Sunday, July 26, 2015

On fighting back: Checklist vs strategic logic

I decided that I needed to write this because I am constantly reading or being asked questions that operate from a framework that completely misses my reasoning behind why I am not supporting the Sanders campaign.


The checklist logic of supporting or not supporting a candidate

The question about whether or not to support a particular candidate and their campaign is a complex one, involving many possible logics. However, the lack of a discussion about goals and strategy and tactics among the populace, and even often on the left, has led to the reduction of this complex set of logics into the easily consumable logic of “I support candidate X because they are the best candidate out there” (ALSO: this logic often ignores other candidates which have better politics because they are not “realistically going to win”.)

This logic is the most common logic I find behind supporters of Bernie Sanders. Bernie is obviously to the left of all other Democratic Party candidates, and I would argue that his candidacy is only possible because of the amazing work done by Occupy and other movements that have made the left more visible and brought issues of inequality into the spotlight.

This rationale is behind the argument that is thrown at me or others on the Left who aren’t supporting Sanders when people caricature and misunderstand our argument and they say that we are “engaging in purity politics”. They argue that we are just standing on the sidelines doing nothing, waiting for the “perfect” candidate to arrive. This way of reframing the discussion and misrepresenting our argument makes us seem like we aren’t doing anything to further our cause and that we are being “impractical” and “immature”.

However, my reason for not supporting Sanders isn’t about having a checklist of qualities or positions on issues and then doing some kind of math to see if his candidacy passes a bar that I have set arbitrarily high. By only allowing the conversation to operate from the framework of “he is the best and most realistic to win” it brushes aside all other logics for why one might support a candidate/campaign.

Interestingly enough I also see this logic being applied by some people not supporting the Sanders campaign. Sanders is a Zionist. Sanders supported the military industrial complex. Sanders has been quiet on issues of anti-blackness, or reduces racism to economism, or, after being publicly pressured by BLM activists, he is too little too late on these issues. All of those are very important critiques. They are matters of life and death for many people. But for me this isn’t enough to support or not support Sanders, because it still operates within the checklist logic, if candidate X has enough checks or too many minuses they are to be endorsed, not endorsed.

Socialism-from-above or socialism-from-below?

In The Two Souls of Socialism Hal Draper explains two ways of thinking about socialism:

“These two self-styled socialisms are very different, but they have more in common than they think. The social democracy has typically dreamed of “socializing” capitalism from above. Its principle has always been that increased state intervention in society and economy is per se socialistic. It bears a fatal family resemblance to the Stalinist conception of imposing something called socialism from the top down, and of equating statification with socialism. Both have their roots in the ambiguous history of the socialist idea.

Back to the roots: the following pages propose to investigate the meaning of socialism historically, in a new way. There have always been different “kinds of socialism,” and they have customarily been divided into reformist or revolutionary, peaceful or violent, democratic or authoritarian, etc. These divisions exist, but the underlying division is something else. Throughout the history of socialist movements and ideas, the fundamental divide is between Socialism-from-Above and Socialism-from-Below.

What unites the many different forms of Socialism-from-Above is the conception that socialism (or a reasonable facsimile thereof) must be handed down to the grateful masses in one form or another, by a ruling elite which is not subject to their control in fact. The heart of Socialism-from-Below is its view that socialism can be realized only through the self-emancipation of activized masses in motion, reaching out for freedom with their own hands, mobilized “from below” in a struggle to take charge of their own destiny, as actors (not merely subjects) on the stage of history. “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves”: this is the first sentence in the Rules written for the First International by Marx, and this is the First Principle of his lifework.

It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which accounts for the acceptance of Communist dictatorship as a form of “socialism.” It is the conception of Socialism-from-Above which concentrates social-democratic attention on the parliamentary superstructure of society and on the manipulation of the “commanding heights” of the economy, and which makes them hostile to mass action from below. It is Socialism-from-Above which is the dominant tradition in the development of socialism.”

***Before I continue, I want to just make a quick point about terminology. I think the term socialism here can be replaced with whatever the word you want to use to imagine a more just and equal society, communism, anarchy, whatever. I will use socialism since that is the term that Draper was using.

This checklist logic is in my opinion a logic of socialism-from-above. It reduces all discussion of strategy to the question of which candidate is the best and most practical. It is the flip side of the less-evilism logic, which tends to be defensive and operates from movements or struggles in retreat or stagnation, whereas the checklist logic I think springs from movements that are optimistic, they see their momentum growing and they want to step forward with their strongest foot to keep things going.

The checklist logic tells us that a candidate is “our best hope” (see how it is the flip side of the lesser evilism logic?) because they will do X, Y, and Z, whereas everyone else is bad because of A, B, and C. but what does this say about how they imagine change happens? Where is the agency is this logic? All the focus is on the candidate. Their campaign is a cult of personality, a mass of people who praise “our best hope”. All questions are reduced to the candidate’s position on issues, which I have to say in their favor, is still much better than the “I like the way so and so talks or dresses, or that they seem like a good person” or whatever logic that is very prominent in us electoral politics. However this logic is still a soft cult of personality because it still enshrines the candidate and puts all power to make change in this person. It is still, socialism-from-above.

Strategic thinking and socialism-from-below

If we reject socialism-from-above and we embrace the idea of the self-emancipation of workers and the oppressed, then we are forced to have to ask ourselves “How do WE make change?” This question centers us and our movements, not some savior politician. It forces us to not only have a critique of the system, but to connect that critique with an understanding of how different types of change happens.

Operating within the framework of socialism-from-below we cannot simply check off a list of positions a candidate takes on the pressing issues of our times. Instead we open our eyes wider and talk about the institutions and organizations that make up the state and civil society. We have to ask, what can we do to build our struggle, to build our own organizations, to empower more workers and oppressed people? This is a much more complex question because it is not just a simple comparison between a couple dozen candidates but requires an analysis of power on both sides and an historical understanding of the trajectories of power and learning lessons from past struggles. All of this is much more nuanced and requires a different type of understanding than mere critique.

If we aren’t thinking strategically and we act according to checklist logic then in those times that people get the choice they want, the end result could actually be worse for the Left. For example, if a group of activists wants to get a $15 minimum wage passed, but doesn’t take the time to build grassroots support, to build a network of workers and community members who are empowered by the victory of their campaign, if they instead manage to politic its way through city council or the mayor, sure they accomplished a great reform, and people’s lives will be better off for it, but will the Left be stronger for it, will be be empowered because of it? What then, if the local chamber of commerce pulls some shady shit and gets it repealed or challenges the legality of it? If there’s no strong network of people who worked on it and feel a sense of ownership over this win, then who will be there to defend it? No one except the small group of activists that managed to get it passed. In this example nothing bad happened as a result, instead there was just a missed opportunity.

It might be hard to imagine being worse off by going for the “best candidate”, and that’s exactly the critique that most on the Left (myself included) are making of Sanders, they are assuming that he won’t win the Primary, because the Democratic Party elites won’t ever allow that, and instead they see his role as a sheep dog, someone to herd in the radicals and disenfranchised by the Democratic Party’s corporate imperialist white supremacist patriarchal politics. This isn’t just some crazy theory, Sanders has admitted to this! He has been very explicit about not opposing Hillary or whoever the nominee ends up being, and he will not run an independent campaign if he loses. Sanders, despite being a self described socialist, doesn’t seem to see capitalism as the problem, as much as he sees Republicans as the problem. The other party of the capitalist class, the Democrats, are his comrades.

The only other thing to consider is the unlikely scenario of Sanders winning the nomination. What would this mean? Many of his supporters think that this is actually a very likely scenario, and the critique by those who oppose him rests on him losing, so it seems like this possibility - however slim - is something that needs to be addressed. So, what if Sanders wins? Not just the primary, but what if he is elected? What then?

Precisely! That is a very important question. It should immediately raise questions of -what are the limitations of operating in the system? Is the problem the figurehead or the institutions? Can socialism be voted in, or is a revolution necessary? What do we mean by revolution?

These are important questions, not surprisingly because they will get us thinking strategically. If we all agree that the system, the institutions, are the problem and Sanders could only bring about some reforms, what then? Do we just accept those reforms and go home? At the end of the day have we built a new capacity of organization, are we more empowered, to carry on the fight after President Sanders has raised the minimum wage, closed corporate tax loopholes, and given out free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream to all Americans? (that last one was a joke)

If all our organizing effort went into the Democratic party then we still have nothing of our own. Unless we think the Democratic Party can be overtaken. THAT is also a strategic question. I dont think it can. I think we need our own independent organization and that our most important task is to build that capacity now, so that we can come into every struggle and movement that arises with that capacity ready to fight and win and make it bigger and stronger and more bad ass.

How do we get from Sanders to socialism? What do we do if there’s a major right wing backlash after his term is up and we have melted into the Democratic Party, having left the whole ordeal with nothing of our own to show for it, no organization, no strong independent left, nothing to stop the reactionary tide?

So you see, even if Sanders wins we will still need to at some point face the reality of thinking strategically, and not just operating under checklist logic.

So why wait? Why not start thinking strategically now? Why not have conversations about building power and the nature of the state and if we can vote socialism in or if, as the Black Lives Matter chant reminds us, “The whole damn system is guilty as hell!”

In the light of the tragedy unfolding in Greece, with people voting for the best candidate and austerity being forced on the Greek people anyway by their own left-wing party, let’s learn from them, let’s learn from history, let’s learn from all the struggles that came before us, especially those that lost. All of the fallen comrades that came before us didn’t have to die in vein. We can learn from their experiences, and we can not make the same mistakes that have been made in the past. I can think of no better way to honor them than that. Let’s then start talking strategically about what the nature of the problem is and how we need to go about changing things.

*P.S. I want to explicitly state that I don’t think that all of Sanders supporters are operating under checklist logic (just all not all of those who have chosen not the support the campaign are operating with strategic logic, they may be operating with checklist logic, but have the bar to high to give their support to him, ex: “yeah but he’s a Zionist so he’s not getting my support.” this implies implicitly that if Sanders were pro-Palestine, then they could check that box off and then he’d be a viable candidate. No strategic discussion necessary…). I have had quite a few very good conversations with some of my friends and comrades who are supporting Sanders, conversations that were entirely about strategy. We ended up disagreeing with each others strategic analysis, but the conversations were good healthy political discussion IMO.

**P.P.S. I want to more explicitly draw connections to my analysis on the Bernie Sanders campaign that I have raised in this piece and the piece I wrote a while back about the reform movement AWDU and our bargaining strategy which was definitely all about strategic logic and building grass roots rank and file power. 

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