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(en) ONWARD vol. 3 iss. 1 OUT NOW! - A Democratic Socialist Appeal to Anarchists By Daraka Larimore Hall

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>(http://www.onwardnewspaper.org/)
Date Thu, 10 Oct 2002 02:09:40 -0400 (EDT)


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(While this article does not signify our turn toward
democratic socialism and though we do not agree with
everything in this piece, we feel the author raises many
important points deserving serious consideration by the
anarchist movement. We should listen to criticism and
challenges from those outside of our movement if we
hope to grow -- eds.)

The struggle for a democratic alternative to capitalism has
seen many conflicting traditions. Communism,
Anarchism, Socialism and countless variations and
combinations have emerged. Today, when the call for a
new world has been revived by the explosive protest
movements surrounding corporate globalization, most of
these differences seem to be archaic and almost
theological. Such divisions, many argue, are grist merely
for café debates. Who cares which revolutionary messiah
we wear on our T-shirts? There is work to be done.

But if this movement is about more than reform of policy
- if, as many hope, it can serve as a battery for a new
anti-capitalism - at some point we are going to have to
talk about more than what we are against. We are going to
have to talk more specifically and analytically about the
system we are up against, and, of course, about what we
want to replace it with. In this way, talking about ideology
is an important thing. Working in different areas of the
student, anti-corporate and solidarity movements, I have
made many friends and allies who identify themselves
with the wide range of anarchist thought. As a democratic
socialist, I was often struck by both the similarities and
the differences between our approaches to political
activism and analysis. This essay is an attempt to foster
more debate and discussion between our two currents, to
perhaps challenge some of the strategic choices that many
anarchists have made and to lay the groundwork for a
common approach to anti-capitalist activism. It is meant
to raise more questions than it answers.

Fighting for the Commons

Anarchism and democratic socialism share a common
heritage. Both traditions were born out of workers'
movements. In the heady days before Marx's
contributions stratified the labor movement, anarchists,
socialists and communists inhabited the same political
space. While different currents and conflicts certainly
existed from the very start, a quick read through radical
history shows that, like monkeys and people, we are
closely related even though we look pretty different now.

Our ideal is also largely the same and has remained
unchanged over the century. As anti-globalization activist
Kevin Danaher often remarks, our cause revolves around
"the commons." That is, we are interested in that part of
society which, like the center of the traditional village,
belongs to everyone, is accessible to everyone and
benefits everyone. This is in contrast to those who wish to
distribute all social wealth into private hands, more or less
equally, depending on which side of the
liberal-conservative spectrum of capitalism they adhere to.

I would take this analogy one step further, however, and
say that the fight for the commons has three distinct and
equally important features: It must be expanded, it must
be democratized and it must be defended. It is through an
investigation of these three facets of the struggle, I would
argue, that the differences and similarities between
anarchism and democratic socialism emerge.

Expansion

Both of our movements agree that the commons must be
expanded, that more aspects of society must be brought
under public control and access. We share a critique of
the traditional Communist (Marxist-Leninist) politics
which demand that the only way to effect this change is
through giving the state complete or nearly complete
control over all spheres of social, political and economic
life. We have seen the results of such a strategy.
Anarchists and democratic socialists share an openness to
decentralization, to direct industrial democracy (workers'
control), to co-operatives, to social creativity and to
dynamism of ideas.

Where we begin to differ, perhaps, is how we wish to
expand the commons. Many anarchists believe that the
commons must be expanded completely, almost
instantaneously, through one or many forms of
revolutionary change. Democratic socialists (and, of
course, some anarchists as well), believe that this
expansion can, and should, be a long process of social
change.

They key difference here, however, is that democratic
socialists believe that society is never neither fully
capitalist nor fully public. Institutions such as public
education, public health care, public transportation, public
libraries, consumer co-operatives and neighborhood
policing are all common goods established through
struggle. They expand the control that we have over our
lives. Strong trade unions bring decisions over wages and
working conditions more closely into the hands of
workers, and take such human needs out of the free
market. The democratic socialist emphasis on these kinds
of changes, changes which alter the balance of power
within society and bring things under more democratic
control, differentiates us from liberals who wish only to
use the state to make mitigate, or lessen, the negative
effects of capitalism. For us, such reforms are not enough.
We are anti-capitalists, if gradualist ones.

The good thing about such a gradualist strategy is that it
affects the lives of many, many people. Millions of people
are affected positively by fighting for access to education,
or providing public spaces for recreation. The anarchist
tendency to prefer expansion only through revolutionary
means - for example, fighting against homelessness by
squatting apartment buildings rather than working for
public housing - only solves the problem for a few people
at a time. Neither anarchists nor democratic socialists are
going to abolish capitalism in the next few years, and so it
is important to push it back, chip away at it and help
people take control over their lives here and now.

Sometimes, of course, it is necessary to utilize direct
action. If it is not politically possible to build public
housing, for example, something has to be done: take a
house. But follow it up with a sustained, broad effort to
change housing policy. Many anarchist squatting activists
have done this, of course. This difference is a question of
emphasis, of overall strategy.

Democratization

One of the reasons that many anarchists prefer actions
such as squatting to lobbying or voting for public housing
is that a squat is directly controlled by its residents. It is,
in other words, more democratic. This emphasis is
something that democratic socialists should learn from
the anarchist movement. Too often, we forget about the
need for the commons to be internally democratic,
fighting for a formalized, bureaucratic expansion, without
also arguing for and working for the democratization of
existing public institutions and the creation of new, highly
democratized ones.

As this is something we need to learn, anarchists should
also reflect on the importance of access as well as
involvement. It is great that there are institutions
fundamentally and radically democratic. However, if
nobody has access to it, or, more pointedly, if people are
essentially expected to drop out of mainstream society in
order to partake in these institutions, as is the case with
many anarchist-inspired projects, its impact is severely
restricted. Often, because a public project is not perfect -
take, for example, national health insurance - it is not
interesting to anarchists. This is unfortunate, as truly
strong radical movements in other countries, and in U.S.
history, were ones that took up everyday fights and offered
both analysis and leadership within those struggles.
(Leadership, here, doesn't have to mean manipulation or
coercion.) Recall that the international worker's holiday,
MayDay, commemorates events at an anarchist-organized
demonstration for the eight-hour day, a reform, and not
even a particularly radical one at that.

No anti-capitalist project can succeed or grow or become
majoritarian if it does not address every day concerns. Not
everyone has the time or the mental space to sit around
and get excited by radically changing the world. For most
people, the small struggles of daily life are paramount,
and our politics must be seen as complimentary and
helpful to these struggles, not irrelevant, esoteric and
unrealistic.

It's not just about system reform, though. We can and
should be radical. At different points in the history of
progressive/radical movements, we have emphasized the
creation of accessible, mass democratic institutions. This
idea can be found among anarchists, Christian socialists,
even social democrats. In Sweden, the labor movement
created schools, banks, sports leagues, music centers,
hospitals, restaurants, insurance companies, affordable
housing, retirement homes, libraries, even clothing stores
and hamburger joints, all under the control of the
worker's organizations, open and accessible to everyone.
In the 1960s, in the U.S., the Black Panther Party
attempted a somewhat similar project, with soup kitchens
and free food, schools and clinical programs. Creating
counter-institutions is a good strategy, so long as it is
rooted in an attempt to truly reach out to ordinary people
and help them transform their lives. Otherwise, it is
simply elitist.

Thus, the fight to democratize the commons should not
be seen narrowly. Access is just as important to
democracy as equal participation is. We should not
fetishize process (it's not the end of the world if our public
libraries do not gather books based on consensus), nor
should we be afraid to be radical in creating new
institutions. We also should not let either zeal for creation
or reformist complacency sway us from the fight to
democratize public institutions which already exist. For
example, there are scores of oversight committees, local
school and library boards, block associations, zoning
bodies and other institutions that are potential arenas for
us to fight for more openness, democracy and
participation. Hey, anarchist: run for the school board!

Defense

Similarly, the radical left, including anarchists and many
revolutionary socialists, is sometimes uninterested in the
importance of defending what has already been won,
albeit imperfectly, in the fight to expand the commons.
This lack of interest is certainly not universal among
anarchists, and is the kind of fight in which our
movements most often interact. But all too often,
anarchists are nowhere to be seen on the front lines of
struggles that are of incredible importance to millions of
people. One major reason for this is that the work of
defending what we have won often requires defending
things we don't completely like. This can feel like a major
compromise for a revolutionary. This question was one of
the underlying issues in the conflicts within the left in the
2000 Presidential Elections. For most unionists,
feminists, lesbian and gay organizations, and mass people
of color groups, the damage promised by a Bush
presidency made it worth beating. Worth it enough to
work for a candidate who was not radically better.

The State

Underlying all of these points, of course, is a difference in
attitude towards the state. Part of a gradualist approach is
a comfort with utilizing a democratic state as a
mechanism for creating common goods. Anarchists and
socialists have been arguing about the nature of the state
for over a century, and I will not attempt to add anything
new to the theoretical debate here. Instead, I wish to
make a fairly U.S.-specific argument on the dangers of
over-prioritizing a critique of the state, particularly the
federal government. Representative Jesse Jackson, Jr,
(D-Chicago), often speaks about what he sees as the
underlying conflict in the U.S. political system. According
to Jackson, it is not fundamentally a liberal-conservative
fight, nor is it always a struggle between Democrats and
Republicans. It is a war, he says, that has lingered,
unresolved, for more than one hundred years: the war
between State's Rights and Unionism.

I believe there is truth in this analysis. Many of the most
reactionary and dangerous elements within the U.S. polity
are aligned behind an anti-Federal agenda. It was the
federal government that imposed important civil rights
reforms - including the abolition of slavery - on states in
the South and the West. It was federal reform that
legalized abortion, gave women the right to vote and
outlawed many forms of employment discrimination.
Many important environmental regulations were enacted
at the federal level. All of these gains were made because
social movements forced them, but without the legal tool
of an active federal government, many of these battles
would surely have been lost.

The right wing strategy of disempowering the federal
government is absolutely linked to these facts. State and
local authorities are often easier to corrupt and to keep
white and/or male dominated than the federal government
is. While it is certainly healthy for anarchists, and the left
in general, to be critical of centralized power, it is
important to understand that just because someone is not
progressive just because they advocate for local control.
Of course, many on the right wish to give more power to
the most repressive elements of the federal government,
while at the same time de-funding and destroying its
democratic and progressive capacities. This needs to be
fiercely opposed by the entire Left - not just the
repression, but the destruction of welfare, education and
civil rights as well. The point here is not to deny that the
state can be used against our goals, but rather to broaden
the anarchist analysis to understand that sometimes its
programs and policies are worth defending.

The old adage that one's enemy's enemy is one's friend is
bad advice. Racist movements such as the Freemen or the
Militias should not be romanticized or justified because
they attack the government. The often creepy overlap
between reactionary localist counter-culture and
anarchism is very dangerous. Anarchist thinkers who
have flirted with white supremacy, such as Earth First!
hero Edward Abbey, strike a devil's bargain. Living in the
woods and distrusting the feds does not a freedom fighter
make. There are a lot of fascists who fit that description.

Less dramatically, a dogmatic mistrust of the state,
particularly the federal government, hampers our ability to
effectively champion the cause of the commons. The state
has been an important tool for creating common space,
for democratizing and expanding it, and therefore must be
part of the equation when it comes time to defend it.

The world must be changed, and changed radically.
Along the way, however, we must have the bravery to get
our hands dirty in the not-always-radical business of
building a majoritarian, democratic movement capable of
changing it. No utopian or anti-capitalist movement can
claim to have all the answers about how to build such a
movement. Historically speaking, so far, we have all
failed. My hope is that as we take advantage of the new
consciousness raised by the growing call for global
justice, we are able to look both critically and
constructively at the ideas underlying our strategies and
analyses. Let us begin in our small corner of the
world-wide march for justice and equality.

Daraka Larimore-Hall is a freelance writer and activist.
He has been active for many years in the Young
Democratic Socialists and its international network the
International Union of Socialist Youth. Daraka has
worked in labor support, prison justice and anti-racist
activism in the U.S. and Europe. He currently lives and
works in Hamar, Norway. He can be contacted at
daraka.larimore@iusy.org



contact us | join our mailing list | links | e of ways,
anarchists,
by and large, strive to practice 'a prefigurative
politic' where means and ends are seen as
simultaneous. In other words, 'You reap what
you sow.' While this principle is beautiful in its
commonsense appeal, it provides a distinct set
of challenges for anarchists who wish to create
substantive social change in the present rather
thanThey key difference here, however, is that
democratic socialists believe that society is never neither
fully capitalist nor fully public. Institutions such as public
education, public health care, public transportation, public
libraries, consumer co-operatives and neighborhood
policing are all common goods established through
struggle. They expand the control that we have over our
lives. Strong trade unions bring decisions over wages and
working conditions more closely into the hands of
workers, and take such human needs out of the free
market. The democratic socialist emphasis on these kinds
of changes, changes which alter the balance of power
within society and bring things under more democratic
control, differentiates us from liberals who wish only to
use the state to make mitigate, or lessen, the negative
effects of capitalism. For us, such reforms are not enough.
We are anti-capitalists, if gradualist ones.


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