Power Play: Why the Left Needs to Get Down to Building a Radical Civil Society


Being a leftist today is a lot like playing pinball.

Every machine has two flippers with a gulf between them. They're used to knock balls toward bright and shiny bumpers. When a collision inevitably occurs, the bumper can propel the balls all across the board. For a little while, it looks and sounds promising -- a lot of noise and flashing lights. Sometimes, the ball stays up for a while, racking up point after point. It feels like it's never going to come down.

But blink and it's over. Nothing changes the fact that the playing field itself is tilted downward. And with the gap between the flippers, it's only a matter of time before the ball passes through and the game is over.

In other words, we confront a frustrating paradox. Across the country, there's no shortage of inspiring activity: low-wage worker organizing, North Carolina's Moral Monday protests, immigration reform efforts, marriage equality and LGBT rights campaigns, local electoral pushes such as Kshama Sawant's in Seattle, and many others. Most of these projects give voice to widespread unease over rampant inequality and the near-total capture of the political system by elites.

Yet even where these campaigns achieve victories and make tangible gains, the balance of forces and tenor of discourse -- particularly when it comes to questions of political economy -- continue to move rightward.

In this context, what is the political role of socialists in the United States? How should we meet this moment to break out of the strategic impasse that we, some immediate triumphs notwithstanding, seem to be trapped in? This issue of Jacobin doesn't offer a definitive answer. But we do suggest some broad principles to inform our thinking and practice as we embark on a long process of reorganization and reconstruction.

The conditions that radicals now face are profoundly different from those that previous generations confronted. For the first time in history, we must deal with the challenge of a truly global capitalist system. The Soviet Union has been dead for over two decades, and despite its many failures, its collapse was a political setback for reformists and revolutionaries alike. China has become a major capitalist power, with India and Brazil not far behind, while neoliberalism reigns unchallenged in Europe and the United States. Despite the massive suffering caused by the Great Recession and the subsequent drive to austerity, Margaret Thatcher's diktat "There is no alternative" still strangles the popular imagination.

Capital has gone global, but workers have yet to catch up, their bargaining power and organizational capacities undermined by international competition, automation, the decentralization of production, the growth of finance, and imperialism's relentless attack on any project hostile to these imperatives.

The making of global capitalism has been nothing short of turbulent, and the vast inequalities it has produced have angered and disillusioned billions around the world. But capital's opponents are disarmed and groping for ways to deal effectively with the new reality.

The reasons for this state of affairs aren't difficult to understand. "Actually existing socialism" and the authoritarianism that defined it have made people distrustful of grand historical projects bent on changing the world -- as well as of the organizations, parties, and leaders who tried to carry them out. As the socialist left collapsed, and the labor movement it looked to as the agent of revolutionary change was defeated by a resurgent capitalism, an inchoate political mood that some have called "anarcho-liberalism" filled the void.

This spirit has characterized every major expression of left political activity from the global justice movement of the late 1990s through Occupy Wall Street. It is process-oriented, distrustful of formal organizational structures and hierarchies, and dedicated to direct action as both a tactic and an all-encompassing worldview. Its boundaries are capacious enough to accommodate the most partisan of Democrats alongside the most hardcore of Occupiers.

In the main, it has engendered a politics that, compared to earlier iterations of the Left, has been modest in its goals yet willing to adopt the sorts of disruptive tactics pioneered by the radical movements of the past.

To be sure, anarcho-liberalism deserves credit for most of the political victories in the United States over the last twenty-five years. Its spirit and activity have sustained social movements during those lean years of neoliberal advance. The zombie remnants of the New Deal coalition, on the other hand, remain wedded to a failed strategy of pressure politics plus voting for Democrats to keep the "fascists" out. Even when they put thousands of people on the National Mall for a ritualized display of outrage, nobody really cares.

"We are the 99%" beats "One Nation Working Together" or "I'm Ready for Hillary" any day.

But the anarcho-liberal mood on its own appears incapable of generating effective long-term opposition to global capitalism. While Occupy Wall Street succeeded brilliantly in drawing international attention to the scourge of inequality, it failed to sustain itself for more than a few months and crumbled in the face of state repression.

Occupy did inspire a number of offshoots doing important disaster-relief work, anti-foreclosure activism, and campaigns against police brutality. But on the whole, the relentlessly centrifugal and dissociative logic of anarcho-liberalism is a profound liability, not a source of strength. We need a unifying political project that can articulate a compelling vision of a new society, bring together disparate campaigns and organizations on an ongoing and coordinated basis, and mount a general political offensive against the system in its totality.

Of course, Jacobin is not the first to make this argument -- one which, absent constructive engagement with existing political efforts, amounts to little more than socialist fan fiction. The gap between the challenges we face and our ability to meet them is daunting, and we won't be able to conjure the necessary capacities through what the Old Left used to call "revolutionary gymnastics."

Here is the crux of the problem: our traditional organizational forms -- namely, the mass party and the trade union -- are in steady decline, and we have yet to identify and construct adequate replacements.

We need to get down to the work of building a radical civil society: forging social and organizational "infrastructures of dissent," developing our capacities to understand the world and articulate a compelling alternative moral and political vision, and linking these resources to a dynamic social base.

Since its inception, Jacobin has sought to play a role in this process by creating an intellectual space for socialists across organizational boundaries. With the aid of full-time organizers, over the next year we will be expanding the scope of that mission by facilitating nationwide reading clubs and events in order to help cultivate a culture of friendly debate and non-sectarian politicization among young radicals.

But beyond what our small project can achieve, the next step for the broader Left is to establish relationships between promising political projects and bring questions of strategy back to the center of radical politics.

This issue of Jacobin moves in that direction. Our special section on strategy features four pieces, each representing distinct tendencies on the Left. We sought to avoid the classic "What is to be done?" in favor of the more difficult "Who the hell is going to do it?"

Ruth Milkman, Stephanie Luce, and Penny Lewis' "Occupy After Occupy" argues for the enduring legacy of Occupy Wall Street. They acknowledge the limits of radical horizontalism, but see the movement as resulting in a leftward shift in discourses around economic inequality. With authors deeply rooted in the union movement, "Occupy After Occupy" is representative of an important left-labor response to Occupy -- an embrace of social movements and a recognition of their ability to transform political expectations. It's a significant advance.

Frances Fox Piven's contribution similarly heralds the advent of a "New Protest Era." We share her optimism about the current moment, but are looking for ways to break free of the "left wing of the possible" marriage of movement work and electoral support for mainstream Democrats. This new period of protests demands a new politics, one more comfortable with the language of socialism and ready to take action independent of the Democratic Party.

Yet our interview with Chokwe Lumumba, the former mayor of Jackson, Mississippi -- conducted just a few days before his untimely death -- is a reminder that in a nation spanning a continent, regional strategies are also necessary. Lumumba ran in a Democratic primary, but his background as a black nationalist, in conjunction with the organizing work of the Malcolm X Grassroots Coalition and a heavily African-American Mississippi Democratic Party (deprived of statewide office and neglected by liberals at a national level), gave the campaign a very different character than it would have had in machine-driven Boston or Chicago.

Though his efforts were cut tragically short, Lumumba's use of local elected office to spur mass activity rather than administer austerity is an inspiration for those creating militant socialist currents in the South and beyond.

Finally, "No Shortcuts" by NTanya Lee and Steve Williams represents the view closest to our own. Both are deeply involved in organizing campaigns and write from a place of sympathy and engagement with struggles on the ground. Yet they have the perspective to see that a broader strategic orientation and closer coordination is needed to more effectively challenge capitalism. They embrace organization, but reject the sectarianism of those who, consciously or not, see emerging movements as little more than recruiting platforms for socialist grouplets.

The proposed alternative is a mighty task, but the coming period will be a promising one for socialists. Of course, the logic of collective action has always been warped in favor of capitalists. If the game is to be won, the machine needs to be tilted in the other direction.