a better world
is probable
  1. Why should socialists build a revolutionary organization today?

    June 29, 2014

    PREFACE: This is a transcript of a talk that I gave this year at the International Socialist Organization’s annual Socialism Conference in Chicago. Putting my talk together was a little bit of a rushed process due to some personal factors, so it’s far from my best work. My aim in the talk was not to lay out the whole political foundation of the ISO. Rather, my aim was to attempt to emphasize the need to build a socialist political organization today, in lieu of any mass revolutionary organization. I made only minor edits where I thought it would clarify my writing.

    Introduction to the Politics of the International Socialist Organization

    My aim in this talk is to broadly outline the politics of the International Socialist Organization and, hopefully, make the case to you why you should join us in rebuilding a committed and confident socialist movement in the United States. The ruling class in the U.S. is committed to continuing its severe austerity project with the goal of displacing the costs of the crisis they created in 2008 onto the shoulders of the working class and the poor and to maintaining its global chokehold on workers everywhere. Revolutionaries in the U.S. today, therefore, play a particularly critical role in the project of winning a socialist world. Our first step in that process is building an organization to cohere our politics and centralize our activity.

    So, I want to discuss how the ISO understands the world, and to describe the kind of world we want and how we can win it.

    If you’ve been following the news you might have seen heard that over 300,000 people stand to be affected by water shutoffs in Detroit (my hometown) as so-called “delinquent customers.”

    Nevermind that Detroit is virtually located right in between three-fifths of the world’s freshwater supply — the notion that anyone in the world should be regarded as a “customer” of water, a basic prerequisite for the existence of all life, is an absurd notion that could literally not exist outside of a capitalist society.

    This absurdity serves, at least, the partially useful function of illustrating the outrageous way in which capitalism organizes the production of basic human needs. In 2012, for another example, the USDA found that nearly one in seven households in the U.S. — the wealthiest country in the world — were “food insecure” (a euphemism for starvation). And yet, according to a recent study by the Natural Resources Defense Council, over 40% of all food in the United States is wasted, most of it before it even gets to the dinner table.

    That’s because in a capitalist system, production takes place for profit, not for human need or benefit. Food is a commodity that is sold for a profit, not a right or a thing that should be made available to everyone because they need it to survive. Rather than use our society’s resources to abolish hunger and feed everyone for free, businesses compete with one another for market share and profit.

    This means there is a constant drive by producers to expand and grow more and more, regardless of the ecological and human costs. The ruling class thrives on the exploitation of both workers’ labor and the environment. Vast resources are poured into avoiding environmental regulations and driving down (or outright stealing) workers’ wages. The majority of the population — having no other way to survive — are forced into selling their labor on the market, becoming commodities themselves.

    Such a system produces enormous inequality. A report published this year reveals that out of all the income produced in the U.S. economy annually, the top 1% take home almost 25% while the bottom 90% take away less than half.

    In order to maintain this system the ruling class organizes not only class exploitation, but stitches together a whole tapestry of oppression and inequalities. Women not only continue to be paid a fraction of what men are paid and continue to perform the majority of household labor for no pay, but a whole social apparatus of sexual and physical violence and harassment exists to force women into a second class status. African Americans, likewise, not only experience lower standards of living by almost every measure possible in American society, but are routinely terrorized by the American police state and held prisoner by an unprecedented system of mass incarceration.

    Yet, while income inequality is expected to be the next big issue in U.S. politics who will actually present a real opposition to the rampant inequality and oppression that characterizes every single inch of U.S. society?

    Even though one in seven households in the U.S. suffer from hunger, President Obama, with the support of Democrats like Senator Debbie Stabenow from Michigan, proudly signed a farm bill that cut over $8 billion from federal food assistance.

    Senator Bernie Sanders, a so-called “democratic socialist” who voted for the cuts, aptly described the limitations of American politics when remarked that he was “very disappointed” that the bill cut $8.6 billion from food assistance but the “bill steps back from $40 billion in food stamp cuts that House Republicans had demanded.”

    These are the choices we’re faced with, therefore. Do you want $8 billion in cuts to food stamps or $40 billion? Many, out of hopelessness and fear, routinely choose the lesser evil.

    However, if we are to ever reverse such endless cuts and rampant inequality we cannot continue to defer to the lesser evil. Not only because there should be no reason for us to cut food assistance and other social services in the wealthiest society to ever exist in human history, but because the lesser evil — by deflecting criticism through fear — often serves as the more effective evil. We need to build our own party that can fight not only against the daily exploitation of capitalist society, but struggle to overturn the whole system, putting the workers themselves in power.

    A socialist party, however, doesn’t mean simply running our own candidates, it also means building an organization that unites the whole working class geographically and politically, and sustains that resistance beyond episodic or momentary eruptions.

    As we have seen over the past several years, this system doesn’t simply produce rampant inequality but also inspiring and heroic fight backs. However, without organization, these struggles can often dissipate in the face of brutal repression and the chaotic pace of activity.

    In contrast to the inspiring yet struggle of Occupy, therefore, consider the staying power of the Chicago Teachers Union strike — a fight for which preparations and organization began years ahead of time. That preparation was necessary, however, in order to successfully fight against Rahm’s attacks on public education and mobilize the support of hundreds of thousands of teachers and their supporters daily for over a week. And this organization allowed the CTU to sustain its support in battles that came after the strike had concluded.

    The fight against this system will not end in one battle or campaign, but will last across decades and have multiple fronts and battles. Our movement, therefore, must be organized to both sustain the radical energy of hundreds of millions of people through the zigs-and-zags of class struggle.

    Imagine, in other words, an organization of unapologetic and committed socialists in tens or hundreds of thousands of workplaces and across thousands of campuses and schools, arguing not just for a fight against the bosses, but for a struggle against racism, sexism, homophobia and every manifestation of oppression — “tribunes of the oppressed” in Lenin’s words — in order to unite the widest possible number of people into a fight against this system.

    Unfortunately, the ISO is not this organization. There is no such organization in the world, yet. This is something we must work to build by laying the groundwork starting today.

    As we saw in the upsurges of 2011, from Madison to Cairo and all the way to Athens, is that this kind of organization doesn’t self organize out of mass uprisings, no matter how heroic or massive those struggles may be.

    The kind of complex organization needed to sustain a revolutionary struggle doesn’t come out of the chaos of an uprising. Instead, socialists today must work to establish the movements and networks that can hopefully begin to lay the groundwork for a party in the future.

    Obviously, this is not an easy task. Not only are we without a mass socialist movement, but decades of neoliberal assault have scattered and dissolved the traditional organs of working class and Left resistance such as unions and mass political organizations: the life blood of any socialist organization.

    In a sense, then, socialists have to perform a double duty: not only arguing for socialist politics and building socialist organization but also working to rebuild the rudimentary organs of resistance necessary to a working class struggle.

    Therefore, socialists today should respond to every manifestation of resistance that can take our organizations and struggles forward in order to help strengthen them, not just with our enthusiastic activism, but our political perspectives as well.

    The presence of socialists in movements does matter – as we have witnessed both through our activism in Occupy, and our work defending reproductive justice, anti-police brutality activism, organizing in teachers unions, and so on. We believe our ideas and politics are not just important for the battle to win workers’ power in the future but are critical to helping strengthen movements against oppression and exploitation today.

    Our goal today then, as socialists, is to establish a “political center” – a core of socialists who can not only train new people in socialist politics and develop new socialist perspectives for today, but who can also help establish the networks and lay the groundwork for a future socialist party.

    Socialists today, therefore, need to balance more than a few different priorities: political education and theorization (i.e., assessing the state of the world to draw new practical political conclusions), engaging and helping to strengthen current struggles, and also strengthening the networks and relationships today among those who sincerely want to fight back and tear the head off this rotten system.

    While the ISO is far from having all of this figured out, I think everyone who seriously engages with us will see that we are an organization that takes the task of balancing these priorities seriously. This is why the ISO has been able to establish such strong relationships with some of the most serious activists and revolutionaries across the world.

    We are a long way from a party, but that shouldn’t stop us from recognizing the need today to consciously take the steps to build it one step at a time. The task of those committed to building a socialist movement is to identify what steps we can take today — however small they seem relative to our ambitions — and take them head on. As Lenin wrote:

    Every question “runs in a vicious circle” because political life as a whole is an endless chain consisting of an infinite number of links. The whole art of politics lies in finding and taking as firm a grip as we can of the link that is least likely to be struck from our hands, the one that is most important at the given moment, the one that most of all guarantees its possessor the possession of the whole chain.

  2. Be the Change You Want to See?: A Marxist criticism of prefigurative politics

    July 1, 2013

    Revolutionary Christians in Egypt protect their Muslim comrades as they pray during the revolution in 2011.

    PREFACE

    This is the transcript to a talk I gave at the Socialism 2013 Conference in Chicago.  I’m posting this transcript here for those interested–it is similar to, but different from a previous transcript I posted of a local meeting in Detroit.

    My talk at this year’s conference was followed by an illuminating discussion that–for good reasons, but to our misfortune–are not recorded or documented.  There were a couple of important comments that were brought up that I believe need to be mentioned here–and will be discussed further in later articles.  Briefly, the two points were, 1) that “survival programs,” e.g., kitchens, relief efforts such as Occupy Sandy, urban farms to a certain extent, etc., are a site of politicization for many people and should be seriously assessed by revolutionary socialists, 2) that the relationship between “dreams,” “visions,” “aspirations,” etc., are a part of the “real” or “concrete,” and should not be mechanically separated from a study of the material world, but rather the two should be understood in a dialectical relationship.  Mark Fischer’s book Capitalist Realism is helpful here, which I did flip through to prepare for my talk, but didn’t have a good enough grasp of to include in my talk, unfortunately.  I plan on revisiting it as I work through these ideas more.

    I think it’s important to clarify a couple of points, especially what “prefigurative politics” are and their relationship to the Marxist criticism of so-called “utopian” socialism.  I think a strict definition of prefigurative politics are important in light of my previous comments regarding survival programs.  I think we should understand prefigurative politics in terms of those projects or practices that intend to reflect the future society, or base their means strictly upon a vision of the future.  I think this is important for separating out our criticism of prefigurative politics from projects–such as survival institutions–that may not fit strictly under the rubric of mass collective struggle or prefigurative politics.

    Additionally, I think it is important for us to not confuse prefigurative politics with utopianism strictly.  These are not necessarily the same thing, e.g. “horizontal” or leaderless movements are not at all utopian in the sense of what Engels wrote about in Socialism: Utopian or Scientific.  As a matter of fact, very few movements today reflect those kind of politics.  Bertell Ollman limits utopianism to those who use their vision of the future society as the sole raw material of their politics, and I think this is a useful definition.  Grace Lee Boggs may be the closest thinker on the Left today to that kind of thinking–but even that is unclear.  While I think Boggs has a rather clear skepticism (if not an aversion) to the power of protest and collective mass action (expressed repeatedly in comments urging activists to turn their backs on protest, to limit themselves to small groups, to focus their attention on opening small businesses and community development corporations, and to make material sacrifices, etc.), there are competing interpretations of her work and ideas that don’t think “visionary organizing” and protest are mutually exclusive.  I still believe there are limitations to that approach, which I address in my article for the International Socialist Review, but I think it’s important to recognize that this interpretation is not strictly utopian.

    The discussion and conversations that followed my presentation encouraged me to re-evaluate how socialists relate to utopianism, prefigurative politics, and related efforts.  In particular, I’m of the opinion that socialists need to emphasize the scale and scope of our revolutionary project–and to use this as the basis for evaluating our relationship to other projects.  I’d reckon that most people who may often be confused as “prefigurative” or “utopian” don’t seek to limit their efforts or ends to small urban farms and cooperative workplaces, and seek a scale of change identical to our own.  I think emphasizing this is a useful point of common ground to begin discussions.

    Therefore, while I’ve never been of the opinion that a revolutionary socialist project should be exclusive to those interested in survival programs (that would mean excluding those engaged in the unemployed councils of the 1930s, the Freedom Schools of the Civil Rights Movement, and the Black Panther Party), I’m increasingly of the opinion that there can be more common ground in building a movement today than I previously had–recognizing the capacity for those projects today not directly connected to a vision of a mass movement to be sites of politicization–with the point of common departure emphasizing the revolutionary socialist vision, political organization, the centrality of working-class organization and mass struggle.  More will be written about this in the near future.

    INTRODUCTION

    “A map of the world that does not include Utopia,” wrote the Irish author and socialist Oscar Wilde, “is not worth even glancing at, for it leaves out the one country at which Humanity is always landing. And when Humanity lands there, it looks out, and, seeing a better country, and sets sail. Progress is the realisation of Utopias.”

    Put another way, humanity has always dreamed of and strived for a future better than the present.  And why shouldn’t we?  Over the last year we’ve seen the horrors of this sick society crystallized in the devastation of Hurricane Sandy, the Boston Marathon bombing and subsequent campaign of racist fear stoked by the capitalist media and politicians, and almost weekly spree killings and waves of murder in segregated and impoverished inner city neighborhoods.

    However, our dreams and imagination alone is not enough to carry us through to that better world.

    Luckily, over the last year we have seen several examples of the power we have to change the world. For instance,

    • The Chicago Teachers Union and its supporters shut down the Chicago machine last summer in one of the most powerful strikes in the recent history of the labor movement.
    • We’ve seen the birth of a growing and potentially powerful new strike movement led by low-wage retail and fast-food workers across the country.
    • And of course, we are still witness to the ongoing struggle to overthrow an increasingly repressive government in Turkey.

    So while we are faced with massive challenges and huge stakes, there are equally great opportunities for us to fight back and win. The outcome of these challenges depends on how we seize on these opportunities presented to us; and what strategies and tactics we use in our struggle.  What we say and do matters.

    This is why events like this conference are so critical and why we socialists place so much stock in training ourselves politically. We have to sharpen and become more confident in articulating the politics to carry our struggles forward—through study, discussion, debate in movements, and of course, learning from and assessing our concrete experiences in struggle.

    This talk will focus on the topic of so-called “prefigurative politics,” that is, a set of politics that stresses the importance of reflecting the world you want to see through one’s practice today.

    During my talk I will broadly outline a description of prefigurative politics, discuss its strengths and weaknesses, and then present an alternative approach rooted in the politics of Marxism and revolutionary socialism.

    WHAT IS PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS?

    The author and activist Andy Cornell defines prefigurative politics as, “the principle that activists and social-change organizations should model in their present-day lives and work the new values, institutions, and social relationships they advocate for on a broader scale, as part of their strategy for bringing about that change.”

    Under the umbrella of prefigurative politics, therefore, can fall a broad number of different institutions and practices, including cooperative workplaces, communal houses, urban gardens, consensus decision-making and “horizontal” leadership structures.

    The broad audience for prefigurative politics was clearly on display most recently during the Occupy movement, where many argued that the strength of the movement lay in its prefigurative character—that is, the myriad institutions built in the encampments and the various practices used in meetings.

    Prefigurative politics borrows and builds upon various historical and contemporary movements—including the anarchist, pacifist, and environmentalist movements.  The arguments for prefigurative politics, therefore, are very diverse.  Some see it as a way of ensuring against the reproduction of political and social hierarchies; others as a form of propaganda, proving in practice the superiority of revolutionary politics.

    Communes, co-ops, free schools, and community gardens can also offer a sort of safe haven from the abuse of capitalism.  They create spaces for people that in one way or another can resemble the possibility of seeing another world in our lifetime.  They reflect a sincere desire to overcome capitalism.

    Many also see it as an alternative to what they believe is an outdated emphasis on mass collective action and protest.  Where we’ve seen massive protests against war, environmental destruction, or right wing legislation fail, prefigurative politics attempts to offer another way.

    For instance, during the Occupy movement, the anarchist activist and academic David Graeber argued in an interview with the Washington Post,

    “Protest, however militant, is an appeal to the authorities to behave differently; direct action [i.e., prefigurative politics], whether it’s a matter of a community building a well or making salt in defiance of the law…is a matter of acting as if the existing structure of power does not even exist. Direct action is, ultimately, the defiant insistence on acting as if one is already free.”

    Likewise, the veteran revolutionary Grace Lee Boggs argued in her most recent book that it is becoming,

    “clearer every day that organizing or joining massive protests and demanding new policies fail to sufficiently address the crisis we face. They may demonstrate that we are on the right side politically, but they are not transformative enough. They do not change the cultural images or the symbols that play such a pivotal role in molding us into who we are.”

    Boggs concludes that “community-based institutions (e.g., co-ops, small businesses, and community development corporations)” offer a more realistic alternative.

    “This kind of organizing takes a lot of patience,” Boggs continues, “because changing people and people changing themselves requires time.  Because it usually involves only small groups of people, it lacks the drama and visibility of angry masses making demands.”

    While these politics present themselves as hopeful alternatives to the current weaknesses of the left and working class organization, however, I think they actually reflect a pessimism in the potential for building a mass movement against capitalist exploitation—resigning themselves to working in small groups of determined radicals attempting to create a revolution “behind society’s back, in private” as Marx once put it.  This confuses how people’s ideas are shaped, and how they can be transformed through collective struggle.

    The possibility of revolutionizing the current society, overthrowing it, and transforming it into a new one, is seen as an outdated and anachronistic project, therefore.  The best we can hope to achieve are small-scale projects and personal transformation—unconsciously confirming the cynical individualism of neoliberalism.  Because revolutionizing the present is foredoomed, the emphasis is placed on a moralistic vision of how society ought to be, with the goal of simply trying to impose the future society on the present, often without regard for the limitations that capitalist society places on these model experiments.   Prefigurative politics, therefore, constructs barriers to dealing with society, conditions, and people as they really are in the here-and-now—preferring instead to deal only with the future, which still only exists in fantasy.

    UTOPIAN SOCIALISM VERSUS SCIENTIFIC SOCIALISM

    Far be it from a new model of social change, prefigurative politics repeat many of the mistakes made by the early socialist predecessors of Karl Marx and Frederic Engels.

    Like Marx and Engels, the “utopian socialists,” as they were called, were sincerely motivated and moved by the rapid pace and scale of changes occurring in the mid- to late-19th century, as capitalism took hold in Western Europe.  Many sought to revert back to an older and simpler time—as many still do today—proposing communal agrarian societies and experiments.  Others, sought to embrace the productive potential of industry, but only sought to remove its worst elements by appealing to the hearts, minds and wallets of the capitalists. (One could consider this scheme a primitive form of grant writing).

    The utopians looked at society primarily through a strictly moral and philosophical perspective.  They saw society, in other words, as a mixture of rights and wrongs. The solution, therefore, was simply to draft a blueprint of a more just and moral society and to spread their ideas through propaganda, and the construction of model experiments.  When the working class was given special attention, therefore, it was not because they played any particular role in their own liberation—but because they were the most oppressed.  The working class was not to struggle for its own liberation, but was instead to be liberated by the great philosopher who had already figured it all out for them.

    It is for this reason that the mid-20th century American socialist Hal Draper called utopianism a form of “socialism from above.”

    Marx and Engels, however, took interest not only in the drastic change caused by the birth of capitalism, but also in the contradictory nature of that change.  Under capitalism, workers produce enough wealth to feed, house, clothe, educate, and meet the needs everyone in society– yet it also generates unprecedented poverty for the vast majority; constant improvements in technology that could make work easier and shorter, are instead used to make work even harder, faster, and longer; life is more socialized now than it has ever been—with greater urban centers, larger workplaces, and new forms of communication–yet it is simultaneously individualized and privatized; even the bourgeois promises of individual freedom and liberty have been inverted by the pervasive disciplinary threat of poverty, debt, mass incarceration, a militarized police force—or, as we’ve seen, secret NSA domestic spying programs.

    Capitalism is contradictory, in other words. It generates chaos and destruction, while simultaneously establishing the precondition for a society that can meets everyone’s needs. What determines the outcome of this dilemma is the organization and determination of the working class to struggle against the capitalists and fight for a better world.

    THE LIMITATIONS OF PREFIGURATIVE POLITICS

    Advocates of prefigurative politics, however, often (but not always) attempt to transform society, not by actively intervening in this struggle, but by avoiding it.  Graeber, for instance, urges activists to act “as if one is already free” instead.

    Others, such as Boggs have argued that “living at the margins of the postindustrial capitalist order”—Detroit is used a frequent example, as if inequality, unemployment, and segregation are somehow marginal to capitalism—opens the opportunity to “devote our creative and collective energies toward envisioning and building a radically different form of living.”

    But this is not a strategy for changing society, but a strategy for escaping it, attempting to create spaces of harmony in a society determined by struggle and conflict—again confirming the neoliberal assumption that there is no alternative to capitalism, that we must transcend it or find alternatives within it instead.

    But class struggle doesn’t go away if you ignore it.  Just like gravity will pull you back to the earth, whether or not you acknowledge it—so too will the capitalists poison your rivers and food, foreclose on your home, and throw you in prison.

    Using the world “ought to be” as the starting point of our politics becomes a substitute, therefore, to developing a political strategy for present.  Projects built from this perspective largely depend upon ideal circumstances with ideal people—not the world as it is: contradictory and ever changing.

    Without the proper terrain prefigurative projects become stillborn or corrupted as they’re planted in the hostile soil of capitalist exploitation and competition.

    Workers’ cooperatives, for instance, can be a powerful example to others that bosses and managers are socially useless. However, remaining subject to the coercive laws of capitalist competition, cooperatives still have to play by the games of the marketplace.  This forces the workers to make a choice to either rule over “themselves with the utmost absolutism” and “become their own capitalist” as the German socialist Rosa Luxemburg argued, or to dissolve if they hold on to their principles.

    Likewise, social movements focused on emulating the future (while they may experience a momentary success, if they tap into popular anger and frustration) face similar challenges in navigating the contradictions of politics and consciousness in the present.  These movements can often become encapsulated to a small group of committed radicals as they find it hard to build a base—since most people don’t already share a commitment to a post-revolutionary vision—or as they become inward looking and aim to perfect their relations among each other first.

    For instance, while the Occupy movement was able to grow very fast—as it tapped into deep bitterness and discontentment—and was able to drastically alter politics and consciousness in the United States, it also suffered from the limitations of leaderlessness and consensus decision-making, which many, such as Graeber, argued were essential to the movement’s strength by modeling the future we want.  The notoriously long General Assemblies, run on a consensus process excluded many of the movement’s supporters, however.  Likewise, the confusion and disorganization inherent to “structurelessness” made it incredibly difficult to respond to the obstacles the Occupy movement faced following the repression of the encampments—the political center of many local movements.

    Arming ourselves with little more than visions of the future world, therefore, makes it difficult to settle scores with the present.

    THE ALTERNATIVE: REVOLUTIONARY SOCIALISM AND WORKING-CLASS SELF-EMANCIPATION

    Marxism insists, however, that we begin from a study of the world as it is.  In a letter to a friend, Marx distinguished himself from his utopian predecessors, writing that,

    “We do not confront the world in a doctrinaire way with a new principle: Here is the truth, kneel down before it! We develop new principles for the world out of the world’s own principles. We do not say to the world: Cease your struggles, they are foolish; we will give you the true slogan of struggle. We merely show the world what it is really fighting for, and consciousness is something that it has to acquire, even if it does not want to.”

    For Marx and Engels the key architects of the future socialist society were not to be intellectuals and philosophers, but the working class itself, through its own self-activity.  In establishing a socialist society, the working class is not chasing after some abstract vision from the outside, imagined by some philosopher or activist.  Rather, the working class is acting out of its own class interests to abolish the exploitation of their labor, and use the product of their labor to their own ends rather than for profit.

    While it is in the interests of the working class, however, to overthrow capitalism, no one is born a revolutionary. Capitalist schools, media, news, politicians, parties, etc., establish and reinforce the prevalence of their ideas.  Hence, even though the capitalists exploit workers, workers often express and defend capitalist ideas.

    Under capitalism, in other words, workers possess a contradictory consciousness—torn between the capitalists’ ruling ideas and their own class interests. Daily life under exploitation and oppression creates the condition for spontaneous rebellion against the ruling class, but those spontaneous energies can quickly dissipate or become contained by the influence of ruling class organizations and ideas.

    Those who recognize the need for a radical struggle against capitalism, therefore, cannot be content with trying stand outside the class struggle for want of perfect politics or a perfect vision.

    Rather, we must attempt to navigate the world as it is, and work with people as they are under capitalism, recognizing the potential for people to become revolutionary through the experience of struggle, and gain confidence in their own potential power.

    It is critical, therefore, that revolutionaries be organized and prepared to intervene in that struggle, to argue against the influence of bourgeois and conservative forces—e.g., Democrats and Republicans, conservative union bureaucrats, etc.—with the aim of eventually organizing the most radical and revolutionary members of the working class into an independent, revolutionary organization (without cutting itself off from the non-revolutionary majority).  To negotiate this complex task is the role of the revolutionary party.

    MEANS AND ENDS

    The revolutionary party, therefore, does not prefigure the future socialist state—a common misrepresentation of revolutionary socialist politics—but is rather an organization specific to capitalism, meant to navigate the rocky terrain of contradictory class struggle in a capitalist society.

    Prefigurative politics urges activists to draw the means they use today from their vision of the future.  However, means suited for the ideal circumstances and ideal people of the future, are not sufficient for revolutionaries who have to live in the present.

    Socialists argue that we fight for socialism by any means necessary, as long as it strengthens the capacity of the working class and oppressed to fight and emancipate themselves.

    Therefore, while we refuse to tie our hands behind our back, we also curate our means and methods according to the ends of the self-emancipation of the working class.  As Trotsky argued,

    When we say that the end justifies the means, then for us the conclusion follows that the great revolutionary end spurns those base means and ways which set one part of the working class against other parts, or attempt to make the masses happy without their participation; or lower the faith of the masses in themselves and their organization, replacing it by worship for the “leaders”… The liberation of the workers can come only through the workers themselves. There is, therefore, no greater crime than deceiving the masses, palming off defeats as victories, friends as enemies, bribing workers” leaders, [or] fabricating legends.

    The tactics and methods we use in the movement, therefore, aren’t determined by an abstract and eternal sense of morality, e.g., violence is always immoral, power is always oppressive, leadership is always abusive, regardless of circumstances, but are rather selected on the basis of what unites working class and oppressed people, what raises its political confidence, and builds its power to transform society.

    THE STATE AND “DUAL POWER”

    United in collective struggle, determined to struggle against the old society, and confident in their power as agents of change, one cannot overestimate the creative possibilities of the working class and oppressed.

    The author and activist Greg Sharzer explains in his book No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change the World that, while prefigurative institutions may provide a common sense of solidarity among its participants, so can collective struggle, often on a much wider basis because it focuses on the demands drawn from people’s concrete experiences in the present, rather than a commonly shared vision of the future or lifestyle.

    As any revolutionary struggle escalates, the movement of the working class and the oppressed has to face the question of power, and how to finally confront the power of the capitalist class and their state directly.

    Historically, this moment of “dual power”—in which the forces of the ruling class and the working class are relatively balanced, with neither one able to conquer the other—reveals the transformative capabilities of the working class struggle in its full brilliance.

    During the course of the Russian Revolution of 1917, for instance, the working class and peasantry formed soviets, or workers’ councils, in the midst of widespread general strikes, which were able to manage and plan production directly by the workers, without the interference of capitalists or bosses.  They were formed, therefore, with the concrete political purpose of carrying the struggle forward.  Nevertheless, Lenin argued they also acted as the “embryo” of the future socialist state, which would eventually smash and replace the capitalist political institutions.  Indeed, Lenin’s argument was vindicated when the soviets overthrew the capitalist government in October 1917.

    Workers’ councils are not conceived out of the minds of revolutionaries, but rather have formed in other periods and struggles as well at a certain period of escalated class struggle that requires going beyond the limitations of trade unions.  For instance, workers have formed similar councils in Paris in 1871 (which Marx and Engels argued was “the political form at last discovered [emphasis added] under which to work out the economical emancipation of labor”), in Germany in 1918, in Italy in 1919-1920, in Hungary in 1956, in Paris in 1968, Chile, Iran and Portugal in the 1970s, and Poland in the 1980s.

    These moments of struggle are rare, however.  Nevertheless, the struggle of the working class and oppressed reveals its creative powers in any struggle.  Sharzer uses the experience of the 2011 Egyptian revolution to illustrate this point,

    “demonstrators organized security, food distribution, childcare and medical care on their own.  Women, who have long struggled against their second-class status in Egyptian society, were at the forefront of this movement; many reported it was the first time they had been free from harassment by men.  The future visions that come out of a democratic, revolutionary process are always more creative and unpredictable than the pre-existing models.”

    And there are, of course, other examples as well. Members of the Coalition of the Radical Left (SYRIZA) in Greece, for instance, are involved in “organizing neighborhood assemblies, maintaining ‘solidarity kitchens’ and bazaars, [and] working in medical social centers” according to one article published in Socialist Worker.  Likewise, the Black Panther Party organized programs for “survival pending revolution,” which included the well-known free breakfast program.  During the Great Depression, the Communist Party in the US assisted in the formation councils of unemployed workers, and in the 1960s civil rights workers organized Freedom Schools.

    Far from trying to prefigure the future (even if some participants may choose to see their work that way), these institutions were responding to the concrete experiences facing activists in their own time, and were intimately connected to building a mass movement.

    Huey P. Newton, for instance, the National Chairman of the Black Panther Party, explained that the survival programs, “satisfy the deep needs of the community but they are not solutions to our problems.” He continued, “When consciousness and understanding is raised to a high level then the community will seize the time and deliver themselves from the boot of their oppressors.”

    Our struggle will call for all sorts of different tasks, programs, institutions, and organizations: security, kitchens, schools, newspapers and other forms of media, conferences, etc.  Nothing about such programs, however, are inherently “prefigurative” (even if some participants may think they are).

    CONCLUSION

    We are set out to achieve a task of monumental scale—to remake the world anew, free of class exploitation, and oppression, built upon thoroughgoing democracy, cooperation, and equality.

    I think we want to encourage people to think about the future society could look like.  While it is misleading to use predictions and blueprints for the future as replacements for a guide to action in the present, I still think we should embrace and find inspiration in our hopes, imaginations, wishes, desires, and dreams of a better world—certainly every great revolutionary we can list has done so.

    In What Is To Be Done?, for instance, Lenin chastised the socialists of his time who “boast[ed] of their sober views,” and “their ‘closeness’ to the ‘concrete.’”  He quotes the 19th century Russian literary critic Dimitri Pisarev, saying,

    “The rift between dreams and reality causes no harm if only the person dreaming believes seriously in his dream, if he attentively observes life, compares his observations with his castles in the air, and if, generally speaking, he works conscientiously for the achievement of his fantasies.”

    Marx himself, provided many descriptions of what he believed the future socialist society may look like. To Marx, socialism is a world in which “the free development of each is the condition for the free development of all,” “a community of free individuals, carrying on their work with the means of production held in common,” freeing one to “hunt in the morning, fish in the afternoon, rear cattle in the evening, criticise after dinner…without ever becoming hunter, fisherman, herdsman or critic.”

    Building such a society however, will requires the radical, revolutionary reorganization of our society from the ground up, where everything we produce is put under our democratic control, to use as we need and see fit.  Such a society cannot be “prefigured” under capitalism.  You can’t prefigure or approximate an end to poverty, an end to the need for police and prisons, an end to homelessness.  As George Orwell once put it, whoever tries to imagine socialism simply envisions “a vision of present society with the worst abuses left out.”

    Nevertheless, I think that a key challenge we face now is in articulating a clear and bold vision of the future that can inspire action and organization to a whole new layer of people who are disillusioned with the way things are and searching for an alternative, but to do so without falling into utopianism, and without losing sight of what we need to do here in the present.

    To borrow from Carl Sagan, “The earth is where we make our stand.” Before we can settle our score with the future, we must first settle it with the present.

  3. The Last White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy: The Meaning of the Meme

    May 3, 2013

    wedg

    The White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy (WEDG) meme has turned into the quintessential Frankenstein’s Monster.  What began as a cathartic venting mechanism for Detroiter’s anger and frustration has been inverted into a self-congratulatory “dialogue” rehabilitating the image of the city’s entrepreneurial clique.

    The meme mocked Jason Lorimer, the self-described “nonconformist” and co-founder of Dandelion, a consulting firm for social entrepreneurs and investors.  It was sparked by this self-aggrandizing article written by Lorimer for Model D, and gained a significant following and press attention.

    The message from bloggers like Aaron Foley, of the Gawker media affiliated blog Jalopnik, and Jeff Wattrick at Deadline Detroit appears to be “We had some laughs, but it’s all good now.”

    Foley and Wattrick are quick to apologize, in part because they completely misplaced the meaning behind the meme.  Foley, for instance, explained that the real problem lies with the local press who gives undue attention to Detroit’s white entrepreneurs at the expense of Black businesses.  Wattrick similarly blamed the “rhetoric bubble” exposed by Lorimer’s loathsome, jargon-laden writing style that forces one to picture themselves at the end of a Human Centipede made of corporate hacks.

    Two of the most vocal bloggers about this controversy, therefore, dumbfoundly concluded that the White Entrepreneurial Detroit Guy meme had nothing in particular to do with white entrepreneurial Detroit guys.

    Of course, nobody can conclude with hard, scientific precision exactly what made the meme so explosive.  Nevertheless, one can make the case–as Wattrick and Foley have–for how one should read the meme and for what it can tell us.

    One thing it tells us is that there is at least a significant–if not large–audience of people in Detroit who have lost patience for complacent social entrepreneurial wonkery and bullshit.

    And why shouldn’t they have?  The vast majority of the city’s residents continue to suffer under deplorable living conditions that should be considered criminal in a country as wealthy and affluent as the United States.  The people who continue to write self-congratulatory pablum about the growing community of young entrepreneurs rebuilding Detroit over-and-over again would be embarrassed for themselves if they had one scrap of shame or humanity in them.

    Such a contradiction, however, is the inevitable result of decades of neoliberal urban policy, which has succeeded in its push to wholly restructure the city in favor of attracting private investment.  “Neoliberal urban policy,” which has become standard in the post-civil rights era, explains the Marxist geography David Harvey in his book Rebel Cities,

    concluded that redistributing wealth to less advantaged neighborhoods, cities, and regions was futile, and that resources should instead be channeled to dynamic “entrepreneurial” growth poles.  A spatial vision of “trickle-down” would then, in the proverbial long run (which never comes), take care of all those pesky regional, spatial, and urban inequalities.  Turning the city over to the developers and speculative financiers redounds the benefit of all!…The idea that a city can do well (in terms of capital accumulation) while its people (apart from a privileged class) and the environment do badly, is never examined.

    One can easily see this reflected in a recent Financial Times article by Richard Florida, where he celebrates Detroit’s “turnaround” led by “a coalition of profit-led entrepreneurs, philanthropic foundations and grassroots groups unhindered by city government.”

    The fact is that, whatever good intentions the newly arrived entrepreneurs might claim they have, the needs of the vast majority of Detroits residents do not square with their business interests.  Firms like Dandelion, for instance (which, as many have noted, is the flowering part of a weed–and a weed of course being an undesirable thing that chokes the life out of those nearby), shamelessly adopt pleasant phrases like “social entrepreneurship” to advance the myth that entrepreneurial interests can be seamlessly aligned with those of the poor.  That this is essentially just a recycled, less fowl smelling form of Reaganomics is never acknowledged.

    The kind of entrepreneurial renaissance being promoted by people like Lorimer and Florida requires the taming, slashing, and burning of the public programs that poor people depend upon, in order to make the city more attractive to wealthy investors–especially the creditors that often provide start-up capital to new businesses and construction.  This is precisely the agenda the city’s recently appointed emergency manager, Kevyn Orr, is charged with administering.  But it goes far beyond our Honorable corporate overlord.  Long before Kevyn Orr’s rise to power, for instance, Detroit’s brand new Whole Foods was handed $4.2 million in incentives.  So while Detroit foodies can celebrate new access to healthy and organic food, $683 million was just cut last month from Michigan’s food assistance program (meanwhile, Whole Foods’ CEO claims he’s”going after racism“).

    Demographic and population shifts are also required in order to meet the needs of new investors.  Programs like public housing, in other words, are not only inconvenient expenditures that could otherwise go toward posh grocers.  The very existence of public housing and the poor acts as a physical barrier to urban renewal.

    While the New York Times can celebrate the renewal of downtown Detroit (again and again), therefore, nearly 200 senior citizens are being evicted from their Section 8 apartment building to clear the path for development.  Not too far away on Henry Street almost another 100 occupants of the Cass Corridor are being evicted.  Additionally, the Free Press recently reported that there have been over 4,100 foreclosures in Wayne County since January 2013 (that’s down 46% from 2012’s first quarter of over 7,700 foreclosures).  And it’s a widely known fact that Detroit lost over 237,00 residents over the past decade.

    Meanwhile, however, “thousands of residents, including designers, techies and music makers,” have moved into the cities central neighborhoods, as Florida put it.  We’re constantly told about the wave of young professionals and neo-urbanites moving into neighborhoods like Downtown, Corktown, Woodbridge, Midtown, Hubbard Farms, Lafayette Park, the Villages, etc.  The readily deployed phrase “urban pioneer” aptly describes the scenario–evoking the history of the pioneers that cleared the old West of its native population in order to make way for new development.  Put in this context, expressions like, “Get your ass to Detroit,” as Lorimer exclaimed, or “Outsource to Detroit” become far more suspicious.

    Writers like Florida that favor the neoliberal policies plaguing Detroit’s poor frankly acknowledge the consequences of their proposals.  “A cynic might say business interests and corporate urban pioneers are merely colonising the one economically viable district,” writes Florida,

    “leaving those in distressed areas to the mercy of its broke, powerless government…Nonetheless, if it can be sustained, the downtown revival will be a first step to creating the jobs, economic activity and tax revenues needed to underwrite broader recovery.”

    Florida not only plainly favors the entrepreneurial and business interests over people, therefore, but seems not the least bit ashamed that his proposal could be so easily compared to colonization–which, one might recall, was once also justified with the claim that it was good for the indigenous population.

    Frustrations shouldn’t be aimed at “outsiders,” however, as the Huffington Post and others would have it.  Such answers completely miss the point. People should move wherever they want to.  The fact is that in a city home to enormous corporations like General Motors–which just posted $1.8 billion in profits for the first quarter of 2013–nobody should have to be evicted from their home to make room for others.  No one should have to be unemployed, or starve, in order to employ or feed others.  People’s anger and frustration should take aim at the familiar claim that there is no way out for Detroit other than by attracting youthful profiteers at the expense of Detroit’s poor.  The lackeys that advance this banal refrain–Florida, Lorimer, The Times, and others–are the real cynics.

    The fact that social entrepreneurs and jargon laden consulting firms cannot address the vast and complex needs of Detroit’s residents does not need to foredoom the city.  But it needs to be acknowledged that there can be no resolving the crisis so long as we’re constrained by the narrow interests of business and profit.  The needs of the city’s poor residents need to be placed first, and not mediated or reduced to some pro-business policy gimmick or sleight of hand.  Such a change will require a political solution outside of city hall, or any legislative or business body–it will have to come from the people in the streets.  Luckily, Detroit has a long and proud history of such struggle from which to take guidance and inspiration.