Can a National Mass Movement Be Organized?
Can Kshama Sawant's Seattle victories be scaled up to the nation?
Continuing thoughts about how to get out of this American mess we're in. One way, of course, is for Democratic voters to step up to the plate and take an actual at-bat.
That means, to vote out of office the ineffective, current and geriatric leaders of their own supposed party and put in place people who are willing to be effective in fending off the operatives of the Right intent on riding a wave to absolute rule. (Note that I'm blaming the "operatives of the Right," the instigators and curators of our ills, not the voters themselves, who, while not blameless for this problem, are nonetheless needed to solve it.)
I explored that idea in an earlier piece (see "Democratic Voters Have Some Stepping Up to Do"), and said (and was told) that this solution seemed highly improbable. Fair enough; yet the solution still exists, should Democratic voters wish to avail themselves of it.
Peaceful Revolution, Mass Movement Variety
Here I'd like to look at a different solution — call it the "peaceful revolution" approach, with a "mass movement" corollary. (There are other "peaceful revolution" approaches that don't involve mass movements.)
This solution is quite well described by Seattle (and Socialist) City Councilwoman Kshama Sawant in her interview with Chris Hedges at his Substack site, so I'd like to take the liberty of presenting its operational principles to you from that source. The title of the piece is "How to Defeat the Billionaire Class," which tells you where it's going.
Hedges first establishes Sawant's bona fides as a successful reformer:
Sawant, who lives on $40,000 of her $140,000 salary and places the rest into a political fund that she uses for social justice campaigns, helped lead the fight in 2014 that made Seattle the first major American city to mandate a $15 an hour minimum wage. Following a three-year struggle against Jeff Bezos, one of the world’s richest men, she and her allies pushed through a tax on big business that increased city revenues by an estimated $231 million a year. She was part of the movement that led to Seattle’s successful ban on school year evictions of school children, their families and school employees. She was one of the sponsors of a bill that protects tenants from being evicted at the end of their term leases, requiring landlords to provide tenants with the right to renew their leases and a bill that prohibits landlords from evicting tenants for nonpayment of rent if the rent was due during the COVID emergency and the renter could not pay due to financial hardship.
No small accomplishments, they.
And now the method. I'll present its principles, as he does, as rules or admonitions — Do this; don't do that — which Sawant used herself to win her own battles. Consider this one route out of this mess. Could it succeed at a larger-than-citywide, or larger-than-statewide level? Could it scale up to become a national alternative to the current course? I'll consider those thoughts at the end.
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The set of admonitions are these. I've added a few relevant comments from the article for each, but do read the piece in full. The comments I've extracted are just a taste, or in some cases, the most provocative, evocative ones.
• Always Be on the Offensive
This means always be on the attack, even when under attack.
The billionaire class orchestrated a recall vote last year which they expected would put Sawant on the defensive and remove her from office. Rather than let the oligarchs define the themes of the recall, she and her party used it to collect 15,000 signatures to establish rent control. [...]
The capitalists, she says, along with the media outlets they control, promote the idea of cooperation so that the public is “lulled into this idea that we’re all on the same side, this is a shared situation, that COVID was a shared sacrifice.” This belief disempowers working men and women.
“The very essence of capitalism is that the very wealthy at the top make this enormous profit at the expense of ordinary people,” she says. “The only way to address the class war is through class struggle.”
• [Know that] The Democratic Party Cannot Be Reformed from the Inside
The self-identified progressives in the Democratic Party, she says, play “a role which is contrary to the interests of working people. Every step of the way they have placed obstacles in the path of winning these victories.” She notes that every victory she and her allies achieved, including raising the minimum wage to $15 an hour and the renter’s rights laws, “has come about despite the overt or backroom opposition and tactics by the Democrats.” These victories were won not by appealing to the Democratic Party leadership, but by mobilizing unions members and workers to fight for them.
This advice is opposite to what many Party reformers would have us believe. The think the Party can be remade to save us. Sawant says the inverse is true, that the Party exists to thwart efforts to help the working class and the permanently poor.
Is that true? Does history bear that out, or just modern history? I'm not sure, but it's certainly true in Sawant's experience, and it informs her strategic thinking.
• If Radical New Deal Type Reforms are not Implemented, Right-wing populism and Christian Fascism Will Flourish
This is an important point, one I've been stressing as well. Because the institutional "Left" — the Democratic Party and its ecosystem — has surrendered the nascent American revolt to the Right, the revolt will be led by the institutional Right, a recipe for disaster.
By being the Party of the Status Quo, the Democratic Party has become what the Republicans were — the Party of the Established and Rich — and let the Republicans become the Party of Tipping Things Over. Republican leaders, of course, will betray the revolution they're using to gain power, but that comes later, after no one can stop them.
"If the agenda for a living wage adjusted for inflation, for Medicare for All, for canceling student debt, for a real Green New Deal policy agenda, if all of this were put forward by the Democrats, they would be able to win over a big section of the voting population that ends up either staying out of the elections or voting for Republicans and the right wing." [...]
“Working people in America right now are searching for answers,” she says. “It is because of the disappointments on the electoral arena, the disappointments from many of the BLM leaders being unable to deliver on the promise of this enormous Black Lives Matter movement that happened in 2020.”
Sawant (and I) are not alone in saying this, though these voices are unheard by the institutions they're normally aimed at.
• Identity Politics Will Not Win Over the Working Class
She argues that most of the American working people “are already won over to the ideas of a society that genuinely respects everybody around us.” Two-thirds of Americans, for example, support Roe v. Wade. The barrier for progressive change, she argues, is not racism, but the leadership of the Democratic Party, including the squad, the labor movement, and the leadership of social movements such BLM. Identity politics “is not the way to win over working-class people. That is handing a weapon to the right wing on a golden platter.”
Don't miss the point I've bolded. Most Americans are already persuaded that progressives are right. They don't have to be treated like reprimanded children to gain their agreement. Just the opposite — we gain their agreement best by not insulting them.
• Be Wary of Labor Union Leaders Allied with the Democratic Party
Sawant warns that most labor leaders, along with social activists such as Al Sharpton, who are allied with the Democratic Party exist for photo-ops and to “co-opt our movements.” “We should be wary of them,” she says. Our best hope lies in the mobilization of rank-and-file workers.
This gets to the heart of her tactic and reinforces her earlier point about the Democratic Party ecosystem. It also reflects back on her first point — always be on the attack. If many union leaders were as committed to dismantling the world of wealth as they say they are, they would not be accepted by the world of wealth into its circle of deciders. Compromise gets you into that circle, not the fight you bring.
There are exceptions, of course — I have one particularly in mind — but these are rare, and in these cases, they stand as much for the principle of mass action and resistance as Sawant does.
• Political Campaigns Must be Organized Around Demands, not Personalities
This one starts with a controversial statement and ends with an irrefutable fact.
Politicians, even self-identified progressive politicians, she says, have “made peace with the capitalist system.” They falsely believe that they can negotiate with the billionaire class and barter for a few progressive reforms. This tactic, she says, has failed.
We could think of many examples, but the one that comes most readily to my mind is the candidate I supported in 2016 and 2020 — Bernie Sanders — who ultimately laid his sword at Joe Biden's feet rather than embarrass and diminish one of his first friends in the Senate. The friends part could be argued, perhaps. But the "laid down his sword" part is fact, regardless of what you take to be his motive.
And the part that's undeniably true:
"This [making demands] becomes the central focus, not those individuals who could then use those positions to build their own careers by making themselves useful to the ruling class. That’s what we need to reject.”
• Focus Campaigns on the 80 million People Who Do Not Vote
In most elections, the pool of disillusioned and angry voters is the largest in America. People who don't vote aren't by and large lazy or bad citizens. Like consumers who won't buy a given company's toothpaste, they just don't want what’s offered. By and large, non-voters don't want either party to rule — if they did, most would be voters — but they can't think of a way to change that. So they stay home. In other contexts, people call that “voting with your feet.”
Sawant says to appeal to this pool, something Democrats (this is a theme with her) are unwilling, apparently on purpose, to do.
The Democratic Party, she claims, lacks a commitment to disillusioned and disenfranchised voters. Its “primary task is to be useful for the ruling class under capitalism, but the way they do it is by speaking from both sides of their mouth. For example, they will talk about $15 an hour. Every so often you will see Pramila Jayapal, the head of the Congressional Progressive Caucus tweet out saying it’s time for Medicare for All. But then when it comes time to fight for it, they will use their progressive status to give cover for the Biden regime.” They do not, for this reason, have any interest in mobilizing workers.
“We would not have won our elections had we not mobilized a whole section of the population that is typically disenfranchised. Not because they don’t have the legal right to vote, but because there’s nothing for them to vote for.”
• The Engine for Change will be a Militant Labor Movement Independent of the Democratic Party
Sawant expects the Democrats to take “an absolute shellacking” in the midterms.
“The prospect of a Trump resurgence is also a very real one, unfortunately, at this point,” she says. “That’s how dangerous the whole debacle of the Biden regime has been. The only way to cut across that and create a genuine alternative to right populism that could unite most working-class people in America is through working-class politics.”
Which is a tall order. She wants to mobilize millions.
New labor leaders, she says, will need to rally workers around a common working-class based program in defiance of traditional unions and the Democratic Party.
One could point out that her examples are all local or regional though — the West Virginia teachers' strike, or the national (meaning store-by-store) unionization of Starbucks employees.
Nonetheless, she argues, though this might be difficult, it must be done.
None of this, she cautions, is going to be automatic. ... “The force of change will be a revival of the militant labor movement.”
This might be true. If it is, it needs doing now, and thank what's good in the world that people like Kshama Sawant are doing it, are leading the way.
Does This Plan Scale Up?
We know the challenges. Regional communications aren't the same as national communications. Regional zeitgeists form more organically than national ones, partly because they're not totally dependent on (billionaire-owned) media to communicate their ideas. There can be "something in the air" in Seattle among Starbucks workers, for example, communicated from person to person based on contiguity, nearness. And a national movement of Starbucks workers can be built based on simultaneous regional contiguities plus a shared virtual environment — being a Starbucks worker and the way that's unique.
But a national movement of all labor? A — to put the right name on it — general strike? It would take more than something in the regional air for that to occur. It would take something in the national air, especially if there no major media were feeding it.
The model for that, of course, is the "hippie counter-culture" of the 60’s and 70’s, a kind of follow-on to the much smaller (and more regional) Beat counter-culture of the 50’s. The "hippie" (cultural) revolution grew organically because, though it started on the West Coast, there was something in the air — mainly the Vietnam War, but not just that — which made it national and gave it critical mass. Critical mass meant it wasn’t dependent on media for support.
And in so many ways, the Counter-Culture succeeded. People who happily mock the hippies today still live like them, without the clothes, the trappings or the awareness of how radically different their lives are today from the Richie Cunningham lives of the Happy Days 1950’s. Consider just guilt-free sex as an indicator. That was a radical concept in the pre-hippie days, and heavily countermanded socially.
There's the same kind of thing in the air today, but so far the Left and the “left” haven’t taken advantage of it. Will they?
If they do, Sawant’s radical mass movement revolt has a national chance. That national revolt could also be led from the left — the “Sanders left” I’ll not hesitate to add, since that movement gathered a ton of force before it fell on the Clinton sword, and then on Obama’s, before its leader cast himself on his own.
But the Sanders “movement” had, early on, a critical mass quality to it, even if its participants wanted something other than Sanders, in his truest heart, wanted for it himself.
To take a thought from Sawant, I wonder what may have happened if, at its peak, Sanders had taken the movement out of the Party and truly run, as he sometimes pretended to do, against its leaders and its destructive principles, while staying in the Party’s primary.
I don’t know the outcome, but the split he would have caused would have been dangerous; no question of that. But more dangerous than the four years of Trump we got? Or the four years of Biden that could usher the next Trump in — perhaps, God help us, someone who wants to rule?
The “Sanders movement” was certainly a black swan, surprising (and confusing) even its centerpiece. Can a group of Sawants organize another one? I’m not at all sure, but the makings are still there.