“Kind-hearted people might of course think there was some ingenious way to disarm or defeat an enemy without too much bloodshed and might imagine this is the true goal of the art of war. Pleasant as it sounds, it is a fallacy that must be exposed; war is such a dangerous business that the mistakes which come from kindness are the very worst.”
― Carl von Clausewitz
“In practice, we always base our preparations against an enemy on the assumption that his plans are good; indeed, it is right to rest our hopes not on a belief in his blunders, but on the soundness of our provisions. Nor ought we to believe that there is much difference between man and man, but to think that the superiority lies with him who is reared in the severest school.”
Ordinary Americans will never win the reforms we need to survive until or unless hundreds of thousands of poor and working-class people across the United States participate in the political process. It’s really that simple. The existing left does not have the numbers or resources, hence power, to win meaningful reforms.
The primary impediment to political organizing efforts is the lack of left-wing political institutions and structures. Unions must be rebuilt. Political institutions, perhaps in the form of new parties or structures somewhat similar to the DSA, must be developed. Community organizations, churches, tenants’ unions, and cultural projects will also play vital roles. In short, we need it all, and we need it now.
One of the obstructions to building structures and institutions is the unhealthy and unproductive cultural habits of poor and working-class people, including those already involved with political efforts. Here, I’m not so much talking about our eating habits or lack of exercise, though both are worthy of debate and discussion — I’m specifically thinking about the inordinate amount of time American adults spend on immature cultural activities that hinder organizing efforts: binge drinking, drug abuse, video games, Netflix, cosplay, etc. In my experience, Americans, particularly progressives, can muster any number of excuses to avoid cultural and political engagement.
To paraphrase the late-great comedian, Bill Hicks, the right is up at 4:00am, ready to fuck the world, whereas my left-wing friends wake up at noon, hungover and depressed.
We face a tremendous contradiction: on the one hand, serious, long-lasting, strategic, and powerful political structures must be developed in order to successfully channel the righteous anger and frustration felt by so many poor and working-class Americans, but in order to build those structures, we need poor and working-class Americans prepared to take the helm.
Here, things get tricky. While it’s true that we can find plenty of examples of successful single-issue or union campaigns — it’s also true that such efforts are limited in scope and do not represent bigger trends in American society.
This is the case for many reasons. First, existing activists and organizers do not adhere to a strict set of methods and skills that are absolutely required to build long-lasting structures. Second, existing activists and organizers (not all, but many) treat their efforts like a hobby or job. Politics is neither.
Politics is war. And we’re fighting for our lives. Over 320,000+ Americans have died of COVID-19. Tens of millions of people have been catapulted into poverty, with millions facing eviction on January 1st, 2021. Nurses, warehouse workers, teachers, retail, grocery store, and service-sector workers of all stripes have been used, abused, killed, and discarded by a ruthless economic system and a federal government beholden to it.
We face unprecedented challenges: climate change, increasing risk of global pandemics, nuclear proliferation, a fully globalized and technologically integrated financial system/economy, and an increasingly fragmented social and cultural landscape, which has given rise to right-wing movements across the planet.
The time for uplifting stories about resistance is long gone. We’re not here to speak truth to power— we’re organizing to survive, and survival requires winning.
What do I mean by winning? In the short-term, winning would look like Medicare For All, free childcare, increasing Social Security payments, expanding public housing, abolishing student debt, substantially increasing funds to public schools, and enacting some form of UBI, basically Bernie’s program, but with minor additions.
But Vince, why not go bigger? Because it doesn’t matter how badly we want or wish or scream for certain policies: the U.S. left lacks the basic institutions necessary to shift the balance of power away from elites and to ordinary people, hence we’re in no position to demand more. If we want more, we have to organize a base capable of demanding more. That requires a lot of hard work (social media posts, YouTube channels, and pithy essays won’t cut it).
We face unprecedented challenges: climate change, increasing risk of global pandemics, nuclear proliferation, a fully globalized and technologically integrated financial system/economy, and an increasingly fragmented social and cultural landscape, with each trend fueling right-wing movements across the planet. That’s the context in which we’re living, fighting, organizing, and dying.
Do I want more than Bernie’s reforms? Fuck yes. I’m with Jim Morrison: “We want the world, and we want it now!” But wanting and actually doing are two different things.
Achieving the goals I laid out above would significantly improve the lives of poor and working-class people. For many, such reforms would mean the difference between life or death.
If, of course, an opportunity to push a more radical agenda presents itself, existing activists and organizers should jump on it, but they should do so with a vision and strategy. Indeed, the uprisings following the murder of George Floyd represent the limitations of what a non-organized left can achieve. Yes, millions can turn out for protests, but without organizations and institutions to keep them engaged, little is accomplished in terms of meaningful reforms or long-lasting institution-building.
All that said, in order to build successful institutions, especially long-lasting structures capable of taking on and defeating the most murderous and powerful government and corporate sector in the world, the U.S. left will need heavy doses of discipline, accountability, commitment, and seriousness, which requires challenging people.
Right now, I have friends, neighbors, and former coworkers in their mid-50s, unemployed, sitting at home playing video games all day. I have friends in their 30s, trade union members, who spend their weekends cosplaying. They’re not alone. Americans spend a disproportionate amount of their time distracted from the political world. Can you imagine our grandparents playing dress-up while fascism marched through Europe?
To be clear, I’m not prescribing misery — what I’m saying is that people in this country need to grow the fuck up. Remember, everything is on the line. Yes, I also enjoy sports, parties, concerts, art, working out, my cat, going to the beach, visiting historical sites, family gatherings, and a whole host of shit that must, for the moment, take a backseat to political organizing efforts.
Creating institutions and cultural norms that facilitate solidarity, love, creativity, and fun should be the ultimate goals of our political efforts. In other words, let’s organize and fight back, then truly enjoy life. Yes, we can find enjoyment while fighting back, but I worry that too many Americans, particularly self-identified leftists, process politics as entertainment.
In fact, the absurd proliferation of left-wing podcasts and media outlets is perhaps the best measure of this ongoing and troubling trend. For every left political organization that’s created, at least one hundred left media outlets are born — another sign of the deeply immature, narcissistic, and unserious nature of left politics in the U.S.
Here, I’m not prescribing burn out, nor am I prescribing workaholism. I’m not asking you to discipline yourself for a corporation, government agency, or ungrateful spouse, nor am I encouraging you to beat yourself up in order to live up to some unobtainable cultural or beauty standard — I’m encouraging you to get disciplined and fight back for yourself and your loved ones, and yes, even for the people you don’t personally know.
I’m arguing that you should take politics seriously, which first requires taking yourself seriously — your life, desires, values, family, and friends. That means waking up early. That means making daily plans. That means making weekly work schedules. That means sticking to them. The best political organizers I’ve met over the years are also, unsurprisingly, quite organized in their personal lives. We should cultivate more.
In the end, the left will never accomplish much without building structures and institutions, and building successful structures and institutions requires disciplined, accountable, and serious people. Everything self-proclaimed leftists do in terms of organizing or activism should take place with these things in mind. We’re fighting a war, not hosting a dinner party. Act accordingly.