Wednesday, April 9, 2008


I had one long day today, but something pretty fun happened at the end of it: I got to have drinks and talk with Mark Rudd, formerly of Students for a Democratic Society.

Plenty of my friends were there, and the conversation was great. I've not the time or energy to rehash things now, but there is thing that is really stuck in my mind that I want to try and get out before I go to bed.

Let me also add that the writing of this post was prompted by this Atrios post.

The larger conversation we were having was around the idea of organizing - what is organizing? How do we define the term? What historical models can we draw on? And - and this came up repeatedly - what's the deal with the kids today? Why are/aren't they organizing? (And I say kids because I am indeed talking about people who are still in high school.)

At one point, the conversation wandered over to electoral politics: What's the deal with that Obama guy? What is he doing to create such a groundswell, especially among youth?

Earlier, Rudd had raised the idea that for many youth, something happened in 2005-2006 that really pierced the usual haze; he suggested it was the combination of Katrina and the mainstreaming of the realization that Iraq was lost. I think he's right.

Putting that together with the Obama phenomenon, I suggested that it's possible the left (broadly and vaguely construed, as always) missed an incredible opportunity by not organizing around that sea change in perspective, by not anticipating and being ready for it, and - frankly - by letting it get sucked into electoral politics and Obama (who, for all his virtues, is not talking about capitalism or imperialism in near the same way he's addressing race and even gender).

The point is - and this is a damn exciting thought for me - that something is going on. Something is piercing the atomized, consumerist haze we normally walk around, at least for a few more people than normal. The potential for change hasn't been this great since, well, before I was an adult - and that means it's time to revive once-common and now-heretic ideas like free education and radical limits on corporate power.

I know this thought is barely coherent and completely undeveloped, but I wanted to get it down and out there before I crash.

Also, Mark had a great question: What is organizing?

Leave your answers in the comments.


Michael Faris said...

I'll try to come back to this post and talk about "organizing" later (I hope to, but no promises).

What I am finding interesting in this exact moment is the repetition of the narrative "the left missed an opportunity" narrative. How many "opportunities" has the "left" missed? 2005/2006? 2003 (Iraq)? 2001 (September 11)? 2000 (a stolen election)? 1992 (Clinton's election)? All "lost" "opportunities" spoiled by the "left"'s inability to "organize" around central "events" in American history.

Perhaps we might ask what the "left" has to gain by not responding to these "events" with the rhetorical and organizing forces they could. I'll try to come back to this when I'm not about to fall asleep...

Anonymous said...

Since you are in favor of socialism, instead of capitalism, why don't you move to a country that already has that form of government entrenched in the society?

Michael Faris said...


I write this not in defense of RW's stance in particular, but rather in defense of any critique of our culture. The position of "love it or leave it," of "go somewhere that you think is better" is an argument of the most banal nature I can conceive of.

Isn't critiquing the problems in one's culture the highest form of love/care/concern. Isn't the critic saying: I care for our populace and country so much that I want to critique the problems and propose better alternatives.

Suggesting that one leaves where one lives and cares about in order to go somewhere that might fit their ideals better ignores the care they feel for their own country and society. Additionally, it proposes that some place must be perfect, when we know full well that all cultures and countries on this planet are mired with inequality.

Dennis said...

1) I'm not a socialist. There are more than two ways to organize people.

2) See Michael's second comment regarding the "love it or leave it" idea. I tend to agree, though I would add that I think the most compelling reason to work where one lives is not which country one is in, but the people.

3) Michael - thanks for commenting.

4) I don't think the left missed any opportunities in 2002-2003. Millions of people took part in anti-war marches and demonstrations. We can have a retrospective argument about tactics and/or strategy, but there wasn't an opportunity missed due to lack of foresight and analysis. Maybe in 2001, but I think that given the sudden nature of the event combined with the ability of the U.S. government to muster resources so much faster than the hodgepodge of disparate groups that make up the (ill-defined) left, it would have been all but impossible to provide a response that could have countered what the Bush Administration did.

I guess I think of "missed" opportunities as those that are missed due to a lack of analysis, not a lack of organizing - lord knows people were trying in 2000 and 2001. It just seems that by 2005 people had shifted their (remaining?) efforts to other things and were/are just waiting for Bush to get out of office, having concluded that the types of activism that had previously worked got nowhere in BushWorld.

Dennis said...

.... also, people were sure organizing in 2002 & 2003. No question there.

I wonder if we're conflating "missed opportunity" with "just didn't succeed?"

Anonymous said...

I was suggesting that RW might be happier where his social agenda ideas are already in play.
I have no problems with critiquing the culture. But there is a difference between an honest difference of opinion and a complete disdain for those who don't agree with you.
I personally am glad I live in free society--not perfect--but one so many people in the world seem to want to come to or to emulate. I like the American Dream. I agree with Democracy.
I don't want to live in a socialist, communist, or dictatorship country.
And I don't like it when people, not matter how well intentioned, want to turn my country into one.
So yes, I think if you don't love her you should leave her rather than saying you love her but constantly try to change her foundational nature.

Michael Faris said...

Thanks, Anonymous, for that clarification. I too value democracy and wish for a more pure, true democracy, rather than what we have right now that barely resembles one.

You speak of the foundations of this country, though I think there are different interpretations of those foundations. One person may view the foundations as being rooted in enterprise capitalism; another person may see it as rooted in liberal values of liberty, dignity, autonomy, and fraternity; another person may see it as rooted in racism, genocide, class exploitation, and the domination of the environment.

From my perspective, I think all three are correct. I choose to align myself, though, with those that value liberal values and want to lessen the harm of other foundational cores of this country (such as class exploitation and racism).

While I do not identify myself as a socialist, I do align myself with many socialists because I think they have a closer idea of what a pure democracy is than our current model, which favors the rich over the poor, perpetuates sexism and racism, and continues to dominate the environment and other countries. I don't see these actions as very democratic.

So, I love the people in this country. I love the places I've lived. I love a lot about this country. I am also angry about a lot of injustices.

Michael Faris said...

Dennis, you write, I guess I think of "missed" opportunities as those that are missed due to a lack of analysis, not a lack of organizing.

But I think that is actually my point. Before organization, there must be analysis. The Left did miss opportunities in 2002/2003 because it organized in traditional, 1960s manners, rather than taking a moment to analyze the situation fully. It didn't change much to organize in traditional ways. What if there had been more analysis of what the rhetorical effects of certain actions were in order to conceive of actions that would be more effective? I'm not sure what those actions would be, but it seems to me that the left missed an opportunity to speak truth to power in more radical, effective ways that it did in the 1960s.

As someone who helped organize during the lead-up to the Iraq War, that's how I see it.

Anonymous said...

While you may not "identify" yourself as a socialist...your views do that for you.
A socialist is someone who believes in a political and economic society based on collective ownership and management of the making and distributing of those goods.
Other like-minded believers are nationalists (who would transfer control to a central government), anarchists (who are also-oddly-- supporters of class distinctions and privileges), communists (who would abolish property ownership as well as profit).
All are agreed in distrusting, disliking, and wanting to get rid of capitalism.
Capitalists believe in the ownership of land, making/owning privately held money, goods, businesses, and competitive conditions in the market place.
Because some capitalists are also imperialists (who believe in extending the control, dominion, or empire of a nation) doesn't mean you should toss captialism out.
In this era of a small world there are various interpretations of how to interact with other countries.
Still, there are many here in America who use her freedoms, not to try to maintain those freedoms, but to demolish them in the desire to make her something she was not intentioned to be. The foundations were freedom from the control of a dictator to personal control. You would not have England be King/Queen of us, but you would have us all do as 'those who know best' (the liberal left in your own words) tell us to.
As Michael said, "we know full well that all cultures and countries on this planet are mired with inequality".
I am simply saying that while it would be difficult, to leave those you love and familiar places, to go where your ideals are more closely followed, instead of trying to radically alter where you are because it does not, is better for all if you are ashamed of her basic nature of capitalism.
If you are not a capitalist why would you want to live in a capitalist society?
That is unless you do think you know best how all of the world should look, believe it should all be the same, that we should all be following your ideals.
It is elitism.
You know, "somebody's got to be in charge, it might as well be me/us".
I don't see how that is any different than what you are complaining about and trying to organize a fight against.
You are talking about internal imperialism.

Dennis said...

Wow, do I wish I had more time to contribute to this post!

Maybe this weekend.... while I'm at a conference. Hm.

Anon @ 10:46 AM, I don't pretend to know exactly how everyone should live. That would be silly.

I do believe in certain values, and that those values, in general, lead to happier people.

I'm talking about equality, compassion, and autonomy (at the individual level, no less).

I contrast these with some current dominant values: the belief in private property, hierarchy, etc.

What form of social organizations results from my preferred values? I have ideas, but it's ultimately up to the people that hold them.

What form of social organization results from current dominant values? I hope the answer is self-evident.

Also, please at least give me the option of self-identifying. Telling me what I believe or what I am isn't likely to get us anywhere. I'm not a socialist - I don't want centralized control or planned economies.

I am not, however, a capitalist by choice - I don't really have much use for private property or the so-called market. Nor for the absurdity that is people competing when we could cooperate.

Hopefully more later.

Michael Faris said...


I wouldn't say that my views identify me as a socialist. Rather, it was you who identified me as a socialist. I think it might be obvious to identify for somewhere else where they lie socially, politically, and economically based on a comment on a blog.

I am not a socialist.

I say this because, contrary to your reading of what I am saying, I do not know what is the best way of organizing our society and economy. I have some ideas, but I don't know what is best.

I identify as a radical/creative democrat. By this I mean that people themselves need to decide how to organize society and the economy. However, so far, we have been no where near a society where the people actually engage in dialogue to reach decisions on how to organize society. Instead, we've had systems handed down from people in economic and political power.

Capitalism, as a system where those in power have organized society for their benefit, seems to me to be, by definition, unjust.

Another point against arguing that those who dislike capitalism should move away from capitalist societies: there are no non-capitalist countries in this world. To argue otherwise would be to ignore the globalizing power of the West, which has brought the mass production and consumption of goods to nearly every corner of the world.

Certainly, there are small societies or cultures that are less affected by capitalism, but to move to one of these cultures would be escapism and would mean not affecting change in the center of power. Eventually, left unheeded, the Western imperial machine will infiltrate these cultures as well, turning these people and their cultures into commodities just as it has done to us.

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