It is 2016 and US radicals are unfriending each other droves. Everyone is so incredulous that their one-time comrades could be as misguided as they are. The inability of social justice activists to get on the same page, however, is not the result of some folks just being too stupid to get it. Rather its the natural product social justice organizing in the time of the non-profit system. How we arrived at this fractured state of affairs holds clues for what we can do to build toward a genuine unified movement in the future.
As these comments are released early voting has started and the campaigns are in their final days. Therefore my observations will not impact many people’s choices. I am more concerned about influencing people’s perceptions. The reasons for the left’s paralysis and division require some reflection. In the process, I hope to reaffirm a tradition of complex, analysis-based debate that has been effectively replaced by the superficial, non-profit-based practice called “advocacy.”
Put simply, analysis involves studying reality to help us decide what to do. Advocacy constructs a case for what we already know we want done. Advocacy ignores or dismisses factors that might threaten the desired outcome. It is the art of getting the grant approved. Analysis embraces complex dilemmas and inconvenient facts to prepare us for the challenges and surprises ahead. The replacement of insurgent organizing with a non-profit system of narrow mission statements and harm-reduction projects is key to understanding today’s fractured left.
The Titanic Compact and the Broken Mirror
The destruction of the mid-century mass movements through repression and funding, smashed the mirror in which peoples struggles could see themselves as parts of a common movement. In its place narrowly focused non-profits, licensed by the state, are permitted to each carry a single shard of the broken mirror. The limited field of vision reflected in its fragment determines how each group assesses opportunities, risks and alliances. In place of a solidarity-based vision of common struggle, a new framework – what I call the Titanic Compact – was constructed. Under its terms we get to fight to improve conditions on the Titanic as long as we do not ask about the direction, speed or ownership of the ship itself. As long as we comply, we can solicit funding from the 1% and enjoy protection from state violence.
The Titanic Compact sets the boundaries of officially permitted struggle. The Broken Mirror determines its dynamics. Consider the following example. Let’s imagine that you run an organization that offers recreational programs and job-skill training for youth deemed “at risk.” One of your great supporters is your congressional representative. Last year you even gave her with an appreciation award. Its a no-brainer that you want to keep her in office for as long as possible. She genuinely cares about community programs like yours and is fierce about fending off any threats to them.
She happens to believe that unsanctioned immigration is one of those threats, because it places an undue burden on resources meant for her constituents. She supports increased funding for ICE in order to limit immigration and facilitate deportation. Anti-detention and immigrant rights activists have protested at her office and are looking for someone to run against her. They can’t understand how you can be cozy with someone who supports terrorizing and separating vulnerable families. To your board its a question of mission. Its difficult enough supporting neighborhood youth. You can’t solve every issue out there. That’s the broken mirror in action.
Setting the stage
The end of the Cold War precipitated a political crisis that had been brewing since the Republicans displaced the Dems as the party of segregation. The function of the parties at that time was to offer alternative strategies and policy solutions to the corporate elite while winning enough popular support to get elected and implement them. The Republican brand was straight-up deregulation, tax reduction, social-service-cutting and union-busting with dog-whistle appeals to racism to secure their popular support. The Democratic counter-program was one of social stability through public sector investment and social services and labor-management “partnership.” Issues on which the elite is united are called “bipartisan” and do not enter into public debate. Those that don’t affect the corporate bottom line are called “social issues” and can be deployed to win popular support.
The end of the propaganda war with the Soviet Union, falling profits and eroding global authority combined to produce a new, neo-liberal consensus in the corporate elite for unchecked gluttony at the top, harsh austerity at the bottom and the removal of all obstacles to profit. By the the early 1990s major divisions within the elite had all but disappeared, producing an identity crisis for the parties.
It consumed the Democrats first. Their strategy had been based on the willingness of the rich to share some resources with other sectors in order to maintain their support. With the elite no longer in a sharing mood, the Democrats were no longer able to deliver and were losing ground to the Republicans, whose program aligned effortlessly with the new consensus. Salvation came in the form of the Democratic Leadership Council (known as the New Democrats), a grouping of young, ambitious politicians – devoid of New Deal “baggage.” It included the Clintons, Dick Gephardt and Al Gore. Their proposal was to outflank the Republicans from the right, supporting the corporate consensus in all its dimensions and competing for the Republican support base with racially coded messaging and policies.
The New Democrats found kindred spirits in Tony Blair and New Labour in England, Gerhart Schröder in Germany and similar tendencies in Australia, Netherlands and Canada, comprising a political current they called the “Third Way.
The crowning policy achievements of the Bill Clinton administration fit the DLC formula. NAFTA (1993); The Personal Responsibility & Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (1994) which dismantled welfare; the draconian Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1996 which introduced “3-strikes-you’re-out” sentencing, prison and police expansion and which redefined pot possession as a “violent crime”; the Defense of Marriage Act (1996); repeal of the Glass Steagal Act, which deregulated Wall Street banks (1999); and the Commodity Modernization Act (2000) which deregulated the derivatives market. On the cultural front it compensated for abandoning the party’s social base with personal visits to poor communities, White House dinner invitations and look-into-your-eyes, “I-feel -your-pain” relationship-building. To cement their support, the Clinton group advanced the careers of local Black and Latinx politicians, cultivating a loyal strata of operatives that covered for the devastating social cost of their neo-liberal policies.
The DLC’s success effectively exported the political identity crisis to the Republicans. With little left to distinguish them now from the re-branded Democrats, they turned to demonization and “culture war” offensives. The personal hostility and attack-dog politics unleashed against Bill Clinton are mischaracterized by the mainstream media as the product of a growing policy gulf between the parties. In fact it indicated the absence of one.
In the meantime, neoliberal polices were slamming poor communities in the form of a decimated public sector, crumbling infrastructure, attacks on wages, unions and civil liberties, school closings, a catastrophic housing crisis, industrial flight and mass incarceration. The newly downsized white middle class faced the terrifying prospect of conditions usually reserved for darker classes.
Then the victory of Barak Obama – a DLC protege backed by Chicago real estate and Wall Street – sent shock-waves through the white, reactionary social base. With little to offer the corporate class that the Democrats weren’t already delivering, the Republicans rallied around full throttle obstruction and brazen racism. The stage was set for a Donald Trump to discard any remaining niceties and openly embrace white racial fear and misogynist entitlement.
The Sanders insurgency
The Sanders campaign was an aftershock of the Occupy movement which, in turn, was a reaction to the same tectonic shifts in the imperial economy and polity. Begun as public theater, it quickly tapped into deep reservoirs of anger. In contrast to Trumpism, it directed that anger toward the ultra-rich. Although shockingly radical in the conservative environment of US politics it was, for the most part, a revival of New Deal and War on Poverty policies; a call to “retake our democracy,” returning it to a time before the neo-liberal juggernaut messed up a good thing; and a demand for a society not “just” for billionaires.
By giving authentic voice to class resentment it shook the legitimacy of the austerity regime. Its calls to “take America back,” elicited skepticism in Black and other oppressed communities who don’t have a golden era to be nostalgic for. Despite this weakness many radicals saw the Bernie train as the best vehicle for breaking the silence on urgent issues and mainstreaming a version of socialism.
That Sanders’ genuine outrage at class pillage coexisted with his support for interventionist (if more rationally managed) foreign policy placed him firmly in the tradition of the “American Dream.” That was an arrangement under which white working people could expect a rising standard of living in exchange for supporting the empire.
The campaign was a sledge-hammer blow to the crumbling legitimacy of the Democratic Party, providing a vehicle for elected Democrats and sectors of the culture industry and organized labor to reject the neo-liberalism of the party leadership. For many grassroots participants it was a life-changing step away from old illusions. While many Bernistas will cast votes for the Democratic nominee this year, the cooptive capacity of the Democratic Party is seriously degraded by its inability to deliver real relief. The disillusionment of this sector has not yet found its next outlet.
The Clinton trajectory
The wildly disparate perceptions of Hilary Clinton – even among leftists – puts the broken mirror on full display. Is she a go-slow liberal, a neoliberal militarist or a pragmatic peoples champion? Both the visceral hatred and the uncritical embrace to which she is subject is a product of the misogynist double standards that permeate the culture. These emotional over-reactions cloud our capacity for clear strategic thinking.
The broken mirror produces different calculations depending on what shard you hold. To mainstream reproductive rights groups, Clinton is a true champion. For them her ascension to the presidency – with its role in Supreme Court appointments – would be a historic victory. Any challenges regarding her record are therefore to be condemned and neutralized.
Defenders of indigenous land struggles in Honduras, by contrast, are caught up in a different calculus. They are facing the targeted assassination of lead organizers for their resistance to large dam and mining operations that align with the neo-liberal blueprint for Latin America. They see little of interest for them in the US elections. In reality, however, with Clinton in the White House, the US left will be more reluctant to expose US – and especially Clinton’s State Department — involvement in the 2009 coup. The coup government wasted little time, once installed, before unleashing a full-scale rollback of Honduran womens reproductive rights.
Although unpopular as a candidate, Clinton has attracted support from both the left and the corporate elite as the only alternative to Trump. For the corporate sector, she can be counted on to safeguard the elite consensus, especially its centerpiece trade agreements (despite of her recent vocalizations against them) and the investments of key, powerful industries. For the left she is seen as a protector of the Titanic Compact and a bulwark against the megalomania of Trump.
The Trump Ascendancy
Trump is also riding the wave of white insecurity, nativism and frustration about the downward pressures of austerity – although he points the finger of blame at the oppressed. The steady mainstreaming of racist ideology by the political establishment has created an environment into which the most virulent, neo-Confederate fringe groups can expand their influence. Trump provides the conduit.
Returning to the Jim Crow past is no more feasible than reinstating the American Dream. Both were products of another time. The reactionary surge Trump has instigated, though, will continue to develop regardless of the election outcome (and with or without the Donald) and poses a real and present danger to targeted communities. His racist support base extends into local police departments already inflamed by Black Lives Matter protests.
Trump has attracted the hostility of the one percent since he entered the race. They primarily object to his crude, destabilizing impact and his attacks on the “free trade” game plan at the heart of the elite consensus. A Trump presidency would likely be in alignment with some elements of the elite program. Mass incarceration, police militarization, suppression of whistle-blowing, unfettered access to markets and increasing surveillance are all necessary to support neo-liberalism’s austerity agenda and would work well with Trump’s authoritarian racism.
The corporate elite are nothing if not opportunistic. Some among them might be inclined to accommodate to a Trump presidency. The continuing revelations about the scale and variety of his criminality, however, make him an unreliable vehicle for even the policies they agree on. The movement he has unleashed (and which is quite capable of continuing without him) is a larger threat, and, should Trump be removed from power, a Mike Pence presidency is nothing to shrug away.
Not easy being Green
The Green Party carries the most weight in the marginalized leftist third party space. Shunned as spoilers who could harm Democratic chances, the Greens have retained enough capacity to be a fixture in the political landscape. It is imprinted by its origins in white environmentalism (I heard candidate Jill Stein, for example, refer to “returning” the police to community control). Nonetheless, its program’s radicalism is genuine and it has increasingly embraced anti-racist/anti-oppression politics and it’s become the go-to ballot line for activists unhappy with the corporate menu.
The common perception of third parties is as a way to register a “protest vote.” A way to express your feelings. Some Green partisans, indeed, advocate “voting your conscience,” without reference to possible results. A larger Green current is more strategic, concerning itself with outcomes, albeit long term ones. This vision is of the Greens as a seed for a viable independent political current.
It is often left unstated that a viable electoral left must aspire to replace the Democrats as the legitimate opposition to the Republicans, re-configuring the political landscape around genuine left and right poles. This will undoubtedly enable Republican victories. The alternative is to remain marginal, providing an outlet for letting off steam but not seriously interfering with the two-party charade.
One attempt to address this is “strategic voting” (or the “swing state strategy”) – favored by much of the left intelligentsia. It involves voting Green in states that are safe for the Democrats and Democratic in swing states. The idea is that the Green votes will register popular anger while actually assisting in a Democratic victory. Registering popular anger is, at this moment, pretty meaningless since it is no secret that most folks are angry. The message “strategic voting” actually sends is that the Democrats can safely ignore the left and continue on their rightward path. The Sanders campaign demonstrated that much of their base is ready to embrace a leftist vision but the party itself cannot afford to offend its corporate sponsors.
The promise to elect Clinton and then fiercely fight her is no doubt sincere but hard to envision. The “strategic” need to get her re-elected in four years will logically require protecting her from too much damage in the meantime.
If the Green Party attracts enough Sanders supporters to reach a coveted 5% of the national vote, it will qualify for public funding worth $10 million for the 2020 elections, a significant boost for an anti-corporate party.
Safety or solidarity?
Through the neo-liberal lens, the world is a collection of hot-spots of mineral deposits, arms markets and cheap labor pools – the food sources of corporations. Securing these resources – and the transportation routes, government systems and media and academic support systems required to do so – is the core foreign policy function of the White House. This may at times involve supporting electoral governments and at other times overthrowing them, sometimes fighting, sometimes financing terrorists. The unifying principle is that all obstacles to resource extraction, privatization and suppression of labor costs be removed. The desire of peoples to determine their own future is the largest such obstacle, since empowered people inevitably try to use their resources for their own benefit.
When US leftists call for a united front to prevent fascism, therefore, they are really calling for it to be exported. Trump threatens to bring aggressive repression home to the US, shredding the Titanic Compact and reversing its gains. The Clinton promise is to continue off-shoring the brutality of empire to the provinces – Palestine, Honduras, Haiti, Yemen, Brazil – while preserving a degree of political space for domestic reform efforts. This is part and parcel of the Titanic Compact. Any president who is nice to us is celebrated as “progressive,” regardless of what they do to people far away.
This was the path down which the US labor movement marched to its historic suicide. The post-war accommodation with corporate management enabled unions to fight for better wages and working conditions in exchange for supporting US foreign policy. This enabled the crushing of militant labor movements in the global south, creating low-wage havens in which to move US factories. What followed was the dismantling of union power in the United States. With jobs gone and natural allies suppressed, US labor was an easy target.
In the revolutionary tradition, solidarity among all oppressed peoples is paramount. It is only to be compromised in extreme conditions and only for brief moments. Abandoning the duty of solidarity in order to save yourself is a sign that you’ve let yourself be cornered. The US left has been in the corner so long it feels like home. Frightened to break through the encirclement of predators, we continue to wait for a time when doing so will not be painful. In the meantime – we assure ourselves – they will continue to feed us.
With Trump prowling about, 2016 does not seem like a good time to part ways with the two-party system – since that would increase his likelihood of winning. Unfortunately, 2020 is not likely to be any better. Neither will 2024. With no left alternative on the political landscape to counter the rightward trend, every election cycle will include an even scarier threat to keep us in line.
The two dangers frightening different factions of the left – corporate neo-liberalsim and Trumpist monarchism – must be considered over a longer timescale than the four-year election cycle. The reactionary Trumpist movement will continue to advance in the next period regardless of the election outcome. So will neo-liberal interventionism abroad and privatization of everything at home. Neither can be stopped, or even slowed, if there is not a bold, alternative counter-vision. The far right and the corporate class, currently at odds over Trump’s bull-in-a-china-shop recklessness, will most likely seek common cause in the future around candidates more able to merge their two agendas. Should that happen, and if the left is still not organizing around its own social project, we’ll be in a worse position to confront fascism than we are today with those forces at odds with each other.
When faced with the rise of the fascist Broederbond in South Africa in 1951, Nelson Mandela rejected calls to unite behind the “liberal” wing of the elite so as to avert the danger. Instead he argued for organizing around a genuine alternative program even though it would not stop the Nationalist rise.
The Titanic Compact – and the non-profit era it enabled – is reaching the end of its shelf life. Its demise echoes that of the the post-war labor/management social contract: the elite no longer has use for it. This has not hit home for the managers of the non-profit sector. Though they are sensitive to small shifts in the funding environment they are less able to track large ones on a societal scale. The corporations have chosen international trade agreements – empowered to override national laws – to eliminate environmental, labor and social policy gains by declaring them “unfair barriers to trade.”
This changes everything
On the issue of climate change the neo-liberals are probably the larger threat. Trump’s brazen denialism flies in the face of a global consensus and will inspire a broader opposition. The neo-liberal climate policy – effectively modeled by Obama – divides environmental opinion by promoting timid voluntary goals (that won’t be met in any case) with great fanfare and moving oratory. This is the favored strategy of the corporations – supporting meaningful policies in word while preventing them in deed.
It should be noted that a narrow focus on fossil fuels distracts from a larger problem. If fossil fuel burning and extraction were stopped we would still be threatened by a continuing cascade of species extinctions, habitat collapse, oceanic chemical and noise pollution, reckless resource extraction, land grabs, deforestation and consumerist waste and soil depletion. These are effects of the normal functioning of capitalism, the driving force behind climate change. This is a truth that only autonomous movements, free of corporate funding, can say out loud.
The difference between speeding toward the iceberg at 100 knots vs 95 knots loses meaning when the iceberg is just a quarter mile away. It will be necessary to place the dismantling of corporate rule on the agenda.
People’s movements historically have produced forms of mass self-education – study circles, freedom schools, consciousness raising groups, teach-ins, peoples assemblies and popular education practices – that develop the critical capacity of the members and undermine the influence of “expert” professionals. Such practices inevitably lead to questions about the root causes of oppression. They are therefore absent from the non-profit toolkit but must be revived if we are to build real people’s power.
Overcoming the broken-mirror legacy will be difficult. We’ll have to do it, though, if we want to face the future with something more powerful than snarky memes. Movements require the three essential elements of Clarity, Capacity and Unity. The Titanic era has permitted us only capacity, robbing us of Clarity and Unity. Our urgent task is to regenerate them. We must rediscover the joys of rigorous yet generous disagreement. To publicly challenge someone’s political positions today is a recipe for ending a friendship. When I was coming up in activism it was a good way to start one.
Spoiler alert. My vote is going to Stein and Baraka and the Green Party. The left’s refusal to plant the seed for our own tree has placed us in greater danger than any of the external political threats on the scene. Most leftists don’t remember what the elite strategists know well: that radical people’s movements have often been a major force of history in this country. The logic of always postponing that task tin exchange for short-term “safety” is a path with no exit strategy.
In South Africa, many professional, religious and social organizations eventually detached themselves from the Apartheid regime and migrated to the movement’s United Democratic Front, but they only could do so because someone had created it. The years ahead will be dangerous ones. The only way to counter the rise of the dangerous right is to offer a more appealing alternative.
But however you chose to vote (or not vote) in this election, it will have minimal effect on the course of history if we don’t follow it up with a program of radical cultural development. We must support a proliferation of grassroots study groups, teach-ins, people’s schools and multi-generational dialog as an alternative to the two-dimensional proselytizing of non-profit advocacy. We need to mend the broken mirror.
In the meantime, that bit about unfriending everyone? It doesn’t actually make us more powerful, hopeful or effective. Trust me on that.