Friday Dec 13

What’s Our Brand Name?

Preface

My activist friends bemoan the presence of corporate, financial, developer, real estate or other business interest group money that buys elections. And they complain about either the lack of or biased coverage of their issues in the media. From my perspective these are givens, part of the terrain in which we operate, and not worth complaining about. At their worst, the complaints create victim-hood, the self-fulfilling prophesy of the inevitability of defeat, and the self-righteousness of knowing we are the righteous.

None of these create the people power required to slow, halt and reverse the present concentration of wealth and power in the hands of the few. Let me sneak up on why with some of my own story, and then get to how things can be changed.

Why?

When I was a boy of seven, I was already interested in politics. I grew up in a left-wing family, so politics and the news were part of our nightly dinner conversation.

When elections rolled around, my parents (and I) would look at the endorsements page of the The Dispatcher, the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union (ILWU) newspaper, to see who and what it endorsed. (Memory being a tricky thing, they may have been the CIO Political Action Committee’s endorsements.) It was rare that we read beyond that—my parents to see how to vote, I to see what I would support and argue for with my friends. This was 1944 to 1948— before McCarthyism took deep hold in the country.

The Dispatcher (or CIO-PAC) was enough because it was part of a community, one of which we also were a part even though no one in our family was a member of the ILWU or the CIO. My father did educational work for CIO unions in the area. The Dispatcher/CIO-PAC was the “brand name” that we trusted, and they didn’t earn that trust by spending lots of money advertising. Rather, it was because they were an extension of us, of who we were; part of a larger social movement; a stand on how the world ought to be.

While I grew to distance myself from some of the politics of that union and my parents, I also increasingly came to appreciate both the value of such a community, and the difficulty in building one.

Why was the word of the The Dispatcher/CIO-PAC enough, and can we recreate an equivalent rooted in the values of democracy, equality, freedom, justice, community, responsibility, interdependence, solidarity, security and others that are dear to us?

Community Defined

Politicians invoke “community” as a feel-good-about-the-country term. It is often used by the powerful to oppose the “divisive” organizing of the have-nots when they strike, boycott, protest or engage in civil disobedience. As a community organizer, it seemed useful to me to have a more precise notion of what community meant. After a number of years, I came up with this definition: “a group of people sharing a common bond or tradition who support and challenge each other to act powerfully, both individually and collectively, to affirm, defend and advance their values and interests.”

My family was part of such a community: the Communist-led left in the San Francisco Bay Area. What did that mean?

Some of the people in it were our friends. We saw them regularly; invited them to dinner as they invited us; went on outings like picnics or to the zoo together; talked politics with them (I listened for the most part). There were others who weren’t friends, but they were comrades. In the world, we knew that they and we stood for the same things.

A larger web of relationships connected us with people in this community. We shared discussions with them at educational events. A labor school offered continuing education to adults and was sponsored by highly respected “notables” and trade union leaders in the area. Special lectures were offered, as well as more advanced seminars for those who wanted to delve more deeply into Marxism.

Various mutual aid organizations offered benefits, including insurance and burial payments. There were consumer cooperatives that were linked to this community, one of them close to the housing project where we lived.

As I progressed in junior high and high school, I became increasingly critical of dimensions of this community. I read The Loyalty of Free Men and concluded that civil liberties were indivisible; you couldn’t have them for our side and deny them to the other side. When I was at the University of California, I concluded that there was more centralism than democracy in “democratic centralism,” that “scientific socialism” was less science and more dogma, and that “vanguard parties” became more interested in their own power and prerogatives than in making a revolution that liberated “the masses”.

But I retained a deep sense of what community meant, and how important it was.

Learning the Pieces of Community

In the emerging me, these substitutions in my ideological framework took place:

• For Marxism-Leninism, I substituted a vigorous understanding of democracy in which all people actively participated in shaping their neighborhoods, cities, regions, state and nation, as well as their workplaces.

• For vanguard party, I substituted a cadre of full-time organizers whose job was to assist local people to build their own people power organizations.

• For scientific socialism, I substituted small “d” democratic values and the moral, social and economic justice teachings of the world’s great
religious traditions. “Socialism” was reduced to proposals that asked whether ‘x’ business or industry should be owned by the government. That was not a question that was answered “a priori”: rather, it was one that people power organizations ought to ask, and decide for themselves.

• I understood myself as creating the public space, or the forums, that could discuss, discern, debate and decide questions of public life, and then act powerfully on their answers.

I concluded that while there is a science of power, there is not a science for its use. For labor, community and really any other kind of people-power organizing, that science is expressed in careful constituency and power structure analyses. These let an organizer and leaders know the details of the “who”—the constituency for an organization, and the “who”—the specific power structure against which the first “who” will have to fight and with whom it will have to negotiate if it is to pursue its goals.

There is a contested terrain in which people make choices. A blurred vision of a fully democratic society seemed to me to offer the best choice. Building such a society is a constant struggle—both against our own demons (the “isms,” ego, the organizational rivalries for turf, funding and recruiting talent are examples), and against incumbent economic, social and political power structures that seek to maintain their own riches and prerogatives. This struggle was well summed up in the 1930s by Supreme Court Justice Louis D. Brandeis: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.” Since World War II, with minor blips along the way, concentrated wealth has been winning despite whatever other important victories in civil rights, diversity struggles, social welfare and other issues may have been won.

In The Absence of Community

Today, for the most part, those who fight for a fuller democracy and social and economic justice lack a brand—in the sense that I have used the term—that has the confidence of significant numbers of the American people.

This is despite the fact that survey after survey demonstrates that the ideas for which they struggle generally have the support of a majority, and sometimes a large one at that, of the American people. There is no organization expressing unity-in-diversity about which the majority who respond to these surveys says, “It speaks for me,” or, “That’s my voice.”

Today’s activist modus operandi is to go from demonstration to demonstration with no organizing in between, and then wonder why big money is able to beat it at the polls. An activist counter-culture has been built, but not one that is rooted deeply in the lives of everyday people. With sometimes more and sometimes less success, this counterculture’s organizations mobilize everyday people on issue campaigns; but they do not make them co-creators. Those mobilized are, as a result, a market rather than a public. Publics discuss, debate, deliberate and reach compromises among themselves in order to create broad unity and act powerfully. They reflect, celebrate, learn and socialize with one another. As a result, what they resolve from such a process has a deep meaning to them. When these processes are part of deeply rooted and self-funded communities, they have access to the researchers, policy analysts and other specialists who can help them shape their own point of view. When they are able to do that, they are relatively immune to what mass or social media tries to sell them at election time.

Without a community that looks to sources other than the mass media for guidance on the issues of the day, big money/big media is rarely beaten at election time. Social media can reinforce a community’s message; they cannot substitute for it. When the community is weakened, so is the body politic. When its interests are limited to the “private sphere”, public life, the common good and the public interest are damaged. (Nothing better expresses what has happened to our body politic than George Bush’s post-9/11 statement to the American people: “go shopping.”

How?

We have instances in American history when such counter-cultures were built: the Populists, the industrial union movement and its unions, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s organizing work in the Deep South, Saul Alinsky’s community organizing and parts of the tradition that has emerged from his Industrial Areas Foundation. These examples need to be the subject of intense scrutiny by a new generation of activists if they are to achieve the transformational results that these times require.

Organizing takes place between mobilizations. Its core elements are listening, challenging, thinking through and training—the activities in which an organizer engages with the people with whom she or he works. The important community building aspect of organizing is expressed in an internal education program that uses the experiences of action on issues and the problems of everyday people as its curriculum. It emerges in reflection, an activity that connects deeply held values to the action of the day. You can learn how that is done by listening to, or reading, sermons and speeches by Martin Luther King. Community building is expressed in celebration, by creating a new story of everyday people making history, lifting up from among local people new heroes and heroines who are making “our history”. This idea challenges the notion that only big-name leaders are the creators of the nation’s legacy.

Organizing emerges through training that develops and enhances the civil skills necessary for self-confident action in the public arena, and through social activities like dances, dinners, athletic competition, picnics and the like. It emerges through evaluation — asking and answering of such questions as, “What did we do in comparison to what we said we were going to do?— in relation to turnout, sticking to our plan, testing of new leaders, making new allies and evaluating media coverage. It asks “Are we getting the reaction we wanted?” and “Why did ‘x’ work and ‘y’ not work?” and “What accounts for our results?” “What can be done differently and better next time?” Finally, the community of labor, identity, interest and broad-based community organization emerges in interpretation, by asking “What do we tell ourselves, our friends, neighbors and co workers about what was accomplished today?”.

I think full-time, professional, organizers are a key element to creating this counter-culture. Most of the people who call themselves organizers are mobilizers. They may make the turnout larger, media coverage better, and take care of a lot of the details, but they don’t build the counter-culture and organizational depth that is essential for more than a series of victories or defeats on issues.

The creation of a democratically-rooted counter culture, connected to the majority of the American people, is the pre-condition to creating the democracy Justice Brandeis warned we were losing. That rootedness can be built in two ways.

The first is through the people’s own institutions and organizations—ranging from congregations and union locals to small merchant and business associations to athletic teams and garden clubs to senior, tenant, homeowner and interest groups, to the wide range of identity groups that now exist. The second is through newly-created structures that combine the elements already discussed to create new strong communities of people who otherwise lack meaningful affiliations.

These two approaches can combine mutual aid and institutional change activities to bring about change. Historically, at least in recent times, the first is associated with the Saul Alinsky-tradition; the second is connected with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee’s work in the Deep South and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now (ACORN). In whichever tradition they are established, if they are to build deeply, they must include elements of reflection, internal education, celebration, training, evaluation, interpretation, social activities and other “community-building” activities.

Finally, we need some mechanism, I think of it as an annual or biennial event—congress, convention, assembly or whatever you want to call it—that brings together in a one-half to two-day gathering all the groupings identified above. It resembles a political party or union convention. The core values framework for such a gathering is to be found in the small “d” democratic tradition, and in the teachings of the world’s great religions: freedom, justice, equality, security, community, person-hood. I think these values capture the essentials. This gathering adopts a platform, elects organizational leadership and establishes priorities for the forthcoming period. Its delegates, in the compromises they make among themselves, create a “lowest significant common denominator” program and balance conflicts among their core values and interests.

In all the cases I know of where there are such groupings, some full time organizing staff is essential to making such a gathering happen.

How will corporate interests and their allies respond? Astro-turf organizations cannot beat the real thing—if the real thing is present. The creators of astro-turf organizations want to control outcomes to conform to their pre-defined interests, so they won’t build something with deep, democratic roots. But if the real option isn’t available, then in the desert that is now American politics what they do will look real.

Even more dangerous is our current situation: vast numbers of people lack effective voice, so turn to someone who claims to be their voice. “Only I can solve your problems” Donald Trump told the American electorate.

Overcoming pseudo-citizenship is the on-the-ground strategic problem all of us now face in this country.

Mike Miller directs the San Francisco-based ORGANIZE Training Center. www.organizetrainingcenter.org

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