. Even a modicum of begrudging respect would go a long way. More so now than ever before.

As Jacobin’s editors put it in their editorial:

We need a unifying political project that can articulate a compelling vision of a new society, bring together disparate campaigns and organizations on an ongoing and coordinated basis, and mount a general political offensive against the system in its totality…We need to get down to the work of building a radical civil society: forging social and organizational “infrastructures of dissent,” developing our capacities to understand the world and articulate a compelling alternative moral and political vision, and linking these resources to a dynamic social base.

Precisely. Lee and Williams delve deeper in “No Shortcuts,” pointing to resurgent Latin American leftist movements as an example to follow:

Chilean political scientist Marta Harnecker offers a useful definition of the Left as those “forces that oppose the capitalist system and its profit motive and which are fighting for an alternative humanist, solidarity-filled society, a socialist society, the building blocks of which are the interests of the working classes. This society would be ‘free from material poverty and the spiritual wretchedness engendered by capitalism.’”…

The economic crash of 2008 has left millions of people disillusioned, disaffected, and dispossessed. Still, there is little confidence that anything else is possible, and our inability to describe a compelling alternative to capitalism renders us irrelevant to most. Any anticapitalist strategy in the United States must contend with this reality. We must provide a response to the question: toward what?

Full Communism!
Full Communism!

The masterful essay goes on to describe the varying tasks and angles within which most in the fragmented left occupy themselves and, most importantly, does not point a finger at some as more worthy than others. All are beneficial, they argue simply and elegantly, so long as they answer the above question and point the way to a life beyond capitalism. Those already committed to the left, one way or another, should focus on engaging their energies in whichever sector they are most inclined or best-suited, while standing in solidarity with all those in other sectors.

It’s OK – we can say the word

Some people are into disruptive demonstration. Some are into combating privilege through awareness. Some are into old-school party-building. Many are into issue-based grassroots organizing. Others are attracted to the few remaining radical elements within contemporary unionism. Some are process-based Occupy horizontalists. A good deal of us fall into more than one of these categories, or any of the many I didn’t mention. But even if we may find some of these things somewhat objectionable in theory or distasteful to our sentiments – and probably all of us feel that way about at last one of these groups – we’ve got to stand in at least tacit solidarity and head-nod recognition.

One group I didn’t mention is the heretics who dabble so dangerously in the perilous swamp of electoral politics.

The suggestion that elections are a useful and worthwhile tool in 21st century socialism will always be tough on the (arguably) most serious elements of the hard left. It is a suggestion which, along with the others, must nevertheless be accepted. No die-hard anti-reformist need be forced into sign-holding, door-knocking, or even voting itself. Again, all that is demanded here is some measure of tacit solidarity and head-nod recognition.

Everyone is well aware that a post-capitalist world can never be voted in at the ballot box. To contradict such a truism would be doubly foolish in light of the European elections that saw the Continent’s soft social democracy – beloved by so many left-liberals – under direct frontal assault by no less an enemy than open fascism. Not only will pro-social reforms inevitably be curtailed or weakened, but capitalist democracy always threatens to swing hard in the opposite direction, especially when times are difficult.

We are not seeking even the most generous welfare state or to dress capitalism in the whitest, prettiest, most humane and benevolent dress we can find. We recognize that no elected official can legislate or constitutionally mandate a revolution.

But basic grassroots organizing, of course – making contacts, gathering signatures, building relationships, bridging connections between people and groups – this is the crux on which we rest all of our efforts. And that’s precisely what a properly-constructed campaign consists of. Guys, that’s what campaigning is, and since people believe elections to be normal, they respond to electoral competition with a greater degree of openness and acceptance than other forms of organizing. We don’t have to like that, it’s just the way that it is. When it comes to building a core grassroots movement, nothing can do so more quickly, easily, and even cheaply than participating in an election.


Now, there are ways to do this and there are ways not to do this. It’s easy for participation in electoral politics to make things worse for the broader left. That’s what New York’s Working Families Party did this weekend.

I’m always surprised no one asks him what it’s life to golf with the Lord of the Flies.

I’ll be honest – until like a week ago, I had never heard of the WFP. I don’t spend a lot of time on New York state politics because it’s always such a ridiculous mess – and this latest round did little to disabuse me of this notion. To briefly recap (for a more thorough account, read this from The Nation or Jacobin), New York has weird laws that allow a party to endorse someone from another party and run that candidate on the party line. Put more simply, the WFP – a left-leaning party involved with labor and community organizing –  secured itself a line on New York state ballots, and usually they use it to “nominate” the same person running as a democrat. For example, in the 2010 gubernatorial elections, democratic nominee (and eventual victor) Andrew Cuomo was on the ballot twice – once as a Democrat, once for the WFP. This allows conscientious left-leaning voters to avoid tipping any election to a republican while (very quietly) voicing left-leaning sentiments. That year, over 150,000 people voted for Cuomo on the WFP line. Of course, that stands in contrast to the 2.6 million votes he received as a democrat, but it’s a solid statement of a progressive constituency.

Now, Andrew Cuomo has ruled as governor like a grade-A, major league asshole country club golf partner of Satan. The man, governor of one of the country’s most reliably progressive states, is practically a right-winger minus the social issue bigotry. So when the time came around for the WFP to make a statement – symbolic, sure, but a powerful symbol nonetheless – of disapproval by nominating a law professor named Zephyr Teachout, the party thought about it for five minutes and then decided to back the devil’s golf partner for no apparent reason whatsoever. Supposedly, Cuomo was going to grant magical concessions like supporting a democratic majority in the legislature (what??) and being less mean to all the downtrodden, but he was laughing at them less than twelve hours later.

He’s got good reason to laugh. He embarrassed them. By extension, I even feel embarrassed. That’s the public face of the left? “We stand for something, oh wait, never mind, because democrats”?

It’s better to not do elections at all than to do them like that. Fortunately, however, we’ve got contemporary examples of the other ways the electoral tool can be employed.

Sawant shows how it’s done

CM Kshama Sawant, at this early date, is always going to come up as our best example and greatest success story. It’s a story that – I suspect she’d be the first to tell you – is not all about her but about the people who supported her, who joined her crusade, and even those who simply want a little more economic justice in their lives. Yet with even that modest groundswell beneath her, her calm and unyielding determination has not merely guaranteed a $15 minimum wage in some form or other for the city of Seattle, it has amplified the cries of the last year’s fast food protesters to a level at which other candidates and politicians are forced to address it. Bolstered, of course, by her victory, the minimum wage issue has become a national thing, maybe even the biggest one of the midterm season.

That’s huge. A living wage is a far, far cry from worker-owned production, but it’s way more than we’ve got now, and – as I suggested earlier – we can either start somewhere, or we can accept that we’re just not that serious about this leftism thing.

Nicholas Caleb. (Stolen flagrantly from dailykos)
Nicholas Caleb. (Stolen flagrantly from dailykos)

But while victories are of explosive strategic worth in terms of the scope of their impact, it can’t, shouldn’t, and doesn’t have to be all about winning. Take a look at Nicholas Caleb and his bold play to extend Sawant’s red menace down the northwest coastline and into the city council of Portland, Oregon. A member of Sawant’s party and proudly cut from the same cloth, Caleb lost in his battle against an established democratic incumbent.

But as Ramy Khalil points out for Socialist Alternative, this is a young professor who came from nowhere and barely raised a meager five thousand bucks and yet was able to turn that 5k into a respectable 19%, attracted substantial support and enthusiasm that a hundred people rallied at city hall at his defeat, and, perhaps most significantly, changed the conversation in a major city on the issue of wages and forced his opponent to favor some semblance of living wage. To put all this another way, from a strategic perspective, losing a campaign meant stirring up a whole ton of shit without the connections, manpower, and funds usually required to do such a thing.

If it can be said only cost Sawant $21,000 – still a paltry sum by even the standards of municipal elections – to win her seat in Seattle, $5,000 spent in a support-building campaign defeat can be said to have delivered a “return” at least proportional to its size.

Not to mention, as Khalil also reminds us, CM Sawant herself only garnered 12% of the vote in her first election just a couple years ago. The Battle of Portland is far from over.

Diverse (and fluid) approach for a diverse (and fluid) country

“But man,” my favorite left-liberal “comrade” foil is inclined to remind me, “that’s Seattle. That’s Portland,” the implication being that such examples are worth less because of the unusual characteristics of the places in which they occurred. He’s mostly wrong – any small but committed movement will derive substantial advantages from developing formidable municipal and regional bases of power. After all, once upon a time, even the Bolsheviks only had St. Petersburg. There’s something to be said for having a functional base of operations from which to expand, not to mention the fact that any regional force of this nature commands at least begrudging respect as a force to be reckoned with.

In fact, we’d be beyond foolish to not immediately establish a political presence using any means at our disposal in as many cities with large working populations as is feasible. Making it a trend is crucial to continue the increase in our recognition – and it’s also a real test of the grassroots support we’re able to build. There’s some evidence of this already – Jess Spear, another of CM Sawant’s SA comrades, is challenging no less than the Washington House Speaker (who represents Seattle), and Jorge Mújica of the similar but unaffiliated Chicago Socialist Campaign is mounting a bid for Chicago city alderman.

But even as we attempt to export Seattle’s success into other urban areas, especially those with large working populations, and while a focus on building solid geographical power bases is crucial, a movement that is solely urban or bicoastal or northern will never be sufficient. Acknowledging this requires not merely an openness to whatever tactics apply most effectively in different geographic areas, but also the absence of condescension and regional chauvinism. Radicals in the American south don’t need to be chided or instructed, much less saved, by those of us in more traditionally progressive regions; in fact, such radicalism can only flower in home-grown, locally-cultivated soil, and such radicalism must be just as instructive to us we imagine ours to be for them.

I’m often reminded of this by University of Alabama labor Ph.D student Douglas Williams, via his Twitter feed, which you should follow immediately. In a recent conversation, he reminded me that entryism – the old school Trotskyist doctrine of infiltrating an existing organization or political party with the intent of taking control of its existing machinery to use for our own ends – is still the best and most accessible approach in some places. Indeed, Williams himself is a candidate for the State Democratic Executive Committee. Yeah…democrat. So if I’ve come in recent years to identify the democratic party as my primary ideological opponent, does than now extend to Williams, a thoroughly committed socialist, in his candidacy?

Absolutely not. I may oppose most democrats and their tepid range from neoliberal to plain-liberal, but I don’t oppose the coopting of their machinery, the hijacking of their brand for desirable ends.

And anyone who doubts this approach need look no further than the late, great mayor of Jackson, Mississippi, Chokwe Lumumba. A lifelong black radical and lawyer who once represented Tupac Shakur, he took office last year and immediately embarked on an ambitious program that coupled old fashioned “sewer socialism” focus on infrastructure and the establishment of radical workers’ cooperatives (in Mississippi!) with the backing of a grassroots, independent, populist town-meeting-style People’s Assembly he’d helped to establish as member of the city council. He openly described himself as a radical, made no secret of his hostility toward capitalism – and was a democrat.

Let the tale of this hero be instructive. We must be open to that which advances our goals.

It’s synergy (as the capitalists would say)!

Yes, I’ve just spent a great deal of time touting the virtues of socialist involvement in elections. In light of the level of skepticism and dismissal with which leftists tend to approach this subject, it’s warranted. Still, I have to reiterate that I don’t consider elections to be “the answer” or even the most important tactic at our disposal. I merely demand that it be included in our diverse arsenal.

15 Now in Seattle. (Also flagrantly stolen from socialistalternative.org)
15 Now in Seattle. (Also flagrantly stolen from socialistalternative.org)

Strategy inherently involves an assessment of our own strengths and weaknesses not merely in a vacuum but also in relation to the strengths and weaknesses of our opponent. That this, at present, requires the seemingly redundant admission that we have most of the weaknesses and our opponents most of the strengths, is not reason to accept paralysis or defeat but a circumstantial exhortation to be creative and flexible. These attributes are, of course, a couple of the only advantages held by any small and committed force. Rigidity in such an important yet practically gestational movement is fatal. As with all living things, our presence requires breathing room and the ability to bend around and coopt obstacles in order to live.

Our enemies are strong, but their powerful and efficient machines prevent them from being able to adapt as quickly as we are able. They have mighty institutional structures at their disposal, but if we fail to examine how those structures can be manipulated for our benefit and their destruction, that failure is on us, not them.

In conclusion, what can be seen even by skeptics of elections as more crucial than the best applications of the ballot is the ability of individual candidacies to promote grassroots issue campaigns – and vice versa. Kshama Sawant rose to victory atop a wave of radical wage advocacy, and then in turn used the momentum from her victory to cement further gains in the wage fight.

That’s the model. Through issue-based organization, leftists can achieve not merely paltry reform but reforms of the destabilizing nature. We may be closer to that point than seems possible at times, but we’ve still got to work our way there, and we put ourselves – and the whole of what exists of a cause that we all may collectively rally round – at a disadvantage to fail to promote our radical alternatives using the electoral political structures just waiting to be seized.

It’s going to require everything that we already do, and then some, taken in combination, for any substantive victory. Let’s at least tacitly agree to that much – and go forward without hesitation or fear.

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