Nation Magazine: September 9/16 2019

Yea, I know, we’ve got a stack of magazines from last fall that we’ve been procrastinating on, and they keep getting bigger and bigger. It’s obviously too much to keep up with. Nation’s publishing schedule is pretty prolific, and their subject matter is quite a step from Time Magazine. Couple of interesting articles in this one:

INDIVISIBLE, by Joan Walsh: Covers the post-Trump activist org of the same name, and schisms between their national leadership and grassroots organizers. This seems to be a recurring theme with liberal organizations; I wonder if Conservatives have the same problems?

Indivisible’s work has earned it enormous political capital; now its national leaders want to figure out how to use it. But since so much of that capital has been earned at the local level, the leadership has to be careful about spending it—and whether it is theirs to spend at all.

I’ve got nothing but respect for the work that Indivisible has done; the local chapter here has done political work for my causes in the past, and they’re a great group of committed activists. The issue here seems to be with how the national leadership wants to leverage Indivisible’s political capital as part of a 2020 presidential endorsement process. The issue with some of the larger cohorts is that an endorsement will likely alienate some members.

Interestingly, after this issue was released, Indivisible released their 2020 Candidate Scorecard. Warren and Bernie take the top two spots, with Biden dead last in the rankings. Apparently Biden declined to participate, so their ranking is based on ‘research into his public record.’ Oops.

To Stay Or Go, by Mara Kardas-Nelson: Environmental racism is the focus here, as the author details the battles that communities in Cancer Alley go through against their own elected officials and the corporation who are poisoning the water and air with the highest concentration of petrochemical plants in the United States. Of course, the prevalence of increased Cancer and other sickness in this region has lead to a flight of citizens out of the area, leaving most of rest with few options. As the population has fled, those remaining have fewer options to sell homes, and communities see their young people and entrepreneurs dwindle.

Of course people shouldn’t have to flee the homes that they’ve made, but it seems that people of places like St. James Parish seem to be fighting a losing battles. While there are some activists trying to fight back via court challenges and electoral battles, the current situation for these communities is quite dire. It’s a situation that we’ve seen play out in other places around the world.

Our Shared Fate, by Suzy Hansen: Review of What You Have Heard Is True, by Carolyn Forche: You may remember this exchange between Ilhan Omar and the Trump administration’s special envoy to Venezuela, where she pressed him over his involvement in the Iran-Contra Affair and in El Salvador’s civil war.

The massacre that isn’t mentioned by name in the above clip is the 1981 El Mozote massacre, an event during the El Savador civil war in which a village of 800 men, women and children were raped and murdered by a US-backed Salvadoran army battalion.

What You Have Heard is True is the memoir of American poet Carolyn Forche, who spent several years in El Salvador during this period. It is one that more Americans need to be aware of, given our complicity in the events there. It puts a different perspective on the immigrants who are fleeing from there to this day, trying to enter the United States and being caught up in family separation.

Jacobin: War Is a Racket

It seems wholly appropriate to be covering this issue on Veteran’s Day. Both my parents were Army, and I’ve been living in an area of the country with one of the largest populations of active-duty personnel in the country.

This issue came to my door looking like a mock up of an old GI-Joe action toy, the packaging made out with images of our hero in the midst of battle. In this case, however, the included figurine is long after the battle has ended. Our action hero is sporting non-regulation long hair and beard, as well as a prosthetic leg, cane, and several bottles of prescription medications litter his feet.

This issue pulls no punches, deflating the notion of ‘service’ and ‘supporting our troops’. There’s plenty in this hefty issue about ending American imperialism, but probably the standout for me is the re-framing of American military culture as a ‘poverty draft’:

“The military welfare state only makes an effective recruiting tool because the Unite States denies all of us the civilian safety net we deserve. The US working class is held hostage by a political and military elite that exploits our deprivation to fuel its endless wars, forcing workers to make a devil’s bargain in pursuit of basic protections that should be available for all.

This statement hit me with such a moment of realization that reading it, I was almost embarassed that I had not seen it before. It’s a bit difficult to state the way which military culture permeates the culture here, so it was a bit like the David Foster Wallace bit about a fish learning what water is for the first time.

There’s a bit about activist opposition to ROTC programs in High Schools that made me think about the recruiting emails and texts that I’ve been getting through my college email address. And there’s a lot more in this issue, which is heftier than most of the others I’ve seen from Jacobin. They have a breakdown of the current 2020 Democratic Presidential contenders, (dl;dr: Biden, F; Warren, D-; Bernie: A-), infographic timelines on US military installations post-WWII, and some other features that are interesting.

But the short end of it is that they’re right about the hold that US militarism has on culture. From ‘Defense’ spending, displays of patriotism at sporting events, to the exploitation of Veterans by for-profit colleges via the GI Bill, American’s have an unhealthy relationship with our Armed Forces. And while a good deal of this issue does talk about concrete steps that can be taken to turn the tide, it seems like it might take generations before we have a population willing to fight back against our military-industrial system. Providing Medicare for All and free college would do a lot to break this, but then again, this may be exactly why the powers-that-be are fighting so hard to stop it.

The Nation: Aug 26/Sept 2, 2019

We’re seriously behind, both on the pile of periodicals that we have to read and on the ones that we’ve read that we haven’t covered. Letting them age a bit this way puts the coverage in perspective a bit, and helps justify our procrastination.

News You Can Lose, by John Nichols: I have yet to watch any of the Democratic Presidential debates. I gave up my binge-drinking, live Tweeting, event watching after Trump was elected president. Douglass Rushkoff has noted how the debate as television spectacle gave us our current, reality show president, and I am in no mood to participate in the current round. That’s not to say that I haven’t post-watched some of the more ‘gotcha’ moments of the current crop: Biden’s numerous flubs, Julian Castro’s miscalculated attack on Biden, and of course, Elizabeth Warren’s onstage murder of one of the other also-rans.

Nichols column follows the Democratic debate in Detroit, hosted by Fox News. There was a union solidarity event a few hours before the debate at a General Motors transmission plant that was scheduled to be closed the day after the debate. Nichols notes that Dems would have been smart to have hosted the debate at the union hall, or at a church across the street from the actual debate’s location, where Detroit’s Democratic congressional delegation were attending in solidarity with families facing deportation. Either of these would have been smart choices to help focus the debates on substantive policy issues.

But of course, that isn’t the point. Spectacle is. Nichols’s point is that progressives need to make more of an effort to wrest control back of these debates back from the party and the networks and points to the People’s Presidential Forum as an example of this. The Forum, which was to be hosted in October by New England group Rights and Democracy, was cancelled because “not enough candidates could make this date work”.

The American Workplace, by Bryce Covert: Workplace discrimination against pregnant women is rampant in America, especially against working-class women. My wife was able to save up weeks of leave for both of our two children, but for most American women, finding or keeping a job while pregnant can be difficult, and employers use a variety of measures to screen out or dismiss these women. Pay discrimination, or more specifically, the gender-based wage gap, and the Equal Rights Amendment are important political issues today, and Covert profiles the challenges of several women whose lives have been affected by this issue and are fighting back.

Without repeating the details of these cases, I should note that America is one of the only industrialized countries that does not provide for paid maternal care for new mothers. And this fact has many secondary effects on the well-being of the child, including potential educational and economic ones. The profit-driven war on expectant mothers is a roadblock to economic mobility. We should grant American mothers the same privileges as the rest of the developed world, and allow them the time to bond with their newborns and not force them to either give up this time with their newborns, or give up on their careers.

Source: Pew Research Center

Vigilant Struggle, by Robert Greene II: Review of Stony the Road, by Henry Louis Gates. The new Watchmen HBO series premieres with scenes from what can only be described as a race riot: Tulsa, Oklahoma, 1921. A black couple with a young boy tries to escape violence in the city as white citizens indiscriminately shoot unarmed blacks while buildings burn around them. Later, explosive devices are dropped from airplanes onto a garage where others had been hiding out. The scene was so outlandish that I thought it was some sort of alternate history being built around the show’s background. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that the racially motivated destruction depicted in the show was based on actual events.

My own ignorance of the Tulsa race riot almost a hundred years ago is further magnified by the history of Reconstruction following the Civil War. Henry Louis Gates has produced a new documentary series for PBS titled Reconstruction, and his book Stony The Road is a companion to this series. According to Greene, Gates has attempted to expand the period defined by Reconstruction to encompass the war itself as well as the first couple decades of the nineteenth century. Whether he includes the 1921 Tulsa riot in this definition remains to be seen.

Greene, a history professor at South Carolina’s Calfin University, spends several thousand words on the subject of Reconstruction before getting into Gates’s documentary, and notes how there was really two Reconstructions: one that was reconciliatory toward the vanquished South, an another, more radical Reconstruction that attempted to redefine the entire concept of American democracy and expand it to the former enslaved peoples. He notes that the period was one of revanchanist backlash, and lynchings, and raises questions about just how successful these latter efforts at reform were.

Gates documentary, he notes, provides a level of context to the African American experience, and is successful at detailing the evidence of continued aggressions against the freed slaves: racist stereotypes in papers and books, minstrel shows, the founding of the Klan, Jim Crow. This evidence is held as proof against claims of a modern post-racial America. Ultimately the Reconstruction is “not just about the rise and fall of black power in post-Civil War America, but the the rise and fall of black equality in all spheres of American life, cultural, political and otherwise.”

The Nation Magazine: Aug 12/19, 2019

We are really behind on our periodicals, and have quite the stack building up on our bookshelf. We’re going to be catching up over the next few days with a flurry of reading and posting.

Go Not Abroad In Search of Monsters, by David Klion: The title of this article is taken from John Quincy Adam’s Monsters to Destroy speech. Quincy is the namesake for a new transpartisan think tank who’s aim is to restrain America’s foreign policy.

[The] Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, which states that its mission is to “move US foreign policy away from endless war and toward vigorous diplomacy in the pursuit of international peace.”

This think tank is apparently the love-child between a number of liberals and conservatives, including perennial boogeyman George Soros and arch-fiend David Koch. This is really promising. If The Quincy can be effective at keeping the US out of the next international conflict, then I am all for it.

One notable takeaway that I hadn’t heard before is Quincy’s executive director’s definition of transpartisanship, as opposed to bipartisanship. Bipartisanship, she explains, implies that each side is giving up some of what they want in compromise. Transpartisanship means that both sides are “collaborating on issues they already are in agreement over.” It’s a definition that I will be stealing in the future.

Marie Newmann vs. the Democratic Machine, by Rebecca Grant: If ever there was a subject near and dear and to me, it’s Progressive challengers to the Democratic party establishment. I’m not ready to dox myself quite yet, but I was an organizer for the 2016 Sanders campaign, as well as a staff for an unsuccessful Congressional primary campaign. This article does well to highlight Newmann’s challenge to conservative Democratic representative Dan Lipinkski, but I’m not sure there’s more to take away from it.

Right-Wing Troika, by Bryce Convert: Review of State Capture, by Alexander Hertel-Fernandez. State-level politics is another game that I’ve been involved with, and Republican Scott Walker’s successes in Wisconsin has been something that’s interested me. In my case, it’s been to pine that Democrats hadn’t dropped the ball so spectacularly over the past decade and lost so many state legislative seats and governors mansions. The GOP had a great strategy and implemented it brilliantly, with ALEC and other think tanks that helped push policy out in the states.

The left has a lot to learn from the conservative playbook, especially the Wisconsin model, and has a long ways to go to catch up. Hopefully State Capture will help the road to recovery.

Antifa recruiting captain

Tonight there is another of the 2020 Democratic primary debates on television. I’m ignoring it, as I have all the debates so far this cycle, and as I intend to continue to do so. Douglas Rushkoff has a great monologue at the beginning of this episode of Team Human that I was listening to today, which probably has a lot to do with it. We’re in the midst of state legislative races this year where I live, followed by municipal races the following spring in time for our primary voting. I haven’t decided what my involvement is going to be yet. I’ve been contacted by at least one city council candidate, but they’re not pounding down my door, or anything. I may pick up with the Sanders campaign and help out there, but for now I’m keeping to my current regimen of family, work, school, meditation, crypto, this blog, and the other two or three projects which I’ve already committed to.

My day job involves supporting numerous small businesses technology needs, I’m sure I’ll get more into the details of that another time, but we’ve got a wide swath of clients across the political spectrum. As I deal with the owners and managers most often, I’ve gotten to know them best, and for the most part they lean conservative. There’s a few that would make great character studies. There’s the lesbian couple who live and work together and are politically active Republicans. Another is an effeminate man who I would be willing to bet is so deeply closeted that he doesn’t even realize it, and pumps Christian rock playlists in the office and through the phone system — the stories to tell there…

I’ve got a couple people at various offices who are the lefty side of the political spectrum (dental and environmental cleanup firms, now that I think about it,) and know who I am and provide encouragement, but given that my boss is retired military, and Irish Catholic, I don’t broadcast or advertise things too much. So when I got called into deal with some customer service issues at a small evangelical mission outreach office, I wasn’t planning on making any friends.

Now, as most people I’ve a long and complicated story with religion that will take more than one blog post to get out, but the word atheist would have probably been most appropriate for the last decade or two in my life. I’ve mellowed a bit over the years, and I think the term has some baggage to people in the African American church community, and as someone in politics I’ve had to adjust how I talk about my beliefs publicly. Which is why I was suprised to be proclaiming myself as a ‘militant atheist’ in this ministry office earlier this week.

This is actually the third faith-based organization I’ve had to deal with in the past few weeks, and in all cases I’ve had little, if any, face to face interaction with staff. Most of that had been handled remotely or by other people under my supervision. We don’t deal with any mega churches, so budgets are tight and so my interactions are quite limited.

So I’m at the office, which is basically made up of two young women in their twenties. Their bosses are a husband and wife team, he being the theologian and speaker. There were several pictures of him on the walls of the office, somewhere in sub-saharan Africa, one would presume, with him surrounded or addressing adoring throngs of the darkest, black-skinned natives you can imagine. But it’s just the two young women and I , and as I spend the next few hours taking care of business, I can’t help but eavesdrop.

After a couple disparaging, ironic remarks paraphrasing Trump or conservatism, she mentions something about ‘Leftbook’. At this point my curiosity got the better of my professionalism, so I asked her if she just referred to Facebook as ‘Leftbook’. Yes, she says, as it was almost entirely radical leftist content, save for one conservative friend or colleague that she was still following. I regurgitated some of the Team Human theories Rushkoff has humans as the fuel for Facebook’s prediction algorithms, and let my guard down entirely. I told them who I was, my political activity, DSA membership, and when I showed them a picture of me standing behind Bernie Sanders they both lost their shit.

After a while they admonished me not to tell their boss. They weren’t paid to have opinions, they said, and their boss, the Great White Savior, had recently worn Trump 2020 socks to the office. They were literally giddy that they had “made a friend”, since they both are transplants to the area, and I’m pretty sure promises were made to induct them into Antifa at some point.

Jokes aside, the power dynamics within that office could probably warrant a sociological study. That said, it was good to connect with someone on the job, especially when it means building solidarity with these two young millennial members of the working class.

Solidarity indeed.

Ending cash bail

Of the projects that we considered pitching for our ‘social benefit’ programming project was in the cash bail space. There are are many arguments for abolishing cash bail, and there are organizations that are focused on making bail for non-violent offenders. We wondered how we might increase participation in these types of programs using novel software solutions.

The arguments against the bail system are many. A 2013 study of pretrial detention in Kentucky showed a “direct link between how long low- and moderate-risk defendants are in pretrial detention and the chances that they will commit new crimes.” The hypothesis behind this is that “jail destabilizes lives that are often, and almost by definition, already unstable“, and disrupts employment, housing and family support.

Then there are stories like that of Kalief Browder, a 17 year-old who was accused of stealing a backpack. After refusing to plead guilty, he was was given a thousand dollars bail, and sent to Rikers Island after his family was unable to pay. He was held there for three years without trial, and was beaten and held in solitary confinement for two years. Two years later he hung himself.

The current system punishes the poor. Unable to post bail, and faced with the possibility of weeks or even months of pre-trial detention before their case, many people choose to plead guilty just in order to get out. These perverse incentives can lead to disastrous consequences later in life for these people who are legally innocent. And there’s also the problem of America’s $2 billion bail bonds industry, which makes money off the poor. (The U.S. and the Philippines are the only two countries in the world that allow bail bonds.)

Thankfully, the tide is turning.

The Bail Project is a national revolving bail fund, launched following the non-profit Bronx Freedom Fund. The goal of the fund is to pay bail for thousands of low-income Americans. Since bail is refunded when a person shows up for court, the money gets recycled and is made available to more individuals. According to their website, they’ve paid bail for over 6300 people.

The efforts of the Bail Project and likeminded others seems be having an effect. California completely abolished cash bail last summer. Google and Facebook have banned bail bond service ads. And nine of the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates support ending it, including Biden, Sanders and Warren.

So we thought about ways to help expedite this movement using technology. Perhaps more people would be interested in donating to a bail fund if there was more transparency. Could a blockchain system be used to allow people to see the individuals whose lives they were helping? Aside from the privacy concerns, of course. Some people might object to having their information made public in that way, but arrest and court records are already public… There are a host of ethical concerns that such a system might bring up.

There is research that shows that people are more likely to donation to a cause if the ask is made as specific as possible, and that likelihood decreases as the benefit group is increased in size. Simply put, people are more likely to donate to help feed a single child if they are shown their name and picture, but if you are told about an entire nation of people experiencing famine, people will do nothing. I can’t find the source currently, but have heard it from Sam Harris. If true, we may be able to increase participation in a bail fund if people are shown exactly who their money is going to help.

I can imagine some of the pushback already. There’s some racial and class dynamics that are bound to be brought up against it, and it could turn into some sort of reality show gamification if not dealt with delicately. There could also be negative consequences if someone is deemed “not worthy”, a Willie Horton moment if you will.

So would there be a use case for donation tracking system, even if the individual data was anonymized? For example, if you donate $5 to a bail fund, that money might go to help one person, but once the funds are recycled, half of the money could go to two different people. If people could be reminded that their donation had helped three unique individuals, would that cause them to contribute more? This effect could be even greater if released individuals were encouraged to add back into the fund, either as an alternative to the standard bailbond fee, or as a way of paying it forward. Even a small donation could have a non-linear effect.

We also mused at ways to automate the operation of such a fund using a smart contract, but ultimately, the onramps and offramps needed to execute such a system over a number of jails seems like too much of a risk.

In all, most of what I came up with seems like a solution in search of a problem. I’m ultimately trying to improve on something that I have no experience with, and that could ultimately be completely unwanted by those affected. As interesting of a thought experiment this may be, I decided to pass this project by for now and see if something where the need was more readily apparent would present itself.

I did not have to wait long before one would show up on my doorstep. More on that in a week.

The Nation Magazine: July 15/22

Reclaiming Stonewall, guest editor: Patrick McCarthy: This issue commemorates the 50th anniversary of Stonewall. I hate to use the word riot in the context of this event, a more appropriate term would be confrontation. Fed up with being targeted for by police for being, Stonewall marked a turning point in the LGBTQ community, one that would see a revolutionary change in status through the AIDS crisis and marriage equality. This special section of the magazine features short contributions by a number of LGBTQ activists, organizers and authors.

Warren Rising, by Joan Walsh: Continuing their coverage of the 2020 Democratic nominee hopefuls, The Nation turns their attention to Elizabeth Warren. Along with Bernie Sanders, Warren is one of the front-runners among the more radical and progressive factions on the left, and this gushing portrait of her is indicative of that. Joan Walsh follows Warren as she stumps through Iowa, covering her speech and reaction from the electorate while providing more of Warren’s background and some direct reporting.

I cant tell if this report is a glowing portrait of Warren because of her front-runner status in the primary, or if it’s because she’s the real deal. I’ve got great respect for Warren, and would welcome her as the nominee, but I would still prefer Sanders’s class-antagonism over Warren’s “I’m a capitalist” reformism. Still, there’s the issue of electability, and given Warren’s ability to bounce back from Trump’s attacks, and the Democratic establishment’s fear/hate of Sanders, I do hope that either one of them is able to beat out Biden for the nomination.

Resisting Trump’s Cruelty, by Sasha Abramsky: If there’s anything that seems to drive my outrage fatigue more than anything, it’s the Trump administrations’s wanton cruelty against immigrants. As I’m quick to remind, “it’s not a bug, it’s a feature” of Trump’s policies, following a predictable proto-fascist campaign to stir up racial resentment and white nationalism. This article points out the rays of sunshine in the fight against this dehumanization of South American refugees, those risking jailtime to make border crossings through the desert less deadly, and the churches and community organizations that are stepping up to sponsor, clothe and shelter those waiting on their asylum hearings.

Inherently Unequal, by David Cole: Review of Separate, by Steve Luxenberg. This history of the Plessy v. Ferguson case, the Supreme Court case which enshrined separate but equal in the United States until it was over turned 58 years later, is interesting for a variety of reasons. The litigants in the case knew that it was deemed to fail, and it was even opposed by Frederick Douglass and other civil rights supporters. Without a mass movement on their side, they knew that the nation, still reeling from the Civil War, was not ready. What surprised me also was that the case was brought by the Citizens’ Committee to Test the Constitutionality of the Separate Car Act, as well as the Louisville and Nashville Railroad, which did so because of the expense of operating separate cars. While the justification of the Court’s majority decision that segregation was “in the nature of things” is not surprising, it is that the sole dissenter in the 7-1 decision was the Court’s only southerner, Justice John Marshall Harlan. Harlan, who was raised in a slave-owning family and was a long-time opponent of civil rights legislation and supporter of states-rights, was nonetheless a supporter of the 13th and 14th amendments.

Solidarity, whatever

I’m sitting in the living room, looking out the window at the back yard, where my daughters are out playing with a couple of her neighborhood friends. I’d say it’s relaxing except for the sheer volume of high-pitched yelling that they’re doing as they play. My wife is asleep upstairs. I couldn’t ask for a more peaceful end to the summer.

Earlier today my wife and I attended the local Democratic Party’s Labor Day breakfast. I was in a mostly pissy mood, for political and personal reasons, and did my best to avoid people as much as possible. It’s quite a feat to attempt in a room with two hundred people, but I managed to take a seat at an empty table facing the wall until events started. I did see some close acquaintances on the way in, but managed to avoid any substantive conversation.

Again, I’m torn here between providing all the details and holding on to the finest pretense of anonymity, but what I can say is that during this last primary season for state legislature, a schism erupted between the Labor federation and the state’s Democratic Party. Certain business-friendly candidates were endorsed by the state’s Federal delegation, Senators and Congressional representatives, over pro-labor candidates. I can say that the pretense for the endorsements were personal relationships and fundraising ones, but the matter did not sit well with Labor leaders, and they have put state and local Democrats on notice.

One of the most important issues among labor are the so-called ‘right to work’ laws, which basically allow free-riders within labor’s collective bargaining structure. It’s one of the major contributing factors in labors’ decline over the last seventy years, not just in our state, but across the nation as well. Organized labor has traditionally stood behind the state’s Democrats, who haven’t held power in the state since the 90’s, and there is a very good chance that Dems could win back control of the state legislature in the next election cycle. Labor is rightfully concerned that their support within the Democratic party may not be as strong as they thought it was. And rightfully so.

All of this led to a convention earlier this summer where more than a third of of the Democratic legislature was not endorsed by the labor federation. And Labor leaders were not shy about this fact this morning, reminding those assembled that they were done supporting candidates and electeds just because they had a ‘D’ next to their name. The head of the state’s AFL-CIO went so far as to threaten that any Democrat that was not with them (presumably voting against right to work repeal,) would not survive re-election. Other speakers from within labor, including a sitting member of the state legislature, echoed these sentiments as well.

Now while these sentiments immediately improved my mood, there is part of me that questions whether Labor has the ability to back up these threats. Now I haven’t been organizing long enough to see whether Labor remains strong enough to overthrow a sitting incumbent. Most of the trades unions still seem to be operating as management organizations, with most of their activities centering around insurance policies. To be honest, and I hope I’m wrong, but I remain skeptical that labor has the power that they think they do. Their membership is too deflated, and their management too worried about their positions or retirement, to truly attempt something so radical as challenging the Democratic party establishment.

I hope I’m wrong.

There are a lot of changes needed. It seems that some new blood is needed in the movement to stir things up, to motivate people and rebuild labor. We need new types of unionism that fits better within the new types of tech sector firms that we have these days. The good news is that I think change is on the horizon.

The Socialist Manifesto, by Bhaskar Sunkara

Sunkara is the founder of Jacobin magazine, which has been around since 2010, and his new book is an accessible history of socialism aimed at a general audience. It starts off with a vision of what democratic socialism in the United States would look like before going into a detail history of the movement from Marx up to the resurgence of the modern left through politicians like Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn. It ends with a chapter of action items that Sunkara believes are necessary for Democratic Socialists to win in the future.

My involvement in the movement is fairly recent, I’ve only been truly involved in it since the 2016 Democratic primary, where I was a Democratic party caucus chair for the Sanders campaign in my congressional district. I don’t have a strong history in Marxism or socialist history. I’ve been reading Dissent, Nation and Jacobin for about two years now, and have been reading and listening to leftist media on a regular basis during that time. Sunkara has done a service to people like me, to help fill some gaps in history and give me some much needed response to critics on issues surrounding socialism’s failures in the past.

There were several times during this book that I was having deja vu, when I realized that certain sections had pulled from Jacobin’s pages. Certain turns of phrase around Khruschev’s “secret speech”, for example, I’m pretty sure were lifted straight off of a recent issue (or reprinted.) Not that I’m complaining, mind you. Sunkara’s work with Jacobin has been instrumental to the movement, and my education, and the publication is probably one of the most coherent and influential sources of political thought for the latest generation of Democratic Socialists. At least that’s how I see it from here — it’s been months since I attended my local DSA chapter’s meetings.

Sunkara — and Jacobin — does not shy away from the failures of twentieth century socialism, and does not sugar coat the crimes that Stalin, Mao, and others have done in the name of communism and Marxism. He’s able to acknowledge it without excusing it or justifying it. At the same time, there is emphasis of the democratic part of democratic socialism, and the lesson to readers here is to find ways to increase democratic involvement in the movement.

The history is broad here, and it was easy for me to get lost amongst the party organizations, figures and coalitions that are part of the century and a half of the movement. There’s a lot to cover here, and the socialist movement spans the entire globe, and I’ll admit that another reading is warranted before I can even begin to understand all of the schisms in the various european movements contained within this short volume.

The history of socialism in the United States is one that obviously doesn’t get told these days, and reading the history of American unions and the left this right before Labor Day is good timing for the Party breakfast that I’ll be attending tomorrow. And this intersection of labor, Democratic party politics and Democratic Socialism is obviously one that I’m most interested in, and where I plan on focusing most closely in the future.

Beyond the history lesson and rationale behind democratic socialism’s resurgence, the part of the book that will likely get the most discussion amongst leftists will be the penultimate chapter, “How We Win”, with 15 points that Sunkara lists for success moving forward. Many of them boil down to the advice that socialists shouldn’t shy away from class struggle, and need to embed in working class issues to get our agenda pushed through. He worries that success may ultimately be the movement’s undoing as it has in the past, and urges readers to move forward, not backward, when the inevitable challenge rises. Two points that I’ll be studying: “It is not enought to work with unions for progressive change. We must wage democratic battles within them.” And: “We need to take into account American particularities.” This latter one has some broad outlines for possible avenues of attack within the Democratic party.

I’m not sure I share his optimism that our two party political system can be undone as swiftly as he believes, but I’ll take his idea of an actual mass-membership political party seriously for the time being. The idea of activating rank and file members, whether within a labor union or a political party, is probably the most important takeaway from this book. The main way to accomplish socialism in America will be through more Democracy. That is the biggest threat that we face from the populist right these days, and is also the main argument against authoritarian-style Communism. Focusing on democracy, within our organizations, workplace and political system should be the number one goal of progressive and leftist organizations moving forward.

Labor Day

It’s the start of Labor Day weekend here in the the good ol’ U.S of A., and while most of the population may see it as an excuse to close out the summer with one last pool-party barbeque, in my house we treat it a bit more orthodox. My spouse and I are both involved in Union activism, so we treat this a bit more seriously than most.

First off, it’s important to note that Labor Day, as an American construct, was actively chosen to decrease working class solidarity with the rest of the world. The first of May, or May Day, as it’s known around the rest of the world, was the day chosen by socialists and communists, and others on the Left to commemorate the Haymarket Affair, which was a protest that occured in Chicago in 1886. People were rallying in support of workers who were striking for an eight-hour workday. The previous day police had killed eight workers, and the peaceful rally turned violent after someone set off a dynamite bomb and killed several police and civilians. Several people were jailed or hung, one committed suicide in jail.

So when the powers that be decided on a labor holiday in the US, they decided to choose the current date, as strategically halfway between the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, avoiding May Day to prevent any further solidarity with socialist or anarchist movements.

Here in my area, the local Democratic Party has been hosting an annual Labor Day breakfast. This Monday will be the tenth year. The question I am struggling to answer is what’s left of Labor here in the states and what can be done to renew it. Most of leadership is approaching retirement, and has not done a good job of mentoring the next generation of leaders in their midst. Of course, right to work laws and hostile conservative and business-friendly liberal governments have not helped either, but it almost seems that labor is it’s own worst enemy right now.

Beyond the lack of political power that labor holds within the Democratic establishment these days, there still seems to be a tendency toward management-style leadership from above, rather than any sort of activation of the rank and file from above. Most members treat union membership as an insurance policy, to be used in times of grievances, or as a representative body when labor agreements need to be renewed. But I’ve seen or heard little to indicate that the rank and file are encouraged to become active in their own representation.

The other thing that strikes me is the lack of technological deployment in these organizations. This isn’t unique to labor, of course, but is prevalent in many of the party and campaign organizations that I’ve been a part of. It seems like magic when we mention things like mailing lists; we’re still caught up in the massive CC lists in emails. We’ll be talking more about deploying tech strategically within political organizations in this space at some point. There’s much to be said on this point.

So I will attend the breakfast and will be looking for young faces. We’ll sit in a fancy dining hall at large tables with elaborate centerpieces and wait for our three course meal to be served. We’ll sit and watch the recognition of elected officials, who are ultimately providing lip service to labor as members of the opposition, we’ll hear fiery speeches from labor leaders to rouse the troops.

But one thing that I’ve noted in past years among these parties is the difficulty in getting them to actually use union sources for supplies. I had to speak up on several occasions to get the local party to consider a union source for some committee t-shirts that they wanted to order. And never once, in the last three years that I’ve attended this event, have I ever heard mention of the working conditions of the waiters and bussers to fill our water and clear our plates. Sure, they may get recognized for the work that they are doing for us to enjoy ourselves on this day, but where are the mention of the service unions, where is the solidarity with them and the efforts to better their work on the other three hundred and sixty-odd days of the year?

Labor has many problems, from the right, from centrists, and from the changing nature of work that makes it harder to organize tech workers, gig workers, and so on. But I fear the biggest problem, and the one that will be the hardest to overcome, is from the labor organizations themselves.