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Going Deeper Underground

Notes from the People’s Summit, part two

Read part one here.

So, is this it? Is this where socialism in America might finally, again, take root? Will history books count the 2017 People’s Summit as a significant step in the development of a twenty-first-century popular leftist wave? I doubt it. But that may be one of the summit’s greatest advantages.

One of the single greatest failings of mainstream Clintonite liberals was the casual and more-than-a-little arrogant assumption that history was “on their side”—that the triumphant march of world progress was always headed in their direction—that there was no doubt posterity would look back at them the same way we look with righteous reverence at, say, the Civil Rights movement today. There’s every reason to believe they still think that. Liberal Democrats appear (predictably) overconfident that the country, and history, will come running back to them after the full scale of the civic fiasco known as the Trumpian epoch of GOP dominance finally sinks in among the unwashed masses. Theirs is a total confidence that, regardless of periods of regressive hyper-nationalism, tribalized race and religious politics, and general economic tumult, neoliberal globalization is permanent. Theirs is a profound blindness to the rage of history.

They believe that the righteous values of liberalism are the pinnacle of Western (and, in fact, world) civilization. But the underground knows better. The underground knows that even the destructive, unequal, racist, and violent force of liberalism can appear as righteous as it does to Democrats because it has imposed itself, through myriad exercises of brutal power, on the body of historical possibility, suppressing and erasing any counter-narratives that challenge it. The underground would seem to know better than most that the “right side of history” is whatever wins out—and then proceeds to back-project onto the historical trash heap of luck, contingency, and struggle a narrative of iron-paved inevitability. As a matter of pure necessity, the underground has always perceived history the only way it possibly can, if it is to maintain a sense of purpose and hope: as something that can be broken, that can go another way.

Getting Schooled

Aixa Rodriguez is the definition of a badass. She’s about as much fire and sass as you can squeeze into a 5’0’’, NYC-based, Boricua teacher-activist. She speaks very bluntly and has precisely zero patience for liberals and lefties who spout lofty slogans but aren’t prepared to dig in at the local level and commit everything they’ve got to making life better for their communities. At this very moment she’s saying as much to the crowd attending what is, in this humble reporter’s opinion, one of the most stirring panels of the whole summit. The panel, organized by Katherine Brezler, is called “Beyond Betsy: Organizing for Education Justice” and also features Melissa Tomlinson of the Badass Teachers Association; Ja’Mal Green, a Chicago-based BLM activist and organizer; and Christine Pellegrino, fresh from her dark-horse victory in the NY state special election for the 9th Assembly District.

We’re in a big room that’s a little over halfway full. The audience here is pretty racially diverse, and about 60 percent women. The comments from the panelists and the tenor of the crowd seem to affirm my long-held suspicion that teachers make the best political organizers. Maybe it’s the attention to detail; maybe it’s the professional necessity of firm, methodical practice in trial-and-error collective inquiry, in repetition and adjustment; maybe it’s the snot-wiping humanity, the herculean ability to withstand the heights of frustration while squeezing the most out of those who don’t yet know what they’re capable of. Or maybe it’s just that teachers experience and fight against absurdly frequent and always politicized changes to district policies, funding, curricula, testing, evaluations, zoning, etc. “Resistance,” Christine Pellegrino notes from the panel, “is not a new concept for teachers.”

One of the most refreshing features of this event is the lopsided attention being paid to the gritty, practical questions of community organizing: how to start a group; how to form coalitions with other groups; how to get the support of local residents (again, the refrain “Knock on Every Damn Door” comes back up); how to raise funds; how to get media attention; how to protect yourself from professional retaliation if you are politically outspoken; how to work with churches, aldermen, community centers, private organizations, etc. The panelists insist, in addition, that all this small-bore organizing is most crucial when you are facing pressure from the political establishment (Ja’Mal Green tells the audience about Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel refusing support for a community center project on the South Side after Green had publicly criticized Emanuel’s utter disregard for black and brown communities in the city).

For over half an hour now, the “Beyond Betsy” panel has been punctuated by waves of muffled cheers coming from the eastern wall. I duck out for a few minutes to investigate what’s going on in the even bigger room next door (and, as always, to look for signs of the Infowars mole). My program tells me this is the “Transforming the Democratic Party” panel. The place is packed. More than 70 percent of the hundreds of the attendees appear to be over 40. Maybe 6 percent of them are black or latinx. The energy is palpable, like humidity. From the back wall my eyes are chasing after all the yeahs and woos sprouting up from the faceless tufts of white cabbage, bald spots, and silver ponytails. One thing is for sure: this is the single-most jazzed contingent when it comes to “pushing the party to the left.” Take that for whatever it’s worth.

Way up front at the panel table I can make out the unmistakable cowboy hat of Montana Berniecrat Rob Quist, who recently lost an impressively contested special congressional election to Republican Greg Gianforte—the guy who bodyslammed a reporter before the election and still won. (To add insult to actual injury, Gianforte received a major boost in campaign donations the day after committing assault.)

You’d think Quist would be pretty damn dispirited at this point, but he’s still quite upbeat and sincere. I’m inching back toward the door, feeling ever more uneasy about the long-term implications of the demographics here, but I still like what Quist has to say, so I jot it down. People want a solidly left-leaning platform, he says. He’s spoken with Vietnam vets, cattle farmers, and a whole cast of American characters in red Montana who wanted to buy what he was selling. But, he reminds the crowd, the hardest thing to overcome is the incredibly successful war of position from the right (and even establishment Democrats) to drench terms like “socialism,” “Obamacare,” “unions,” etc. in negative stigma. The forces of left reform and insurgency need to work harder to positively frame political discourse and to build coalitions around single issues—he gives the example of preserving public lands—that can show others how much they actually have in common with the left. I nod in agreement and leave.

Taylors and Ashtons, Begone

After the “Beyond Betsy” panel, I get a chance to talk with Aixa Rodriguez about her organization and her impressions of the People’s Summit. Aixa is the founder of Bronx Educators United for Justice, a local organization “dedicated to connecting educators, students, parents and activists” that, as the Facebook group devoted to the organization explains, is “concerned about issues of racial, social, economic, educational, food and environmental justice, specifically in the borough of the Bronx but inclusive of national and international events.”

It had never occurred to me that las chismosas (gossips, big mouths) would even enter discussions about left political organizing.

Young, hyperactive summiteers are crowded around Aixa now that the panel is over, each expressing excitement about social justice and education reform. In characteristic fashion, she doesn’t pussyfoot with her responses. “Have you built up a web presence?” she asks one woman who just described her goals for a new environmental initiative. “Have you gone to the local churches? City Hall? Nail salons?” You’ve got to tap into the sites where neighborhood chatter takes place, she stresses. “Find the biggest chismosas in the neighborhood, the abuelas—get them on your side.” This is a really beautiful piece of advice. It had never occurred to me that las chismosas (gossips, big mouths) would even enter discussions about left political organizing, but here we are. For Aixa, for anyone who’s serious about the grassroots, this is the bonemeal of local politics—without it, nothing grows.

Aixa also doesn’t hold back when a seemingly well-meaning, white twenty-something guy recounts his shock and frustration with “the system” after spending two years doing Teach for America. “This,” she interrupts him, “is part of the problem, though.” Young, typically white college graduates do programs like these, and swoop into poor and underserved districts for a couple years, then they leave, taking whatever they’ve learned with them and leaving communities behind. “Honestly, we don’t need anymore ‘Taylors’ and Ashtons.’ We need people who are going to commit to our communities, who are going to stay and help us build something.”

These are not isolated problems. In discussing the positive and negative impressions the People’s Summit has left on her, Aixa allows that she’s leaving feeling hopeful and that she’s met inspiring people over the weekend. However, she stresses that, from her view, there’s still a significant disconnect between popular left goals and the grueling groundwork of improving the lives of underserved communities. “All my Chicago friends were priced out [of the People’s Summit] or not invited,” she tells me, “and that was a big overlook. Where was the Chicago Teachers Union? Where were the activist parents like the Dyett 12? Where was Karen Lewis? I felt like these warriors in the street should have been centered… Chicago is ground zero for mayoral control, charter takeover, and privatization of public ed. There was a huge anti-Trump rally at the same time as [summit] events. Were organizers in touch with local, on-the-ground activists?”

Moreover, it’s impossible to overlook the racial dimension of these problems, both at the People’s Summit and in the national movement itself. “Many of us are aware we are being tokenized for the illusion of diversity,” Aixa says, “and [we] willingly show up to be the voice of the unheard, displaced, outpriced and uninvited. However, it doesn’t mean we aren’t sensitive to the micro-aggressions, absences, and erasures we witness and experience.”

Bar-Based Scholarship

Ajay Singh Chaudhary is a Lecturer at Columbia University and the founding Director of the Brooklyn Institute for Social Research (BISR), an independent, “interdisciplinary teaching and research institute that offers critical, community-based education in the humanities and social sciences.” Since its founding in 2012, BISR has made waves as a slightly kooky but impressively organized critical education initiative beyond the traditional university system, which sponsors rigorous, publicly open courses at NYC bars, restaurants and other venues on subjects from ancient Greek philosophy to queer studies and chaos theory. The Institute, as its website says, is “funded by public grants and private donations” and “brings classes and workshops to underserved communities.” The faculty consists of a pretty broad range of “scholar-pedagogues,” primarily from within the academy, and is expanding by the year. Chaudhary and the other BISR administrators are very adamant about their commitment to a “labor-forward” model—“70 percent of all tuition fees go to supporting BISR faculty in their teaching and research endeavors.”

This is an especially exciting time for Chaudhary, who has spent much of the People’s Summit representing the Brooklyn Institute at one of the organization booths in the main exhibit hall. BISR has just launched a new effort to expand its network into the Midwest and is already offering courses in Ohio, Kentucky, and Michigan. Chaudhary’s energy and passion for public scholarship is as infectious as a zombie bite, and it’s particularly striking to see how BISR’s mission meshes with the political atmosphere here. “We wanted to hook up with other organizations,” he tells me—“really get a chance to meet at a national level with so many political, media, labor, education, and other [organizations] doing fantastic work across the U.S.. We have a lot of national programming now, so it was a great year for us to participate at [this] level and see how we can help and work with other organizations, hear what other people are thinking about and working on, and also see who might be interested in BISR, in working with our Praxis program, for example, or who wants (a lot of people in turns out!) a BISR Network center in their region.”

And the response has been more impressive than even Chaudhary had hoped. “We actually ran out of the literature we printed for the whole conference in the very first day and had to make more. I think we are something of a unique organization and it’s very gratifying for me to see so many people who are engaged in political, economic, social and labor organizing with a deep interest in connecting with scholarly work in their areas but also beyond… I go to a lot of different conferences and different kinds of conferences. Rarely do I find such interest across the board from so many different kinds of people from so many different places in the United States.”

At least from the vantage point of an organizer who has been talking to hundreds of attendees over three days in the exhibit hall, there’s something different about the tenor of this year’s summit. “I really think it drew a sharp contrast with something like the Center for American Progress’s ‘Ideas’ Conference.” Chaudhary goes on. “While in the latter, it’s quite light on, ironically, ideas and very much a pay-to-play model, here you had a massive … gathering that was far more concerned with building actual power on the American left, with everyone from concerned citizens to organizers of all stripes to intellectuals to some media figures and elected officials coming together for that goal. It wasn’t a multi-day beauty contest but rather a place for a wide-range of groups to come, share, and get mostly on the same page in terms of seriously building power in this country.”

When I ask Chaudhary if the People’s Summit has left him feeling more hopeful or pessimistic, he answers: “I am cynical by trade, but even so . . . there’s an organizing, growing, and explicitly left movement-building in this country that to my historical eyes is not only brighter and with greater potential than anything in the past forty years but turns my mind back to thinking about some of what American radicalism had to offer in the 1930s. That is truly exciting. Also, I do think in this last election cycle, but also over the course of the past several years globally and within the United States, the neoliberal consensus is having trouble holding on. So, as awful (and it is awful) as the rise of the various far-right nationalisms are, there’s also an opening up of political imagination that is extraordinary. There’s of course a ton of work to do but there are good reasons beyond mere hope to be optimistic.”

The Slow Bern

Saturday night is the “big event”: Bernie’s keynote speech. The line to get into the main theater is longer than any other line I’ve ever been in in my life, but people are in high spirits. A guy in a full-body bird suit is running down the halls and giving people high fives.

Bernie’s speech is self-evidently important—and at the same time, it’s not. The buildup to the People’s Summit billed the event as the “next step” in the “revolution” that Bernie called for during the 2016 primaries. If this movement is taking its next step, though, Bernie’s speech is probably not the place to look for it, and I suspect he would agree with that. You can watch it for yourself and come to your own conclusions, but you’ve already seen it. It reads like a “Greatest Hits” from the campaign stump. It reminds you that, yes, a lot really has happened in the past two years. It does everyone’s soul a bit of good to hear it, and maybe that’s all it’s supposed to do.

The single greatest moment in the whole speech comes when Bernie takes off the “party unity” hat and says, in his most firebrand growl: “I’m often asked by the media and others: How did it come about that Donald Trump, the most unpopular presidential candidate in the modern history of our country, won the election? And my answer is that Trump didn’t win the election; the Democratic Party lost the election.” (Here, the crowd goes nuts.) “Let us be very, very clear: The current model and the current strategy of the Democratic Party is an absolute failure.” But perhaps the most significant point comes a little earlier, when Bernie reminds everyone of what he’s been saying from the beginning, which suddenly sounds much truer than it did during the election and, for me at least, settles much more somberly on hopes for the future. The crowd is chanting “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie” and Bernie lovingly scolds them: “It’s not ‘Bernie.’ It is you!”

A significant amount of scholarly attention has been paid to the way literary authors’ works change when they start to realize death isn’t far off. They start to meditate differently, not just on their own lives, but on the stuff they’re leaving behind, the traces that will have to speak when the author is no longer around to do it. There’s a lot of personal pain, but also a writerly peace—a love for those who may carry on the flame and an acceptance of the fact that the author won’t be around to see it.

Socialism has benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the public perception that Bernie was the only trustworthy presidential candidate in 2016.

Don’t get me wrong: Bernie’s still got some good years left, he’s not done fighting, but I can’t help detecting some of this peace in his speech. He’s not going to be around forever. More important, the message he brought to the mainstream, the excitement he generated, is not enough. It was never going to be enough. But, whatever you may think of Bernie, he has done two immeasurably significant things for the American left in the twenty-first century: (1) he has brought “socialism” out of the Cold War cryo-chamber and into mainstream public consciousness; (2) he has given a likable face and an air of honesty to a left alternative to Democratic neoliberalism. The system of symbolic referents has rearranged when you discuss socialism with people on the street, even among the older folks and many so-called moderate Republicans—socialism has benefited, and will continue to benefit, from the public perception that Bernie was the only trustworthy presidential candidate in 2016, that his message actually makes a lot of sense to people who are hurting. Wherever the left wants to go from there, this is an indisputable part of the legacy it is inheriting.

After leaving the main amphitheater, something about the experience makes me realize how important it is that I tell you about three middle-aged women I talked to while we were all waiting for Bernie to come out. The best words I can think of to describe their personalities is “warm cake.” They all drove out together from Minnesota and the middle one, Lori Myren Manbeck, a licensed clinical psychologist, tells me about the company they started at home, Inclusivi-Tee. “I started the company in response to what was happening politically and a feeling like I had to do more,” she tells me. The company prints t-shirt designed by artists, sells them online, and donates all of the profits. “The t-shirts are designed by artists around progressive themes and 100% of the profits are being donated to Planned Parenthood, Native American Rights [League], Natural Resources Defense [Fund] and seven others (. . .) I’m here because (. . .) I think people need to be protected and rights need to be protected and it’s not the time where we can sit still . . . we have to take a stand.” The other two women are nodding. “We’re not just talking (. . .) across the generations, everybody [here is] saying ‘no, this can’t stand,’ so we are doing something, because we have to.”

On the way back to my hotel, I tell my driver, a black woman, about forty-three years old, who says she lives way out on the West Side of the city, that I just saw Bernie Sanders speak at McCormick Place. “See,” she says “that should be our president right there.” I tell her I agree.

Whither Socialism

An inquiry into the fate of a social movement has to be pinned in the specific questions of time, place, and opportunity, and framed within a general hypothesis regarding the “why” of its success or failure. . . .  The socialist movement [in the United States], by its very statement of goal and in its rejection of the capitalist order as a whole, could not relate itself to the specific problems of social action in the here-and-now, give-and-take political world. It was trapped by the unhappy problem of living “in but not of the world,” so it could only act and then inadequately, as the moral, but not political, man in immoral society. It could never resolve but only straddle the basic issue of either accepting capitalist society, and seeking to transform it from within as the labor movement did, or becoming the sworn enemy of that society, like the communists.

Daniel Bell, Marxian Socialism in the United States (1952)

Daniel Bell isn’t exactly a sexy figure in the canon of lefty writers. Especially when you consider the small handful of midcentury leftists whose works still resonate somewhat with readers today, Bell hasn’t aged all that well. By many metrics, he wasn’t really a “lefty writer” at all—the social democratic affinities of his youth were drowned out by a veer toward left fatalism and cultural conservatism in the latter part of the century, which is when he produced the work that he’s most often known for. Still, in his first published book, Marxian Socialism in the United States, he articulated a challenge to American socialism that still haunts it to this day.

In one sense, Bell’s challenge appears to be nothing more and nothing less than an early iteration of the now-tired-but-still-unavoidable critique of leftist “purity.” The gradual slip of the American Socialist Party from its pre-WWI Debsian heyday into the swamp of historical irrelevance was prompted, in Bell’s view, by its inability to be more than the moral conscience of an “immoral society.” Bell is old school. For him, history moves by the dynamic will of people in high places (mainly men), the organizations they steer, and the formal ideologies that anchor them. And, in that vein, American socialism and its leaders had failed to flexibly adjust their anti-capitalist ideology to “the here-and-now, give-and-take” world of American realpolitik. Socialists supplied a lot of stirring sound and fury but—because of their ideological rigidity, because they insistently demanded the impossible instead of working with what the historical terrain had ready at hand—they produced few tangible benefits for the working classes they represented.

The “immorality” of American politics is that it has left regular people thinking, like Daniel Bell, that there are no political movements worth taking seriously.

These criticisms should be sounding pretty familiar by now. The new progressive movement assembled here has been wading through their echoes since Sanders made his laughably modest announcement to run for president two years ago. And, in one sense, Bell’s crotchety condemnation of socialist navel gazing is still very apt today—but perhaps not in the way he intended. Historians have subsequently pointed out that Bell unforgivably overlooked the major gains socialists and communists made on the ground, in the labor movement, in the fight for civil rights, in the sphere of cultural production, etc. That is what Bell got wrong. That is also what the current movement must get right. If the current push for socialism—democratic or otherwise—is going to be more than the moral conscience of our immoral political world, it will do so by providing, at the local level, the pressure, mobilization, and camaraderie that our official politics has completely abandoned.  

The “immorality” of American politics is that it has left regular people thinking, like Daniel Bell, that there are no political movements worth taking seriously, no political structures they have access to, beyond the nihilistic power monopolies of “democratic” officialdom. They make the rules, they set the limits of what’s possible. For some, Trump’s campaign was a cruise missile that, if aimed properly, could hit the system way at the top. For others, Bernie’s campaign was the same thing—it just missed. But if there’s one message worth taking away from the People’s Summit and the criticisms of it, it’s that the impossibly tall, unreachable heights of official politics still have to stand on something. It takes a lot more time, it requires a lot more patience and fortitude and inclusiveness, it must provide tangible evidence to communities that change comes locally and that such changes will come faster if others join in, it demands millions of chisels chipping away, but the base can crumble. The rage—and beauty—of history comes from underground.