Tuesday, October 16, 2018

DSA, Democrats, and Sectarian Fabulism

Nothing but the avalanche!

The Democratic Party of the United States has around 44.7 million members. The Green Party has 248,000, or one half of one percent of the membership of the Democratic Party. The Working Families Party has about 53,000. In 2016, 137.5 million Americans voted in the General Election.

One of the Green Party candidates in my state is running this year with 9-11 conspiracy-mongering (calling it a “false flag” operation) right in his campaign literature. And some on the left continue to embosom this sectarian, self-marginalizing party as The Alternative to the Democrats.

In a recent article by Carl Boggs in Counterpunch called “The Democrats and ‘Socialism’,” he says the following: 

In the U.S., “socialists” aligned with the DSA envision no future beyond an extensively reformed capitalist order – roughly equivalent to what European social democracy realized at its peak a few decades ago.   For the moment, their goal is to refashion the Democratic party – that is, push it leftward primarily through an electoral strategy.  The DSA program, according to official statements, anticipates a “humane social order based on popular control of resources and production, economic planning, equitable distribution, feminism, racial equality, and non-oppressive relationships”.   Entirely laudable, to be sure, but hardly rising to the concrete features of a distinctly socialist politics.  In other words, something considerably short of a Marxist avalanche.
There is so much wrong in the article, and so much wrong with even this paragraph, that it is difficult to know where to start. I’ll start with the scare-quotes on “socialists,” meant to signal to the initiated that “we” know what real socialism is, and that whatever “we” are describing now is not it.

Why is it not it?

Well, because Marxists have a monopoly on socialism—oh my, that’s a given, an article of faith—and because the DSA program falls short of “a Marxist avalanche,” it’s like a cute puppy that we just don’t want to take home. It’s enough, this oblique critique, to scare off those on the left whose still-early ideological development compels them to ask their comrades, “What is our position on this issue?”

Boggs’ article is boundary-policing. He has joined the ranks of the ideological gate-keepers of “Marxism.”

There’s my scare quote.

In this case, the article is a retrenchment from earlier claims that “the Democratic Party” is impermeable to interventions from the left. Boggs should not be singled out here. This crap is ubiquitous in the still male-dominated sectarian-left semiosphere.

In this piece, Boggs grudgingly acknowledges that the Sandercrat left has made inroads into the Democratic Party that were unlikely prior to 2016.

“They won’t let you, because they are run by Wall Street, a capitalist party, organized to block the left” . . . duh . . . has turned into “These are good changes, but they fall short” . . .

of “a Marxist avalanche,” whatever the hell this means in the fabulous universe of the would-be vanguards of The Revolution . . . what De Certeau called:

. . . the scriptural project at the level of an entire society seeking to constitute itself as a blank page with respect to the past, to write itself by itself (that is, to produce itself as its own system) and to produce a new history (refaire l'histoire) on the model of what it fabricates (and this will be ‘progress’). It is necessary only for this ambition to multiply scriptural operations in economic, administrative, or political areas in order for the project to be realized.

The central fabulist narrative of this particular fraction of the left in the US—small, tiny in fact, though energetically vocal and literate—is that so-called “avalanche.” This is code for “revolutionary civil war,” which is still spoken in reverent tones behind closed doors by would-be vanguards.

Behind much of this nonsense is this particular instance of fabulism—heroic war as the cathartic midwife of the New World we have mentally rewritten on the imaginary “blank page.” This, in many ways, accounts for the predominance of long in the tooth men in these circles. Boys will be boys, as they say, but nothing is more threatening to a boychild (even an old one) than the loss of a really good, really butch fantasy.

Ten years ago, the same fabulous revolution types were saying that the Democratic Party was an impenetrable fortress for the left, but now that this rail switch failed, they’ve moved onto the next one . . . which is, by any means necessary, keeping the left as far away from tactical electoral politics as possible. This is the historical context of Boggs’ op-ed, shored up with selective and inappropriate analogies from the past.

There are two main groups who do not want the left playing at the game of thrones inside the Democratic party: establishment Democrats and sectarian leftists. Think about that!

Boggs writes, “The modes of exit from a narrow parliamentarianism—factory councils, Leninist party, fascism—are well known to anyone paying close attention to the first half of twentieth-century history.  Exactly one century later, little has changed.”

As a Christian, I am well acquainted with know-nothing proof-texting. Here, instead of Scripture, we have the proof-texting of history. From the unwarranted (and arcane) accusation of “narrow parliamentarianism” leveled against DSA, we leap to the “only three exits” from this terrible strategic error (“narrow” tipped us off that this is a Bad “ism”) . . . wait, a hundred years ago!?

Did he really write, “Exactly one century later, little has changed.”?

So today, the only exits from (icky ick) parliamentarianism are “factory councils, Leninist party, fascism”?

What he meant to say was “Exactly one century later, none of our own abstractions or schemae have changed.”

It must be what he meant, because I am looking now at 1918 and 2018, and I see that world population in 2018 was less than 2 billion. The US was 103 million then, compared to 326 million now. American life expectancy was 51 then, and it is 80 now. Horses were still the main means of non-pedestrian transport. The first rotary dial telephone had not yet been mass produced, and the Netherlands owned what is now Indonesia. 100 million people were killed by Spanish flu, Palestine was a British protectorate, and US troops were still fighting Yaquis in Arizona. The Republican Party was still the preferred party of African America.

We could do this for hours.

Unless what Boggs meant to say was, “Exactly one century later, even though everything else was different, politics has the capacity to exist independent of all these other circumstances, and politics is essentially unchanged.”

Still, one ought never rebut the easiest of one’s debate opponent’s arguments, but challenge their strongest arguments. In this case, I have to anticipate that (I am an alumnus of this kind of thinking, so it’s easy) the argument hinges on capitalism still existing. Fine.

There are certain features of capitalism that remain constant to make capitalism capitalism. The business class has power based on money and enforced scarcity, not land or status. This ruling class accumulates money through appropriation of value from unequal exchange/colonial plunder, merchant activity, production and sales (surplus value), and rents (interest and other “royalties” apart from actual production). It’s all return-on-investment in a process that privatizes gains and socializes losses.

The capitalist ruling class’ political expression is the nation-state, state’s purpose is to ensure accumulation for members of the business class. Even the administrative and security responsibilities are fundamentally designed to support accumulation. Again, this is never stated explicitly, but can be inferred from the sum of its laws and policies and their intents. As a capitalist state, the United States, in coordination with its fifty sub-states and its external possessions, ensures profitability by ensuring the conditions for those modes of accumulation listed above, and ensuring what Jason W. Moore calls the “Four Cheaps”: cheap labor, cheap food, cheap energy, and cheap raw materials.

With financialization—which is pretty different between now and 1918—the state has also taken to providing cheap credit to speculators and buying up their crappiest assets.

The actions of the state are then mediated for the general population through civil society. Civil society is comprised of people mostly from the professional classes, employed as trained spokespersons and cultural interpreters, through the various media to shape public thinking and gain acquiescence to the agendas of the business class.

Pretty general stuff. As someone with a passing familiarity with tactics (see my free-book on strategy and tactics), however, this is utterly useless unless we describe exactly how these things are accomplished. The complexity of that answer will pretty quickly discourage many would-be revolutionists and send them running for the easier and more fabulous answer. The Avalanche. I know people who have been talking about that avalanche for fifty years now, and they still have to organize mightily to put 200 butts to chairs in the same place.

Boggs writes, “the ensemble of structural and ideological obstacles posed by the grand party of neoliberal globalization and imperialism [Democrats] is sure to be insurmountable,” but we could say the same thing about the whole system, only far more insurmountable.

As it turns out, however, while the obstacles within the Democratic Party are tough, to be sure, they are finite and—as many people who actually tried have found out—discernable, as well as either surmountable or by-passable. No, it is not “sure to be insurmountable,” which is exactly what I said (mea culpa) about the early stages of the Sanders campaign, at which—channeling my own inner-sectarian—I scoffed.

What was insurmountable was my own preconception.

Let’s take a moment to talk about what exactly is the Democratic Party, apart from an example of reification. Well no, first let’s talk about reification, if we want to get down and dirty with some Marx . . . well, and some Lukács, too. Gavrilo Petrović wrote:

The act (or result of the act) of transforming human properties, relations and actions into properties, relations and actions of man‑produced things which have become independent (and which are imagined as originally independent) of man (sic) and govern his (sic) life. Also transformation of human beings into thing‑like beings which do not behave in a human way but according to the laws of the thing‑world. Reification is a ‘special’ case of alienation, its most radical and widespread form characteristic of modern capitalist society.

Switching up subjects and objects.

So, when someone says things like, “The Democratic Party thinks it can have its cake and eat it, too,” e.g., this is treating a thing (we’ll get to what kind of thing) as if it has person-like characteristics. Now, we can try to figure out what kind of thing the “Democratic Party” is.

It is comprised of people. Pretty basic, but pretty significant, because that means 44.7 million people, none exactly alike another, and each having a particular history and a particular set of motives, not all of them always clear even to themselves, for being members of the Democratic Party.

But that doesn’t make it the Democratic Party, which is also an organization (a thing, immaterial but still a thing, now, not persons)—a group coalescing around a shared purpose.

It is also an institution, which is a thing, meaning an organization with a strong level of establishment—that is, materially supported longevity and a measure of real influence. We’re still high up in the abstractosphere, so of what exactly does this institution consist, apart from 44.7 million souls? And how exactly is it organized?

Well, we have infrastructure—here in my town, that’s a set of quite valuable databases, a decent meeting place, access to various functions by officer/delegates and-or members, name recognition, and full ballot access in every election.

Officers and delegates are elected locally. As you work your way up the chain, there are more of those obstacles cited by Boggs, where higher-up gatekeepers are less democratically vulnerable to challenges, and where funders have the greatest access. The party is “run” by the Democratic National Committee, which is just over 200 people. Out of 44.7 million people.

By “run,” we don’t mean dictate to, because the DNC not only does not have that kind of absolute authority, they have little control over who actually comes into the party, and—with the exception of some hugely populous areas—who runs local affiliates. Here in my town, Our Revolution took over the local party with less than a dozen activists; and here in my state, using the state and party’s own rules, they also seized the nomination for State Attorney General—a lefty defense attorney, running against a corporate tool former prosecutor. I filled out a card and gave them ten bucks, becoming a member just to vote in that nominating convention (not a statewide vote).

So there is another thing that the Democratic Party “is”—an adjectival thing: it is permeable. A lot more permeable than the larger bipartisan system is, even though it is contained within that larger system where it “holds up half the sky.” So, which is easier, for example? Gaining ballot access for a non-duopoly party? Or winning a nomination in a Democratic Primary?

Rather than answer this, what sectarians do here is premise-shift the argument. “Once, you are in the party,” some will say, “you will inevitably compromise yourself away from truly-true Socialism to (fill in the ick blank with something like “social democracy”). Boggs himself went there by comparing US politics now with European parliamentary systems past (no account here of the reach of US international hegemony) and delving into the archives for pre-WWII Germany . . . because “little has changed.” The subtext here is a kind of contagion narrative: the Democratic Party is a communicable disease against which we must be inoculated, because once you are so much as scratched, the wound will fester into full-blown sepsis.

This is an effective technique according to anthropologists, because it establishes a (sectarian) community through purity-pollution codes, mobilizing a kind of disgust (the disease metaphor) that forecloses the discussion. And it has been effective on behalf of sectarians for precisely that purpose.

For all the talk about mass-this and mass-that and mass-party (they love the mass party thing), this purity-pollution code has placed a kind of epidemiological barrier between the purified mini-parties and 89 percent of African American voters, 54 percent of women voters, 55 percent of millennial voters, 66 percent of Latin@ voters, and a quarter of all independents.

Jill Stein received one percent of the total presidential vote in 2016, with little to no support from anyone who identifies as a Democrat.

Which brings us to our next point, and that is that “being a Democrat” is not an identity. Reification works both ways. You can transfer the characteristics of living creatures to non-living entities, but you can also transfer the characteristics of non-living entities onto living persons. The Democratic Party platform has characteristics that support Zionism, for example, but many people—myself included—who hold a formal membership in the party are anti-Zionist. So why would I vote for Democrats or join the party, if I don’t agree with its platform or program?

Here’s why. Read slowly if you need to. (a) Because there is a tactical advantage in doing so for socialists, and (b) because we can.

Even when we broaden the tent to include non-Leninists in the socialist mix, like DSA and Our Revolution and their sympathizers, support for any form of socialism is still not enough to overcome existing obstacles to win a legislative majority. Nonetheless, the balance of forces is already locked into those struggles within the old frameworks, and the stakes are very high. This is not a soccer game, where the final whistle is blown and one team becomes unequivocally the winner. The Democratic Party is not a team, but one interacting phenomenon among several, some of which are less desirable and more dangerous than Democrats.

This kind of sectarian nonsense was more understandable before the 2016 elections revealed a shift in the balance of forces, and a bifurcation in the historical process. Everything they believerd was wrong. But . . . everything we believed was wrong, too.

Now, we are seeing the Republican Party—taken over by one demagogue—being bent toward right-wing authoritarianism and one-man rule, with a mass base in the tens of millions, a subset of whom are literally armed and dangerous. And unlike pre-Hitler Germany, we don’t have a couple million armed communists with war experience to balance things out.

In fact, with the debacle of the Kavanaugh pseudo-hearing, we are getting a clear glimpse of just how central the preservation of male supremacy is to the energy of that reactionary mass base, and the upcoming midterms will test its real strength . . . and the strength of . . . what?

Well, in a situation where a plurality is in power with the capacity to consolidate its rule against the majority, and when there is no majority possible without the Democratic Party itself and its candidates, then tactical alliances need to be formed.

Yes, there are downsides, this is life, grow up—to blunt that drive toward right-wing authoritarianism precisely to give people like us room to breathe and organize and, more importantly, to take the heat off the most vulnerable in this society, because they are getting their asses kicked right now!

Failing to do so will almost certainly make things much worse and increase the time, resources, and work that will be necessary to reverse the effects later on. Now you can call it “lesser-evilism.” Olde Tyme Sectarians identify any violation of the purity codes by attaching an –ism to it, because abstractions are more important than that granular mess called reality. The other sectarians will understand immediately that this puts the practitioners of lesser-evilism into a kind of quarantine so the vanguard doesn't get infected. I’m having a flash on one of my favorite zombie-contagion narratives, 28 Days Later.

In effect, what the sectarian is saying, since other options are now foreclosed, is suck it up for now until we see the “Marxist avalanche,” which will happen as soon as you all get together and follow the sectarians . . . except that there are so many among so few. We will lead you all in the revolutionary civil war. (Hint for this kind of covert adventurist: the right has more guns than you ever will, and the American capitalist state has a lot more.)

Now comes the sectarian devolution into a kind of evidentiary hearing of all the things “Democrats” (no other distinctions!) have done. Democrats support Wall Street. Democrats support wars. Democrats support (name your sin). Which is all true, and all sinful, but it is utterly fallacious as an argument because it suggests that being a Democrat (person) is synonymous with the positions taken in the platform or by other individual Democratic elected officials. Congresswoman Barbara Lee has consistently voted against war and militarism, and she is a Democratic elected official. Furthermore, this fallacious gambit has a subtext that reads: Voting is an endorsement of (a) everything a candidate says or does and (b) everything officially endorsed by the party. This unspoken subtext is unspoken because it is such obvious bullshit. I vote, and its never been an endorsement.

I hate war and militarism, because I was immersed in it for so long and because war is an obscenity and abomination. But elections are sublimated wars, so I’ll take the war in which I don’t have to kill anyone over the kind where I do, if that is the only option available, and if it might reduce the risks of violence.

Jesus said, "be wise as serpents and gentle as doves."

There are some lessons I learned studying war that are pertinent to this discussion of elections based on the similarity between war and elections. That’s the main things that American political parties are organized for—elections. So how do we think about an election as a war, employing what we know about war as a practice?

First of all, there can be far more than one faction fighting in a war. The US did not lose the war in Iraq (they lost it to Iran, paradoxically enough) fighting one group, but a shifting and often unstable mix of forces—some of them taking time out to beat each other up—of Ba’athists, Iraqi nationalists, pan-Arabists, Salafists, Shia Mahdis, and Iraqi socialists.

War like an election is an instrumental not an expressive activity.

You don’t get to choose the situation. You inherit it when you get there.

Wishful thinking, including trying to speak new realities into existence with propaganda, is the enemy of success, because all operational failures are ultimately intelligence failures . . . the misapprehension of the granular realities of the battlespace.

There is no more important component of a good intelligence summary than one’s own actually-existing weaknesses and one’s opponents’ strengths.

This becomes doubly important when you are an Iraqi partisan or an American socialist.

You need to assess every other combatant for strengths and weaknesses as well as when and how you will ally with them or oppose them. You don't categorically refuse alliances because a potential ally on today’s battlespace may have been on the other side of yesterday’s battlespace. You are not initially looking for the win (avalanche?), but to survive and thrive in order to get stronger. This requires the kind of hard-mindedness that quickly accepts one’s own weaknesses and the strengths of opponents and even the sketchiest of allies.

The elections are the battle. The parties and other institutions are the figurative terrain. The objective is some center of political power. DSA and OR and others are not, as the uberlefter detractors constantly claim in a straw-man fallacy, trying to convert the Democratic Party.


That shows up in some rhetoric, but among actual DSA and OR people I know, there are less than zero illusions about the Democratic Party. Certainly, there are those who hope for that (and parties have changed and kept their names in the past), but to claim this is the raison d’etre of these socialists is to claim the ability to read minds en masse.

When you read the party as part of the terrain upon which you are fighting, it takes on a different aspect. It is the least well-protected capitalist terrain that gives us greater proximity to that center of political power via less well-defended pathways and lines of communication. Whether one holds that terrain is a purely tactical consideration; but in the current milieu, we’d better be on it.

I know that not everyone will consent to every proposition in the sectarian program, but if a politics is actually a politics of actual masses, then it requires numbers that qualify it as such.

The Green Party is not a mass party.

DSA/OR (or the nascent social democratic coalitions they are developing in various places) is not yet a mass organization, but it has shown that it is big enough to conduct insurgent operations.

Jill Stein failed.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez succeeded.

Which brings me to my final quibble with sectarians, of which their reaction to Ocasio-Cortez is emblematic. Rather than move in to support her—a political neophyte with maybe more chutzpah than experience—they choose to parse everything she says and does for heresies (and she made a couple of little blunders). Which is interesting, because now these aging sectarians, who have never won shit in their lives, are telling someone who just knocked off a Democratic party heavyweight how to do politics. Sectarians, and this will get worse as the social-democratic fusion continues to make gains (barring that one-man rule we talked about that Trump might get if Democrats lose in 2018), are highly adept at rejecting anyone who “violates” a jot of the purity code. Again, this is fallacious bullshit deployed to defend arguments that have become pretty much indefensible on logical terms.

The sectarian motto: Nothing but the avalanche!

Basic infantry chronology again—first you seize the terrain (and you might mess it up in the process). Then you hold/defend the terrain. Then you begin improving your position. It might be a salient in the Democratic Party today. Tomorrow, we’ll see what comes, and evaluate the next move. If you aren't stronger than you main opposition, it may not yet be time to shed your less-than-perfect allies.

Some day, I expect, based on how things are moving right now, the Democratic Party extablishment, which is shrinking, will make an alliance (they've already started) with Bush Republicans (neoconservatives). The trick now is to gain enough strength within to make an eventual break after the reactionaries are defeated. And remember, strength is not measured in ideological purity, but in warm bodies willing to vote they way you want them to. That means you have to (a) persuade or (b) be persuaded (perish the thought!). That means you have to expand the circle of trust; and that means rethinking your ideas about purity and pollution.

For the time being, let’s close with one very important fact that bears on the question of the ostensible impermeability of “the Democratic Party.” Its purpose is to win elections, and elections can be managed, even fudged through dirty tricks, but they are hard to control. There is space there for tactical gain.

No one said it was easy. But I’ll be damned if I’m waiting for “the avalanche.”


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  2. Given current conditions, I endorse what you're doing by making inroads within the Democratic Party in Michigan. It makes much more sense than organizing on behalf of a third party, which is an exercise in ineffectuality, or even unintentional self-sabotage.

    But I also think that the dynamism of the American political scene would be dramatically improved by the provision for ranked-choice voting on up to the level of Presidential elections, and that this ballot option would provide tactical advantages to a marginalized and disenfranchised political movement, by providing it with the latitude to either bid for influence within one of the two entrenched "major parties", or to organize a voting bloc independently of them that carries the prospect of eventually drawing off a sufficient number of disenchanted "default loyalists" to either eventually prevail as a new major party or, at minimum, to draw the attention of an established major party and lead it to change its character and aims.

    As matters stand now, at the national level, even a sizeable "authentic Left/social democrat" bloc within the Democratic Party can be easily shined on or disregarded by the party establishment, because where else is that faction going to go, even if they find that they're virtually ignored? That's where ranked-choice ballot system can make all the difference. It provides a means of concretely demonstrating political clout at the ballot box.

    Obviously, that reform can't possibly arrive in time to affect the 2018 elections. Given the fact that the old hoary saw that "politics is the art of the possible" has a lasting practical validity, and that the Situationist rallying cry "demand the impossible!" is merely an entertainingly indulgent fantasy, it makes total sense to accrue as much influence within the Democratic Party as possible. But while the party isn't a monolithic entity, it can't be denied that you're contending with a pre-existing hierarchy of Democratic Party leadership- including elements in the mass media- that is optimized to exploit the Democratic Party membership for maximum loyalty, while ceding as little as possible of their hold on power to newcomers or people with unorthodox ideas, and committed to altering their current mode of operation- the "ratchet effect" that you've referred to previously- as little as possible.

    To me, that situation implies the value of the option of an independent popular base with enough clout to scare the entrenched leadership into either changing its ways or facing a mass defection. Given the current ballot system, it's impossible to demonstrate that clout or apply that pressure- a vote for a minor Left party might as well be a Republican vote, in any political sense that matters. But a ranked-choice system permits a voter to vote for what they want as a first choice, while allowing them to counteract the spoiler effect with their other choices.

    I realize that working toward that reform adds another item to the agenda. But ranked-choice voting has received popularity in local jurisdictions fairly rapidly in recent years, and it's even gotten increasing notice and support from various voices in major media outlets. It deserves to catch on, especially given the high level of dissatisfaction with the currently stagnant status quo of the two parties. Much of that discontent is related to the accurate perception that the system is broken, and that what passes for an exercise of electoral franchise at the ballot box all too often boils down to a contest requiring the voter to either pick the least worst option of two bad choices, or make a choice that's either a waste or outright counterproductive to their political preferences.

  3. The political parties gain their power by running the government and not through membership. They earn their share of the government based on periodic elections. They get votes in these elections by having a narrative. The Democrats keep missing layups because they can't define their message.


    You're not wrong about the lack of any alternatives, however, there's a large cost in emphasizing political organizing in the Democratic party at the expense of other demands.