— Submitted by Jeff Roby
August 29, 2015
Thus far I have explained the phenomena of the heavens and of our sea by the force of gravity, but I have not yet assigned a cause to gravity. Indeed, this force arises from some cause that penetrates as far as the centers of the sun and planets without any diminution of its power to act, and that acts not in proportion to the quantity of the surfaces of the particles on which it acts (as mechanical causes are wont to do) but in proportion to the quantity of solid matter, and whose action is extended everywhere to immense distances, always decreasing as the squares of the distances.
— Sir Isaac Newton
The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy (1687)
Lost in Space.
Thus the moon orbits the Earth, rather than the Earth orbiting the moon. Thus with political parties. The smaller body is drawn into the orbit of the larger. Thus the Left is drawn into the orbit of the Democratic Party. Too simplistic? Perhaps, but the Left’s failure to achieve “escape velocity” and break out of orbit is in large part due to it being oblivious to this obvious fact.
The so-called dialogue goes like this. We are oppressed by the corporate duopoly, the Democratic and Republican parties. We need to be independent of the corporate powers. But with the Left oblivious to the extent of, in particular, the Democratic Party’s enormous gravitational pull, it settles for the illusion of independence — specifically, that membership in a so-called third party is sufficient to declare one’s independence, and endows one the right to denounce all others as sellouts or worse.
Thus form becomes a substitute for the real struggle both within and without the Democratic Party. Rather, the substance of independence is better understood as the actual relationship of an individual or group to corporate power.
A cautionary tale.
Let me tell a small story to hopefully illuminate without playing the definition game:
In the 70’s, I was living in San Francisco. Municipal elections and ballot initiatives were formally non-partisan. And in 1978, rent control was a hot issue. Some tenant activists from the San Francisco Tenants Union and the Renters Alliance wanted to do a ballot initiative. The political experts patiently explained that such was impossible by the looming filing deadline. We silly tenant activists plunged ahead and got the needed signatures in about two weeks, Prop U, it became. On election day, it lost narrowly.
The experts chided us that we failed because we didn’t have a proper “broad-based coalition,” specifically, one that they were in charge of. So in 1979 we became part of the Monster Coalition, aka San Franciscans for Affordable Housing, with the experts grouping consisting mainly of their various organizations’ staff members. I was District 6 coordinator (Mission District). I was also a member of Tom Hayden’s California Campaign for Economic Democracy (CED).
We had long and bitter fights over how strong the initiative should be. During that brouhaha, the head CED operative in San Francisco took me aside and asked me to be CED’s liaison to the tenant movement, a nice little plum. But I recognized that I was being maneuvered into the position of becoming the Democratic Party’s hatchet man. I turned it down, and soon left CED.
The Revolution Betrayed.
Anyway, we fought it out. We were told that we had to water down what became Prop R. In exchange, we would get money and volunteers from organized labor, specifically Longshoreman’s Local 6 (Harry Bridges’ old union, for you scholars out there) And Local 2 of the Hotel workers. And we had to weaken the measure to get the support of the Chinese-American Democratic Club (CADC). The Democratic Party powerful prevailed. Prop R lost badly. The unions didn’t come through. CADC refused to endorse the very measure which had been weakened in their name.
The survivors of the tenants’ movement devolved into clutching the tender bosom of the Democratic Party. I went on to join Barry Commoner’s Citizens Party.
Here’s the point. The decisions I made in that period did not make me an independent. Rather, I made some independent decisions. After the smoke cleared away, my colleagues in that fight made some non-independent decisions, or more precisely failed to make independent decisions. In my opinion. To be independent means to continue making independent decisions. There is no title of Independent-for-Life.
No escaping the need for a “situational politics.”
I am generally reluctant to delve into matters of morality, a field all too prone to abstraction and extremism. But it seems that in our current political environment, where the remnants of the Left are overwhelmed in their impotence in the face of a world gone mad, and are turning against each other with the simplistic self-assurance of the Spanish Inquisition … well, here goes.
Back in the early 60’s, when official religion was coming in for some hard scrutiny and outright revolt, they called it “situation ethics.” And today, when the failures of the U.S. Left are becoming more obvious — and more costly — we need to start thinking in terms of “situational politics.”
There are no hard and fast rules in “situational politics,” but that doesn’t mean there is neither good nor evil, any less than in the “new: ethics of the 60’s. There were still evil decisions to be made, and these days they are becoming more and more evil, if one wants to use a moralistic vocabulary.
A Democrat under every bush.
Yes, Virginia, there is. For good and evil, let us substitute independent and “corporate duopoly” istic, or something like that. The practical point is that one can make independent choices, anti-corporate choices, within the Democratic Party, or within the gravitational pull of the Democratic Party, regardless of whether that puts one on the edge of the slippery slope to hell. We are all on the edge of the slippery slope to hell. Rather than suspecting that there is a Democrat under every bush, they should just know that there is of course a Democrat under every bush. Being an independent party, or being a member of an independent party, does not automatically enlist one in the ranks of the truly independent.
Consider the support within the Green Party for variations of the “safe states” strategy, i.e., not running in races where there is a chance of actually costing the Democratic Party candidate an election, 2000 Nader vs. Gore constituting “original sin.” Consider how the Working Families Party is merely the satellite of the Democratic Party.
Like Jupiter to Pluto, the gravitational pull of the DP is nearly overwhelming, and certainly all-pervasive. Like in West Side Story, “When you’re a Dem, you’re a Dem all the way, from your first rotten vote …” Being a Dem isn’t just something people do on election day. The Dems have this long-standing network of organizations that involved in almost all progressive activity.
There is no way to do this with clean hands.
I am not denigrating the fight for political independence. Who knows, but in my opinion that is where one of the important fights is. And keeping the Green Party going, offering an anchor for future independence is also an important fight. Will it succeed? I hope so. But it requires a lot more intelligence, organization structure, institution-building, and just plain hard work than we are seeing today. To go with the original analogy, that is the path to “escape velocity.”
And it is not to be done through an obsession with rooting out the sellouts among us.
Want to fight racism? There’s the whole still-alive Civil Rights generation of officials and bureaucrats that once fought in the streets. The progression is stunning, from Black Lives Matter acting tough on Bernie Sanders to a closed-door session with Hillary from which they emerged calling her “brilliant.” (Trans members within BLM, to their credit, did disrupt a Hillary event over her shameful accepting big money from the private prison industry.) Oppose the Trans-Pacific Pipeline? You get to work with organized labor, a pillar of the Dem operation. Fight for Medical Marijuana in Florida? The campaign was funded by operators who used it to Get Out The Vote for Charlie Crist for governor last year.
Might as well denounce the air we breathe.
So if the Democratic Party is everywhere, it would follow that the struggle AGAINST the Democratic Party is also everywhere. To be contemporary, the Sanders campaign has both committed Democrats who chase the chimera of making the Democratic Party into a progressive party, and independents who hope to build something independent WITHIN the Democratic Party, with a goal to building an independent bloc there. In fact, all these various struggles are significant. It’s just that one should have illusions about the Democratic Party’s capacity to absorb their impact and even improve the system, without transforming the system. The presence of Wall Street money always looms in the background, and that is as yet untouchable.
There are those who politically think they can maintain their purity through casting themselves away on some political Gilligan’s Island. Think that growing vegetables in their backyard is itself a revolutionary act? Saves on the Federal Food Stamps budget. (My stone Republican father had a garden in our backyard. No revolutionary he.) Sorry, to engage in progressive activity entails all sorts of cooperation with the Democratic Party, even while denouncing them every day at breakfast.
Some on the Left point out that independents (meaning not registered as Dem or Republican) or NPA’s are the largest voting bloc, and we need to appeal to them, to mobilize them. More specifically, appeal to and mobilize the poor. At least they’ve got a clue. But the question to us all is can we organize them? If we don’t understand that distinction, we miss the point completely.
Outcome is uncertain. My own rule of thumb is to “ride to the sound of the guns.” See if there are good people who need support that I can give. And do it.
Or one can endlessly seek out the oceanic coordinates of Gilligan’s Island and find safety there. But even then, I’m not too sure about the Professor.
I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies, but not the madness of people.
— Sir Isaac Newton
having lost £20,000 in the stock market