The Circular Firing Squad: How to get the Left working together


#1

In the wake of the US election, I was (once again) hoping to see more of an ecumenical attitude towards political organizing on the left, and I just haven’t seen much of that, except on an individual level. I would love to hear people’s experiences of working cross-ideologically in advocacy and organizing, especially where those experiences have been positive.

I am tired. The sniping back and forth between those who think others not “pragmatic” enough and those who think others insufficiently radical is exhausting and dispiriting. Liberals, trots, tankies, anarchists et. al. - we’re great at destroying each other. Moreover, we’re great at being ignorant of each others’ work and strategies.

I don’t believe, however, that the pretense of unity that comes from ignoring real differences and manufacturing a kind of neutral commonality is a good solution. Movements orbiting a sort of default, privileged political consciousness not only decay in the face of much more robust competitors (e.g. national identity) but tend towards silencing marginal voices by speaking on behalf of them. If you ignore your differences, you’ll suck at intersectionality.

So what are some good strategies, game people of the left? How do we talk to each other and make our conversations permeable enough for others to join?

To give you an idea of where I’m coming from, I wrote this to myself earlier today.


#3

Its a very complicated thing, the solutions to which I’m not sure cleanly “exist”. I do think that the internet warps a lot of these conversations, insomuch the spaces people talk in become these overlapping but narrow discourses, and honestly both Reddit and Twitter are awful for real discussion.

I’ll cop to being “less lefty” than many would like but its not for lack of wanting everything from universal healthcare to guaranteed education (and I’m a huge proponent of UBI) I’m just horribly horribly cynical about the US electorate and how deeply racism has broken any sense of class solidarity in my country.

I think the first step though is really really jettisoning the idea that any of us are acting in bad faith. The vast majority of us want the same basic things even if we disagree how to get there, and I’m not even saying some of those ways aren’t wrong. A lot of current Democrat dogma about how to solve problems is wrong. But the people who support those things, by and large, aren’t doing so disingenuously, and addressing that from a genuine place is the first step towards pulling them further left.


#4

It’s quite complicated when leftists are so sectarian.

I think the epitomization of this was the aura post-Women’s March; the collective “uh, what now?” was beyond disheartening. I think the left can pay lip service to solidarity all it wants, but if it can’t shepherd people into political action, we are at an impasse.

“Should the marches have been more multiracial and working class? Yes! But you are not a serious organizer if that’s where your answer to the question ends. The issue for the Left is how we get from where we are today to where we want to be in terms of making our marches blacker, browner, and more working class. Simply complaining about it changes nothing.”

“We must do a better job at facilitating debate, discussion, and argument so that we talk about how to build the kind of movement we want. But endless social media critiques with no commitment to diving into that struggle for the kind of movement we want is not a serious approach.”

Engender leftist critique of the political climate, enable physical, materialist action to occur by nearly any means necessary.__


#5

I’ll wait for other people to weigh in also because I have a lot of thoughts on this, but I will also say that I think the left has a real problem with treating both conservative voters and to an extent conservative politicians as a force of nature.
This isn’t me saying “oh we need to try and convert Trump/Brexit/Le Pen voters back into the fold, they’ve lost their way” or anything like that. Far from it, I’m very vocal that I think that that’s the wrong way to go, that such operations were difficult 30 years ago and nigh on impossible in 2017.
But they’re people, who make choices, often times the same choices they’ve been making for decades. At a certain point they’re not getting tricked, they have a different set of prioritizations going on that doesn’t match ours, they often actively want to harm us, and yet it feels like so much of our anger is directed inwards among ourselves because the existence of “conservative opposition” gets treated as “something that just happens”

Am I explaining this well at all? I don’t feel like I am. But I feel like the proportion of anger directed at the people actively causing harm and the proportion directed at people who are ineffectively managing to stand in its way is out of whack.


#6

In the US people are so disconnected from the mechanisms of politics that I’m honestly not surprised so many of us struggle with “what now?”. We barely even understand how things work in the first place, and I include myself in that. I think the focus on national elections is highly symptomatic of this; the joke about the Green party has always been that not only do they not bother with any really local work (below the level of elections even, community orgs and grassroots work) they don’t even seem to care about Congressional representation, they literally only care about the presidency.

In 2017 we’re now seeing tons of national attention on congressional races in a way we didn’t before, but I worry its the wrong kind of attention, or at least not the right kind. Its nationalized attention, the eyes of the entire country focused on specific races for their strategic value. Its not localized in the way that we need if we’re really going to create a robust Left in the US, one integrated at every level of power

(this assumes that you’re interested in using the mechanisms of power towards our ends, of course, and aren’t an anarchist)


#7

I’m not sure if I agree with the idea of not “converting” (bit of a loaded, gross term), portions of the right-wing strata, though I’m not sure if I’m misreading you. As Greenwald wrote back when Brexit happened, the majority of people we are passing judgements on have simply found the wrong answer to the right questions. Grotesque and systematic alienation from labor 101:

“A large constituency of working-class voters feel that not only has the economy left them behind, but so has the culture, that the sources of their dignity, the dignity of labor, have been eroded and mocked by developments with globalization, the rise of finance…”

They’re on our side, they just don’t know it. Right-wing elites on the other hand are irredeemable ghouls.

Re: mechanisms of power, yeah, it’s a need. Again, it’s difficult (but not unachievable) given the current political climate. You’re absolutely right in saying local politics should be valued in creating a bottom-up, rather than top-down distribution and representation of power.


#8

At least in the US I’ve been poring over the statistics since the Trump election and I just can’t come to the conclusion that working class dignity is at the root of the nationalism we’re now seeing. Income doesn’t correlate with Trump support. Negative opinions on trade don’t correlate with Trump support. Being part of a community that has seen significant immigration doesn’t correlate with Trump support. But having a negative perspective on immigration does, and believing that the US has been too generous to black people also does. I feel like we’re trying to twist these trends into narratives that benefit us, that tell us that that many of the people voting in opposition to us are actually on our side, but they just don’t know it because they’re being tricked, but the more I think about this the more its hard for me to buy that people who have been voting for decades this way have been getting swindled and not realizing it. They care about something that they are getting from the people they elect, and its not what we care about.

The “dignity of labor” topic is one that I’m really really interested in because its a very complex idea to try and fit into various socialist, anarchist, syndicalist, and other movements, but this probably isn’t the topic to dive into that


#9

Economic hardship =/= economic anxiety.

I can buy and even support the idea that these people are ideologically compromised, but it doesn’t necessarily preclude the possibility of a successful recruitment strategy (imagine a leftist approach to political and civic engagement in the vein of the Republican Southern strategy, just without, you know, all the bad stuff).

Regardless, political action has to involve action. That’s a candid tautology that the left has to realize. Weirdly enough, groups like the Tea Party folk significantly impacted local politics in a manner that the left should seek to borrow from in some capacity.

The dignity of labor fits snugly into socialist, anarchist, and other leftist modes of critique, because they all seek to abolish wage-labor. Not the topic to get into it, but if you’re interested, Marx’s Wage Labour and Capital is a short introductory text to the topic.


#10

I’ve read Wage Labor and Capital, my point was more about how labor centric things are still often conceptualized, and I think we need to make some examinations of that

On topic: while such engagement might be useful for gaining the support of a margin of voters I do think that there are much stronger gains to be made elsewhere, including fighting both legal and cultural disenfranchisement.


#11

There a tons of gains to be made everywhere. IMO, the most affecting topic to address is healthcare, as it affects everyone. The % difference in opinion re: gov’t provided healthcare is reaching ~2006 highs, back when “ultra-progressive” legislation like Romneycare passed in MA. It’d be kind of silly to not pounce on this, given where the spotlight is, though disenfranchisement in general must be addressed as well.


#12

I think healthcare is definitely something we can all mobilize around. That may not be single payer but I think that we might be able to get enough people on board with it if we really do manage to frame it as medicare for all. Failing at that a public option + significant expansions of programs such as medicaid could have similar effects.


#13

One thing that I have noticed is that movements coalesce around people more than ideas. I don’t like it, but I see it time and again and certainly here in the UK I see the opposite; there is nobody visible on the left who looks anything like a leader. Communicators matter and the way they communicate matters as much as the content. Possibly more given that the hucksters and con men who seem to have captured the public imagination of late. We need to have eloquent advocates for progressive ideas that people can get behind. Sanders seemed like a decent example of that.

People generally care about stories more than facts, that should play into the hands of the left because most storytellers and artists tend to be left-leaning, but we want to believe in the rationality of the person in the street but if you can capture hearts, minds will follow.

Left wing parties seem way too much caught up in business as normal, not just the fact that they are playing the traditional game of chess while the right wingers burn the house down, but in that the solutions they propose are moving things a couple of percentage points. They don’t want to propose anything radical in case it frightens off moderate voters but honestly, it’s time for some more radical thinking. Turning the wheel three points north is unlikely to prevent a sinking ship. Much of the reactionary voting we have seen recently is as much voters protesting against the establishment as voting in favour of any particular candidate. The system doesn’t work for people and precious few politicians seem prepared to examine how it could be changed to work better. Consequently we end up with the right wingers setting the whole damn thing on fire because they’re loaded so it doesn’t make that much difference to them if everything goes wrong and the left fighting a rearguard if anything.

How do we change things? I don’t know yet, but the sense that things need to change is everywhere right now. I don’t really feel that left and right are even that meaningful any more - for example in the west the notion of labour as a large-scale collectivisable block is more or less gone, which is why our Labour party is so completely dead. One ray of light is that dismal as things are right now, it is pushing people into thinking about politics, acting and engaging with it.


#14

It’s happening, and everyone needs to pitch in.

I think recognizing that “liberal” isn’t “left” is very important, but converting Liberals (and right-of-center) to the Left needs to happen. There has to be a wide-open door for people who recognize that the Neoconservative/Neoliberal system is the problem. And new people must be made to felt welcome, regardless of how much or little they know about…anything. All that should be “required” is a willingness to learn.

And I don’t care who are what you are, you HAVE TO voice just how much you’re not focused on any single issue, or even a select few. Make sure The People (as in all of them) know that you’re here FOR THEM. LGBTQ+, religious minorities and majorities (Jesus was a Communist, stop ostracizing Christians and basically funneling them to the theocratic, fundamentalist Right. In fact, bring up Liberation Theology to the Christians you know who might become Comrades). EVERY race, ethnicity, gender etc-etc! Everybody needs to know you’re fighting for them, and everyone else.

“If my freedom as a Black man comes at the costs of a White woman’s freedom, I don’t want it. Because that isn’t freedom.” ~ Killer Mike

Constantly point out how the enemy is the system, the bullshit dichotomy, the corrupt politicians and the corporations who buy them, etc.

And probably most importantly, get out in the streets! Manifest irl demonstrate, protest. Specifically against he new Fascists. If you want to learn from people currently doing this very effectively, look at organizations like the Austin Red Guards and John Brown Gun Club. Two organization that showed up armed to Nazi rallies (the Nazis were also armed).


To be clear, I’m not saying you should buy guns and train with other Leftists, this is just the kind of thing that really gives me hope (probably because of where I live). You should organize in whatever way your group decides is the best/most effective.


#15

I think that improving healthcare ought to be the chief focus of any leftist who is willing to work within the current political system, but you’ll always get economic pushback on that which will require a lot of on the ground explaining even to centrist Democrats.

But, as I was going back over this thread an idea occurred to me I’d like to float: DC Statehood as a wedge issue. Now, you can’t build a campaign around that alone, but it’s certainly a plank that no centrist with a D next to their names can oppose given the likely disposition of it’s two senators and congressperson.

What’s more, the right will need to come clean and admit their opposition is solely based on avoiding a minor tip of the scales, as McConnell has admitted. Avid FOX watchers might not care much, and spinning it as an attempt to grab power by “coastal elites” could prove effective, but a lot of swing voters will be forced to decide if taxation without representation is fair when they have a chance to fix it.

For the far left, it enfranchises millions of people in a new majority black state. Not to mention that an urban center like DC would provide a fertile ground for some truly radical politicians to make a play for a national position.

It’d also cast a light on Puerto Rico and other territories where there are major issues that are all but invisible to the general public of the contiguous US.


#16

In the broadest sense I think it would really help to focus on goals instead of methods, making really sure we nail down and agree on what our goals are.

Of course at some point something actually has to be done, at which point it’s important to remember that the allies you are debating methods with share your goals, or at least many of them. This debating needs to be constructive for the various factions to continue feeling like they do indeed share common goals with the others.

Crucially it is important to remember that the people you are debating with have different vocabularies and frameworks than yourself and to be very careful in assuming that you share a common understanding of various words or ways of thinking. As a concrete example, there is a lot of Communist vocabulary I am not really familiar with. This sort of stuff leads to a lot of talking past each other. So for the sake of a more productive “conversation” we must be willing to both help others understand our ideology and put in a serious effort to understand others ideology.

Most importantly it’s important to be willing to learn from others, and not just be trying to “teach” them with the assumption that yours is the ultimate truth. This is the really hard part, but it’s potentially the most productive one. Whatever your particular ideology, it can probably be improved on. If we accept that our allies are acting in good faith and are actually pretty smart people then surely there must be at least some good reasons for them to have the opinions they have.