Occupy the Party: Not An Option

July 25, 2016. 
Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia, PA.
Online, in your home, and down the road.

Occupy the Party: the Sanders campaign as a site of struggle

Essay originally appeared in ROAR Magazine.

The Sanders campaign is forcing a split in the Democratic Party. Sanders is confronting the Democrats’ claim to democracy with the party’s practice as an instrument of oligarchic political control. He is doing this with the language of social democracy, reintroducing socialism into a political setting based on its disavowal.

The political question this poses for the left is whether we want to join the battle tearing apart the Democratic Party. Instead of treating the party as some kind of authority with the power to co-opt our message, we need to treat it like any street or park and occupy it. The more we engage, the more damage we can do, at every turn demonstrating the gap between people and practice.

If we win, that is, if Sanders gets the nomination, we have access to a political apparatus that extends throughout the US, into every state and community. If we lose, we have gained valuable political experience and created an opportunity for building a new political organization for and of the left.

Just as Occupy was never about one group, so the Sanders campaign is not about him. It’s about changing the conditions of political possibility. The Democrats are terrified of this, which is why they dismantled the rules barring PAC donations to the party.

The left has been alienated from the Democrats yet now their elite is terrified that the left will take it over.

We should give them reason to be afraid.

When we occupy the party, we continue the movement, pushing the power of the people. The only way we can be adequate to our principles is if we are willing to fight for them. This means taking on the battles that present themselves. Too often left voices invoke self-organization, as if what this means were clear, as if somehow workers all over the country were but one step away from generating of their own autonomous collectives.

This, for example, is the position Ben Reynolds takes in his recent essay on the Sanders campaign for ROAR. But when we join, build and co-opt parties are we not self-organizing? Too often left voices invoke social movements as independent of political organization, as if the momentary presence of crowds in the street translated automatically into power that endures. Such an invocation leaves out the institutions through which movement power becomes political change, the sites where the meaning of the movement is fought over and advanced.

If our goal is to change the world, we should try changing a party as a trial run. If it doesn’t work this time, then we create a new one.

Whose lives matter? A note on the limitations of Bernie Sanders

Essay originally appeared in ROAR Magazine.

As much as it poses an ethical dilemma, the Sanders campaign presents the American left with a question of strategy. Reformist participation in electoral politics is appealing because the route to power appears to be a question of running a successful election campaign. If Sanders can succeed, the argument goes, why not a real socialist party in the near future?

The problem with this line of thought is that the United States is constitutionally undemocratic — its political system was explicitly designed to thwart radical change. Through the Senate, representatives of just 11 percent of the nation’s population — concentrated in some of the country’s most rural, conservative states — can veto any national legislation. Any meaningful reforms would face immediate constitutional challenges in the Supreme Court, which is made up of lifetime legacy appointees whose politics are liberal at best and reactionary at worst.

Participation in US electoral politics is therefore not a realistic strategy to bring about radical social change.

It is easy to believe that we can gradually transition to socialism by winning a series of elections. It is much harder to realize that this route will never deliver the change we desire, because that realization requires us to pursue strategies beyond the ballot box.

Rather than channeling popular anger into institutionalized politics, we need to articulate a vision for the radical reconstruction of the political and economic structures of society.

We have to devote ourselves to the hard work of organizing in working-class communities, building power in the streets and in workplaces rather than the halls of Congress.

More than anything, we have to recognize that the radical left is at its strongest as a grassroots movement and at its weakest when it tries to bargain with institutional powers.

We cannot succumb to an opportunistic streak that is more than willing to sacrifice vital principles for legal expediency and electoral fantasies. It is painful to see this tendency in today’s left, despite the myriad lessons offered by Syriza’s recent failures. A left that values minor economic gains over humanity is not worthy of the name — it is a left that has defeated itself before even beginning to struggle.

What we need now is a movement that is both rigorously internationalist and capable of victory.

Our only hope for such a movement lies in the collective self-organization of working-class people.
It certainly will not come from Bernie Sanders.

Bringing it home: towards a new anti-capitalist politics

Essay originally appeared in ROAR Magazine.

Humanity finds itself at an inflexion point. On the one hand, global capitalism is producing and aggravating a series of existential crises that may well undermine the very preconditions for a dignified human life — or any form of human life — on this planet. On the other, the only political force that could possibly do something to counter this inexorable drive towards catastrophe — the international left — has long since been run into the ground by a four-decade neoliberal offensive, leaving its social base fragmented and atomized, its organizational structures in tatters.

In the wake of this world-historic defeat, we are confronted on a daily basis with the devastating consequences of our contemporary powerlessness. Far from retreating in the wake of the global financial crisis of 2008-‘09, neoliberalism has intensified its war on democracy and doubled down on the structural violence of austerity and dispossession. Meanwhile, we look on helplessly as wealth and power continue to be concentrated in ever fewer hands, while common goods and public services are mercilessly sacrificed at the altar of the marketplace.

We stand defenseless as high finance and big business mount an all-out offensive against the last-remaining vestiges of the welfare state, while mass surveillance and state control are expanded across the board. We are powerless as barriers to capital are knocked down in secretive trade deals while national borders are militarized and new walls erected everywhere to keep out the unwanted other. We feel paralyzed as families are evicted from their homes, protesters brutalized by police, and the bodies of refugees continue to wash up on our shores.

Amidst the growing uncertainty of a hyper-competitive 24/7 information economy, in which indebtedness, unemployment and precarity are rapidly becoming the generalized conditions of life for the majority, we are overcome by exhaustion, depression and anxiety. At the same time, a sense of existential gloom is settling in as global temperatures and sea levels continue their seemingly unstoppable rise, while planetary life-support systems are being destroyed at a truly terrifying pace.

From Hollywood blockbusters to best-selling books, late-capitalist culture knows all too well how to wax poetics about the collapse of civilization — yet its critics seem to have lost all capacity to imagine even the most moderate reforms to prevent this dystopian fiction from becoming reality.

We may continue to speak of a crisis of capital, but what really confronts us is a crisis of the left.

For all its tragedies and failures, at least the old left was once driven by hopes and visions of a better future. Today, all such aspirations seem to have been abandoned. As Franco ‘Bifo’ Berardi has astutely put it, the future has been cancelled — and the left, unmoored from its post-capitalist imaginary, has been cast hopelessly adrift in the process.

Flashpoints Of A New Politics

It is in this light — of the historic demise of the traditional mass parties — that we must read the most recent cycle of struggles. While the spectacular protests and popular uprisings of the last years have clearly centered on the inequities of financial capitalism and the authoritarian tendencies of the capitalist state, the more immediate significance of the mobilizations lay in the urgent message they sent to the left: evolve or die. Either build on the creativity and dynamism of the movements, or fade away into political irrelevance.

The Greek riots of December 2008, the mass protests against austerity in Southern Europe, the Occupy movement in North America and the UK, the student mobilizations in Canada and Chile, the mass demonstrations in Turkey, Brazil, Mexico, and countless other countries of the Global South, the urban uprisings against anti-black police brutality in cities like Ferguson and Baltimore — each of these brief “insurrectionary” episodes constitutes a flashpoint in the emergence of a new politics, offering a collective vision of a radically different future that is being imagined in the very process of struggle.

Seen in this light, it becomes clear that the intense collective outrage and the immense social creativity expressed in these mobilizations is already breathing much-needed new life into a moribund left. As John Holloway argues in his contribution to this issue, the financial crash of 2008 and the popular uprisings of the post-2011 period can be seen as a rupture that has changed the very texture and content of contemporary struggles. Even if the movements do not yet seem to know the exact way forward, and even if the initial mobilizations themselves petered out relatively rapidly, it is self-evident that there can be no way back.

There can be no way back because — in the over-developed and deindustrialized societies of the Global North at least — the productivist and welfarist horizon of the traditional left has simply lost all connection with the social realities of ordinary working people and the concrete materiality of actually existing struggles on the ground. In this respect, the most recent wave of popular protest tells us something very important about the changing nature of capitalism and the evolving forms of class struggle under conditions of financialization; changes which in turn necessitate innovative new ways of thinking about anti-capitalist organizing and the transition to a post-capitalist world.

The recent wave of protest tells us something important about the evolving forms of class struggle under conditions of financialization.

Sadly, those who remain versed in the poetry of the past have struggled to understand the unfamiliar language of the movements. Incapable of detecting anything new in them, many have ended up reducing the political essence of recent mobilizations to what they do understand: the struggle against inequality and unemployment, the opposition to austerity and the defense of the welfare state, and so on. While such traditional leftist grievances were certainly there, what was largely obscured in this mainstream narrative — also among large parts of the institutional left — was the deeper political content.

Towards A Common Political Project

The notion of a “political project” should be understood in the broadest possible sense of the term here: neither simply as the creation of an ordinary political party in the pursuit of state power, nor as the construction of another coalition of social forces, but more generally as the development of a set of convergence points for various pre-existing struggles to rally around and organize upon.

These points of convergence would have to be inserted directly into the deepening contradictions and crisis tendencies of financialized capitalism and situated firmly in the lived experience of working people and urban dwellers. Most importantly, they would have to build on the transformative potential of ongoing struggles. Only on that basis can the movements begin to formulate a shared narrative, political imaginary and transformative project rooted in the social reproduction of everyday life, animated by strong popular desires for democracy, and geared towards the collective self-management of the common.

How do we create political coherence out of a social field of struggles full of contextual particularities — and how do we do so without sacrificing the richness of a plurality of struggles?

In many ways, this is both the most important and at the same time the most difficult task confronting the left today: how to generate political coherence out of a field of struggles full of contextual particularities — and, more specifically, how to do so without sacrificing the richness of a plurality of methods. The only sensible way forward would be to actively build on the diversity of tactics, multiplicity of strategies and ecology of organizational forms that presently exist within society and that will undoubtedly be further expanded in future years.

The minimal prerequisites to generate such coherence would be to name thecommon enemy (capitalism), identify the common terrain of action (everyday life in the city) and develop a common project (the construction of a social counterpower geared towards the eventual establishment of a democratic post-capitalist society) that can unify the struggles through a shared narrative, with participants neither clinging on to their individual identities, nor giving up their unique particularities under the aegis of a single hegemonic force.

More concretely, the convergence point would have to take on an organizational form of its own; one that can accommodate the wide ecology of other organizational forms without imposing itself on them. The social movements in Spain have embarked on an interesting project, in this respect, by developing city-specific “confluence platforms of popular unity” that have fielded “citizens’ candidates” in municipal elections. The confluence platforms bring together a wide array of movement activists, left-wing militants and public personalities without developing the “organic internal life” of an ordinary political party.

The construction of municipal confluence platforms opens up a raft of new opportunities to act in common and build social power from below.

The political objective of such convergence points would be dual: first and foremost, to generate a confluence of social forces capable of exerting collective power through unity in action; and second, at a deeper and much more radical level, to actively transform the identities of individual participants in the very process of collective mobilization — broadening political horizons, overcoming sectarian divides and opening particular struggles up onto the wider social terrain. In this sense, the construction of confluence platforms opens up a raft of new opportunities to act in common and build social power from below.

A Network Of Rebel Cities

To insert themselves directly onto the terrain of everyday life, the confluence platforms would have to be urban or metropolitan in scope and would ideally be rooted in and responsive to a confederated structure of neighborhood and workplace assemblies — just as Bookchin envisioned it. Among their ranks, the platforms would include a broad ecology of autonomous movements, social unions, neighborhood organizations, popular initiatives, issue-based campaigns and even radical parties, as long as the latter remain on equal footing with the movements and are never allowed to hegemonize the platforms.

Beyond creating new capacities for mutual aid, dynamic coordination and collective mobilization, the platforms would field citizens’ candidacies (ideally in the form of recallable delegates) in municipal elections, as in Spain, with the short-term objective of taking back the city and putting it under movement control. Since public provisions like social security, social housing, refugee reception and public transport in many countries are administered by local municipalities, the “rebel cities” could begin to roll out pilot projects with basic income, free transit, refugee sanctuaries and cooperative housing; although they will initially lack the resources and powers to fully develop such schemes.

Once multiple municipalities are brought under movement control, the confluence platforms would have to confederate into a national (and eventually international) network of rebel cities.

This is why, once multiple municipalities are brought under the control of the movements, their respective confluence platforms would have to confederate into a national (and eventually international) network of rebel cities. The newest municipal platforms in Spain, for instance, have recently banded together to form the Network of Cities for the Common Good. These networks could in turn decide to create higher-order confluence platforms fielding citizens’ candidates in national elections. The latter would aim to oust reactionary elites and establish defensive positions in the state apparatus, especially in relation to the forces of order and the concentrated power of finance and big business.

Here we should immediately note that the capitalist state is unlikely to ever become an active agent of popular empowerment and social transformation, and the left should therefore always guard against tendencies to prioritize the state as the primary site of struggle. As Marx famously put it in his reflections on the Paris Commune, “the working class cannot simply lay hold of the ready-made state machinery, and wield it for its own purposes.” Even with the left in government, capital continues to be a social power, not just a personal one. It will operate on and through the state even when it is nominally in the hands of the movements.

The long-term objective of any meaningful revolutionary process should therefore be to dismantle the “ready-made machinery” of the centralized capitalist state and replace it with a decentralized confederation of communes. The state, however, is not simply a “thing” that can be declared out of existence by the assembled multitude. Like capital, the state is a social relation that can only ever be dismantled through a complex and prolonged destituent process rooted in popular struggle. The coordinated network of rebel cities we speak of here could serve as a short-term stepping-stone towards that ultimate post-capitalist horizon.

A Political Program Of the Common

On the basis of this stepping-stone, the movements could begin to formulate a coherent political program of the common, pushing for substantive reforms geared towards increasing the reproductive resilience of society.

What would set such “substantive” reforms apart from a more traditionally reformist agenda would be their transformative political horizon: rather than seeking to reform capitalism, they would aim to expand and consolidate the power base of the opposition, allowing it to launch future attacks on capital from higher ground while generating new openings for the intensification and radicalization of the struggle.

The list of such transformative reforms is potentially endless. It could include the devolution of power away from the central state and towards the rebel cities, the socialization of finance and the democratization of money, the institution of a universal basic income and universal citizenship, working-time reduction, access to cooperative housing and free healthcare, the introduction of radical pedagogy into school curricula, the decentralization and decarbonization of energy systems, legal recognition of workers’ councils, and the declaration of a “charter of the commons” to enshrine open access to communal property into law, protecting it from enclosure and liberating new spaces for non-commodified social relations to prosper.

Where the 20th century left once envisioned a “mixed economy”, the 21st century left will have to envision a “cooperative economy”.

Where the 20th century left once envisioned a “mixed economy” of public control and private initiative, combining state regulation with market distribution to allow for the private accumulation of capital within a framework of political constraints, the 21st century left will have to start building a “cooperative economy” combining common ownership over the means of production with innovative forms of “hands-off” state support aimed atcreating space for autonomous circuits of social reproduction and self-organized social initiatives, ranging from legislation in support of workplace recuperations and worker self-management to the provision of interest-free credit to cooperative enterprises.

Crucially, all of the above would have to emanate from the constituent power of the movements and be channeled directly through the democratic processes of the confluence platforms. Since the basic outline sketched out here would be fiercely contested by those who retain their concentrated forms of economic power and privileged access to key nodes in the administrative apparatuses of the state, nothing will be given up for free. The conflicts will be fierce. Even with our friends in power, the movements can only ever win something like a “charter of the commons” through the concerted mobilization of autonomous counterpowers.

In the end, the construction of social power cannot be pursued in isolation from the consolidation of the power that has already been accumulated. As Bookchin put it, “social revolutionaries, far from removing the problem of power from their field of vision, must address the problem of how to give power a concrete and emancipatory institutional form.” That institutional form — the ultimate objective of the social revolution — he called the “Commune of communes.”

Expanding The Horizons Of Possibility

Needless to say, we are still very far from the kind of pre-revolutionary situation outlined above — let alone the post-capitalist society it should eventually give rise to. The moment we put down our readings and get on with the difficult task of organizing ourselves on the ground, we find that same capitalist barbarity still staring us in the face. The sheer scale of the task ahead of us is daunting. Not only do we have to devise innovative new ways to defend ourselves from, and ultimately destroy, the voracious appetite of capital; we also have to reinvent the left and the very meaning of revolution in the process.

A dynamic and versatile left capable of rising to the challenges of our times will need to rest on a broad ecology of organizational forms.

By necessity, then, we are in it for the long haul. The common project of the 21st century left will inevitably unfold over the course of decades. It is therefore more fruitful to think of revolution as a protracted process rather than a singular event with a clear beginning and end. This is not about storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace; we need to set our sights much further than that. No one has ever won (or survived) a marathon by sprinting to the finish line. In many respects, we will have to free ourselves from capitalist time and set our own political pace.

Unfortunately, however, there are some things that simply cannot wait. Pressing concerns like climate change and the refugee crisis compel us to act now, simply to save human lives and the planetary life-support systems on which they depend. This is another reason why a dynamic and versatile left capable of rising to the challenges of our times will need to rest on a broad ecology of organizational forms — each with their own strengths and weaknesses, and each operating according their own particular temporalities. At this point in history, obtuse left-wing sectarianism may quite well prove to be the end of humanity.

Yet it often seems that the future remains trapped between the internecine squabbles of two seemingly irreconcilable “lefts”: an old one centered narrowly on taking power, and a new one still struggling to come to terms with its own potential. Beyond the haughty impotence of the former and the apparent perplexity of the latter, the theory and practice of building power offers fertile and expanding political ground for a new anti-capitalist politics. We must now explode the tensions between them into a common project that can begin to give a concrete and democratic organizational form to the restive constituent potential that is craving to assert itself from below.

As we gather force and move along the process of construction, we will gradually notice the horizons of possibility expanding: the higher we rise, the farther we see; until, one day, all that meets the eye is the glorious sight of rebel cities everywhere rising up against the common enemy, humanity resolving at last to “throw its revolutionary broadsword into the scales.” Until then, you will find us in the streets, in the neighborhoods and in the working places: preparing the ground, laying the foundations — building power.

~ The revolution will be televised.