Plan B? The case for alternative sovereignties

Trump’s presidency will be met with massive protests, but what if they don’t work?

I begin this essay with the (reasonable) assumption that the massive protests in D.C. over the inauguration weekend will not stop Trump from becoming president. Don’t get me wrong. I fully support the many events slated for the weekend such as the Women’s March on Washington, #DisruptJ20, General Strike, and the Anti-inauguration. These protests and events will ‘work’ in many ways. They will serve as venues to express disgust with the coming administration. They will be gatherings where like-minded people from across the Left and Center of American politics will exchange ideas, gather strength from each other, discuss strategies for the next elections, and debate tactics for resistance. These protests and events in D.C. (as well as associated protests in communities across the country) are absolutely necessary. Can you imagine what kind of horrible world we would live in if Trump’s ascendency wasn’t met with protests, disruptions, and calls for resistance?

But what about after the weekend? If we accept the plausible possibility that we will all wake up on Monday January 23rd and Donald Trump will be sitting in the Oval Office as the Tweep–in-chief, then it is important to start thinking — now — about strategies for how we will deal with this over the long term. Right now there are a few strategies grabbing a lot of the Left’s attention. Many of these center on unseating the Republicans in coming elections, either through a reformed Democratic Party or a newly created political party. Other strategies include organizing citizens to be at the ready to launch organized letter-writing campaigns to Congress when particularly vile pieces of legislation are introduced. Also, in case you haven’t noticed, many Left-leaning organizations have ramped up their fundraising activities to entice people enraged by Trump’s election to release their political frustrations via donating to the causes they champion. It is, of course, also likely that street protests will continue to be a staple strategy of the Left throughout Trump’s term as he blunders his way toward our collective doom.

The question is: are these strategies of preparing for the next election, lobbying an intractably conservative Congress, and holding street protests, going to be enough? It is not difficult to imagine a day in the very near future when people on the Left look with horror as construction begins on Trump’s ridiculous border walls, public education funding gets slashed, women’s rights are further assaulted, medical care becomes more unattainable, the U.S. bungles into another dangerous military entanglement, and environmental protections are gutted. Maybe that day won’t come. Then again, maybe it will. If protests, lobbying and participating in elections hasn’t worked to stop Trumpism, then what is Plan B?

Beyond elections, beyond protest:

There are other strategies the Left that can, and should, consider in the coming months and years. In this essay I will highlight the potential efficacy of establishing ‘alternative sovereignties.’ To more fully explain this strategy, however, it is useful to first take a quick detour into some of the sociological research on how social movements operate. The sociologist Richard Day, for instance, has usefully categorized social movements into three basic types. In the sociological tradition ‘old social movements’ are those groups — like political or revolutionary parties — that aspire to take over the existing state apparatus either through the ballot box or ‘storming the palace.’ In the present situation, groups following this strategy would either have to wait for elections in 2018 and 2020, or pursue the dangerous option of storming a ‘palace’ defended by a state with an enormously disproportionate capacity for violence vis-à-vis activists (to say nothing of the morality of the use of violence that method is likely to entail).

The second type of social movements — labeled ‘new social movements’ — don’t generally aim to take state power. Instead they use protest to pressure or ask the existing state apparatus for the redress of grievances. This is one of the main ways that activism operates in the U.S. today. Whether it is civil rights groups asking for the expansion of full rights to people being discriminated against, or people asking that the government do something differently (please don’t drill for oil in the Arctic, please change immigration laws, please fund programs to make college more affordable, please don’t let a complete imbecile like Betsy DeVos become Secretary of Education, etc), the goal here is to approach the current government (and therefore to accept it as legitimate) and try to encourage it to behave differently.

In a functioning democracy this protest approach has ‘teeth’ in that it is assumed that if members of the government flaunt the will of the protesting majority they’ll be voted out. As we just witnessed in November however, American democracy is structurally skewed toward minority rule through the Electoral College, the power of the Senate, and severe gerrymandering in the House of Representatives (to say nothing of the distorting effects of unlimited campaign spending due to Citizen United, voter suppression laws, the ‘moving of the goalposts’ as demonstrated by Republicans in North Carolina after losing the governorship, and the Democratic Party’s well known interference against the presidential bid of Bernie Sanders). If the threat of losing elections to the (majority) opposition is structurally limited, what incentive is there for people in the current government to respond to protests at all?

If we find ourselves in the spring of 2017 in a situation where elections are a long time coming, and protest and lobbying are ineffective, there are other options. This brings us to a third approach to activism that Richard Day bestows the slightly clunky title of ‘newest social movements.’ These social movements are characterized by strategies that attempt to create sovereignty — real decision-making power — outside the existing state. These groups don’t want to take over the existing state, and they aren’t asking it for anything. Instead, they are trying to carve out resistant spaces where people can make their own rules that counter those of the government. In this approach, the existing state is not viewed as the legitimate arbiter to address social problems. Instead, it is seen as one of the corrupt organs from which social problems are created. The solution then is to create alternative institutions of governance and spaces of counter-sovereignty.

This approach is most often associated with — and championed by — Anarchist and Autonomist groups, but many others have also used this strategy when protest and elections are ineffective. For instance, colonized people in occupied spaces — with no access to electoral processes and whose protests are largely ignored by distant governments — have had to rely on trying to produce alternative sovereignties backed up with determined ‘counter-occupations’ of their own territories. V.I. Lenin also discussed the usefulness of alternative sovereignties outside the state during the ‘dual-power’ time period in 1917 Russia when Worker and Soldier Councils (Soviets) in cities like Petrograd challenged the authority of the ‘official’ Russian government by making their own proclamations of governance. Even in contemporary America this strategy exists. The current Sanctuary Cities movement — in which municipalities, campuses, states and churches declare that they will make their own decisions on immigration enforcement — are, in effect, declarations of (partial) sovereignty in opposition to the centralized state.

Despite the fact that sociologists and other scholars put these approaches to social movement activism into categories such as ‘old, new, and newest;’ the fact is that these three strategies (taking state power, protesting to existing governments, and enacting alternative sovereignties) all exist today, and they have existed side-by-side for hundreds of years. In fact, many contemporary activist groups engage in all three techniques simultaneously. Think of the protests on the Standing Rock reservation in opposition to the Dakota Access Pipeline. Protesters there have encouraged the election of sympathetic politicians, pursued legal actions through the court system, sponsored lobbying campaigns aimed at the President, Congress and Army Corps of Engineers; engaged in publicity-seeking protests like “banner hangings,” and they have also made strong declarations of indigenous sovereignty over their tribal lands backed up by a physical (counter)occupation of the land on the pipeline route. Occupy Wall Street protests similarly used a multiplicity of tactics that included lobbying, protest, making demands of the government, engagement with electoral politics and party building, as well as the direct takeover of symbolic spaces in city centers. To put it simply: many activist groups use a wide assortment of strategies in hopes that any one of them may work. This ‘third option’ of creating alternative sovereignties, however, is an under-appreciated strategy that deserves more consideration in the coming era of Trump’s America.

Could 2017 be the new 1917? — Using all the tools in the activist toolbox

As Trump takes office it is no secret that the values many of us on the Left hold dear are under serious threat. These are dark days for people that believe in economic justice, in equality, in democracy, in kindness, and in fair treatment for all. We should be protesting. We should be trying to hold government leaders to account and ridiculing them when they spew hatred and insanity. We should be thinking about what to do in the next elections. We should by trying to pressure the members of the existing government in any way we can. However, it would be a grievous mistake to limit ourselves to those strategies — especially if we start to notice that they are not working.

Micah White, one of the organizers of Occupy Wall Street, is quite right to claim that we are in an age where protest is ineffective and where the pursuit of sovereignty is the key to social transformation. In contradiction to his proposal that the way forward is for progressives to move to rural areas and engage in electoral processes, however, what is needed (and more realistic) is that we need to stay grounded in our communities where are friends, families, jobs and neighbors already are and to look for paths to sovereignty both within and outside the electoral process. What does it mean, though, to try to attain sovereignty outside the electoral process?

Practically speaking this is about organizing in the spaces of our everyday lives — our towns, our neighborhoods, our workplaces, our schools — and creating groups announcing non-cooperation with the federal administration and pledging to govern social life differently than what Trump (and Neo-cons and Neo-liberals for that matter) would have us do. The Sanctuary City movement is instructional here, but there is no need for the focus of governance to be solely on immigration policies. Cities and other organizations could commit to countering federal environmental policies. They could commit to find ways to locally fund women’s health services even if the Feds won’t. They could decide to refuse to implement school voucher programs. Citizen groups could even pledge to refuse to give personal and local tax monies to a Federal Government whose new fiscal policies unabashedly favor the wealthy. Once people find their footing and discover their own abilities to dictate the policies in their communities, it could even lead to moves to locally challenge all sorts of aspects of the status quo, from wage rates and social services, to rents and private property.

This may sound like a far-fetched or risky scenario, but remember that the Right has been using local scales and institutions for years to block liberal federal policies on a range of issues from education and health care reform, to federal land management policies. Why shouldn’t the Left be capable of doing the same to Trump’s government? After all, there are going to be a lot of places in the U.S. where more local control is going to be a very attractive option over the next four years. Most of the major cities in the U.S. are filled with people who think Donald Trump is a dangerous joke and the personification of illegitimate government. Do you think it will be hard to find enough people in Portland, San Francisco, Vermont, Seattle, Philadelphia, etc, etc , willing to flout edicts that are put out by the coming government? What the Left should hope for (and organize for) is that this time of crisis will create not just openings for resistance and opposition to neo-Fascist federal policies, but that it will also open up opportunities to make progress on projects for equality, economic justice and true democracy — even during Trump’s term.

Is pursuing alternative sovereignties worth the risk?

Will there be blowback from the Federal Government if we pursue this strategy of establishing alternative sovereignties? Undoubtedly. For instance, Trump has already made threats that cities that do not comply with proposed deportation policies will lose millions in federal dollars. Many cities have assessed this possibility and stated they will pursue sanctuary policies anyway. The effectiveness of federal repression, however, can be blunted if locales create alternative sovereignties in conjunction with each other. Talk of this strategy has already been bubbling up in Leftist circles. Discussions have ranged from presenting the merits of creating local extra-constitutional constituent assemblies, to calls for a network of ‘Rebel Cities’, to the founding of an organization aiming to start an Alliance of ‘Free Communities’ that proclaim more local sovereignty from the central government.

These strategies to link spaces of refusal and sovereignty also emphasize the important point that pursuing alternative sovereignties is about protecting and furthering progressive and radical values, not about devolving authority to local scales as an end in itself. This is not about fleeing to local governance and pretending the state is not there, but rather about the building of alternative, egalitarian structures that first sit side-by-side with the existing state that then eventually capture or supplant it. Leftists could have important debates about what the arrangement of a new governance structure could look like. Could these new bases of alternative sovereignty and community power be used to start a new party that takes over the machinery of the existing state through elections? Or should we dream of establishing a brand new structure of governance of either a more centralized variety or a Bookchin-style confederation of municipalities? Either way, we should not hold illusions that the current U.S. government could be left to endure after more progressive municipalities get some wiggle-room from its grip. After all, local rebellious places stand little chance to persist if they stay isolated and leave the rest of the county (and world) under the thumb of a demagogue controlling a gigantic state apparatus of terror with his shaky finger on a nuclear button.

So is the promotion of alternative sovereignties a risky and radical strategy to consider? Yes. Pursuing alternative sovereignties does fundamentally aim to destabilize the current state. There were times when weakening the U.S. state could have posed the danger of opening the door to a dangerous right-wing reaction as the liberal protections of the American government were undermined. Today, however, it looks like that cow has already left the barn. After all, what right-wing faction is out there that we should be more worried about than the one walking into the halls of power in D.C. in 2017?

Despite the risks, a strategy of promoting and protecting social justice, equality and non-discrimination through alternative sovereignties is a strategy that could have broad support among a wide spectrum of the Left: from Socialists and Anarchists to ‘local first’ Progressives (and even among casually-political people who just feel threatened and terrified by Trump’s policies). If the strategy can be shown to be successful, it could give people a sense of hope by giving them a chance to be active in shaping politics before the next electoral cycle — and in a way that is much different from street protests. It also has the benefit of potentially making life within our cities more livable — immediately — than if we let new federal policies take root and affect our daily lives.

It will take work to promote this idea, and it will take even more work to do the on-the-ground organizing in our communities to build groups and structures that can develop and defend alternative sovereignties. Isn’t that, though, what many of us on the Left are interested in? What is the point of all the researching, theorizing, educating, and organizing we have been doing if it cannot be brought to bear and turned into praxis in the current desperate context?

Maybe you don’t think it’s time for the strategy of trying to establish alternative sovereignties. Maybe you have some faith that the liberal institutions of the state will restrain Trump. Maybe you believe members of Congress will hear our impassioned pleas and respond to written letters and protests in the streets. Maybe we can stop the coming horrors just by ‘resisting’ and dragging our feet until 2020. Maybe all that will happen. In case it doesn’t though, maybe it is time to at least start thinking about Plan B.