Category Archives: Strategy

Levels of strategy for social change

Journalism is the lowest-common denominator of left-wing activity. This is not the same as saying it’s valueless, or not indispensable. Journalism is crucially valuable and necessary. But by itself, a left based on pure journalism will never be strong enough to win even a minimum wage increase, much less Medicare for all, much less the overthrow of the capitalist system itself.

In many cases, journalism is telling people things that, deep down, they already know to be true, even if they weren’t clear on the particulars before you filled them in. But everyone appreciates good reporting, and plenty of people are willing to donate money to fund it. That’s a good thing. However, it being a good thing also leads to issues.

The United States is a market economy. Market economies, with or without private ownership of workplaces (meaning capitalism or market socialism — capitalism being a private-enterprise market economy, and market socialism being a public-enterprise market economy), are always fundamentally gargantuan fights over money. Put in other words: Do you ever worry about money? If you answered yes, which you did, then you should know that the reason you worry about money isn’t because of some act of God, but because you live in a market economy.

In any market economy, people without money die and firms without money go out of business. The left is a collection of small firms operating in a market. They either make money or they go out of business. This doesn’t make left-wing business owners money grubbers or bad people. It’s just how the world of market economics is.

In any market economy, firms must gravitate to the lowest-common-denominator offerings in order to be viable. This is what causes market economies to tend toward homogeneity. Markets make everything look and feel the same because of the structural need for firms to compete in order to survive.

These market presses affect the left as well. And since everyone agrees on the need for good reporting and appreciates it (even while they may differ on what actually constitutes good reporting), the left becomes a repository of generally good information, while offering not much else in the way of meaningful strategy to achieve social change like, say, Medicare for all.

I call journalism first-level strategy. It’s basic, indispensable, crucial, and necessary — it truly is a necessary condition to achieve meaningful social change. But clearly, it is not sufficient to achieve social change.

To me, second-level strategy to achieve social change is that expounded by Jimmy Dore when he says, correctly in my view, that everyone on the left needs to stop voting for Democrats and stop donating to Democrats. I believe this strategy is also necessary to achieve social change. The jury is still out on whether this will be sufficient to achieve change, but I don’t think it will be, at least not on any grand scale. Basically, I think his strategy might be able to win a minimum wage increase, but I don’t think it will prove powerful enough to win Medicare for all.

However, as it pertains to this essay, his strategy is not a “lowest-common-denominator” approach. There are many on the left who disagree with it. There are still many on the left — in fact, it’s probably still the majority of the left — who are either unable or unwilling to completely and totally break with the Democratic party.

These lefties can be identified by the ease with which they criticize establishment Democrats like Biden, Pelosi, Schumer, or Hillary Clinton — yet engage in constant excuse making and defenses for “progressive” Democrats like AOC, Bernie, or the Squad. It’s tempting to say these lefties do this only for financial reasons, as establish Democrats (or people with ties to establishment Democrats) do fund a great deal of left-wing activity in the United States.

Criticizing Pelosi while defending AOC or running articles by Ro Khanna1 does not incur the wrath of Democratic funders. Pelosi might suck, but if you are making excuses for Bernie’s votes for war, you are still serving to funnel support into the Democratic party. You are therefore not an actual threat to the Democratic establishment, and you may therefore still safely receive financial support from them.

However, I don’t think the financial angle totally explains what’s happening here. I think that these outward-critical-but-subliminally-still-supportive-of-the-Democrats businesses are run by people who, ideologically, really are Democrats. They’re not cynical, or just acting like they support AOC in order to keep the money rolling in. Such people would not be religious true believers — they’d be people you could actually have a meeting of the minds with and say, “You’re just doing this for money, right?” and they’d agree, “Yeah, but what else can we do?”

Rather, these people — whom in my experience have in common that (1) they are all children of the managerial class, not the working class, and (2) they all have adequate disposable income, and don’t actually need Medicare for all or any other type of social safety net for themselves2 — seem to really ideologically identify with the “progressive” wing of the Democratic party.

That is, rather than be cynical, self-aware, self-conscious business people (or even money grubbers), they’re actually dyed-in-the-wool Kool-Aid drinkers with a secular religious belief that, if only we would just love progressive Democrats a little harder, then they will stop beating us. As I see it, these people are the embodiment of Malcolm X’s “white moderates,” and while they may make pretty-sounding noises on issues like Medicare for all, the reality is that they are your enemy and, in the long run, if you ever begin to have any organizing success, they will be the first and most enthusiastic people to oppose you, because you represent an existential threat to their existences both financially and, particularly, ideologically.

In any case, I have so far identified two levels of strategy: (1) journalism, and (2) a break with the Democrats. I have said that level-one strategy is ubiquitous because of its minimal offensiveness and utility in left-wing business operations. I have said that level-two strategy is more contentious, partly for financial reasons, but even more so for ideological ones.

I have further said that both are necessary to achieve social change, but that level-one strategy (journalism) is clearly not sufficient to achieve change, while level-two strategy may be sufficient for “small-scale” items like a minimum-wage increase, but will not prove sufficient for weightier changes like winning a true national health care system in the United States.

So if I’m right, how then do we actually win Medicare for all? To that end, I’m going to propose my level-three strategy: Acknowledge the existence of pareconish (participatory economics) theory.

Without discussing parecon here, the strategy is simple: Pareconish theory says things about what a good society should look like. Basically, in a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work? To that, we might also add: What determines how much people get paid? But if that’s the kind of world we think constitutes a good society, then why aren’t we doing those things now, in the present? There might be legitimate reasons, of course. But why are we not even grappling with the questions?

The reason for the strategy is equally simple: You need an actual sufficient condition to win Medicare for all (or whatever), not a collection of necessary ones. Pareconish theory is the trump card, the ace up your sleeve. It’s the hammer, because it’s the only weapon strong enough to threaten the roots of the capitalist system itself.

You can disagree with this, of course. Most will and do. Everyone loves and agrees with level-one strategy. An okay number of people are warming up to the idea of level-two. But everyone hates level-three, or at best simply can’t see its utility.

Nobody makes any money talking about participatory economics. Indeed, you should ask yourself where I get my money from, and realize that it’s not from talking about parecon. But you should also ask yourself if you really believe, in your heart of hearts, that we’re really that close to winning Medicare for all.

None of the three strategies I’ve outlined contradict one another. They can all be pursued concurrently, and in my view should be — must be. You can disagree because you don’t like the implications of parecon. Fine. But can you honestly say the left has anywhere near the offensive power necessary to compel fundamental changes in the United States? You know in your heart the answer isn’t just no, but hell no.

To me, the left is the alcoholic who just can’t admit he has a problem. The first step, as I see it, is to honestly grapple with the implications of pareconish theory. To me, this step is necessary. But more importantly, it’s also sufficient. I can’t prove that, of course. But I’m not asking for money. And any left that was truly sick of losing and ready to do anything to climb out of the bottle would be hungry for conditions sufficient to bring about the social changes the left always says it really wants.3

What are you really for?

Caitlin Johnstone tweeted the following:

The correct response to “Ah shit the ecosystem is dying” is not “therefore we’d better entrust ruling power structures with even more power so they can fix it,” it’s “therefore we’d better overthrow the ruling power structures whose madness created this problem so we can fix it.”

Johnstone is very smart, creative, and insightful. She is successful and has a large following. And on its face, I have no objection to what she’s written.

The problem — and it’s not just her, this is really the entire left — is that she’s basically saying, “capitalism is the problem, so we’d better replace it with something.” I agree that capitalism is the problem. But what exactly is it we’re proposing to replace it with?

If pressed, most of the left will argue in vague terms for socialism. But there’s never any specificity as to what socialism means to them.

Does socialism mean a society that looks more like Sweden, the former Yugoslavia, or the former Soviet Union? The word socialism has been used to describe all of these.

The problem with the word socialism is that it’s not well-defined. It’s not a technical term. When I say “technical term,” what do I mean?

If I’m walking down the street and someone puts a gun to my head and says, “Give me your wallet,” I could say to the police that someone forced me to give him my wallet. Or I could say he made me give him wallet. In this context, the word “force” is not a technical term, which is why I could say, “he forced me,” or “he made me.” It makes no difference.

However, if I go to a physics convention and I use the word force, now I’m talking about something very specific — the product of mass and acceleration. To a physicist, force is a technical term — it means something very specific.

Likewise, if I go to a “Star Wars” convention, the word force is also a technical term — it means something very specific. To a physicist or a “Star Wars” fan, when I use the word “force,” I mean one and only one thing. And if I wish to refer to that thing, I have to use that word (force), or else I can’t talk about that thing at all.

“Socialism,” however, is not a technical term. Rather, it’s a catch-all word like “widget.” It means whatever the person using the word wants it to mean.

Imagine I’m in front of an audience of hundreds of people, and there’s a whiteboard behind me. I could get any five-year-old out of the audience, hand them a marker, ask them to draw a circle, and they could easily draw something we would all recognize as a circle (even accounting for the fact that the artwork might not be great). Everyone, even five-year-olds, knows what a circle is.

Now, in front of that same audience, if there were a someone who had a Ph.D. in molecular biology and I brought him up and asked him to draw a widget, his first question to me would be, “What’s a widget?” because no one knows what a widget is.

Geometric shapes like “circle” and “square” are technical terms, and everyone knows what they are, what they mean, and what they refer to. But talking about socialism is like talking about widgets. No one has any idea what it is — it means whatever the person using the word wants it to mean.

Saying capitalism is bad and should be replaced, without saying what is supposed to replace it, or simply making references to replacing it with “socialism” is like talking about widgets. It’s meaningless. It’s also not even remotely threatening to the existing power structure.

What is socialism?

To some people, Sweden is socialist. Now, if you are the one using the word socialism, you may use it any way you wish since it’s not well-defined. So you can certainly use it to describe Sweden if you want. But then how do you describe the former Soviet Union? Do you call it communist? Okay, then how do you describe the former Yugoslavia? At this point, you are probably out of terms, since you probably have no idea what you’re talking about anyway.

Sweden has a private-enterprise market economy, like the United States. I think it makes the most sense, therefore, to call Sweden capitalist. What Sweden has that the U.S. does not is a real social safety net. The technical term for capitalism with a social safety net is “social democracy.” Again, you can use different terms if you want, but this is what makes the most sense to me: Sweden and the U.S. both organize economic activity using capitalism. But Sweden is a social democracy, while the U.S. is not.

What the former USSR and the former Yugoslavia had in common was that workplaces — the means of production — were not privately owned. They were owned by the state. That makes both of these public-enterprise economies, not private-enterprise ones. But Yugoslavia used markets for allocation (“allocation,” in this context, is a technical term that I have yet to define), while the Soviet Union used central planning.

That is, Yugoslavia was a public-enterprise market economy, while the Soviet Union was a public-enterprise centrally-planned economy. I think it makes the most sense to refer to public-enterprise economies as socialist ones. That is, I think it makes the most sense to define “socialism” as any public-enterprise economy.

Using this definition, I would say that Yugoslavia was a market socialist economy, while the Soviet Union was a centrally-planned socialist economy. Now I have terminology that allows me to usefully compare and contrast all of Sweden, Yugoslavia, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

What are you for?

So back to Johnstone’s tweet. What is she, or anyone on the left, calling for us to replace capitalism with? If she, or anyone on the left, is calling for capitalism to be replaced by socialism, fine. But then what do you mean by socialism? I’m entitled to ask you that question, and if you’re a serious activist, you’re obligated to answer.

The problem is that no one on the left — I mean, really, no one — has an answer to this question. Everyone on the left just engages in hand-waving, but no one will really think about the question and provide a specific answer. We’re all just supposed to agree that, because capitalism sucks for most people, then any entreaty for anything that is “not capitalism” must be good.

The problem is, it’s not. It is useful for fundraising, of course, since once you start to toss specific ideas around, your money will dry up. Lots of people can agree they hate capitalism and they’re happy to fund you if you say so too. But if you start to call for specific replacements for capitalism — you know, like participatory economics, which is neither capitalism nor any form of socialism — then you will start a fight and many of your donors will start drifting off.

The problem is the left can’t discuss what it wants. The reason is because, deep down, what the left wants really is socialism — in the sense that I use the word: The left wants a public-enterprise economy, of any description.

The left doesn’t care if it’s market socialism or centrally-planned socialism. The left just wants to get rid of the capitalist class by hook or by crook, and either market socialism or centrally-planned socialism would do this.

The problem is that the left can’t be honest about what it wants — not even with itself. The reason is that neither market socialism nor centrally-planned socialism would actually represent working-class liberation. Rather, they both simply involve putting workers under new management — the left’s management.

Because arguing for any form of socialism is such a weak message, the left can’t trumpet it. You can’t really try to organize millions of downtrodden people by saying to them, “Take off your chains, and put these new ones on instead.”

And like an alcoholic who can’t admit he has a problem, the left can’t look in the mirror and see honestly the fundamental immorality of what, deep down, it really wants. That’s why the left loses and can’t win anything, and why it’s never going to win anything. Its core message is fundamentally self-serving, and even though no one on any side is consciously aware of that, everyone can feel it, and they react accordingly.

If the left really wants to win anything, it’s going to have to make a choice. Unfortunately, it already has. Most alcoholics never quit drinking. The left, too, will never figure this out. That means, sooner or later, the only place for us to end up is hard fascism.

To turn it around would mean answering a very simple question: In a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work? Left-wing brain cells have no capacity to even begin to process this question, though. Just like alcoholic brain cells have no capacity to see that the real problem is in the mirror.

Parecon: A necessary condition for the elimination of sexism and racism

The tagline I chose for this site is, “a necesssary and sufficient condition for the liberation of the working class.” By this I mean that, under parecon, workers are truly liberated (sufficiency), and without it, they can never be (necessity).

I say this because if an economy is not a parecon, then it’s going to either be capitalism or some form of socialism (market or centrally-planned). Any of these options inexorably generate heirarchy — authoritarianism is unavoidable in any kind of capitalist or socialist economy. And in any authoritarian society, there are going to be class divisions, with workers at the bottom, managers above them, and owners above managers if the economy is a private-enterprise economy, with managers the ruling class otherwise.

But what about racism and sexism? What would the effect of parecon be on these?

In any authoritarian system, men are going to outrank women. There’s no way to have a heirarchical society that is bereft of sexism. So if one wants to eliminate sexism, one must eliminate hierarchy. This makes parecon a necessary condition for the liberation of women.

Is it also sufficient? No. There’s nothing about the fundamental logic of the economy that means that it, by itself, can eliminate sex-based discrimination and prejudice. But what parecon can do is create space for a world where sexism can be eliminated by removing an authoritarian obstacle. In short, parecon is a necessary, but not sufficient condition for the elimination of sexism. The same argument applies to racism.

Could the refusal of actors in a parecon to meaningfully address sexism and racism lead to a parecon itself being re-overthrown by the reactionary forces of capitalism or socialism? In theory, maybe. But in practice, I doubt seriously this would be an issue.

The key point here, though, is that if you want to live in a world where sexism and racism no longer exist, you must take up the implications of pareconish theory, beginning with what I believe is the core question: In a good society, will everyone do their fair share of shit work?

If you cannot or will not grapple with this question, you can never and will never be able to meaningfully address sexism or racism.

Noam Chomsky, today.

This is disgusting.  The man who wrote Year 501, Deterring Democracy, and Rethinking Camelot is today a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Democratic party.  However, it’s not just Chomsky.  It’s basically the entire U.S. left.

Other than Jimmy Dore, there is no left in the United States.  Everyone on the left says, “Oh, these problems we face like global warming, massive corruption, and war are so terrible and urgent,” but as soon as someone suggests a strategy for dealing with them, everyone circles the wagons around their preferred politicians.  How many people, say, criticize AOC from the left?  Everyone carries her water and makes excuses for her.

It’s a good business model though.  You raise money from people who are comfortable and who, while they might like Medicare for all or a $15-an-hour minimum wage, don’t really need it and certainly don’t like making waves.  Someone whose name I no longer remember told me several decades ago that that left doesn’t need a revolution and, deep down, doesn’t really want one.  (Interestingly, perhaps only to me, he was a friend of Michael Albert.)

Chomsky embodies that sentiment.

If you’re a diabetic, you don’t just measure your blood sugar.  You have to actually do things to manage it, like watching your carbs and perhaps taking medication.  The left is like a diabetic that relentlessly checks its blood sugar, then goes to the donut shop only to be left wondering why its glucose is so high.  But those cream sticks just taste so good, and all our friends like them and we don’t want to be the odd one out.

The left in this country deserves to be destroyed.