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Having Power vs Spreading Power
Do you really, really want what you say you want?
People who are concerned with the exercise of power typically conceive it like so: “We will get power, and then we will make everyone do what we want.” This is the most familiar way that we experience power, and also the most brutish. You will recognize this from monarchies, from feudalism, from dictatorships, from republics, and from oligarchies. It’s a simple two-step. First you get the power, then you use the power to bend everyone else to your will. The end.
Then there is a more enlightened line of thought: “We will work to empower everyone, so that power will be spread throughout all levels of society, thereby breaking the grip of the dominant class and enhancing equality.” This is the path of the systemic reformers—those who think not just about what they want, but about how to change the entire structure of how power is apportioned and wielded in order to produce a fairer world. Socialism, for example, spreads economic power; democracy spreads political power. The political left, apart from the gun-wielding revolutionary phases, generally purports to approach power with this view. We don’t just want to seize power and help our cronies. We want to help everyone. We want a better system. We want justice for all. Stalin, no! Equality, yes! Power to the people!
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The very epicenter of this view is democratic socialism, which has as its broad goal both economic and political fairness. In America, democratic socialism, in a variety of flavors, is the heart of the left, even though it remains a marginal (but growing) force in electoral politics. Consider, though, the political dynamic that this sets up: On one side is the left saying “We want to spread power,” and on the other side is the gargantuan establishment mass of capital and entrenched hierarchies that I will refer to as “the right” for simplicity’s sake, saying “We want to take power.” In a real world race between these two views, the left starts out with a fairly meaningful disadvantage. This is one reason why the left has, historically, gotten its ass kicked in America more often than not. And the difficulty of clinging to the principled belief of reforming the system of power—rather than just getting and using power—is one reason why the left spends so much time tripping over its own shoes.
I thought about all of this yesterday, when I saw that the Boston chapter of DSA is trying to formally expel Mike Connolly, a DSA-aligned Massachusetts state representative, from the party. Connolly says that a group of purists who were recently elected as leaders of the local chapter are trying to purge him for some minor political differences, which pale in comparison to his years of work on a variety of leftist issues. I am not well-versed on internal Boston DSA politics, and I am not taking a side in this dispute—I would rather drink poison than get involved in local DSA arguments! Do not send me any strident, jargon-filled emails! But regardless of the specifics, many will recognize this as an example of the inward-looking factionalism that has always dogged the left, the very same stuff that my parents experienced as the feel-good movements of the 1960s turned on themselves in the 1970s, and collapsed. The left certainly does not have a monopoly on bitter factionalism, but our struggles on that front tend to be uniquely annoying. Those who pursue naked power for the sake of greed have no qualms about knifing their internal enemies, whereas on the left we have to really sweat to justify it as an ideological necessity.
Every vision for the flowering of democratic socialism runs through mass movements. We want to create, or at least to nurture and participate in and prolong and encourage, mass movements, which have the power to sweep away entrenched establishments that are set up to oppress. Mass movements, however, have two important characteristics that clash with many people’s fantasies about them: 1) They cannot be controlled by you, and 2) They will inevitably be full of many people who disagree with you. Leftists often talk about “building” mass movements, but in reality, the biggest social movements—the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the Occupy movement, the BLM uprisings—happen with a large degree of spontaneity. They arise at unpredictable times, due to a million unpredictable factors. The best that we can really hope to do is to be well positioned to help them flourish when they pop up, and try to harness and channel their power to give some permanence to their goals, even when the millions of people who filled the streets have gotten tired and gone home. Mass movements allow us, at rare times, to take big steps towards systemic reform, rather than the slow and painful back-and-forth grind of normal political struggle. They are extremely valuable. But they are not under our control.
To the extent that the left wants to encourage and harness mass movements, it will have to deal with many, many people who do not think of themselves as being on the left, and who would never dream of going to a DSA meeting, and who hold all manner of opinions that are not up to our own stringent ideological standards. The best example of a real institutionalized mass movement is not the province of any political faction at all. It’s the labor movement. Yes, the labor movement as it currently exists in America is beaten down and sapped of much of its vitality and broken in many ways, but structurally it is the closest thing to what the left really needs. It is a group of tens of millions of people who are all (very broadly speaking) united in the struggle for economic and political power to be yanked away from the elite few and spread towards the many workers, in a (very broadly speaking) democratic fashion. It is made up of permanent institutions (unions) that will exist and keep working through good times and bad. And, crucially, it is made up of all types of people, who have come together not out of some common ideological purity, but out of a commitment to a common good that will benefit them, as working people. The labor movement, especially if we can get it to organize many more people, has the potential to be a true, permanent mass movement, because it can transform individual self-interest into nationwide democratic socialist reform. It is, by its nature, a movement of everyone who works—the masses. If your movement only consists of people who meet your rigorous ideological standards, it is, by definition, not going to be a mass movement. It will be a political party.
It will always be seductive to imagine that we, who know what is right and wrong, can wield power like enlightened dictators, crushing our opposition in the spirit of the common good until the perfectly fair system can be built, at which time we will gracefully step back and grant power to the people, with a humble smile. This has been tried many times in many places. It rarely seems to progress past the dictatorship stage. I think it perfectly defensible and very human to throw up your hands and say “The system is too fucked up and too hard to change right now. So I’m going to work within the system to try to get power to do things that are good. If systemic change comes, great. Until then, I’m going to do power politics, on behalf of my own side.” This is, in fact, where most highly ideological people end up if they stay in the political arena. But there is a special place in heaven reserved for those who can maintain their commitment to the thankless task of spreading power, rather than just wielding it. To take a group of formerly powerless people and put power in their hands—by giving them a union, or helping them organize an effective political group, or giving them entree into the leadership of an existing democratic institution—that is the work that will truly change the world, in the long run. In the short run, it may really suck. When you give people power, they do the things that they want to do, rather than what you want them to do. Sometimes the things they want to do are dumb, or selfish, or just not as righteous as the things that you want to do, which are, by definition, the correct things. A commitment to widening the circle of power in society means being able to tolerate the sometimes excruciating consequences of giving power to other people. It is the act of letting your pet bird fly free and hoping that it comes back because it loves you. And if it doesn’t, trusting that it will be better off without you.
Unions are, in their day to day operation, a sort of institutionalized argument. They are full of jerks and idiots who disagree with your brilliant positions! Yet, over time and in aggregate, they act democratically to push society in a beneficial direction. This is the substance of real democratic socialism in action. It’s a real pain in the ass. But it works. Just remember, when you start clamoring for Power to The People, that The People are going to have their own ideas about how that power should be used.
In 2021 I wrote this piece about a United Mine Workers rally in Alabama that really struck me as an example of the way that the labor movement can unite people who would otherwise not come together in America. Its promise is real.
Joining DSA is very worthwhile and I encourage you to do so! It is important to have a democratic socialist party in this country that is not frivolous. Just do not make me hear about the internal arguments. Please god. Alternately, or in addition, go join a WGA picket line.
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