I choose this title out of ongoing discussions/arguments over the case for building a Dump Obama movement on OpenLeft, a site mainly devoted to preserving the Democratic Party, even as OpenLeft tenders a steady stream of denunciations of Obama and the Democrats (those the gods would destroy …). Dump Obama has gained significant support, tentative consideration, and hysterical denunciation there. But cutting through the hysteria, there is a core criticism of Dump Obama that needs to be addressed seriously. I.e., that Dump Obama is a risky, even panicked, move which could bring about the ruin of the Democratic Party and the ascent of the far right. We rather need, as Paul Rosenberg passionately argues, “building ‘para-party’ structures–meaning multi-issue organizing structures capable of engaging in long-term organizing that builds power independent of existing party structures.” The crux of his argument is that we cannot take risks, and we have time for long-term incrementalism.
“Do you have a detailed plan for how Dump Obama will lead to Progressive Victory?”
“Alas, I do not!”
“Ignorant, stupid, attention-seeking, disruptive sociopath!”
Yeah, that’s me. Actually I hate crisis-mongering. “Crisis at hand! Now is the time for the masses to rise up!” (Worse yet, I hate living — hopefully through — a crisis.) Of course for some, the crisis has been at hand every day for the last 30 years, despite the masses not rising up. Crisis has been trivialized to a leftist marketing slogan. But as the boy who cried wolf found out to his doom, sometimes there really are wolves. And too much like the villagers in the fable, we have grown immune to the cries. But right now, we’ve got us a genuine godawful crisis of the economy, the political system — the whole world order.
The crisis briefly stated
On Thursday, I read a stunning but long piece by Slavoj Zizek in the New Left Review, A Permanent Economic Emergency, that puts it all together.
after decades of the welfare state, when cutbacks were relatively limited and came with the promise that things would soon return to normal, we are now entering a period in which a kind of economic state of emergency is becoming permanent: turning into a constant, a way of life. It brings with it the threat of far more savage austerity measures, cuts in benefits, diminishing health and education services and more precarious employment.
Today we do not know what we have to do, but we have to act now, because the consequence of non-action could be disastrous. We will be forced to live ‘as if we were free’. We will have to risk taking steps into the abyss, in totally inappropriate situations; we will have to reinvent aspects of the new, just to keep the machinery going and maintain what was good in the old—education, healthcare, basic social services. In short, our situation is like what Stalin said about the atom bomb: not for those with weak nerves.
Zizek puts it well. I will concede that there is risk to Dump Obama. But …
Consider the alternative
Our progressive leadership has had a plan, it’s called “Elect More and Better Democrats.” It was in full bloom during the 2004 and 2008 elections, and its crowning triumph has been the election of Barack Obama with solid Democratic congressional majorities. That plan is now dead. Oh? Its last gasp occurred during last winter’s healthcare fight. As the — even originally — horribly flawed bill was drawn and quartered almost daily — Stupak added, public option brutally killed in its crib, House progressives under Grijalva caving in one by one until even Dennis Kucinich went down like Davy Crockett at the Alamo — the almost universal progressive refrain was, “We have to pass it, we can improve it later.” This was a manifestation of More and Better Democrats. If 59 Democrats wasn’t enough, we’d elect more and more every election until we had the 80 needed to pass something meaningful.
So how do we know that More and Better (in every way every day) is dead? We haven’t heard a single peep about how the Democrats have to win this November so we can improve the healthcare legislation. Instead, the battle cry is, “Let’s unite to keep Obama from getting impeached!” Sorry, I’m not inspired by that. We are seeing the Democratic Party implode. It is traditional for the Dems to make some pathetic gestures to their left right before an election to boost their GOTV, fire (warm) up their base a little. We’re not even seeing cold toast. Candidates are running away from Obama, mainly running to the right, as he fails to act on DADT, says no to a moratorium on foreclosures, stays the course in Afghanistan, sets up progressives for the coming debacle, etc. You know, the whole boring litany.
So again, the outcome of a Dump Obama movement is unclear. But the crux of the matter is that it’s a fighting plan, provides a rallying point for progressives. It does not preclude going 3rd party in the general election, does not define itself in opposition to those who reject the Democratic Party and elections completely. It will attract revolutionaries, and it will attract the most foul opportunists — that’s the mix you get from a sinking ship. So be it.
But the crisis is upon us, the dangers will not go away by our not fighting, and what is not possible now will be possible in the years to come. Beats hell out of the whimpering slow death of More and Better.
Notes on method (1)
There are many calls to action out there, like general strike, take to the streets, throw out the corrupt Dems, etc., but they all share a certain disconnectedness. Let me pick one as an example. “We need to have a General Strike!” Allow me to amend that slightly. “If we had an army, we should call a General Strike!” Adding “if we had” to the mix grounds the discussion. What army? One of committed activists? How big? Regular folks? How do we get them?
Suppose we had an organizing committee of 1,000 members. Disciplined? Self-selecting? For what plan? In what environment? More within the realm of immediate possibility.
Suppose we had 10 people like me? Or you? More possible to achieve. But not as strong as that army. How do we get from that 10 to an organizing committee? How does that organizing committee generate an army?
How about existing organizations? Are any viable? How about fighting within existing organizations? Are there viable elements within them that could be part of that army or organizing committee or whatever?
In other words, we have to engage how to move from our amorphous, relatively weak state to one of power. Calls to action have their place, but they are not sufficient. It means engaging concrete tactics, analyzing how the social process will develop, how the crisis will develop. It means trying to anticipate how things will look one year from now, whether notions that seem absurd at the moment will look like common sense if the recession goes into a second dip, for instance, or we actually go to war with Pakistan, or if Israel bombs Iran, or if there is another terrorist attack here in the U.S., none of which are outside the realm of possibility in a crisis.
Notes on method (2)
Our relative powerlessness leads to a second problematic syndrome. Trying to figure out how we get THEM to do something. How can we get Obama to move left? How can we push the Democratic Party? The question instead needs to be, how do we build our power? Power in its own right. For if we have power, we could find answers to the above questions, or decide that the above questions could be dispensed with altogether.
But that requires being willing to look into the abyss that yawns before us.
Meanwhile, a small, more concrete Dump Obama is beginning to emerge. More on that in my next post.