Author: Douglas

Democracy Is More Than A Ballot Every Two Years

….and do other stuff, too.

There is a common sense about democracy in the United States.

We elect people to government. By and large, we allow them to do their work. If we like their work, we re-elect them. If we do not like their work, we sometimes get angry, but that anger is mostly confined to the ballot box every two to four years. The power and agency afforded to one in this system is largely based on class: the wealthy are sought out for consult and decision-making, while the working class is almost entirely shut out of such channels of power completely.

This common sense complicates the everlasting tensions between the Left and the electoral process.

On one hand, the crafting of this two-party system is not natural, and is the product of a long line of decisions taken by the privileged and powerful to limit the acceptable realm of solutions to the problems plaguing our society. Barriers such as onerous signature requirements and the lack of alternative electoral options — such as fusion voting or proportional representation — means the choice that one is presented with on their November ballot often constitutes shades of the same. As such, socialists are right in denouncing the American political process as a kind of sham: democracy for the bosses and authoritarianism for the worker.

Yet national mythologies and common senses are rarely formed without at least some acquiescence from the working class, and it is no different with the electoral process. The truth of the matter is that, for now, the ballot box is the way that a plurality of the working class marks their political preferences. Because of this, socialists cannot afford to completely dismiss the electoral process, lest we be out-of-touch with the class that we seek to elevate, liberate, and emancipate.

So then, what is to be done?

Don’t Call It A Comeback

Because the Comeback™ would not be complete without a celebration of displacement and gentrification.

In case you have been living under a rock, Detroit Is Coming Back™.

For years, Detroit has been the poster child of American neoliberalism and austerity. In Michigan, the state is allowed to appoint officials that supplant those who have been duly elected by popular vote in times of financial distress. These officials, known as emergency managers, are granted sweeping powers to do whatever it takes to “balance the books”, even if it means shredding the public sector and the services that they provide to the working class. The institution as a whole is not simply an attack on services; it is an attack on democracy itself, especially since emergency managers have the power to remove “uncooperative” elected officials.

Realizing this, Michiganders went to the polls in November 2012 and rejected Proposal 1, which ended the authority of emergency managers in the state. Not to be deterred, Gov. Rick Snyder — who had campaigned for the office in 2010 on being “One Tough Nerd” and “running government like a business” — and his fellow Republicans in the state legislature passed Public Act 436, which made mild modifications to the previous statute but kept in place the emergency management system.

The emergency manager for Detroit had one job: make the city safe for capital again. Kevyn Orr, the corporate lawyer who was appointed as Detroit’s emergency manager in March 2013, took to the job with aplomb. Union contracts were cancelled, retirees saw reductions in their benefits, and city services were sold to private firms. Orr directed the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to cut off water to those who were behind on their bill, adding another layer of cruelty to working-class families in a city devastated by capital flight and a toxic brew of violence from white supremacy and spatial segregation.

The financial bankruptcy may have ended in 2014, but the social and moral bankruptcy continues amongst those who rule this city. Talk to any long-term Detroiter and they will tell you the same. But if you are unable to make it to this city — a gem full of culture, great food, and even better people — then I direct you to a shining example of such elite turpitude: Detroit Homecoming.

The Revolution Will Not Be Voted On

This piece is going to break a rule that I set out for this blog about two years ago, which is that none of the pieces here will be based on things that happen on social media.

That rule is there for numerous reasons, with the biggest one being that producing content that is Terminally Online can distort the real-world reach of certain people, events, and statements. Because the world of social media can be all-encompassing, it is easy to forget that the person with the terrible opinions that you hate is probably unknown to well over 90 percent of your neighbors.

But for Markos Moulitsas and Joy-Ann Reid, I am willing to make an exception.

Another Harvest In An Orchard Of Strange Fruit

It was a cold night in the fall of 2002 when me and my then-girlfriend pulled up to the public parking lot at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to relax and snuggle a bit. I was 17, a country kid from southeastern Virginia who had just moved to the area with my father the previous summer to start college.

Doing this in the front of my car was not a particularly comfortable experience, so we decided to hop in the back seat. I had to clean it out first, of course, so I did just that before we settled in to watch the moonlight glistening off the lake. It was to be, it appeared, one of those nights that sticks with you long after the moment has passed. Not because anything dramatic happened, but because we tend to remember those little instances in our coming of age where things might have been a bit simpler and sweeter, particularly as the grind of adulthood makes such moments difficult to come by.

And, without question, that night has remained stuck in my mind. I wish that I could tell you that the memory was positive; it might have been, were it not for the Minneapolis Police Department.

I saw the police car entering the parking lot just a minute or two after we had settled in. I tensed up a bit — my parents gave me The Talk just like any other — but I figured they would just pass us by and leave us be. That changed when the cop in the driver’s seat flashed the spotlight into my car. I am thinking, “Oh God, I hope they don’t think I’m trying to fuck out here.” Figured that I would just explain to them how my parents would not particularly approve of such behavior and hope that they would just let us alone.

“Is this cup yours?,” asked the officer with the blinding spotlight.

In my rush to clean the car, snuggle for a bit, and then get home before it got too late out, I had forgotten to pick up a Wendy’s cup that I had dropped due to my hands being full of trash from the back seat. I stated that it was mine, apologized profusely, and went to throw it away. I figured that would be enough. But while one of the cops looked over my driver’s license, his partner kept getting more and more agitated.

“Oh, so you think that you can just throw your shit all over the place whenever you feel like it, huh? You think we’re gonna just pick it up like mommy and daddy do at home?”

You can probably imagine that I do not particularly care for people who speak of my parents this way. But having grown up with the highlight reels of Your Friendly Neighborhood Law Enforcement Officer At Work  — Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Sean Bell — I knew that getting angry would result in a situation even more unpleasant than the one I was currently facing. So I simply stood my ground and said that he did not need to take it there and asked for their last names.

“Who do you think you’re talking to, you spoiled bitch?!”

At this point, the officer checking my driver’s license has to, basically, hold his partner back and tell him to calm down. My driving record was obviously spotless, and the officer handed back my license after a few minutes. With an admonition to “pick up your trash next time,” the two Minneapolis cops drove away in their patrol car. I never got their names. I never got their badge numbers.

When that cop stood there on a cold Minneapolis night and disrespected me so forcefully, every bit of anger and bile inside of me exploded. I yelled. I pounded the roof of my car. I spit. I cried. I punched my steering wheel.

And then I did something stupid: I got in my car, turned it on, and said that I was going to go after those cops. My girlfriend begged me not to do so, but I was not listening to anything she had to say. She was quick to pick up on this, and threw herself across my lap in order to prevent me from driving anywhere. I did not chase after those cops, which is probably why I am here to tell you this story in the first place.

I felt powerless then. And on July 6, 2016, that feeling of powerlessness came flooding back to me as news of a police shooting in St. Paul, Minnesota came flooding through Facebook in graphic detail.

When the work is PhD: labor struggles on campus.

To an outsider, the work that a graduate student has to do might seem easy. A bunch of people who get paid to read and write all day, yeah? What could be easier than that?

But the work that graduate students do is extensive: we read; we write; we teach, with all of the grading and outreach work that such a job entails; we are pressured to write on things that “contribute to the literature”, meaning that we must come up with ever more inventive lines of inquiry in our research; engaging such research requires that we do traveling to uncover the mysteries of America’s social, political, and economic history in our nation’s highly fragmented system of archives. In addition to this, students must navigate the politics of each department, making sure that the people on your dissertation committee get on well enough so that infighting does not compromise your ability to produce quality work and graduate.

All of this must be done while keeping an eye on the caps that most departments place on both the money they will give you and the time you have to complete your work. Small wonder that most graduate students spend at least 40 hours a week on their graduate work.

We have not even discussed the health care needs of many graduate students. Depending on the field, anywhere between a third to half of graduate students live with some sort of mental illness. The things needed to ameliorate these illnesses all cost money: psychiatrists, counselors, and medicine if necessary. These ills of the mind can also affect the body, with grad students often experiencing sore throats, muscle aches, stomach aches, and much more around stressful periods in study, such as comprehensive exams and dissertation defenses. Even if you go to the student health center on your campus, taking care of yourself is not necessarily a cheap proposition.

These realities have driven graduate students in the United States to fight for the right to collectively bargain ever since the late 1960s, when the graduate students at the University of Wisconsin in Madison formed the Teaching Assistants’ Association. Today, this fight has spread across the country’s graduate schools like wildfire, with campaigns at Washington, Duke, American University, Yale, Columbia, and the University of Chicago.

They Have Learned Nothing And Forgotten Nothing.

Look, I should be upfront about this: I am not a Democrat — though I was at one point — nor do I think that the Democratic Party is an entity that will ever have the working class’s interest at heart. In a way, the party’s flailing campaign of red-baiting and blame-shifting onto pointless crap that few people give a damn about works as a benefit to socialists who are working to build a politics of equality and liberation. Additionally, I really hate writing response pieces; I would much rather be thinking of ideas that can be put to use as we move forward.

But after reading Susan Bordo’s article in the Guardian — titled “The destruction of Hillary Clinton: sexism, Sanders and the millennial feminists” — I simply could not help myself on this.

So You Think You Can Take Over the Democratic Party?

The Democratic presidential primary has finally come to an end, with the longtime frontrunner Hillary Clinton clinching the nomination. Bernie Sanders has now come out and said that he will work with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump. It may have killed hopes that some leftists may have had that Sanders might still run as an independent or with Jill Stein on the Green Party ticket, but his endorsement of Hillary Clinton is far from unexpected.

With the nominating process now behind us, the question for supporters of Bernie Sanders both unwavering and critical is simple: What is to be done now?

One of the solutions that will eventually be bandied about is entryism, which is the practice of having people join a party en masse in order to engineer a takeover of the political party in question. The most famous modern example of entryism occurred within the Labour Party in the United Kingdom in the late 1970s through the mid-1980s. There, members of a Trotskyist organization known as Militant attempted to steer Labour to the left by signing up to join the party and winning control over the organization piece by piece. They succeeded in having a Militant member named as the National Youth Organizer after taking over the Labour youth organization, meaning that the organization had one person on the National Executive Committee (NEC). Attempts by more moderate Labourites to expel Militant were initially unsuccessful, but after the Militant-dominated Liverpool City Council decided to run a deficit in contravention of national law, Labour eventually succeeded in expelling the organization from the party. They even went to the extent of deselecting Militant’s two MPs (more on this later).

Left-liberals and social democrats in the United States might push forward by saying that working within the Democratic Party is the best way to ensure that the concerns of the working class get heard, and that we should use the enthusiasm generated by the Sanders campaign to bring people into the party with the hopes of changing it. Let’s engage with this idea and analyze just what it would take to have this happen.