Questions on Democracy, Organizing and Power

Tom Stephens | Photo Leah Duncan

I have a lot of questions about the demise of democracy in the Trump administration and the crises we are facing in many arenas of our national life: climate and environmental catastrophe; the “Flint water scandal” and other instances of social austerity policies gone awry; exploding poverty and inequality; leadership deficits rooted in systemic corruption; raging plagues of violence—gun violence in schools, domestic violence, international violence and police violence against innocents; the outrageous human rights violations involved in separating children of immigrants and asylum seekers from their parents at the US border. Such conditions and the related governmental policies take one’s breath away in their scope and viciousness. They are profound, life-threatening dangers, cumulatively amounting to a disastrous collapse of what’s commonly considered civilization.


What are we doing about all this? What do we even think we’re trying to do? The challenges and potential catastrophes posed by these problems are enormous. Are our networks, theories, actions and movements stepping up to these challenges at the right scale and pitch? I see a gaping (and fast-growing!) chasm between where we are and where we really need to be in our understanding of and response to underlying issues of democracy and power.


That’s where education and organizing come in. There’s no shortage of enlightening material. For example, the findings of United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, Professor Philip Alston, compiled during his fact-finding mission to the United States of America in December 2017.


His two-week visit coincided with what he called, a “dramatic change of direction in United States policies relating to inequality and extreme poverty.” In his subsequent report, released May 4, 2018, he stated that these governmental policies increasingly:


  • Provide unprecedented high tax breaks and financial windfalls to the very wealthy and the largest corporations;


  • Pay for these tax breaks by reducing welfare benefits for the poor;


  • Undertake a radical program of financial, environmental, health and safety deregulation that eliminates protections mainly benefiting the middle classes and the poor;


  • Seek to add over 20 million poor and middle class persons to the ranks of those without health insurance;


  • Restrict eligibility for many welfare benefits while increasing the obstacles required to be overcome by those eligible;


  • Dramatically increase spending on defense, while rejecting requested improvements in key veterans’ benefits;


  • Do not provide adequate additional funding to address an opioid crisis that is decimating parts of the country; and


  • Make no effort to tackle the structural racism that keeps a large percentage of non-whites in poverty and near poverty.


The U.S. white supremacist, corporate, patriarchal policies identified by the Special Rapporteur are being carried out feverishly, with a ruthless disregard for the survival necessities of the poor and people of color. Under these circumstances, fundamental questions about democracy and resistance to injustice have a greater sense of urgency.


What does “democracy” even mean in today’s world? Threatened perhaps like never before, the idea of “democracy” hardly calls people to participate or even think about whether our political system can somehow be made viable.


A recent essay by renowned international law expert Richard Falk considered questions about the devaluation of democracy in the face of the rising global prestige of fascism. Alarmed by the threatened status of democratic tendencies in today’s crisis-ridden world, Prof. Falk notes that there are definite pre-fascist aspects in today’s majoritarian democracies. However, he argues forcefully that sophisticated, righteous educational campaigns about what grassroots democracy should really mean in terms of popular agency are nevertheless absolutely necessary: “[A] mandate for democracy as flowing upwards from the people… is precarious and must be safeguarded and periodically revitalized.” How sad it is that we hardly ever talk or even think about the potential of community-controlled, democratic political processes that could be so vital to our families and our communities. Such efforts at democracy would indeed be “precarious,” and in desperate need of protection and revitalization. Yes, the real work involves creating movement momentum for democracy and power “flowing upwards” from the people. We have to be tenacious in building sustainability into our fights and engaging ever-larger groups of people in the struggle.


In Detroit, our community’s political base used to be dominated by two major institutions: the black church and the unions, both of which used to have serious grassroots connections and credibility. Today, not so much. I suspect Detroit is just one bright example of many communities and collective histories that share this decline in grassroots movement strength. The absence of a powerful, institutionalized “Left” in America only compounds the problem. Sure, there are lots of us writing on blogs and in magazines like this one, volunteering in countless grassroots organizations and campaigns, but are we a “Left” in the sense of a movement that exercises power in meaningful ways? I don’t see it.


So what must be done? According to DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) theorist Sophia Burns, we have to undertake the “slow and patient” work of base building. Our organizing efforts should be infused with the bedrock principles of self-determination, agency, collective self-defense, anti-oppression, class rebellion, community control and radical participatory democracy.


Political theorist Kim Scipes outlines the work of organizing in this way:


“The primary goal is to transfer power from the elite to the majority, from the 1 percent to the 99 percent. Individual campaigns matter in themselves, but they are primarily a mechanism for bringing new people into the change process and keeping them involved. The organizing approach relies on mass negotiations to win, rather than closed-door deal making typical of both advocacy and mobilizing. Ordinary people help make the power analysis, design the strategy, and achieve the outcome. They are essential and they know it.


Putting these ideas into action is really hard for many reasons. In particular, our organizing often seems to be mundane daily interactions with others, easily dismissed in light of the crisis conditions oppressing millions around the world: people barely surviving under conditions of imperialism and war; racist mass imprisonment via school-to-prison pipelines; and ecological catastrophes. While state and corporate powers unleash massive death and destruction against vulnerable communities around the planet, we wake up in the morning or for the night shift, facing yet another humdrum day of our isolated existence, in a society full of lies and manufactured illusions.


Building and crossing a bridge, from today’s racist corporate barbarism to a future worth surviving for, is testing our deepest resources in organizing, education and movement building. The vision for this struggle can only be created by diving into it. As the late, great Detroit activist Grace Lee Boggs wrote:


“A Movement is not just for the purpose of correcting particular injustices or inequities.   A Movement advances Humanity to a new plateau of consciousness, self-consciousness, creativity and political and social responsibility.  It creates a new dream, a new sense or vision of what it means to be a human being, a new basis of unity between different groups.  A Movement does not necessarily begin with this new vision, but in the course of struggle the vision has to become increasingly clear to the participants and be made increasingly clear to the rest of society both in actions and words.


On the threshold of yet another major, historic constitutional crisis at home around presidential authority testing the rule of law, and under the looming threat of even more destructive wars abroad, our choices and our work for a better world are more crucial now than ever.


Another late Detroit revolutionary theorist, Fredy Perlman of Black & Red Press, spells out the exact steps we need to take, as soon as possible and persisting one day longer than necessary:

“We need to come to grips with our historic function. Our contribution to the general popular movement is that (1) we name the system; (2) we explain why the capitalist system needs wars of intervention to survive; (3) we point to the necessity of a revolutionary transfer of power in all capitalist institutions; (4) we discuss openly the road to power, including the shape of the alternative society we wish to build, (5) we build our independent forms of organization which can present our views.”


What are we waiting for?


Longtime Detroiter Thomas Stephens currently does organizing and legal work for Detroiters Resisting Emergency Management. He has served as policy analyst for the Detroit City Council Research and Analysis Division. He previously worked as a trial lawyer, litigating cases related to environmental justice and civil rights.

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