Our Material Conditions Demand a Strategy Reassessment
Katie F., Avir W., Luci R., AJ A., Eric R.
Up to this point, DSA has centered electoral politics and the rank-and-file union movement as the means to achieve a Democratic Socialist transformation. Bernie’s failed campaigns and the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement demand a reassessment of this strategy.
We all acknowledge that campaign finance, the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter disenfranchisement, and a two-party system are serious obstacles to democracy. We also know that when the State institutes reforms that check capital, capital responds with its own strikes, which cripple the State because it depends on capital to function. But the shortcomings of electoral politics and working within the confines of the State go much deeper than that.
Electoral politics and other efforts to work within the State have three key flaws:
- The state exists to secure the material conditions and ideological hegemony required for continued capital accumulation.
- Electoral campaigns have their own preconceived agendas and may attempt to co-opt or stifle the demands of movements, sapping the movement’s energy and diminishing its radicality
- Elections attempt to erase class differences by giving everyone an “equal” vote. Electoral politics limit people’s understanding of their own power and reduce agency to voting.
Unions, and specifically the rank-and-file strategy to democratize and radicalize unions, have been DSA’s other key path to change. But an assessment of the current conditions reveals significant structural barriers.
First, unions are inherently reformist. They exist to ameliorate capitalism, not overcome it: they seek to win raises and improve working conditions rather than transform the relations of production. Second, union density in the US is at an all-time low. Third, union officials have class interests distinct from those of the rank-and-file, and are therefore more interested in preserving their organizations and power than engaging in confrontations with capital that might challenge their position.
Lastly, unions were a product of a specific historical period of ascendant capitalism where industrial production occurred on a national scale. Today’s capitalism is globalized and plunging into a pandemic-induced economic crisis, meaning unions in the US do not have the potential power they did before. Combined, these factors make it highly unlikely that unions will usher in the structural reforms that supposedly inch us closer to socialism.
So what’s a socialist to do?
If the structures of both electoral politics and unions serve capital and stifle the power of the working class, what other options do we have? The answer lies in mass movements, the “engines of social change and revolution.”
What have mass movements accomplished in U.S. history?
Mass movements have been the driving force behind the two “Big Bangs” of the 20th century. In two six-year periods, 1933-38 and 1963-68, mass disruptions led to the passage of major labor, civil rights, and social welfare legislation. The national food looting, rent strikes, Unemployed Councils, general strikes, and massive industrial strikes of the 1930s led to formal unions and the New Deal. In the 1960s, sit-ins, boycotts, marches, and riots in nearly every major city in the country pushed the passage of civil rights legislation.
The latest iteration of the Black Lives Matter movement demonstrates the power of mass movements. In just a few weeks of militant protest, more gains have been made than years of reform attempted through the electoral process. School districts and universities have ended their contracts with the police. Cities have cut funding to police departments.
Most significantly, American public opinion is drastically shifting. Despite #8CantWait’s attempts to co-opt the movement, #8toAbolition prevailed and a national conversation around abolition emerged. In early June, 54% of Americans supported the protests and the burning down of the Minneapolis police precinct. Over 540 strikes were recorded in the first three weeks of the George Floyd Uprisings, a number greater than the previous three months combined. The WNBA and NBA went on strike after police shot Jacob Blake.
In Oakland alone, the school board removed police from Oakland public schools, a mass sit-in put a quick end to the city’s curfew, and the ILWU shut down the Port of Oakland on Juneteenth (along with 28 other West Coast ports) in solidarity with the BLM movement.
Mass movements are here to stay
The protests of recent months are merely the beginning of a longer period of struggle. As material conditions continue to deteriorate, class struggle and mass protest will continue to grow. There is no lack of kindling for a revolutionary struggle––and we must be prepared for the next sparks that will arise.