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.

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