Beyond the Outrage Cycle
Unrest alone is unable to shift the political landscape in favor of working and oppressed people. To build sustainable power, we need permanent institutions.
During the unrest that swept through the country last summer, comrades from our DSA chapter and people in communities who have been under siege for decades now endured extreme forms of abuse at the hands of law enforcement almost each and every day, with tear gas raining down over them most nights. However, many persisted and, as revealed in polling, many Americans were even in support of some of the most daring and bold actions, including the burning down of police precincts.
Over a year later, officer Derek Chauvin has faced punishment for his crimes. Without the protests and the unrest, without the masses of people kicking back tear gas canisters and looting, the indictment of Derek Chauvin would not have been possible.
Yet, Chauvin was just one cop. Police unions have managed to retain their power. Many communities continue to be policed and surveilled while facing rapidly declining living and working conditions, accelerated under Covid-19. Most of all, the unrest has receded, leaving behind people and the rubble of their lives, barely hanging on.
“Mass movements cannot be sustained. They exist for a certain period of time and then they either decline, plateau, or are routed,” said long-time labor organizer and thinker Bill Fletcher, Jr. “That’s where the issue of institution-building and winning power becomes important,” he added.
Unrest alone is unsustainable and unable to shift the political landscape in favor of working and oppressed people, especially Black and brown people. If our lives as oppressed and exploited peoples are to dramatically improve, our communities need power to win demands like defunding the police as well as the power to weaken those standing in the way of building a freer and more just society. But this can only be achieved when people are organized beyond the politics of unrest and into institutions, such as labor unions or a party, that can provide us some measure of direction, discipline, and other strategic resources.
Otherwise, the desperation of the masses will spill out periodically into the streets, as the powerful rest easy behind barricades as tear gas canisters punch holes into peoples’ skulls, and the cycle of outrage, repression, and retreat will go on and on, ad infinitum.
Unrest = Opportunity
Frances Fox Piven, one of the preeminent scholars on social movements, has long understood the critical role of unrest in shifting the political terrain in favor of leftist causes and interests. She wrote about unrest in the labor struggles in the Great Depression and in the struggle for welfare during the late 1960s and early 1970s in the book Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail, co-authored with her late husband Richard Cloward.
Despite what liberals would claim, that it was more useful for oppressed peoples to be patient or to simply focus on voting in sympathetic representatives, Piven and Cloward write that it took workers occupying factories to push New Deal legislators to enact pro-worker legislation much sooner. During the early 1970s, it was the actions of poor and working women occupying government offices that rolled back cuts to welfare.
“People in the streets making trouble knew more about influence from their position in society than all those people who didn’t understand,” Piven said to me, “I still think that. I haven’t changed my view on the importance of making trouble in order to have some impact on the political system.”
The size of the protests last summer and the tactics people used, including rioting, pushed past the comfort levels of those who currently dominate policy, such as neoliberal politicians and the businesses they serve. Even major companies like Amazon were compelled to appropriate pro-BLM rhetoric as people stormed through businesses, deifying the sanctity of private property.
It was because of the unrest that we saw cities like Minneapolis adopting steps towards defunding the police, which would’ve been unheard of just a few years ago when President Obama insisted that the best we can do is provide body cameras and “training” for police officers, all while law enforcement kept purchasing military-style equipment.
Joseph Lowndes, a political scientist and co-author with Daniel Martinez HoSang of Producers, Patriots and Parasites, describes how the unrest succeeded in pushing policymakers beyond the usual script of what to say, and of how to respond. The GOP, now an explicit vehicle for white nationalist politics, leaned even more heavily into law-and-order rhetoric. But in the meantime, Democratic politicians, whose base of support is more non-white and worker, had to at least convey some measure of understanding the protests, even if it was for pretend, like the mayor of Atlanta pleading for crowds of people to return home rather than continue their disruption of business-as-usual. Unrest has that power, at least for a time.
“We’re going to need much more street protest, much more disruption, much more pushing of boundaries,” said Lowndes.
However, over time, law enforcement adapted to the protests and the volatility, realizing they could get away with pushing people, beating them, bashing skulls — which they did, leading to many people feeling weary and broken.
Because there was very little institutional support for the protests, aside from some local organizations here and there providing bail fund money when they could, and since there was very little coordination and direction provided, including at the national level, the protests receded, including its most radical impulses. In its place, companies swooped in, turning BLM into a branding exercise. Politicians like Biden appropriated some of the movement’s momentum for his presidential campaign instead.
Understandably, those who did take part in the protests or who believed in them — their lungs still burning, their bodies torn apart by trauma — returned to their lives, focusing on getting a paycheck and maybe watching some movies about social justice on Netflix. Sometimes, it feels like the unrest never happened.
Power is in Institutions
Since inauguration, Biden and his cohort have reneged on many of their promises on handling issues impacting the people in their base of support. This includes not erasing college student debt, not raising the minimum wage, not ceasing detention policies along the U.S.-Mexican border and refusing to pursue changes to policing that would be systemic and beyond body cameras and more “training.” Companies like Amazon and Walmart have also reinforced their dominance over people’s lives over the last few months
All this has occurred months after the largest protest movement in U.S. history.
“Every action brings forth an opposing reaction,” Fletcher, Jr. explained, “Even when we think we’re winning, we have to keep in mind the other side is plotting a counterattack.”
The forces of reaction, the major businesses, segments of the middle class, the far-right death cult, and neoliberal Democrats have all reevaluated, appropriated, and have retained their position of power in society. None of this should be surprising. Under neoliberal capitalism, the forces of reaction have a material advantage over those challenging them. The major businesses have the money and influence, the far right have the weapons and backing now of the GOP, and neoliberals all have the media and institutions for them to produce narratives and policies that divide people from one another.
Most of all, the forces of reaction, including segments of the middle classes, have the resources to sustain themselves for the long-term battle ahead, to wait and endure the storm. The rest of us don’t have the same luxury of safety and security to maintain such a high level of struggle. How long can any of us keep fighting when we need to go to work?
But the struggle to end police abuse and to build a society free of exploitation and oppression is a long-term one. It is a struggle that will require us to win material progressive changes for our lives and for others in our class. It is a struggle that will require us to dislodge the neoliberals and the right-wing from their positions of power. It is a struggle that will require us to win state power. It is a struggle that requires high levels of coordination of tactics, resources, training, and direction that only a party or some form of organization can provide.
In nearly all examples of successful victories for the oppressed and exploited, there has always been some form of party or organization among the masses, helping bring oppressed and exploited people together to not just voice their discontent but to cripple the power that their employers, masters, feudal lords, and the police have over them.
In Revolution and Evolution in the Twentieth Century, James and Grace Lee Boggs examine the revolutions that took place in Russia, China, and Vietnam. They write:
A vanguard party is the instrument by means of which the militancy and the rebellion of the revolutionary social forces can be transformed from purely reflexive, trial-and-error reactions into purposeful, planned, and programmatic struggles for power. The vanguard party thus increases not only the political awareness or consciousness of the revolutionary social forces but also their self-consciousness, i.e., their capacity to reflect upon and learn from past experiences and practices and out of these reflections to develop programs and plans for the future.
Without organizations like the SCLC and SNCC, or without the Communist Party and churches, the civil rights movement in the U.S. would’ve faltered, allowing formal Jim Crow to last for much longer. Groups like the SCLC, led by Martin Luther King, Jr. at its peak membership and influence, trained individuals in non-violence, provided them with a broader understanding of the power structure they were against and how to strategically defeat them. Most African Americans had been well aware of how unjust and brutal and wrong Jim Crow had been, and there had always been moments of unrest after the end of Reconstruction and the rise of the Black Codes. Yet, it was the work of organizations like the SCLC that took that pain and anguish and anger and situated it in campaigns and tactics that would beat back the forces of oppression and brutality.
Similarly, the Communist Party during the Great Depression was able to organize resources and people in ways that unrest alone could not. In places like Alabama, the party organized campaigns that could tap into wider networks of support across the region and country. Through the party, which had a dedicated core of full-time organizers and strategists, oppressed people and sympathizers could coordinate networks of solidarity that were more than just rhetoric, such as pooling funds that would continue the work of the sharecroppers’ union, as well as funding legal cases that African Americans were facing at the hands of the state.
Robin D.G. Kelley writes in Hammer and Hoe,
The Party offered more than a vehicle for social contestation; it offered a framework for understanding the roots of poverty and racism, linked local struggles to world politics, challenged not only the hegemonic ideology of white supremacy but the petit bourgeois racial politics of the black middle class, and created an atmosphere in which ordinary people could analyze, discuss and criticize the society in which they lived.
For a time, the Communist Party, because it had structure and a core group of organizers, was capable of developing a community rooted in a politics and ways of interacting with each other that could challenge the norms and institutions that upheld Jim Crow, that went against the toxic and individualized notions that people had of themselves and of each other from living in apartheid. People were encouraged to believe in themselves and to lean on each other, otherwise state repression would eventually wear them out.
Right now, there is a pressing need for a similar type of organization to take hold of the crisis that most people in the U.S. are staggering through. COVID-19 has accelerated the downward spiral most working people, especially Black and brown, have been caught in for the past forty years or so. Neoliberal policies, which have concentrated power in the hands of major businesses and their acolytes, have led to the gutting of labor protections, to the deterioration of good-paying jobs, the gutting of social welfare, and the increasing influence of private industries in what should be public goods, such as healthcare and housing.
“We should certainly treat people of color as a very solid core part of our constituency but also there are a lot of white working-class people open to appeals, especially if they’re materialistic appeals, like an appeal for a right to unionize, a right to healthcare appeal,” Piven explained. “There are a lot of issues on our side. Think about the housing issue. This is so important right now. So many people do not have the money right now to pay the mortgage and pay the rent. We have to politicize that rent strike.”
Just imagine an organization that could help fund people for what they need to live, such as food and other resources, so they can spend more time organizing themselves. Just imagine an organization or multiple organizations that can coordinate actions across the country targeting major powerbrokers in U.S. politics, like an Amazon, weakening its hold on all of us. Imagine organizations that oppressed people could turn to for training, education, and other needs, including bail fund money. Imagine an organization operating at the national or regional level who can finally counter the political stamina that capitalists and the right-wing currently have.
This would require current left-wing organizers, whether part of the network of Black Lives Matter activists or members of groups like DSA or those who are unaffiliated but have been organizing in various communities on key issues like police abolition and tenants rights, to coordinate efforts against the police, capital, and neoliberal politicians at a regional level or across the country.
There must be the formation of new organizations and alliances at the national level that behave like a socialist party would, regardless of short-term electoral success, which still remains a long-term goal. But in the meantime, we need some type of national force, perhaps a product of several organizations and different left organizers combing together, that can coordinate actions and distribute resources effectively to protestors who continue to disrupt business as usual for the business interests and their supporters, as well as help cultivate leadership and skills, just like the Communists and the various civil rights organizations did at their peak, that could develop a constituency who is more prepared to continue fighting the struggle more effectively and for the long term.
“What the Left should be doing is coordinating, consolidating, and linking its efforts so that they can amplify each other,” Jodi Dean explains in Crowds and Party, also stating clearly, “What the crowd [unrest] wants most of all—what it lacks—is endurance.”
Again, this would require not just creating campaigns that resonate, but also would require creating institutions like community centers or networks of people who could provide healthcare, housing, and political education. After all, for most people, even those who have taken part in the recent unrest, the upsurges in enthusiasm pegged to a moment of upsurge in protest can quickly give way to apathy, frustration, hopelessness.
Writing about the need for such a national force, Marta Harnecker writes in A World To Build: New Paths toward Twenty-First Socialism,
A political organization is needed because we need a body that sets the scene for the first draft of a proposal, program, or national project that is an alternative to capitalism. This program or project should serve as a map for finding our way, for making sure we don’t get lost, for putting the construction of socialism on the right road, for not confusing what has to be done now with what has to be done later, for knowing what steps to take and how to take them. In other ways, we need a compass to ensure the ship does not go adrift but reaches its destination safely.
Overall, the obsession with decentralization and organizing locally has to be countered with more organizations willing to work across communities. Of course, groups that fill their role as a party should not insist on a purely top-down model of leadership. Instead, such groups must be informed by local organizers on what is needed, and there has to be discussion on national campaigns and politicking. But at the same time, there must be some form of party above the local level that can coordinate and be a vehicle for what we need: a force that can take on the national power that the capitalists and the right-wing already enjoy.
Having a party, or national alliance, or organization, whatever one might call it, means having some space to coordinate, discuss, strategize, gather resources and disperse them where necessary, build across neighborhoods, strengthen solidarity between peoples who otherwise never would know one another, and most of all, provide some unified force, whether or not some at the local decide to ignore such a pressing need. If such an organization was to emerge, chapters would form, agreeing to at the very least take into consideration what the national body (which also would include representatives from various chapters) would suggest. If a chapter simply wants to do everything its own way without any successful results to show for it, they can be cut off from such funding.
This doesn’t mean sidelining what people are thinking and saying at the local level. If anything, having a party or an alliance beyond the local will help sustain the energies of the people and elevate their consciousness by connecting them to others, and imploring people to cultivate communities that can develop more fights for socialism.
Our struggle is not simply to have higher wages within capitalism, or to have police be defunded. It is to build an entirely different set of power relations and to no longer have a society shaped by business interests and reactionaries. Hence, it is imperative to have national organizations that can help in this cause that include veterans from other movements who believe in this need and can help stitch together campaigns and develop others.
“Building socialism entails developing new relations of production, carrying out a real cultural revolution that allows us to go beyond the inherited culture and building a revolutionary subject who is the bedrock of the whole process,” Harnecker wrote. “It also requires that the people undertake an apprenticeship in forms of self-government. These are not things that come about spontaneously, which is why we need a political instrument.”
Labor Power Lasts
Kieran Knuston is President of the Communication Workers Association (CWA) Local 7250, which is based in Minnesota, the epicenter of the recent unrest against police oppression. The CWA represents AT&T workers, ranging from technicians to retail store workers to call center employees.
As the Chauvin trial was underway, local authorities preempted unrest through law-and-order actions like allowing the National Guard to use a labor union building in St. Paul. According to Knutson, the National Guard had at least seventeen armored vehicles, armed with turrets, at the labor facility. Knutson along with other labor leaders headed down to the facility and spoke to members of the National Guard, explained the situation, and got on the phone with the leader of one of the other unions who had given access. Eventually, the National Guard left the area.
“We have to be clear: the police brutality, the racism that working-class Black communities face, is a severe attack on the working class. We have to organize accordingly,” said Knutson, adding that unions are the “defense forces of the working class.”
Labor unions are the most critical institutions to winning and sustaining our demands to defund the police, as well as winning on other issues and interests that most oppressed people need, such as raising the wage, the creation of social welfare programs, and shifting society away from private solutions on housing and healthcare. Even if left-wing groups were to play a larger and more revolutionary role in peoples’ lives, they would still need labor on their side to shift the political terrain beyond simply defending against the right-wing and capitalist attacks towards winning socialism.
At the beginning of the pandemic, while enormous numbers of US workers lost their jobs, society still needed teachers, nurses, nursing assistants, delivery drivers, warehouse employees, agricultural workers, meatpackers, and communication workers to avoid total collapse. Working people as well as companies like Amazon needed workers inside their factories, but working people in “essential” jobs across the country were also needed to keep the wheels of profit turning.
Historian Tithi Bhattacharya stated the following in an interview regarding the COVID-19 pandemic:
The coronavirus crisis has been tragically clarifying in two respects. Firstly it has clarified what social reproduction feminists have been saying for a while, which is that care work and life-making work are the essential work of society. Right now when we are under lockdown, nobody is saying, “We need stockbrokers and investment bankers! Let’s keep those services open!” They are saying, “Let’s keep nurses working, cleaners working, garbage removal services open, food production ongoing.” Food, fuel, shelter, cleaning: these are the “essential services.”
Thus labor is our main vehicle for achieving our demands on a whole host of issues, including on shifting funds away from the police and into public programs that people need. Just imagine when a significant number of people are organized as working people, across various worksites, who now have the capacity to shut down parts of the economy until demands like defunding the police are actually met.
Fletcher, Jr. explained, “When you’re dealing with challenging things through labor for example, you’re basically saying, how can we use an existing institution to prosecute a struggle, how can we tap into the resources of that institution to prosecute that struggle. It’s getting resources and being able to sustain pressure.”
Labor is most useful, however, when it is invested in class struggle, not when fighting for crumbs from the Democrats. Once labor is leveraging its collective power to challenge neoliberal Democrats, conservative labor leadership and rank-and-file, and business elites, only then can it be the type of force that the Left and most working people need.
Labor unions, including unions part of the AFL-CIO, do profess support for racial justice and are fighting for key labor policies like the PRO Act, but overall, have been unwilling to move beyond the prerogatives of the Democratic Party leadership. This political captivity makes some sense, given how labor has no real choice electorally. Unions have to either support Democrats who view labor as just another interest-group, or look toward the Republicans whose policies have been extremely anti-worker.
Still, with unions limiting themselves to the Democrat Party, policies and power that working people need immediately, such as universal healthcare, housing, and an end to police abuse and the dismantling of institutions like ICE, are often off the table in terms of demands, or are watered-down for the benefit of the Democrats and their alliance with businesses and segments of the non-unionized middle classes.
“We have to start having discussions about labor using our power to impact society. Not just assuming we will lobby our way to freedom and equality,” Knutson explained. “The amount of resources labor puts into the political system is a travesty based on what your return is.”
When labor was at its most relevant and powerful during the formative years of the New Deal era, its unions and leadership were invested in doing what it took to truly get what working people needed. This involved cultivating a community that would incubate revolutionary ideas and tendencies among working people.
“The labor movement at its height had workingmen’s associations,” said Lowndes, “It had labor centers, had forms of study groups, lectures, picnics. It was a fully self-supporting movement that took care of workers, took care of people, as well as education.”
There are indeed some labor unions now that are fighting for policies that would benefit working communities overall, regardless of who is in political power. The Chicago Teachers Union (CTU) has taken on the neoliberal Democrats in charge of the city and have done so by siding with the broader community groups fighting on issues like dismantling ICE. Such alliances helped further the CTU’s cause and deepened the resolve of working people across the city. In fact, if the community had mobilized without the teachers, their issues would’ve been ignored by the city council since they lacked the organized power to weaken the establishment. Conversely, if labor was unwilling to move their fight beyond the workplace, their own demands would’ve been easily diminished, with policymakers portraying teachers as standing against working class families, exploiting tensions between parents and teachers.
Rossana Rodriguez-Sanchez is a city council member in Chicago, and part of a socialist bloc elected into office in recent years. She represents the 33rd ward, which has a significant population of Latinos and other working-class immigrants, many of whom are being priced out of the city. The CTU’s fight for diminishing the power of ICE in the city was extremely important.
“They were bargaining over things that are not legal for them but they challenged that because they were trying to make education work for everybody,” councilmember Rodriguez said. “It was a transformational moment to be able to imagine what is possible.”
But the CTU became the force it is now after years of stumbling, after years of gradual progress, years of experimenting, of organizing through losses and doubt. It is now in a much stronger position in Chicago politics due to its leadership and the work of organizers who have sought to cultivate relationships across the city, and to cultivate a constituency that recognizes its needs and interests as being intertwined with the CTU.
Such is the role and future of labor if labor leadership and rank-and-file are willing to take the risks and short-term losses like being shunned by Democrat party leaders.
Decentralization and Power
When I asked Fletcher, Jr. why people needed to be organized into institutions like labor unions if they want to achieve such demands as defunding the police, he responded with one word: “winning.”
In order to win our demands, especially on issues like policing, the Left needs the power to do so. To accrue such power, however, requires amassing resources, including funds and people, to effectively challenge the forces of reaction. We need the creation and support of groups on the Left that can provide discipline, maintain resources, and give direction. Groups that do develop themselves into fighting for what working people need must think about projecting power at the national level, as the Right has long done. Otherwise, we will continue to lose and remain on the defensive, no matter how many local campaigns we generate overnight.
Organized groups can impact government more effectively by creating a constituency and force that can be independent of either political party. This includes building a pool of candidates who are tied to organized groups on the Left.
Rodriguez refers to such electoral candidates, including herself, as “movement-elected.” “We have to strengthen the electoral strategy alongside the movement. They both need to be at the center of the work and one needs to feed the other,” she explained, adding, “The people we want to run for office need to have come from movements and invested in the movement.”
The road ahead is dangerous and winding, and failure is a possibility. But as long as organized groups are willing to fight at the national level and over federal power, there remains a chance in creating a society in which law enforcement is no longer necessary, a society in which people have what they need to live and more.
“Maybe the most important source of resistance is our own timidity and our own weariness,” Piven said. “We have to overcome that. The best way to overcome that is to begin fighting.”
There is no other way.