A progressive dialogue on the future: Six questions for leftists

| October 7, 2011
A progressive dialogue on the future:  Six questions for leftists

Leftists don't spend enough time or energy working on important strategic questions. If we could resolve a handful of these, even tentatively, and try out some solutions, we would be far more successful. Here are six from my list of the most important questions, as well as my answers, which by their very incompleteness and inadequacy should suggest that more people should work on them.

1. How not to be marginal.

Marginalization is not some kind of strategy to counter radical politics, but instead it is a defining feature of our society.

The easiest thing for society to do is trap politics in a bubble. The cutting edge of marketing in our capitalist society involves trendspotting or coolhunting, looking for social or fashion phenomena that could become the next big thing. Our society facilitates the formation of bubbles, subcultures, in-groups, that develop their own norms, jargon, and rituals. Every bubble eventually gets its moment of fame, but the moments are short. All the while, the other defining features of society -- legal and informal frameworks of discrimination, the denial to millions of the means of survival -- remain in place. Radicals want to change these features, but so long as we will not, we remain no more than another bubble or subculture. Cultural habits, in-group jargon, ways of dressing or socializing -- if leftists share all of these, it's a sign that something is wrong, because no culture has a monopoly on principles of equality and solidarity. There should be leftists in every kind of subcultural bubble and leftist organizations should encompass the diversity of society.

2. How not to be co-opted.

Whether in unions, NGOs, or the journalistic and academic worlds, there are rewards for leaders who gradually distance themselves from political opposition. Again, this is not some kind of corruption or bribery but a structural feature of our society. Everybody needs to make a living, and in our system, everybody needs to do so visibly and individually, which means we are all co-opted to some degree, trained to chase the various currencies of success (grants, papers, awards, accolades, sales, page views). Rewards and status go to successful individuals, and they become objects of status. The idea of doing anything together is made more difficult when media and cultural practice is to single out individuals for praise or demonization. The space for collective action shrinks as individuals get separated out. The solution is not for leftists to deemphasize or ignore the contributions of individuals, but to celebrate them as contributions, in a way that rewards individuals for their contribution to the collective good and makes others want to contribute as well. This is better than trying to attack leaders. Too often I have seen leftists tear down leaders who show no signs of co-optation other than effectiveness and prominence. The result of this kind of politics is not a movement without leaders, but a movement where effective leaders are driven out or silenced and replaced by leaders who are skilled at gossip and backhanded manoeuvring.

An understanding of the power and pervasiveness of co-optation should not lead to its cynical acceptance for lack of any alternative (which leads to its embrace), nor to a fearful and defensive withdrawal from society (which leads to bubbles). Instead, leftists should use contact with one another to strengthen our resolve in our principles, and figure out how to maintain constant contact with the rest of society in a principled way.

3. How to relate to social democratic parties in and out of power.

When leftist regimes have taken power historically, they have done so through elections, coups, or revolutionary wars. According to my reading -- which I am prepared to debate and elaborate if necessary -- the current political landscape strongly favours electoral and nonviolent strategies and strongly disfavours violent approaches. But issue-based activist leftists don't relate well to politicians who need to seek votes and money to win elections. Politicians are even more vulnerable to co-optation than activists.

But co-optation cannot be a reason to give up. Many leftists I know don't believe that the system can be changed incrementally, but they also don't see any forces on the horizon or historical precedent for a revolutionary upheaval against the system. Abandoning the existing political system for insurrectionary politics requires a high burden of proof that all political avenues have been exhausted, lest the activists fail to win the majority of the public.

Is a leftist politician a contradiction in terms, because co-optation, capitalist media, and capitalist violence will ensure that such a politician can never be effective? If not, can any of these forces be neutralized? One idea is that leftist movements can keep politicians honest using the threat of agitation and disruption. Can we reach a level of strength where we can, on an ongoing basis, force unfriendly politicians to enact left policies from outside parliament? This would of course be good, but is it the best we can do? Could we be the ones proposing policies to elected leftist politicians in the existing parliamentary system, politicians who then pass these as laws with a majority of popular support? Why not, if not?

4. How to avoid dissipation in NGO and academic politics.

The most successful social movement are those which have met daily needs: the land reforms of the Chinese Communists in the 1930s and 1940s, the Black Panthers breakfast programs, the land occupations of the Brazilian MST are all examples. But our society turns this into a movement-killer. By destroying governmental service provision and contracting it out, our system forces activists into roles as full-time service providers and fund-raisers. The hole left by a neo-liberal state that is hollowing itself out has radicals doing the work that liberal welfare-state employees should be doing with tax money -- the work of social workers, counsellors, nurses, teachers, and even journalists.

A friend in Boston, for example, recently told me of how organizers have recently had to work exceedingly hard trying to deal with the trauma of violence, shootings, primarily of black youths, in poor neighbourhoods. In India, organizations dealing with farmer's suicides have now found rural activists are committing suicide as well. The organizers have to deal with these traumas -- there is no way to avoid them -- but the traumas overwhelm their ability to mount a structural challenge -- whether of urban policy in Boston or agrarian policy in India. This is all arranged such that activists can't strengthen any constituencies, build any leaders, or oppose the system lest they lose the chance to take care of people who will fall farther without any protection.

Right-wing movements with religious bases have benefited from government and corporate support money diverted to church infrastructure from government-based, tax-funded services. Social democrats seek to expand the welfare state, but radical leftists are often more ambiguous, because they are suspicious of governments. But the expansion of the welfare state could free activists from having to stay in a short-term horizon.

On the academic side, campuses are one of the only (shrinking) spaces where radical politics can exist. I have written elsewhere about the way academics protect themselves from real political engagement through obscurity and an obsessively internal focus. Left academics, like all academics, also tend to ascribe excessive importance to academic activities and academic politics. The consequence here is that campuses cease to be a source of political activity in the interests of the rest of society and become, instead, a sink of resources and energy. This should not lead to a rejection of working on campuses or of campus politics, but it is the responsibility of campus activists and left academics to maintain a sense of proportion.

5. How to demonstrate and build power on the street without spending the next few years in costly legal battles.

I made a short video after the G20 Summit in Toronto in 2010 to argue that surveillance technology means activists should not make plans for activities at public protests that are based on not being seen or identified. It is also true that what is simple and trivial to do on the street with 120,000 people (ie. some kind of civil disobedience crossing some artificially imposed line intended to prevent decision-makers from seeing or hearing those who oppose them) is impossible with 12,000 and potentially fatal with 1,200. Street demonstrations have that name for a reason: they should be demonstrations of power, which may also build power by inspiring others to join. There is power in the will to resist, but no struggle to change society can succeed without also having the power of numbers, especially since elites will always have the edge in money and technology. For any size of crowd, there are some actions that will demonstrate opposition and defiance without exposing the crowd to extremes of legal and physical reprisal. Determining where that line is requires experience and careful thinking, something I know many activists possess. Unfortunately, a lot of that expertise is wasted because we cannot have honest tactical debates or disciplined actions, which leads to my sixth question.

6. How to create a culture that allows freedom of debate and also unity in action.

Lenin answered this question with a concept called "democratic centralism," which turned out to be more centralism than democratic. The idea seems sound: separate deliberation from action, allow complete freedom of debate during the stage of deliberation but once a decision has been reached, everyone has to follow, even if they disagree. Some parliamentary party caucuses are supposed to work like this. I even came across this doctrine, though not described as democratic centralism, in the business literature -- business guru Jim Collins describes it as a part of his "Culture of Discipline" in his book Good to Great about the attributes of corporations that make that transition. But can either 20th-century communist parties or corporations provide useful models for liberatory organizations?

The more anarchistic answer is "diversity of tactics" -- a doctrine that says that people can take actions they choose within the context of some broad basis of unity. But in the organizing of recent street protests, this doctrine has contained several other implicit ideas. First, that in order to participate, you have to endorse certain principles -- including the diversity of tactics. Second, in order to legitimately criticize, you have to participate. You can see where the logical conclusion of these two ideas takes you. A culture based on this doctrine does not value dissent, and I fear might be locked into making tactical errors because it isn't capable of having honest tactical or strategic debates.

This may actually be our biggest problem: the fact that we can't have a conversation about either principle or practice without bullying, vicious personal attacks, or attempts to purge others. Online culture is full of "trolls," who have raised the cost of online engagement by debasing the quality of discussion, filling comment sections with abusive and personal attacks. But "trolling" is a pervasive part of the culture of all organizations now, including, unfortunately, left organizations. The relief of finding a troll-free environment would be so immense that, if leftists could create one, we would probably be irresistible.

Justin Podur is a Toronto-based writer. His blog can be found here. www.killingtrain.com

Read our other stories from Reinventing democracy, reclaiming the commons: A progressive dialogue on the future of Canada.



Justin Podur, here you do us a great service, thank you, in setting an agenda for discussion among the so-called Left. Number 5 above especially poignant for me this moment in light of recent efforts to consolidate and organize, from the G20 to Stop the Cuts to Occupy Toronto...knowledge and experience which could help foster feasible tactics nudged out by rambunctious ego, undisciplined talk, wayward attitude and constant disruption.

And the everpresent concern of co-optation also such a hot potato. Every activist should read Michael Albert on this subject. Likewise a concerted discussion of tactics and cultural values are necessary and long overdue, as you suggest.

But I would like to add one essential point to your must-have discussions for activists,  if I may.

7. How to acknowledge and confront our own cultural attachment and conditioning to consumerism, ownership and property.

We need to take an honest, self-effacing look at ourselves and admit to our own roles in accepting, growing and maintaining a culture of capitalism that wreaks human suffering and environmental suicide. Our cars and computers and cellphones, our commutes and air travels, our road trips and vacations, our houses and condos and cottages, our investments and divestments and RRSP's and credit cards and convenience foods flown in from everywhere so neatly packaged, processed or barrista'd. Our beloved entertainment industries and star systems and pundits and major league sports franchises, and our addiction to factory meat and dairy and excessively large portions of everything. Of course the list goes on.

We also are attached to and prepared to defend our jobs and workplaces regardless of how they might be inextricably connected and contributing to the mess we're in. And then there's our eager conviction and compliance to pay taxes even to a government that perpetuates war and promotes proverty and inequity and has been found to be in serious conflict of interest or deemed criminally corrupt and fraudulent. (No such a government here, mind you.)

We need to take a good look at ourselves and our habitual practices and lifestyles and expectations.

Can we really berate the Tar Sands and fill up at Shell too? Can we really flip a house and pitty the homeless, bemoan gentrification?

What are we prepared, if anything, to sacrifice?





Gabriel Sinduda wrote:
And the everpresent concern of co-optation also such a hot potato. Every activist should read Michael Albert on this subject.

Michael Albert, a perennial supporter of an imperialist political party (the Democratic Party of the USA), and a supporter of "humanitarian intervention" in Libya, is himself an example of co-optation.

I'm unclear about item #6. Do you approve of "diversity of tactics" or do you support some form of centralization and discipline. I, for one, find the "smash Starbucks" types to be doing a grave disservice to building an anti-capitalist movement. If the reaction of other elements in the movement is just a rueful shake of the head with a nod to a false notion of tolerance and diversity, then those other elements (the majority?) can have no complaints when they get tarred with the media brush of anarchism/terrorism/hooliganism.

I half-like and half-dislike this article. It's critical, but it seems to make gentle stabs at anarchism.

1. makes sense, I certainly encountered it in Ontario, where disagreement was often the straw on the camel's back rather than something to search commonalities out of and discuss; this seemed most prominent in groups who had a good grip on identity politics but refused to expand beyond it to broader power dynamics.

2. we certainly don't celebrate our successes often enough, I'm sure jealousy plays in, so long as leaders don't disable or disempower those less inclined to (introverts like myself) then I think lefties won't feel abandoned by them (and vice versa.)

3. This one's tricky, but whether or not we believe in government, it takes no energy to vote in a leftist and possibly make things easier for everyone. Historically, low votership seems to signal to the right-wing they can take over, even though it's showing distrust of the system altogether, and high votership makes politicians make (and break) more promises.

4. Radical tactics like grocery store raids can really shine here - to highlight both the determination of dissent and the failings of the system - forcing the gov's hands - so long as we're using the resources provided to us through government aide & programs to build up independence and strength, it won't disempower.

5. I don't buy this one at all. Millions marched against Iraq to no avail. People have a right to take their own risks - whether or not its tactical, it can be life affirming and is their decision to make, sometimes the only decision they can make besides give up. What's possible is always pushable, and forethought before and during protests is the norm. As for reprisals, the police will always push towards violence regardless of our actions - we can't "blame the victim" on that one.

6. Diversity of Tactics encompasses everything the writer is asking for. Respect for different levels of risk and lines of thought, incorporating them into a harmony, and reducing alienation so that folks can come together in a show of numbers and discuss things together. It does not imply 'unity' because DoT is not some divine overarching doctrine. Nor does it demand "get in or get out" and then shun those who don't come aboard with vicious attacks - that's the antithesis of the idea in the first place. What it does do is prevent people from commandeering the process. DoT allows a show of force without alienating, doing its best to get everyone in the mix and in the discussions.

Trolls be trolls, bro.

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