As a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for President, I’ve been disappointed that his call for “political revolution” is little more than cheerleading for electoral mobilization. While such mobilization may be integral for aiding insurgent candidacies like Sanders, that blinkered view of “political revolution” severely limits its more radical meaning. What follows is a tentative discussion of what a political revolution would entail and how we could nurture it.
First and foremost, we need to define both the term “political” and “revolution.” Although most U.S. citizens seem to believe that politics is only achieved in elections, a more critical approach sees politics as part and parcel of any and all power structures and relations. In effect, to contest power wherever it manifests itself, whether at the workplace, in a variety of institutions from schools to prisons, or in the home, demarcates that contestation as a political struggle. Hence, any and all changes in power structures and relations, whether between boss and worker, domestic partners, teacher and pupil can lead to a political change in that particular sphere. So, for years workers had no legally protected rights to a union and collective bargaining. Only after organizing, striking, and getting some legislative remedies through the National Labor Relations Act did workers achieve significant change in the power relationship between the company and the worker.
On the other hand, what power workers managed to carve out through collective bargaining was then limited often by continuing power struggles over working conditions and wages. The same applies to those movements, whether feminist, black power, or gay liberation, that challenged institutional discrimination. Overcoming those discriminatory barriers certainly altered power structures and relations while, nonetheless, still keeping members of those constituencies with other disadvantages. So, while civil rights laws enacted in 1964 and 1965 in response to massive mobilizations provided blacks with equal access to public accommodations and electoral politics, continuing racial disadvantages in housing, employment, and other economic and social arenas have left the majority of blacks without equal standing in assets, income, education, etc.
Moreover, because of shifting power relations at the state and federal level, guarantees for protection for blacks, workers, and women have eroded under the assault of right-wing forces promoting their reactionary agendas. It should be clear that the attack on unions in the public sector (which have been the fast growing union sector since the 1960s) is also an attack on blacks, other minorities, and women who are the majority in such unions. Hence, reaction tries to undermine reform at the behest of economic and social forces wedded to re-instituting the power of white patriarchal authority.
While reform and reaction are inevitable features of politics, a revolution is a socio-historical process that, in its most profound trajectory, completely reverses the power relations that obtain in the dominant society. The overthrow of slavery and monarchy are examples of revolutionary processes. In the twentieth century, there have been examples of overturning the political and economic rulers of countries such as Russia, China, Cuba, etc. However, those political revolutions often stalled and/or were compromised by external and internal contradictions.
It’s important to note that revolution now should not be seen as the monopoly of a particular class as it may have been in the past. Moreover, achieving particular reforms, those that return power to the people, is essential in building the long-term transformation of power relations. In addition, power should not be seen as something remote, residing in the pinnacle of a pyramid. Rather, power could be seen as a circuit that flows through all of us. When we resist that power, it is like a break in the circuit – think of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus. Revolutionary moments can, thus, be at a variety of locations along a circuit, disrupting power and leading at times to de-legitimatizing the dominant order – think the Tunesian student who immolated himself as a protest which, in turn, sparked an uprising that led to a re-ordering of political power in Tunesia. Of course, a political revolution needs more than just courageous individuals; it requires collective actors seeking self-determination.
On the other hand, while there can be a common collective purpose to those engaged in attempting revolution, political power struggles can break out and operate along a broad continuum. Such political power struggles can be seen as part of episodic moments of resistance to illegitimate power and authority. Thus, the Occupy movement in the US developed as a consequence of wrenching capitalist inequalities and depressions. BlackLivesMatter erupted over local grievances against policing and the murder of unarmed young men and women of color. Both Occupy and BLM mobilized hundreds of thousands of angry citizens demanding fundamental change.
What can be discerned at the core of these recent protests is a desire for reforming those economic, political, and social institutions that exercise oppressive control over people’s lives. Beyond that, each in its own way manifests a glimmer of a common collective purpose for transforming power structures and relations. I propose that we see this common collective purpose as a movement for radical democracy – a democracy that would eliminate all discriminatory practices that limit a citizen’s self-determination and provide for the necessary resources to all to guarantee basic needs (health, education, housing, etc.). Under the heading of the democracy renewal project, a broad range of constituencies would operate with a degree of autonomy, but in concert with others wanting fundamental political change.
In the public sphere this means contesting power and authority through collective and reflective disruptive activities. The effort of young blacks, immigrants and low-waged workers to gain recognition has been part of the contemporary political scene, putting their demands on the agenda. Obviously, the state can repress, ignore, or co-opt these movements and demands. However, if it’s understood that such movements have a larger aim that settling particular grievances, then these movements can continue to press for even more fundamental changes, such as terminating the carceral state, opening borders, creating worker controlled coops, etc.
In the private sphere, we should seek ways to supplant the credit and consumer matrix. Time sharing coops, gift and work exchanges, and DIY producer coops are a few examples of how to make less isolated and more solidaristic our private lives. In addition, while engaged in public sphere protests and activities, creating counter-institutions that serve people’s needs and undermine the credit/consumer matrix is an important complement to political power struggles.
All of this will not transform political power overnight even though some of that transformation is happening now. Obviously, having a more hospitable political environment, whether at the local, state, or federal level, would be exceedingly helpful to providing the space within which such movements for radical democracy could flourish. However, creating that space does not necessarily mean attaching oneself to a political party or developing a new third party. The democratic renewal project both supersedes and could compliment any party.
At the core of our project for democratic renewal is the recognition of our shared humanity and a desire to construct a society that values our care and responsibility for each other. It is not enough to protest the ongoing discrimination and inequalities that are embedded in the economic, political, and socio-cultural institutions and attitudes we all inhabit, even though such protest is essential for democratic renewal. Instead, we need to find ways to put into practice self-reflective collective action that benefits not only our fellow citizens but also those struggling around the globe for social justice and environmental security.