I’ve been posting a lot of critical stuff on gaps and faulty assumptions in the rhetoric and strategy (such as it is) of the US Left. A reasonable person might say, OK, enough already. We know what we’re doing isn’t working, but what would? What’s the alternative?
Good question—I’m glad you asked. Actually, for about 40+ years I’ve had the same idea, which I’ll now try out on you.
First, consider the basic conundrum of organizing the Left. On the one hand, what’s needed is structure on every scale from your neighborhood or workplace to the whole country. We need to bring the millions of people who share our outlook, in some general sense, into a common organization. Conservatives will always have more money to draw on; those on the other side have to rely on numbers—and not hypothetical or once-in-a-blue-moon election numbers, but everyday, signed up and available for mobilization numbers. In other words, the organizational basis for ongoing collective action.
But here’s the thing: the Left has had only flashes of success at this game because it has a powerful tendency to factionalize. Every time it looks like an organization is getting over the hump it breaks apart. Why this is so is an interesting question, but I won’t go into it here. In some ways the dissentious character of the Left is a good thing, since social change is complicated and we need many points of view. Still, it gets in the way of solving the organizational dilemma, and I will assume this will remain the case.
So how to build a measure of organizational unity on a fractious base? Scale down the scope of this hypothetical organization in order to scale up across differences in beliefs and strategy. Imagine an organization with many of the characteristics organizations are supposed to have, like membership rosters, officers, budgets, facilities, and activities, but prohibit it from taking sides in any electoral, legislative or judicial dispute, or promulgate manifestos as an organization. Make it so there is no political program to fight over, nothing to make members want to quit or drive out those who disagree. Then allow it to succeed at a more limited role.
And what would this role be? Above all, it would make visible, countable even, the existence of a massive Left constituency in America. People would feel differently—they would have more self-confidence and be willing to take bolder action—if they knew they were not alone but part of a movement with millions of supporters. They could begin to think in “we” terms, where “we” is a fairly well-defined group with game-changing potential. In addition, such an organization could create opportunities for networking, incubating smaller groups centered on particular issues or ideologies or self-identities, free to be as political as they want, and facilitate media with a wider reach than what we currently have. It could schedule debates and film series, organize festivals and commemorations, and foster other activities to keep people informed and connected to one another. It would not do everything—we would still need explicit political organizations to take stands, lobby, organize protests and win elections—but it would be a giant step forward.