LILAC Will Not Make a Better Philly DSA

If you take a look at the organizational structure of Philly DSA, you might notice that there are a lot of committees. They tend to have clearly defined functions in their titles; there’s Outreach, Social, Political Education, and so on. But there’s also one that’s… a flower?

Unfolding the petals of LILAC’s name to discover its full title–the Local Initiative/Local Action Committee–does little to dispel the mystery around its function. What’s the scope of “local?” Initiative toward what, and what kind of action? The answers to these questions, it turns out, are as vague as the name itself.

Compounding the issue is the fact that LILAC is now distributing its own voting guide for our upcoming general meeting, something no other committee does. Members of LILAC have also formulated a Libertarian Socialist Caucus, and another group they call a “Campaign For a Better Philly DSA,” the latter of which associates itself with the LILAC voting guide.

All this strangeness around LILAC has a simple explanation: it isn’t actually a committee at all, but a reform caucus posing as one. Its purpose is not to perform an essential task within the local, but to push a political stance.

There is nothing wrong with members organizing around shared politics within their chapters. I do it, and you should too. But LILAC has pulled a bait-and-switch on the membership by disguising itself as a committee, which gives it a veneer of neutrality as it recruits members to its platform. The original resolution to establish LILAC billed it as a simple, functional committee that would draft campaign resolutions. It has since vastly expanded in scope, attempting to pitch its leaderless, “anything goes” structure as an alternative to the principles that currently define our movement.

To my mind, this will not make a better Philly DSA. It will take us back to a time when left politics were at a dead end in America.

I joined DSA almost a year ago because I wanted to actually do something. Since Trump took office, I’d started going to political protests for the first time in nearly a decade, and for a while it was invigorating. But there was a performative character to it that I was never fully comfortable with. The crowd would awkwardly drift in and out of repetitive, banal chants, shouting empty phrases like “show me what democracy looks like! This is what democracy looks like!”

I couldn’t bring myself to participate in such theatrics. It didn’t actually look like democracy to me, but it did remind me of a past era–of the days when Dilworth Plaza buzzed with the energy of Occupy.

It was late 2011, and we were just beginning to realize how miserably the Obama administration had failed us. There was something in the air I’d never felt before; people were disillusioned, and they knew they wanted to do something about it. They just didn’t exactly know what. So they occupied.

My clearest memory is of “mic checking.” To avoid being weighed down by expensive sound systems, the Occupy movement used a technique where, when someone wished to address the crowd, they would yell “mic check!” and all would repeat “mic check!” in unison. Once having established that they were “on the mic,” the person would speak one phrase at a time, and those around them would shout an echo, ensuring it was audible to the whole assembly.

This process of playing pretend had obvious utility, but it also had an ideological component: it automatically validated the words of every speaker. The whole group was every individual’s microphone. This made it very effective for personal expression, and very ineffective for debate. The result was that Occupy never arrived at a consensus on what they should actually do, and so they did nothing but occupy.

Days after Occupy Philadelphia was forcibly disbanded by horse-mounted police, I walked through the plaza to examine the aftermath. It was a dismal sight. Trash, crumpled tents, and abandoned books littered the public space. I remember wondering who was going to clean it up, and how they’d feel about the protesters while doing so. It certainly wasn’t going to be the 1%.

I can’t help but feel I was walking through the wreckage of that camp for a long time after. I’d thought maybe the movement was a chance to really change the world I lived in. But setting up a camp and trying to model the world you want doesn’t actually bring that world into existence.

Parallels to the aimless ideology of Occupy are everywhere in LILAC’s platform. Here are some of the favorite pet phrases of its loudest supporters: “building coalitions,” “multi-tendency,” “bottom-up organizing,” “incubating ideas,” “open and inclusive.”

Notice how none of these cozy-sounding phrases have explicit asks behind them. A who, how or why is rarely attached. Virtually everything LILAC produces–including its name–is intentionally steeped in vagueness, because their insistence is that, as with Occupy’s “mic checking,” everyone’s voice must be validated by the group in order to do socialism. It seems to me an extraordinary claim that a democratic socialist organization should go out of its way to give anarchist or libertarian platforms consideration, and yet that is explicitly LILAC’s assertion: that all tendencies on the left are equally valid and therefore all campaigns should be given equal resources and priority. But if you’re in favor of everything, you’re not actually in favor of anything.

The politics of the left that developed out of the Occupy movement, because they had no concrete campaign to pursue, resorted mostly to righteous internet take-downs of Bad People. Twitter campaigns to get the latest target of public vilification fired or banned from the platform replaced real-world campaigns to unseat corrupt politicians or institute protections for working people. So, too, are LILAC’s tactics within the local. Members of the caucus have accused their comrades of ableism, racism, obstructionism, cronyism, and many other isms. Conveniently, the targets of these accusations always seem to be prominent critics of LILAC’s political aims for the chapter.

Members who were inspired by the Bernie Sanders campaign and joined DSA hoping to pursue similar political goals should recall how his opposition on the left, when faced with the ridiculous task of trying to explain to people why free healthcare is actually bad, resorted instead to painting his supporters as a gang of militant mansplainers. This diversion from the political to the personal can be a powerful weapon–against individuals. It will not help us against the forces of capital.

There is one thing that the Occupy movement can claim to have accomplished: it reintroduced the politics of economic inequality into the American mainstream, setting the stage for the Bernie Sanders campaign many years later. Bernie took the language of the 99% vs. the 1% that Occupy coalesced around and turned it, finally, to an actual political end.

We are now living in a moment where the concept of socialism has reentered American politics, and is slowly emerging as an actual force in our society. This is why Momentum is forming as a caucus within DSA, and why I’ve joined with its members in our local chapter. Unlike LILAC, we do not disguise ourselves as a committee. Our purpose and our politics are clear and unambiguous.

DSA has a historic opportunity to become a huge, diverse and unified movement to assert true working class power in this country for the first time in decades. But to do that, we have to be willing to work together as one, and that means we can’t treat this organization as a place to pursue our own personal projects. We must come together behind widely popular, truly working class demands like Medicare For All.

And that’s the choice LILAC explicitly don’t want us to make. They want us to stick to the Occupy way, the way that says we get together in a big camp with some shared values and everyone does what feels best. Such camps are very appealing for their fluid and unrestrained structures. But because of those same structures, they break apart and eventually dissipate. If DSA becomes one, I have a feeling we will be walking through the empty trash pile it leaves in its wake for a very long time.