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David Bush is a community and labour activist based primarily on the East Coast. Currently he is finishing his Master's in Labour Studies at McMaster University. His blog will be exploring the theoretical and strategic debates facing left-wing activists who are trying to build a better world.

The politics of petitioning

| February 19, 2016
The politics of petitioning

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What is a petition and what is its role in organizing for people aiming to make radical political and economic change?

The petition is on the surface a simple enough political tool. It is a request or formal appeal to authority that is, by its very nature, a reformist political gesture. The signatures gathered on the petition are passed along to an authority in order to demonstrate the popular appeal of the cause. The authority, in an ideal world, would then address the issue.

Many petitions operate only on this reformist appeal to authority (this is especially true of the many online petitions from sites like Change.org), which fits perfectly within the liberal democratic framework. Change, if it is to occur, happens within the confines of the electoral booth or appealing to the existing government or authority. Power and political decisions are left with the already powerful.

But the petition can operate on more than one level. Its dual nature means that it is often an indispensable tool in building collective power for more radical ends.

Raising consciousness

Those who sign a petition are at the very least declaring a political stand on an issue. And as physical petitions don't magically gather signatures this means that there is an interaction between two people. Each signature on a petition represents a political conversation, sometimes this is a deep discussion, sometimes it is a debate and sometimes it is just a quick affirmation of support. Whatever it is the petition allows the issue to be raised, it poses the question and forces people to think through the issue -- often generating further conversation with friends and family after the petition has been signed.

The ability of a petition to spark debate and gather signatures relies not just on those organizers out gathering petitions, but also on the issues being raised. In this way all petitions are not created equal. Some demands in a given context will not garner much interest. Different issues will generate wildly different types of interactions. For instance, in campaigning for the Fight for $15 it is natural to have a discussion about people's wages, where they work and what their workplace experiences are like. When I was door knocking on the saving door-to-door mail campaign the conversations I had were different, they were about people's mobility issues, the neighbourhood dynamic, the Harper government and even property values.

Reconnaissance

The petition is not just a consciousness raising tool but also a useful way to gather up information for further organizing. The first information you get is the basics on the petition, name, address, email and phone number. This is invaluable to building a long-term campaign (as a former union organizer I can attest that having a name, address and phone number is absolute gold). Building a list of supporters through a petition gives organizers an immediate list of contacts from which to build further actions like talks, rallies, visiting elected officials etc.

It is not just the basic information from the petition that you gather, conversations over the issues also generates info about people's opinions, history, workplace experience, etc. that are just as important. For instance, if you get a number of people signing a petition about the $15 minimum wage who also work for the same company you can connect those workers with each other and start a conversation about their own workplace or connect them with a union organizer.

Perhaps most importantly you can gather basic info about the issue and campaign the petition is linked to. Is it popular? Are people signing? Why or why not? What are the most common questions about the issues? Does the issue resonate, but the slogan misfire? Do people want to get involved in the campaign? All of this adds up to a practice of class reconnaissance, going out and talking to people, figuring out who they are, what they do, what they think and what their opinions are on the issue.

The Petition as an Organizer

The petition is not just a tool to push for reforms or raise consciousness, or even gather data. The very act of petitioning can help build stronger campaigns, better organizers and better politics. To get people to sign a petition you need to be able to engage people in a conversation, be informed on the issues, and win people to your position. This requires confidence in yourself and the politics of the campaign.

Petitioning allows people to build these skills by talking to strangers. Petitioners learn to distil their arguments down to simple and understandable points. It gives organizers a chance to talk to hundreds of people, evaluate how they feel about the issue and assess the potentials of the campaign. The act of petitioning can either serve to dispel or confirm assumptions about the way in which the broader working class understands or sees certain issues.

Petitioners also get a chance to engage in recruitment. Learning how to engage people, draw out a discussion in a way that also allows you to invite people to join the struggle is a valuable and necessary skill. This fact requires people who are petitioning to think through the broader strategy of the campaign, where it will go, where to plug people in and so forth.

It also forces organizers to root their future debates about political strategy within the experiences of those interactions, rather than on a solely bookish appraisal of the balance of class forces. The act of petitioning in this way helps clarify political debates.

The petition -- means and ends

The petition is a simple tool, rooted in a reformist conception of politics. But used correctly it can be instrumental in building a mass political movement which goes beyond simply appealing to authority. For this to happen both the demands of the petition and how it is used need to be politically worked out.

For instance, the recall petition for Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin, involved a mass mobilization of working class people. But the ends it served, electing a milquetoast Democrat, did not build power. Coming at the end of the Wisconsin uprising, rather than the beginning, the petition effort was a rearguard action that served to drive the movement back into the dead-end electoral project of the Democrats without a renewed sense of collective power.

However, from the British Chartist movement in the mid-1800s to the anti-war movement in 60s and early 2000s the petition has also been used highly effectively in building mass working-class movements against war, inequality and for civil rights.

Building power

Much of the debate in Marxism and on the Left takes place around larger issues such as the nature of imperialism, the falling rate of profit, the role of the state, the intersection of oppression and exploitation. These debates are important and in many ways central to a political project which hopes to overthrow capitalism. However, without a serious and continual discussion about the role of the basics of organizing and how to engage within movements radicals risk delinking theoretical debates from the objective of building collective working-class power -- impoverishing both theory and practice.

The petition as a political tool cannot be divorced from the political circumstances. The level of class struggle in Canada is low and the anti-capitalist left is relatively weak. This means while the sentiment for certain ideas like taxing the rich, solving the climate crisis, ending racial profiling or increasing the minimum wage exist, it remains relatively unorganized and demobilized.

The petition if used correctly in these circumstances can be invaluable in organizing broader working-class campaigns and building new layers of class-conscious militants around these issues.

This was originially published on my blog as "Marxism and the Petition"

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