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(en) US, black rose fed: ON THE OUTSIDE LOOKING IN: A CRITIQUE OF INSIDE/OUTSIDE STRATEGY By Alex Isa
Sun, 14 Apr 2019 09:35:37 +0300
"Yes, I would consider my inside/outside strategy toward corporations somewhat of a Robin
Hood effect ... I use their money, which becomes my money, to produce stickers, posters,
stencils, etc. This strategy was, however, the result of my acceptance of the reality of
things. One of the most jarring realizations this project has brought about for me is the
complete inevitability of supply and demand economics in a capitalist society. " ----
-Shepard Fairey ---- How to (and whether to) engage with existing political institutions
is a perennial topic hotly contested by groups and individuals in left organizing spaces.
By performing well above expectations in the Democratic Party presidential primaries,
Bernie Sanders revived the national outlook for left electoralism. However, electoral
politics are simply one facet of what we refer to as the institutional left - "unions,
non-profits, and those with institutional interests to protect and preserve."
This brings us to the phenomenon of ‘inside-outside strategy' (IOS). You've definitely
heard this phrase used at political meetings and events, perhaps by people who have
varying and contradictory understandings of the term.
Years before Trump's win in the 2016 presidential election, a growing segment of the
anti-capitalist left represented by groups like Democratic Socialists of America
proclaimed in favor of an "inside/outside strategy." According to one popular definition,
inside/outside strategy might be defined as:
the creation of mass movements and alternative activities outside the centers of power
that work in conjunction with clusters of interest - organized or individual supporters
inside or along the periphery of the power structure. IOS is a strategic orientation that
social movements and dissenters have historically used to influence society.
In the past two years, various segments of the anti-capitalist left have dusted off
inside-outside strategy and repurposed it into a theory of revolutionary transformation.
Starting with a brief history of the term and its historical uses, we will see why
inside-outside strategy is flawed both in theory and practice.
The History of Inside/Outside Strategy as a Term
To understand the flaws of inside-outside strategy as a proposal for social transformation
and struggle, we have to understand how it entered the lexicon of social movements. The
basic idea is not necessarily new-something attested to by a long history of debates
around electoralism and political participation, even during the peak of labor radicalism
in the U.S. during the 20th century.
While it's difficult to say with complete accuracy, one of the earliest works explicitly
theorizing the relationship between an "inside" and "outside" strategy comes from a
chapter in the 1991 book Mobilizing Interest Groups in America: Patrons, Professions, and
Social Movements. The authors define "inside" strategy as lobbying activities and
"outside" strategy as "[shaping]and mobilizing public opinion." (103)
In this telling, the scope of change is nothing more than influencing public policy on
individual issues. The protagonists of this process are simply "interest groups" led by
political entrepreneurs who successfully find "patrons" in existing institutional
structures. (196) For much of the 90s and early 2000s, appearances of this phrase
unequivocally reflected and reified the typical elements of liberal political engagement:
Disconnected from any pretense of mass or class organizing
Make a few friends in government
Get some legislation passed
The system works and everyone goes home happy (emphasis on "going home").
This inside-outside dyad was adopted by progressives as part of a long period of
self-reflection on Jesse Jackson's failed presidential bids as a Democrat in 1984 and
1988, paralleled by the growth of his Rainbow Coalition. For many years thereafter,
progressives continued to express disappointment that Jackson demobilized the Rainbow
Coalition and folded it into the Democratic Party campaigning apparatus. This July 2004
piece in The Nation looks back at Jesse Jackson's presidential candidacy and the Rainbow
To speak with Rainbow warriors now is to confront a persistent, deep disappointment that
in the spring of 1989 Jackson decided against institutionalizing the Rainbow as a
mass-based, democratic, independent membership organization that could pursue the
inside-outside strategy he'd articulated vis-à-vis the Democrats and build strength
locally and nationally to leverage power for progressive aims.
For all of the disappointment expressed by progressives, their ideal inside-outside
strategy boiled down to a way to steer the Democratic Party and win elections. The promise
represented by the Rainbow Coalition historically represented a vampiric transfer of
social movement potential to renewed liberal hegemony in the form of a resurgent
neoliberal Democratic Party in the 90s.
"When it comes to the inside-outside dyad, "inside logic" continuously and inexorably
seeks to subsume and colonize those of us who live and struggle outside of the halls of
power-always to the benefit of a few, albeit a different few from the ones who are
currently in power."
In From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation, Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor expertly captures
how figures like Jackson presided over the institutionalization and neutralization of the
revolutionary potential of the civil rights movement at a time when the carceral state
reached ever greater heights under a nominally liberal administration.
Nonetheless, opposition to the neoconservative Bush presidency kept this idea alive,
resulting in the formation of the Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) in 2004. One of
their stated goals was to act as a progressive pressure group operating within the
As a grassroots PAC operating inside the Democratic Party, and outside in movements for
peace and justice, PDA played a key role in the stunning electoral victories of November
2006 and 2008. Our inside/outside strategy is guided by the belief that a lasting majority
will require a revitalized Democratic Party built on firm progressive principles.[emphasis
This meant tailoring their actions to the contours of the existing political structure -
fielding candidates in mostly unsuccessful bids for office, spending time and resources on
procedural fights within the Democratic Party structure, and various lobbying schemes such
as holding mid-day "brown bag lunch vigils" outside of the district offices of various
members of Congress in the hopes of delivering a letter or flyer to the member of Congress
or their staff. PDA also took credit for convincing Bernie Sanders to compete in the
Democratic presidential primaries in 2015. In essence, groups like PDA condition their
members to speak to "electeds" rather than the masses.
The other notable example of this strategy was the Working Families Party (WFP), a
"fusion" political party that maintains a separate ballot line in elections due to unique
New York state ballot laws, but often endorses the same candidate as the Democratic Party.
This variety of inside-outside strategy is meant to gradually pull candidates in a more
progressive direction, but in places like New York WFP will endorse unabashedly
reactionary candidates like Governor Andrew Cuomo in order to reach the 50,000 vote
threshold needed to maintain their ballot line. In order to keep the candle burning for
the faintest glimmer of even mildly progressive change, organizations like WFP must
deliver their supporters unto the altar of neoliberal capitalism in the here and now.
Until fairly recently, inside-outside strategy has meant working with and/or within the
system to accomplish limited goals. That this strategy doesn't conflict with the power
structures of capitalism is highlighted in embarrassing fashion by a blog featured on the
website of the World Bank. Yes, THAT World Bank!
In a post entitled "The Inside-Outside Strategy," a World Bank employee makes a case for
working with officials in the name of "pro-poor" reform:
The logic of the inside-outside strategy is unanswerable. If you start a reform within the
government, it is wise to build wider support; and if you push for change from the outside
you need to transform public opinion all right, but you also need to find allies within
the state. In the real world, that is how things get done.
We can assume that, being a World Bank publication, this refers to the process of
streamlining Structural Adjustment Programs.
In any case, it seems fairly clear that inside-outside strategy was conceived and executed
as a program of liberal reform, one where politics is devoid of any understanding of class
struggle and where working-class people have only the barest form of leverage via social
and political "entrepreneurs" of the institutional left. These figures and institutions
have a symbiotic relationship with the State and reinforce its hegemony while using left
More than their progressive forebears, DSA did the most to bridge the gap between
liberal-progressive politics and the anti-capitalist left, more or less giving us the
current incarnation of inside-outside strategy. In 2014, for example, a statement by the
organization put inside-outside strategy in the following terms:
DSA also understands that unless the labor movement and the Left build the independent
political capacity to challenge the mainstream leadership of the Democratic Party, from
the inside and the outside, its embrace of pro-corporate, pro-austerity neoliberal
economic and social policies will continue as well.
The current political moment has seen inside-outside strategy become an incoherent jumble
of expectations, socialist in words but liberal in practice, aiming for Fully Automated
Luxury Gay Space Communism but trying to get there in a hot air balloon.
Take the Momentum Caucus of DSA, whose platform purports to critique inside/outside
strategy while simultaneously arguing that "we should attempt to use the major parties'
ballot lines without confronting the major parties' infrastructure." Since then,
ironically but to the surprise of few, it was discovered that Momentum developed
organizing projects within DSA (like Medicare for All) with the intention of "folding"
such projects into a Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign infrastructure.
Though advocates of this approach favor building a "mass left-wing formation" down the
line, candidates who have racked up endorsements by DSA-whether they be "soft"
endorsements where members significantly assist and boost campaigns or explicit
endorsements-have hewed closely to Democratic Party leadership, boosted fundraising
prospects for the Democratic Party as a whole, and have gladly accepted endorsements from
politicians who unequivocally represent the capitalist class.
The failure of inside-outside strategy is that movement activists and supporters have
failed to maintain accountability. We can see this rather prominently in the response of
certain DSA members to critiques of Ocasio-Cortez when she expressed support for a
"two-state solution" to resolve the continued civil and military oppression faced by
Palestinians and offered to sit down with "leaders on both" sides. One op-ed defending
Ocasio-Cortez's upsetting blunder threw the premise of inside-outside strategy out the
it would still be wrong to insist that DSA members are under an organizational discipline
to adhere to them. The right to dissent and to express views different from those of the
majority and the organizational center is a fundamental part of DSA's democratic and
socialist-feminist decision-making. DSA has taken a position to be actively involved in
electoral politics, for example, but those who have a different view - including many
signers of the petition against Ocasio-Cortez - are still free to express that
perspective. We would have it no other way.
In practice, this seems like a cynical manipulation of "democratic" practices to keep
those outside of power in a position of impotence, even when politicians claiming to
represent them contradict movement ideals entirely.
Other attempts to defend this triangulation on Ocasio-Cortez's part indicate that "inside"
and "outside" are not at all equal partners in spite of claims to the contrary:
Because the value of an elected official, of an activist in the Advocate role, is to get
things done close or in the halls of power. A senator or congressmember embracing BDS,
would probably be doing so at the expense of their effectiveness in most other areas. It's
pretty clear that the lobbying power of those who support Palestinian rights is not very
high, and in most of the country if you only want to vote for someone who agrees with that
position, you won't have anyone to vote for.
The fact that there was a perceived need to defend Ocasio from the "maximalists" and
"Rebels" to her left, including dedicated DSA members, suggests that so-called Advocates
and influencers (like Ocasio-Cortez) have an overriding role in shaping the agenda and
defining priorities. Members of social movements, on the other hand, are expected to keep
the candle burning and play a support role rather than develop forms of self-governance
that might create anything beyond the State.
The idea that the current mix of democratic socialist candidates, including patricians
like Cynthia Nixon and CEOs like Zak Ringelstein, could create the nucleus of a separate
"mass party," or that a mass party of these same political figures could offer an
alternative vision to capitalism, does not conform to what we are seeing in real time.
Thus, 4 years and a few electoral victories later, progressives and even democratic
socialists have signaled hesitation in challenging the "mainstream leadership" of the
Democratic Party as was promised in 2014.
No amount of premeditation seems to be successful in overcoming the gravity of State
power. "We'll do it right next time" becomes a perpetually unfulfilled rallying cry.
At any rate, DSA national has leaned into the press coverage, membership surges, and
increased national profile brought along by major electoral victories and endorsements. In
an e-mail dated June 28, National Director Maria Svart writes: "In the first 24 hours
since the election results were announced, over 1000 people joined DSA. That's bigger than
the first day of the Trump bump - it turns out that in dark times, people want reasons to
hope. Let's keep these victories coming!"
Whatever the inconsistencies of the candidates they support, national leadership is happy
to boast of new members and dues. It is almost certain that many of these members entered
the organization with a very general and incomplete conception of socialism, heavily
shaped by the measured statements offered on the electoral front. In this way, the
"inside" part of this strategy wields tremendous influence and puts limits on the
"outside" part where these are assumed to work in tandem.
There are more earnest attempts to conceive of inside-outside strategy as a way to build
dual power, where the "outside" might consist of more radical, working-class, and
horizontally-organized social movements, only seems to highlight the woeful inadequacy of
these strategies in relation to the task at hand. Even when inside-outside strategy fails,
the impression that it is succeeding creates a powerful perception that drives dues and
membership, reflecting the agendas and assumptions of campaigns rather than movements.
Beyond this, however, there is also a failure to theoretically recognize the nature of how
power operates at various levels of society.
The Problems of Inside-Outside Strategy: Some Theoretical Considerations
Nascent ideas of inside-outside strategy explained how single-issue interest groups of no
particularly radical persuasion and a highly-professionalized structure could influence
policy outcomes. Later, it became a way for outgunned progressives to "take back" the
Democratic Party in the name of a more humane capitalism. Currently, we are at a stage
where inside-outside strategy functions in the same way but in the service of purportedly
revolutionary outcomes ranging from a social democratic welfare state to a breakaway left
Even as inside-outside strategy was repackaged and painted red for a newer generation of
radicals, various interpretations of this idea reflect an unclear sense of the
relationship between existing political structures and social movements. What's more, they
don't even demonstrate a good understanding of the distinct manifestations of power and
how they operate.
The definition of inside-outside strategy quoted earlier comes from a series of 2016 posts
on the blog Be Freedom, some of which was reprinted in other outlets like Counterpunch.
The author advocates creating mass movements whose aim is to bring about change by working
in conjunction with "clusters of interest" within and on the periphery of power
structures, then gives a disparate array of examples from mainstream politics to labor
unions. From this point of view, these are all seemingly valid arenas of struggle. While
many people who identify as progressive see no contradiction here, a bit of digging
reveals a huge conceptual problem therein.
If we start from the standpoint that all legislative bodies, courts, labor unions,
political parties, and UNICEF are equally valid entry points for transformative mass
movements to exercise power, what are the exceptions? One of the problems with the
advocacy of IOS on the left is the lack of proscribed limits.
What has been jarring these last two years is that some socialists have internalized this
as a system of belief to the point where they can enthusiastically root for District
Attorneys and Judges in their electoral efforts. In the case of Larry Krasner, some viewed
his victory as a step forward and a platform for further movement building based on
reforms such as ending cash bail and civil asset forfeiture. In the interim, however, this
means supporting someone who oversees mass incarceration and prosecutions that plainly
violate freedom of expression.
The power of belief being what it is, supporters can't necessarily be moved to critically
interrogate these deficiencies or offer any broad vision other than improving things in a
piecemeal fashion, punching left and managing expectations.
This was made abundantly clear during the debate on House Joint Resolution 1, the bill
passed by House Democrats-including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna
Pressley- during the government shutdown to restore funding to the Department of Homeland
Security and, by extension, Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Surprisingly, supporters of AOC and even leftists representing more critical tendencies
pushed back against left criticism of the vote and stressed the need for the newly-elected
representatives to build their political clout and momentarily put aside their promises to
When it comes to the inside-outside dyad, "inside logic" continuously and inexorably seeks
to subsume and colonize those of us who live and struggle outside of the halls of
power-always to the benefit of a few, albeit a different few from the ones who are
currently in power. This means that the socialist or democratic socialist label can be
rather easily used to exploit people's expectations in the most cynical way possible to
gain and hold power.
If the revolution suddenly demands that we give our votes and support to Representatives,
Senators, Sheriffs, District Attorneys, and Presidents, should we ask socialists to sign
up for the U.S. Army? ICE? Get a "democratic socialist" nominated as Secretary of Defense?
We've only seen the beginnings of such developments, such as progressive candidates
offering to "abolish ICE" by replacing itwith a similar organization controlled by the
Justice Department. Naturally, supporters of such politicians might downplay these
positions or defend them after the fact, much in the same way liberals (and oddly enough,
some leftists) defended Obama and the "long game" of his presidency: A long game that
inevitably concluded to the benefit of the ruling class and the demoralization of the
We can even take this idea to its most absurd limit: why not start a business and use that
a way to make the world a better place? Of course, most of us recognize this as a joke.
The functioning of capitalist economic institutions guarantees the highest allowable
degree of exploitation. What exempts the State from this logic, reflection of capitalist
economic development and class conflict that it is? If building socialism means occupying
State power-administering prisons, defending borders, and nationalizing the
bourgeoisie-then it is not any form of socialism with strategic or ethical value.
Advocates of inside-outside strategy misunderstand the nature of power, and consequently
make fatal errors of judgement that will limit our collective political imagination and
reduce the most vibrant movements in our workplaces and communities to servants of their
supposed representatives in the machinery of government.
From an anarchist perspective, our approach to social change is to build popular power -
a process where we use our time and resources to create "independent institutions and
organizations of the working class to fight white supremacy, patriarchy and capitalism."
This means looking to our neighbors and coworkers in our political struggles and not
politicians who promise to enact change from on high. All of the press releases and bully
pulpits available to left politicians and bureaucrats are absolutely inconsequential
compared to the popular power we can build.
Alex Isa is an educator, scholar, and member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra in Miami.
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