March Madness

I’m going to try to make this quick and to the point. There’s been a lot of contentious debate around whether or not the DSA should organize a single payer march on Washington. There have been a somewhat absurd number of pieces written about this in Jacobin in recent weeks debating whether or not the idea has potency. With respect to my Philly DSA comrades, I disagree with some of them about how meaningful a march would be, but I have more fundamental objections.

If we’re going to organize a large demonstration, we should have some metric for success. We don’t have to organize with the requirement that we must win single payer healthcare as a result of this action, but we should have target crowd size that makes it possible. After all, if we’re going to compare a potential march to historically successful demonstrations, we should at least acknowledge that crowd size and the ability to disrupt daily activity is a primary reason why marches draw media attention and become motivators for politicians to support transitional demands. A baseline of participation at least makes the comparison honest and puts us in the realm of possibility for achieving our demands.

If we don’t organize under the assumption that we might achieve something, why would we organize at all? And what’s more, how would we organize people without instilling an expectation of success? Why should people sacrifice their time and money to participate an event without that possibility? The reason that’s been offered by Dustin Guastella in his piece The Long March is to develop a stronger, more unified national character. I’m unsure of what this actually means (perhaps it means developing the infrastructure to activate future mass mobilizations?), but whatever the case, I’m unconvinced that this is a sufficiently compelling reason for working people to sacrifice their time and money in order to participate in a demonstration.

Okay, now put that aside for a second. What are the chances of actually activating a comparable number of people to the 1963 March on Washington? The DSA currently has 24K members in the United States. The rub is that we’re spread out throughout the US. In fact, this feature of our organization has become a sticking point as we get closer to our national convention date.

The growth in membership and proportional growth in number of delegates has caused a heavy cost burden that our chapters have had to foot the bill for. If you’re a member of the DSA, you’ve undoubtedly seen some of the (completely legitimate) frustration about this. My own chapter is trying to raise $10,000 just to get our delegates to the convention and has only successfully raised about $3,000 of this with only a couple days to go! Granted, those costs are for the 4 days of the convention, a march would likely be just one day, but we’re also only accounting cost for 17 delegates! The cost for transporting our members to Washington, DC would be large, and likely each individual would pay their own transportation and lodging costs unless we were to receive some timely grant money to get our people there (which would be a very politically contentious decision to accept).

At our local convention this year, we were able to turn out 84 people out of our 489 members, which is about a 17% participation rate. That’s our own membership coming to a meeting in Philadelphia after sending out several e-mails, phone banking, texting alerts, etc. If we generously (naively) apply that figure nationally, that’s a little over 4,000 members of our national membership showing up to a march. The cost of transportation and lodging would likely make our participation rate significantly lower in reality.

I don’t doubt the capability of organizers within the DSA and their ability to exceed that figure. I don’t doubt that we’ll be able to start canvassing, forging relationships with nurses unions, and create a media blitz that would drive a larger turnout. But you can forgive people for being skeptical about our ability to materialize a march that draws hundreds of thousands of people. I talked to a comrade from my chapter (who is in support of the march) about this recently and they called an expectation of hundreds of thousands “ludicrous and impossible”. In my opinion it’s ludicrous and impossible to expect any march to materialize without an expectation of drawing that number of people.

The project of creating greater coordination between chapters in the DSA and building the infrastructure needed for mass mobilizations and other projects is a good one. It’s one we should support. But it’s one that doesn’t need to be premised on a national march requiring coordination with dozens of chapters with vastly different resources, and by preempting their existing local work. If we’re going to build that infrastructure we should start building those relationships locally, with other DSA chapters in our state, and in our geographical region within the US for actions closer to home and against more focused targets.

A feature of capital in the 20th and 21st century has been its malleability and resistance to single events, which has required sustained pressure. The March on Washington in 1963 did not start the Civil Rights Movement, it was preceded by dozens of local sit-ins, marches, freedom rides, boycotts, and variants of direct action. And yet these acts of resistance were not done simply in anticipation of a march, they were done by people of color and working people organizing to make demands of their community and their government for the immediate gains they could achieve. They were acts of resistance with different targets, granularities of scope, and demands. Through the culmination of these things alone were civil rights achieved (and we still have not achieved a fully coherent notion of equality and civil rights here).

We can have single payer in our lifetime, but we won’t achieve it by forced cooperation towards a single national event. Building a mass movement to achieve single payer (and god help us, eventually socialism) will require local, statewide, and regional organizing and relationship building before we can even plan a national event. It will require a trajectory that involves many acts of resistance that keep the pressure on in tangible ways. Bottom-up organizing is not strictly an issue of desirable structure, it provides the framework and process for actually achieving transitional demands.

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