Jodi Dean: "Something that has been missing is the sense of the collective power of the grassroots." / Backbone campaign

The Commons Are Rumbling

An interview with the People’s Congress of Resistance

Jodi Dean: "Something that has been missing is the sense of the collective power of the grassroots." / Backbone campaign
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At the very top of the home page, it’s the first thing you see, like a gleaming and freshly sharpened saber from the old days: a manifesto. The title reads, “Society for the Many: A Vision for Revolution.” In clear terms, with a bold and fearless tone, this foundational declaration of the People’s Congress of Resistance, which will hold its Founding Congress in Washington D.C. a month from now, doesn’t mince words. “Without a revolutionary vision, change will not take a revolutionary direction . . . A vision for social, economic, and political revolution is necessary.”

And such a vision is exactly what you’ll find in the manifesto. It outlines not merely a program for political change, but for another way of living that is both radical and, as the authors maintain, radically possible. This reconfigured social life sets out to provide what capitalism, and the government that serves it, will not. It promises to take back what private interests have siphoned off from the lives and labor of the 99 percent and hoarded for their own profit. It promises to abolish mass incarceration and militarized policing. It promises to be uncompromising in its commitment to smashing patriarchy and discrimination, providing reparations for Black America and respect for Native sovereignty—and to protect our common earth for the common good. Read the manifesto—you’ll see what I mean.

As we limp into the first autumn of this strange and fearful age in American history, with the asphalt in Charlottesville still wet with blood and rage, it’s incredibly disheartening to realize that a seeming eternity of hatred, anxiety, corruption, lies, violence, and war has been crammed into just six months of Donald Trump’s presidency. At times, when the noise stops, even for just a moment, the bottom drops out, and it becomes easier than ever to despair. We knew what would happen if Trump got elected. And, looking back on the first half of 2017, we were right.

But there’s also a fresh rumbling coming from below that simply can’t be ignored. It feels different than before. In the past six months, a wave of resistance has also surged into prominence—a movement of movements. Moreover, the many tireless efforts of organizers and workers and community members who have been resisting for years are teaching new enlistees how it’s done. In these summer months alone, on the heels of the Women’s March and the International Women’s Day Strike, thousands of committed activists, organizers, students, workers, retirees, writers, teachers, union members, and more have flocked to large assemblies like the People’s Summit, the Socialism Conference, and the DSA National Convention for the purpose of organizing resistance and mobilizing efforts to build a better politics.

And at D.C.’s Howard University, organizers will launch the People’s Congress of Resistance on September 16-17 (registration details can be found here). The People’s Congress is exactly what it sounds like: it is “a new Congress” to replace the one we have now, which has made it clear, time and again, that it serves the billionaire class, not the people. It is “a fighting Congress of the working class of all racial and ethnic backgrounds, genders and ages”—a Congress “where we [the people] govern, decide and act for ourselves and our communities.” In bringing together a broad plurality of organizers, educators, union reps, community leaders, and others, the stated goal of the People’s Congress is to harness the many diverse forces of resistance across the country and to become the neural network for these many forces to work collectively, on as many fronts as possible, to not only oppose Trump, but to dismantle and replace the racist, sexist, brutal capitalist system that begot him. I sat down with three of the organizers of the People’s Congress, Professor Jodi Dean, Karina Garcia, and Ben Becker, to talk about the Founding Congress and the meaning of this surge in American leftist politics.

Maximillian Alvarez: What are you hoping to achieve at the inaugural meeting of the People’s Congress of Resistance, and what will be the vision moving forward? What’s your message to readers who may still be considering attending, or who may just be hearing about it for the first time now?

Ben Becker: We’re hoping to elevate the inspiring work of frontline organizers from across the country so that multiple specific struggles appear as the collective struggle of the many for a society of the many. Too often, the diverse energies of the Left are used as indications that the Left is fractured—as if struggles, say, against imperialism were separate from or even opposed to struggles against patriarchy, or as if work to organize workers had no relation to efforts to combat mass incarceration. The idea behind the People’s Congress of Resistance is that these different struggles are all facets of the same struggle against the racist, sexist capitalist system. Across the country, people are taking action in myriad ways. There are mobilizations going on everywhere. They get stronger as they reinforce one another.

Karina Garcia: Additionally, by providing different struggles concrete political expression as one struggle for a society of the many, PCOR holds up a mirror to the existing Congress of the Millionaires. It demonstrates how people are already fighting for the world they want—which is definitely not the diminished, violent, bigoted, and exploitative world forced on us by the existing Congress. Given the corruption and failure of this Congress, the fact that it has an extraordinarily low confidence rate, PCOR raises the need for and goal of developing a real counter-power.

MA: In spite of all the political turmoil since Trump took office, this has been a genuinely stirring summer for left organizing. As a whole, do you see this activity heralding a new, popular stage for the American left? How would you distinguish this stage from, say, the Occupy movement?

KG:  All over the Left people are putting to work the key lesson from Occupy, namely, the need to organize—and of course this is a lesson taught as well by Black Lives Matter, the Standing Rock Sioux, the International Women’s Day Strike, the oil and pipeline struggles, the mass struggles for immigrant rights, the housing, debt and foreclosure struggles, and so on.

Most people in their communities already recognize both the problem and the solution.

JD: Occupy put economic inequality and the power of banks, corporations, and capital back on the agenda of mainstream politics in the United States. Its great slogan, “we are the 99 percent” made clear in a new way that the majority of people were really suffering from the mortgage and housing crisis, really feeling the effects of the Great Recession, and were sick and tired of all the benefits of their hard work going to the top 1 percent (as was made abundantly clear in the Wall Street bailouts). This message was the movement’s great achievement. Yet the tactic that made Occupy so appealing—occupation, the tents in public spaces—was also its limit. It couldn’t survive the evictions because the movement depended on the tactic of occupation and the General Assembly as the form of direct democracy through which decisions would be made. The problems with the emphasis on horizontality and consensus are by now well-known and I won’t repeat them here. What is crucial is how the Left learned from the experience. It is now looking again at institutions, building structures that can scale and endure, organizations for the long haul—that’s what we see in these summits and conventions.

BB: What has also become clearer across the different movements is how capitalist power is at the core of structural racism, patriarchy, militarism, and ecological devastation. This notion may have been on the margins of politics for some time but no longer. This convergence is really exciting because it reflects that and gives us a means and a clear viewpoint to overcome the silos of single-issue organizing.

MA: Let’s get a bit more specific. I mentioned the Women’s March, the People’s Summit, the Socialism conference, and the DSA National Convention, which comprise some of the largest and most visible efforts to mobilize leftists in the Trump era (to say nothing of the many other individual campaigns, like Run for SomethingSwing LeftIndivisible, and Represent.Us). Some may look at this activity and see essentially intersecting and collective movements of a rising left; others, as Ben mentioned, may see factionalization, a lack of leftist cohesion in the face of a GOP stranglehold on all three branches of government and a morally and intellectually bankrupt Democratic Party that seems hell-bent on purging leftists from its ranks.

For those who are looking on, and especially for those considering devoting themselves more fully to “the resistance,” where does the People’s Congress of Resistance fit in—how does it distinguish itself from these other movements? Obviously, you and the other organizers felt that there are political needs on the left that aren’t being met by other organizations and that the People’s Congress of Resistance will address. Should people who want to get involved even be concerned at this point with the dividing lines between these—for lack of a less cliché word—factions?

JD: A vibrant Left flourishes when there are multiple outlets and institutions—parties, publications, campaigns, cultural offerings, etc. Something that has been missing is the sense of the collective power of the grassroots, the combined force of all the frontline organizing efforts. The People’s Summit did a good job bringing together progressive organizations with national reach. The Socialism and DSA conferences did a good job reinforcing socialists’ sense that our time has come back. But the People’s Congress is bringing together the wide array of issue groups operating on the ground across the country. These aren’t different factions in a divisive sense—there is a lot of work to be done. Rather, they reflect different senses of where energy should be placed, different analyses as to how best to move forward. The conviction of the People’s Congress of Resistance is that we need to take our lead from the active movement of the people that is already happening.

MA: The manifesto for the People’s Congress of Resistance makes clear that, in spirit and in execution, this is a movement that stresses the non-negotiable struggles for racial justice, environmental justice, for demilitarization, struggles against patriarchy, against discrimination and oppression based on sex, gender, sexual orientation, etc. At the same time, though, the manifesto seems to stress that this movement should highlight the interrelatedness of such efforts under the banner of a politics founded on class struggle and issues of economic justice. We all know the score here. The prevailing narrative carried over from the 2016 election, especially from liberal Democrats, so often pits these issues against each other in a zero-sum game that makes it seem like one has to choose between focusing on class at the expense of other independent issues related to so-termed “identity politics” (and be shunned for doing so), or vice versa. Can you talk a bit about how the People’s Congress is aiming specifically at exploding this narrative? What does the alternative look like in practice?  

KG: You are exactly right. Elite rhetoric is always designed to split and distort, to mystify things. The election made this painfully clear. The whole distinction we hear about between “working class issues” and “identity issues” is nonsense and usually based on the false notion that the working class is comprised of white men—as if Black and Latino communities aren’t overwhelmingly working class, as if women don’t occupy the lowest rungs of service work and as if LGBTQ people aren’t facing “working-class issues.” People who have actually organized at the grassroots know better than to accept the media’s articulation of these issues, and the DNC’s narrative around them. Usually it’s just a subtle way of downplaying the struggle against bigotry and special forms of oppression.

Elite rhetoric is always designed to split and distort, to mystify things.

What’s also clear to everyone who is exploited, indebted, over-worked and underpaid in this capitalist economy is that economic inequality reinforces and intensifies experiences of oppression. For example, poor women have a harder time getting abortions and adequate maternity care; it’s much harder for them to leave abusive situations when they are economically dependent on their abuser. Poverty is racialized and feminized. Discrimination consists in being blocked from health and medical care (as many trans people can attest), from job opportunities, from affordable housing, from quality education, from expectations for legal representation and a modicum of justice in the criminal courts. This discrimination is felt most strongly by those who don’t have the means, the money, to pursue other options.

Dean: In capitalist society, oppression (like everything else) is expressed economically. Whose neighborhoods are exposed to toxic chemicals? Whose drinking water is infused with lead? That of poor and working people, disproportionately people of color, migrant people, and women. What does the alternative look like in practice? The movement of the many for a society of the many.

MA: Sticking with the question of class struggle, one of the truly radical aspects of the platform of the People’s Congress of Resistance is its focus on claiming collective ownership of the means of production (in industries ranging from banking, communications, transportation, energy, and beyond). This is, indeed, a radical notion, especially in the way of life we take for granted in twenty-first-century America. What is your approach to making this kind of notion palatable for the average American? What does it look like in the practical sense, on the ground?  

BB:  In a way, this is already common sense, something every working class person already knows. These days, it’s like we pay to work—so much has been passed onto us: transportation, communication, education and training. People are being forced to pay for the infrastructure of capitalism while capitalists just sit back and count their money. What organizers learn is that most people in their communities already recognize both the problem and the solution. What is harder is building the sense that they can make a change, that the solution is achievable. It’s easy to get despondent. The decline in union membership and the number of strike actions is one of the reasons it’s hard for people to feel like they can make a difference. Workers who have experienced the solidarity necessary for a strike know the power that comes from fighting together against the boss. The wager of the People’s Congress is that by bringing frontline organizers from across the country together, people will feel the power that comes from each other’s triumphs. Victories in one place will be experienced as victories for everyone. For example, the successful stoppage of a pipeline can reinforce the struggle against police terror because both are salvos against capitalist state power. We saw a great example of this with the airport demonstrations that followed Trump’s Muslim ban and the taxi drivers in NYC went on strike.

MA: One of the most enduring and harrowing practical questions about these leftist propositions is: “How do you extract citizens from their everyday familiarity with, and reliance on, the status quo, the existing political terrain, regardless of how horrifying it is?” Take, for instance, the emphasis in your platform on dismantling the military-industrial complex and pushing for large-scale disarmament for the sake of world peace. At the same time, many, many citizens are currently swept up in the media hysteria over potential war with North Korea, which is only exacerbated by Donald Trump’s childish “tough talk,” which could get us all killed. How can the People’s Congress, and leftists in general, intervene and make the case for demilitarization when so many are plugged into the fear machine keeps the United States in a perpetual state of war, and primes citizens to become constantly, gravely alarmed over the next potential threat?

Becker:  People in the United States are tired of seeing so much money go to imperialist war when the basic infrastructure of everyday life is crumbling around them. Anxiety around Trump’s hostile rhetoric toward Korea supports our point: people are more afraid of him than they are of Korea. No one wants to hear a U.S. President joke about using nuclear weapons.

MA: As we’re speaking, neo-Nazis are feeling emboldened, congregating in public, and committing terrorist acts of violence How, in the views of the People’s Congress organizers, should the people respond to the barefaced white supremacist terrorists who feel encouraged by today’s political climate?

BB: They must be fought every step of the way. These neo-Nazis are a clear threat to Black, Latino/a, Jewish, Arab, Muslim, Native, Asian, and immigrant communities, to women and LGBTQ people, and to the organizations of the working class. Their advance must be stopped. It’s a matter of basic self-defense. Our hope for the Congress is that it will be a step forward in building the real unity the Left needs to confront and defeat racism and fascism.

MA: Not to beat a dead horse here—I’m just trying to anticipate questions and concerns from readers—but, given the events of this week, let’s put a fine point on this. People of color (myself included), immigrants, LGBTQ people, and others see neo-Nazis marching in our cities, on our university campuses, declaring white supremacy and shouting misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic, anti-Semitic chants. It’s very easy to bear witness to this, and to experience it in our own lives, and feel as if a politics of economic justice will not fully address the roots of this kind of hatred. At the same time, though, leftists of all stripes, from Antifa and BLM activists to DSA and IWW members are there on the front lines fighting back against fascists. Can you say just a little bit more about how, especially after the events in Charlottesville, the work that the People’s Congress is doing embodies the most effective way for us to collectively combat bigotry and discrimination? 

BB: We defeat neo-Nazis and white supremacists by fighting back, completely and relentlessly. It’s no accident that anarchist and socialist comrades were with BLM activists on the frontlines in Charlottesville. Historically, communists and anarchists have always been at the forefront of anti-fascist struggle. The goal of the People’s Congress is to strengthen and extend solidarity on the left. By raising up the work of activists from all over the country we demonstrate that multiple struggles comprise one struggle for a society of the many. Our manifesto highlights the imperative of addressing the legacy and persistence of the crimes that founded the United States—genocide, slavery, racism, and bigotry. And it highlights two concrete ways to go about this: reparations to the descendants of enslaved African Americans and indigenous people and for the guarantee of Native Sovereignty.

MA: You three are part of a diverse group of organizers launching the People’s Congress of Resistance—a group that includes representatives from many social justice organizations, religious leaders, journalists, academics and teachers, and union leaders. Drawing from your own experience, what is your message to readers about the relationship of political organizing and struggle to one’s everyday life in the Trump era? How can academics and teachers, for instance, incorporate these struggles into their profession? What about students and steelworkers, nurses and cab drivers, artists and service workers, religious groups and neighborhood communities, local tribes and urban centers—where does it start? And how can we keep it going?  

Dean: Political work makes everyday life bearable. Most of us have been to events that are strong on outrage, clear on problems, and affectively meaningful. And then people start wondering what they can do and well-meaning liberal spokespeople tell them that they should do the research themselves, reflect on how they are privileged, and talk to just one person. Not only does this response feel like a huge let-down, but it doesn’t correspond to the analysis of the situation that propelled the event in the first place. Organized political work—like that of the frontline activists coming to the People’s Congress—uses the analysis of the situation to mobilize and guide action. You ask, “where does it start?” It started a long time ago and it is ongoing. To use recent examples, high school students were some of the most militant in organizing BLM walkouts. Nurses are organized in one of the most badass unions in the country. Cab drivers refused to take people to NYC airports in response to the Muslim ban. Native Americans are at the forefront of fossil fuel and pipeline struggles. Religious groups have been the anchor for the Moral Mondays demonstrations. People have years of experience. That it seems hard for the fact of these ongoing struggles to register is what the People’s Congress wants to remedy.

Maximillian Alvarez is a dual-PhD candidate and graduate student instructor in the departments of History and Comparative Literature at the University of Michigan. He received his BA and graduated with honors from the University of Chicago in 2009.

Ben Becker is an organizer for the Justice Center en El Barrio and the Party for Socialism and Liberation.

Jodi Dean is an author and educator living in Geneva, New York, where she has been active in the We Are Seneca Lake civil disobedience movement and the Geneva Women’s Assembly.

Karina Garcia is a Chicana organizer and educator originally from southern California, and the daughter of working-class Mexican immigrants. She works as a reproductive justice trainer, traveling around the country to help Latina activists fight for reproductive health, rights and justice.

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