What Kind of Institutions Does the Left Need?

I have put this off long enough.  I have lots of backlogged thoughts about things I am reading, but need to forego those to write the promised post about institutions.

I have gotten some help from Rom Coles’s Visionary Pragmatism (Duke UP, 2016).  Rom, for six years at Northern Arizona University, led a complex operation that paired students and faculty with off-campus groups in what were called Action Research Teams (ART).  The idea was to get university folks involved in collaborating with local groups to 1) acquire the knowledge needed to develop action agendas on topics of local concern and 2) actually begin to put those agendas into practice.

Rom is eloquent on the need to combine “visionary” aspirations and spectacular, energy-raising one-off events (demonstrations, teach-ins, even civil disobedience) with the “pragmatic” quotidian work (lots of meetings and talk, the securing of money and other resources) that is the daily grind of democracy in action.  The work is sometimes directed toward government—pressuring it to act—but more often a question of taking matters into the group’s own hands, building organizations that can address local concerns about the environment, cultural preservation, literacy, a living wage, elderly care etc.

For any reader of Tocqueville or John Dewey, this is not surprising stuff. Democracy is vibrant, a lived reality, when citizens take power into their own hands, when they feel entitled to do things for themselves, and when they organize themselves to both decide what needs to be done and to do the things they decide should be done.  Tocqueville’s “voluntary associations” and Dewey’s “associated democracy.”  The goal could be said to be attainment of that “public happiness” that Arendt extols as the best thing about politics.

As I approach retirement, my aspiration is to find such a voluntary association, one that is effectively doing good work in relation to an issue that I care about.  But can I also register my impatience with meetings, with long and fairly fruitless, airings of pet grievances and crotchets?  I admire (perhaps above all) Rom’s patience, his willingness to put in the time to hammer out, in a large group, an action plan.  I want to join a group that is already acting and that puts its pedal to the medal.  I have no patience at all to fretting over the details.

Which makes me sometimes wonder if, temperamentally, I am a democrat at all.

But let’s put that aside for the moment.  Rom’s model leverages the resources of the university (even a relatively poor state university like Northern Arizona is resource-rich compared to the surrounding community)—with its resources counted in manpower (all those students), time (the ability to devote attention to research and to meetings), and knowledge (experts who know stuff and a culture that encourages learning stuff) as well as (even more than) money.  The university, in other words, is an already constituted institution and Rom is very attuned to the ways it can be put to use to advance a democratic agenda even as neoliberal forces are working to turn the university into a servant of its social vision.

Already existing institutions (the state is another prime example) are, then, sites of contestation.  Precisely because such institutions have power and resources, it is important to attempt to turn them toward the issues the left wants to address, to the transformations the left wishes to enact. Others, with different agendas, will also be trying to capture the institution, to turn it toward advancing their vision.

So Rom offers one model: the locally focused model that favors face-to-face interactions (meetings), deliberation in common, and action in concert.  It is only in these small-scale instances that people can experience democracy in action and overcome the alienation from politics engendered by the TV spectacle of electoral campaigns that culminate in the terribly abstract act of voting and the installation of unresponsive, distant legislative bodies.

To abandon the national, long-distance politics of elections is, however, a disaster.  So we are brought back to “the party,” that problematic institution that is the bane of modern politics and yet, apparently, absolutely necessary to any effective access to national power.  That parties are a disaster was the strong conviction of the American Founders, but there adoption of the British “first past the post” election model made parties inevitable.  Add the Leninist vision of the party as whipping the benighted masses into action—and any democrat wants to run for the hills.

Yet . . . the party, like the university, is an already constituted institution that the left abandons only at its own peril.  Because the numbers of voters on either side of the left/right divide is so even in the US, I think it is folly of the highest order for leftists to abandon the Democratic party for more leftist alternatives–be those alternatives a “third party” or an independent candidacy for president.  (I guess, as a rule of thumb, I can safely say that I will not support a non-Democratic candidate for president until he or she runs at the top of a full slate of candidates.  In other words, give me a robust and fully formed party of the left because you get my vote.)  In the meantime, I honor those leftists trying to capture the Democratic party, to drag it to the left in ways that mirror how conservatives have (already) captured the Republican party.

Does sticking with the Democrats entail a whole series of distasteful compromises?  Yes.  That’s why a conflicted loyalty to that party needs to be combined with political action apart from electoral politics if one is to avoid becoming completely disheartened.

The favored alternative on the left to electoral politics, apparently, is a “movement,” which aspires to national scale but to action (citizens in the street) as opposed to the passivity of voting and watching C-Span.  What Rom helpfully shows us is that the movement need not be concerned solely or primarily on influencing the national agenda/program, but can act to change things on the local level.  It is one of the great paradoxes of American politics that we (especially the left) are obsessed with a national politics that we have very little chance of influencing, while we neglect all the local possibilities for transformation.  It’s as if we are either 1) waiting for a permission (that will never arrive) to act or 2) think of ourselves as hiring a set of servants (the politicians) to do the work for us (despite ample evidence that those politicians are never going to be up to the job).

The conclusion: the left needs to build institutions (organizations; call them what you will) where people want to dwell, where they want to spend time, because of the pleasures the interactions (and association) with these other people bring, and because of a sense of actually getting something done.  Meaning-full, purposive, effective action.  That’s the ticket.  All the quotidian banality of democracy is bearable (maybe even much more than bearable) if there is something to show for it—and one of the tings to show is comradeship.  Everyone knows (it is a great cliché) that soldiers and team-mates “bond” and that the pleasures of bondage (pun intended) are intense.  People keep coming back for more, even to strenuous and dangerous work, if cathected to a collective effort.

To adopt neoliberal speak for a moment, to maintain that cathexis requires “benchmarks,” or, to use the current humanities piety, a “story” (a narrative arc).  There must be a plan that lays out various steps on a path, and a narrative momentum that carries people along a story of getting somewhere.  This is what Occupy lacked.  It was the same damn thing one day after another—and so, of course, it petered out.  Saturday afternoon demonstrations share that fault.  They don’t go anywhere; they don’t have a next step.  (This was Brecht’s worry about the theater.)

There is no lack of problems to address out there.  The beauty of Rom’s model is that it gathers people to identify the problems—and then challenges them to think of ways to alleviate/eliminate the problem.  Don’t just sit there; do something!  And it turns out that there are all kinds of things “we” can do—and that some of our fellows citizens are going to prove, once their input is solicited, incredibly creative when it comes to devising action plans.

So the institutions I think the left needs are the ones that can sustain a group of people over the long haul enactment of an action plan.  It can be a small-scale local institution/organization or a large-scale national campaign for gun control, against the sexual harassment of women, or against the police violence directed at people of color.  The key is to move beyond “protest,” beyond the public airing of grievances, to action that aims at righting the identified wrong.

Such organizations exist.  Belonging to and contributing to them takes time.  They are a challenge to what Adrienne Rich called “checkbook activism”—placating one’s conscience by sending money to various leftist causes.  Such organizations, I am more and more convinced, are the only site of real social change.  Even highly publicized campaigns like “me too” and “black lives matter”—for all their rhetorical power—seem inadequate to me.  They are great occasions for self-righteous finger pointing, but do nothing to change the on-the-ground conditions that enable sexual and racial violence.  With the flood of words that is now the public sphere—cable TV, the internet, advertisements, tweets and the rest—I have a hard time believing in the efficacy of words.  Strange no doubt to have a literary guy say that, but I can’t help believing that 90% of Americans are now like me: inured to the endless palaver, letting it all wash over them without making much of a dent.  The effort so many people are so desperately making to grab—for just this day’s news cycle—the public’s attention does not seem to me worth the effort.  It leads to nothing—and nothing comes of nothing.  So I want a left that begins to turn its back on the media circus, on getting the message out, and devotes its attention instead to doing things.

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