Message to the Progressive Left: Where Are We? What Can We Do?
It is with great feelings of love and solidarity that we greet the participants of the 2010 U.S. Social Forum. We are very excited to be able to attend the forum, and learn from so many amazing organizers and individuals.
Despite the bright spot that the social forum represents, our movements are not where they need to be. With this paper we hope to lay out some reasons why we think people’s movements are so weak now, and what we can do to rectify that. This includes confronting the capitalist system, while not forgetting that all forms of oppression are related and need to be fought simultaneously. We offer our analysis; at the same time, we recognize this white paper is only one part of a broader conversation. We hope to learn from you all, and to bring your struggles into our analysis and organizing.
The State of Affairs
It was forty years ago this year that the United States saw the some of the strongest social movements our country has ever seen. From the perspective of organizers and activists in 1970, the pace and scale of social movements was on the increase. The civil rights movement was still very strong, and had spawned new developments: the student movement, the antiwar movement, and the feminist movement. Labor was at a historic high. These movements were creating tremendous victories for people the country
over – ending Jim Crow segregation, creating the highest standard of living for working people in our country’s history, forcing new opportunities and respect for women, fighting against the Vietnam war, strengthening community control, and expanding the vistas of American democracy and equality. From the perspective of those on the ground, it was reasonable to believe that these changes were leading to unprecedented social transformations, perhaps even revolution, in the United States.
Forty years later we find ourselves in dramatically different circumstances. Even with the election of our nation’s first black president, a testament to the power of the civil rights movement, conservatives and the business groups that support them have made gains politically, culturally, and ideologically. Here in Detroit – formerly the powerhouse of the domestic manufacturing economy, heart of the union movement, and center for struggles of black liberation – the population has declined by half. Thirty-five square miles of the city are abandoned, the official unemployment rate is over 15 percent, well higher if you include those who have given up looking for work altogether.
This picture is similar across the nation. With the economic crisis of 2008, the pain and dislocation Detroit has felt for decades has spread to nearly every major U.S. city. It is with heavy hearts that we recognize the painful situation the economic crisis has brought to our communities. But we also must recognize that this crisis is nothing new, and that it will
be here for some time to come.
How Do We Find Ourselves Here?
The last forty years have been a continuous string of victories for the business elite. Even with the crisis, corporate productivity and profits are up – oil companies are recording record revenues, banks like Goldman-Sachs are lodging perfect quarters (making money on the market every day of trading), and Wal-Mart and McDonald’s have record profits. Meanwhile working people are in the worst position we’ve been in since the Great Depression. Wages have been stagnant for thirty years, a record number of people require government assistance to make ends meet, and many more are forced into homelessness or other forms of precarious existence. At the same time, corporations ride roughshod over what’s left of our political democracy and regulatory state. The Supreme Court has granted corporations unlimited access into our political process. Regulatory
agencies are run by the corporations they are supposed to regulate – best demonstrated by the exemptions granted to BP’s Deepwater Horizon oil platform and the resultant blowout. Perhaps most disappointingly, Obama’s presidency has proven to be just as dominated by business interests as his predecessor.
With the economic crisis, the attack on working people has only intensified, and the issues of business control of our society show themselves in greater relief. But activists have failed to use the crisis to organize. This is especially egregious given the increased vulnerability to those of us who are already the most marginalized in society. The increasing incidence of white-supremacist hate crimes, the targeting of immigrants especially those from Latin America, the increase in reports of violence against women, all point to the intersectionality of the economic crisis and all forms of oppression. These struggles are only going to intensify in the coming period. And we need to be better organized to empower people to fight against them.
What Can We Do
There are important lessons to be learned for those of us trying to build strong people’s movements. One of these is that we’ve neglected to understand how capitalism operates and to offer a clear critique. More particularly, we have neglected the power of class struggle – both as a method of analysis and as a source of strategic leverage for organizing. Taking our eye off capitalism and the class struggle meant that only one side has been fighting. In the words of billionaire Warren Buffet, “The rich class [is] making war, and we’re winning.” The historic victory of Barack Obama is part of this problem. Obama always represented the business class. He received more campaign contributions from the financial sector than any other candidate in history. And in his personal political career, he is the single-largest recipient of BP money. As a result he represents their interests, not ours. Using class to analyze the changes going on around us will better enable us to see clearly what the problems are that we face, and how to fight them.
Engaging in class struggle also provides tools for empowerment. In the electoral arena the deck is stacked against us. The rich and powerful have much greater access to politicians and the government; working people have a hard time simply finding information on what is going on with our elected officials. Fighting back in the class struggle empowers us to
take things into our own hands. Our greatest strength is that as working people we have the power to stop, and restart, the economy on our own. We can run our workplaces and our cities by ourselves. We don’t have to act at the ballot box only, but in our jobs and communities where we have more power.
Empowerment is key. Whether we are working on combating racism, fighting homophobia, increasing access for people with disabilities, ending patriarchy, challenging police brutality, or protecting our natural environment, the focus of our struggles should be the empowerment of working people to act and organize for themselves. This means adopting
the model of organizing used by Ella Baker, Septima Clark, Bob Moses, and the civil rights organizers who refused to be made into leaders. They recognized that the only way to build an effective movement is to have large grassroots participation; and to do that people need to make their own movements, be allowed to demonstrate their own leadership, and to empower themselves and their communities. As organizers we need to facilitate this process, not lead it. We need to have tough conversations with those that may not agree with us, to go door to door, and to mobilize popular discontent and pain into effective self empowerment. As Baker said, “Strong people don’t need strong leaders” – we need to organize, organize, organize.
Class struggle and bottom-up organizing are important, but we need to simultaneously challenge racism, sexism, heterosexism, and other systems of oppression, as well as put anti-oppression values into practice in our organizations. We advocate collective liberation, the idea that our liberation depends on everyone else’s and nobody’s struggle can wait – all our struggles are interconnected. To really end any form of oppression, we must address them all; we have to defend, protect, and fight for each other.
As an anarchist organization, we aren’t afraid to call it as we see it, and what we see is a world that is still organized for the benefit of a few, at the expense of the rest of us. Yet we are willing to believe that cooperation, listening, empathy, and sharing can actually become the bedrocks of our communities, workplaces, and decision-making structures. Anarchists believe that the means are the ends, and that the best way to win a new society is to start building it right now while we fight the worst aspects of the old one. We believe in focused community work, in presence, listening, humility. We believe in winning people over through communication and shared values, and in toppling the power structure through massive collective action, rather than through charismatic leaders or top-down policies.
Detroit and Beyond
The Left let the economic crisis go by without using it to highlight these problems and organize people to defend their own interests. Despite the horror it has wrought on our communities, the crisis is in many ways a missed opportunity. Although the financial sector has stabilized, the streets of Detroit and the rest of the country tell a different story. Unemployment is destroying families, our education system is being dismantled, tens of thousands continue to die due to lack of health insurance, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq rage on killing innocents and depleting resources. These larger structural crises mean that we will see a return of the 2008 crash. It also means that for those of us on the bottom the “crisis” is ongoing.
We can regain the transformative power that social movements demonstrated in 1970. The social forum is a step in the right direction. But as the forum’s organizers have emphasized, the social forum is a process. We need to take the lessons learned, the connections we’ve made, and the energy generated here, back to our own communities. We need to understand that to organize is to empower others to empower themselves, and to include those who are unorganized, apathetic, or otherwise disinclined to
fight to defend their interests. We need to bring hope to regular people and the organizational capacity to turn hope into empowerment. The social forum is a bright spot on a dim horizon. Let’s work to make sure it signifies a coming dawn.
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