Elections, Power, & the DSA: The Failure of the Left in Power

Illustration of Ocasio-Cortez flanked by DSA fist and image of crowd of workers with firsts united into one large first.

Recently It’s Going Down podcast interviewed a member of Black Rose/Rosa Negra Anarchist Federation, Patrick, on a wide range of topics related to the utility of electoral politics for advancing socialist politics and the fight for a new world. Covered are both recent and past examples of the left winning power from Kshama Sawant on the Seattle City Council to political parties such as Syriza in Greece; arguments around combining both organizing with electoral work (“all the tools in the tool box”); related to the DSA; and most importantly alternative arguments around social movements as the most effective way to win broader reforms and social change.  The interview is the first in a three part series.

Patrick resides in the Burlington area of Vermont, which is both the hometown of Sen. Bernie Sanders and the former stomping grounds of Murray Bookchin. The below text appears from It’s Going Down.

Elections, Power, & the DSA: The Failure of the Left in Power

Along with obsession over “ANTIFA,” the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) in the wake of Bernie Sanders’ failed Presidential run has garnished mass attention in the press, been demonized by the Right, and also embraced by some sections of the liberal class as the new shepherds of the Democratic Party.

Meanwhile, the DSA has continued to explode in membership, hitting over 50,000 dues paying members in recent weeks. While some DSA backed politicians have become house hold names as the DNC aligned media smells blood in the water in the lead up to the midterms, DSA chapters have also become a fixture at protests and demonstrations, from fighting against the Alt-Right to supporting strikes.

The Growing Power of the DSA

But key questions remains, will the DSA be used, much as Bernie Sanders’ campaign was used, to activate key sections of millennials and the working poor, and prime them for elections? And moreover, when the time is right, will the DSA march them into the waiting arms of the Democratic Party machine after months of building excitement over “socialism?”

In many ways, this process is already happening, as Democratic political hopefuls clamor for DSA backing in some cities which would mean not only an endorsement, but access to grassroots support and willing volunteers.

And those who have been given the DSA stamp of approach have also been very clear about what form of socialism they are talking about: not a fundamental rearrangement of the relationship between human beings and the means of existence for the benefit of those who work for wages or are in misery because they do not have any, but simply a repositioning of priorities over what tax dollars are spent onPerhaps only $500 billion on the military next year, and the library can stay open on Friday.

“You can’t legislate a melting ice-shelf.”

And let us say that the DSA is successful in creating a neo-social democratic current within the Democratic Party, will the granting of basic reforms such as universal health-care be able to make a dent in the crises that are on the horizon? Which include:

  • The collapse of world wide eco-systems which produce food and oxygen, the rising of sea levels and the proliferation of millions of climate refugees, and an onslaught of chaotic weather patterns brought on by resource extraction and fossil fuel consumption. Many scientists contend that unless drastic changes are made in the next 10 years, mass extinction, including our own, on a potentially global scale, may be unavoidable.
  • The continued growth of the wealth gap, homelessness, poverty, neo-colonial racial configurations, and precarity among the vast majority of the work force as automation displaces millions of workers, and the gig economy and tech giants re-define everyday life, while gentrification continues to push working people farther and farther away from where they work, and farther and farther away from a center of power that they could possibly disrupt.
  • The rise of fascist and right-wing populist currents that will present themselves as a tangible, and at times even ecological and anti-capitalist alternatives to neo-liberalism, of which the social democrats will become simply the new face of.
  • The mass proliferation of surveillance and spy technologies coupled with ever increasing militarization of the police.
  • An escalating social crisis fed by declining material conditions but also a growing dependence on technology that helps engender a fierce alienation from the rest of society coupled with a real desire by those excluded from the modern world to end their own lives and those of people around them. This will continue to manifest itself in burgeoning suicide rates, mass shootings, and an explosion of mental illness and untreated trauma.

The point in bringing all of these examples up, is that fundamentally there is not an electoral strategy that can legislate these things away; coming close to even addressing these problems would fundamentally mean creating entirely new forms of life, ways of relating to each other, ways of sustaining ourselves, and ways in which day to day decisions are made within our lives. As our recent guest on the podcast stated during the discussion on Inhabit, “You can’t legislate a melting ice-shelf.”

But on the other hand, others will point to the variety of programs and social struggles that DSA members have gotten involved in, many times, side by side with anarchists and autonomists. Some would argue that there are just as many people involved in DSA that are interested in direct action, community organizing, and building power from the bottom up, as there are those that want to spend most of their energy on electoral politics. Others would argue that for many young people wanting to get involved in anti-capitalist organizing, the DSA is simply the only game in town.

A Series of Conversations

In the next three podcast episodes, we will explore these tensions, as we talk to people both outside and inside the DSA, and discuss the organization with members that see it in both a critical light, as well as one of immense potential. This will include:

  • A group discussion with members of the Communist Caucus of the DSA, out of Oakland, California. The Communist Caucus are not Marxist-Leninists, but anti-state communists in the vein of the Situationist International, the Invisible Committee, and proponents of communization theory. The CC was amazing to speak to, because they originally joined the DSA in the hopes that it would attract a larger barrage of people that wanted to organized and get involved, and instead what they found was by and large another group that simply canvassed for policy changes or local politicians. In response, they have launched a direct action oriented housing organization named TANC (Tenant and Neighborhood Councils), but continued to push from within DSA against the electoral drift towards the Democrats. This episode will be released next week.

  • Finally, we present a conversation with two individuals who are part of the Libertarian Socialist Caucus of the DSA, or the LSC, which according to the folks we talked to, is the largest caucus within the DSA and currently has over 500 members and includes a growing army of locals. The LSC sees itself as the “big tent within the big tent,” meaning that they are open to all non-electoral or anti-authoritarian socialists, anarchists, and communitarians. Moreover, while they are critical of elections, they instead seem more interested in focusing on building grassroots campaigns, infrastructure, and community organizing projects, rather than trying to create a split within the DSA over electoralism. They argue that unlike many anarchist groups and projects which are closed off and hard to find, DSA is wide open for anyone, and it makes sense for anti-authoritarians, anarchists, and autonomous anti-capitalists to build a home inside of it. This episode will also be released next week.

The Path Ahead

Will the DSA simply be used as the socialist lipstick placed on the Democratic Party pig? Will we soon be facing down riot police in the streets, under the orders of “socialist” politicians? Or, will the DSA eventually fracture and split around tensions of electoralism and their relationship to the Democrats themselves? Moreover, should we push to hasten this split, bringing over those that seek to build from the bottom up into our own movement? On the other hand, what of those that argue that instead we should fight from within the organization now, as anarchists and anti-authoritarians already have a foothold inside the DSA.

We’re excited to hear what you think!

We also recommend checking out other podcasts featuring members of Black Rose Anarchist Federation / Federación Anarquista Rosa Negra (BRRN):