New Socialist Movement: “Lefty” Hooligan, “What’s Left?” April 2021

Nie mój cyrk, nie moje małpy
—Polish proverb

It wasn’t my scene.

I attended Stuart Shuffman’s book release party for Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply in San Francisco sometime in November, 2007. Stuart initially xeroxed his zine at Kinko’s and personally distributed it to stores and shops around the city. His handmade publication was about to become a conventional paperback travel guide produced by a now-defunct independent publishing company that would offer a New York City edition the next year. His Guide to Living Cheaply combined two of my favorite things—zines and cheap eats—under the imprimatur “you are young, broke and beautiful” but the raucous release event wasn’t for me.

The party was held at the Rickshaw Stop, a funky alternative music venue near the SF Civic Center with high ceilings, giant red drapes and an overlooking balcony. Stuart spared no expense. Live bands, DJs, alcoholic beverages and prepared foods. The shindig was actually more of a rave. Those who attended were much younger, had funny haircuts and wore bright day-glo neo-psychedelic clothing. There were light shows, dancing and glow sticks. There were tubs filled with bottled water. And there was a bowl of special punch appropriately labeled with a coded Ecstasy warning. I’d been part of two countercultures and I’d never been inadvertently dosed during my hippie days. Nor did I ever dose anyone without their consent, something that punks never much indulged in. But I stuck with bottled beer just the same.

I didn’t know more than a handful of people and didn’t care for the music. So I thanked Stuart for his zine, congratulated him on his success, then left the party early. I’d been made acutely aware by his celebration of the difference between being on the inside versus on the outside of a scene. At any hippie or punk concert I could have easily pointed out where groups following different kinds of music, bands and social milieus hung out. As a hippie at a 70s concert the psych-rock kids were here, the bikers there, and the Deadheads yonder. As a punk at an 80s concert the hardcore kids were here, the skinheads there, and the Suicidals yonder. But to anxious parents unfamiliar with either scene, everyone looked alike. The subtle clues of hair, clothing, symbols worn and music enjoyed were lost on the uninitiated. To an outsider everything looked and sounded the same.

Now consider the current debate over the “new socialist movement.”

rankandfileSometimes I consider myself a Leftist and a socialist. But sometimes I get cantankerous and call myself an “anti-state communist influenced by the left communist tradition, Italian workerism/Autonomia, insurrectionary anarchism and communization theory.” That’s part of a different dynamic of insiders deliberately rejecting their own or fellow insiders’ status for various reasons. The San Francisco Diggers didn’t identify as hippies because “flowers die too easily.” And much of hardcore punk rejected Krishna Consciousness’s crude infiltration of the hardcore scene because krishnacore was a pathetic “subculture of a subculture of a subculture.” These are insider squabbles.

Someone who is an outsider to left-of-center politics and doesn’t see the differences between the Left, socialism, communism, anarchism and the like needs to realize two things. First, there are a myriad different schools, tendencies, factions and sects that identify with the Left, broadly speaking. I often use the terms “the Left” and “socialism” as generic categories to encompass liberalism, progressivism, social democracy, democratic socialism, Marxism, Leninism, syndicalism, anarchism, left communism, et al. Second, the only common element to this bewildering variety on the Left is collective ownership of land, labor and capital (“the means of production”). Such collective ownership might be termed public ownership, state ownership, nationalization, socialization or communization depending on the degree and type of organization of the collectivization in question. So even this common factor is complex and complicated. But when I talk about the Left or socialism—the idea, the movement, the society—I’m talking at base about collective ownership of the means of production.

Everything else is up for grabs.

Who has agency, who benefits, and who rules under socialism? (Workers and the working class, peasants and the peasantry, oppressed and Third World peoples, the people or the masses, the multitude, the 99%?) How do they rule? (From below versus from above, direct decentralized democracy, democratic confederalism, federalism, democratic centralism, republicanism, class dictatorship, party dictatorship?) By what instruments do they rule? (The state, political party, trade or industrial unions, the four c’s—communes, councils, collectives, cooperatives?) How do they achieve power? (General or mass strike, spontaneous mass insurrection, social revolution, electoral party victory, vanguard party revolution, socialist revolution?) What is the scope of socialism? (Local, municipal, regional, bioregional, national, international?) What other elements are necessary for a socialist movement or society? (Extra-electoral politics, social movements, alternative institutions, mutual aid networks, radical economics?) This list of questions and multiple choice options is by no means exhaustive. So why is it when we talk about a “new socialist movement” we are focused solely on the role of the political party?

The discussion of a “new socialist movement” arose from Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential campaign and the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). It has been preoccupied with how and whether to move the Democratic party to the Left versus building an independent democratic socialist or social democratic labor party. Other voices have entered the debate with calls for an orthodox vanguard party, an interventionist party, even a “party of a new type.” But the political party is not the be-all and end-all to socialism. The party may not even be necessary for socialism to advance, win, hold power or thrive.

Saying party building is “not my scene” isn’t strong enough. I prefer the Polish proverb “not my circus, not my monkeys.” I reject the emphasis on the political party because it actually hinders the cause of socialism.  I have my personal configuration for a “new socialist movement” but discussing my preferences would amount to a laundry list of wishful thinking. Instead, I’ll target two elements I think of as absolutely crucial to minimizing the role of the state and party and maximizing the social aspects of socialism. When we talk politics, we talk in terms of good or bad, useful or useless, revolutionary or reactionary. Electoral politics, by and large, are boring, ugly and nearly always business-as-usual by being tied to the corporate two-party political system. Contrast this with the unruly, disruptive extra-electoral politics of antifa, Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, Fight for $15, the Dreamers and other such movements that are “small-d democratic citizen activism bypassing political institutions beholden to narrow, moneyed interests” according to Tony Karon in “Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” who continues: “Those movements are based outside the Democratic party […] but through grassroots activism they have forced their issues on to the party’s agenda.”

Extra-electoral politics dovetail nicely into the importance of social movements in building popular power generally. Social movements reside both inside and outside electoral politics but represent efforts at affecting social change from below. They are multi-issue, often cross-class and frequently polycentric organizational strategies and movements that attempt to build social power in oppressed populations to take on the powers-that-be through mass mobilizations. The Civil Rights, Black Power, Chicano, Women’s, and Gay Liberation movements—along with scores of other social movements from the 60s onward—built power from the base of society. I consider one of the most important social movements to encompass is the labor movement. And by the labor movement, I don’t mean only the official labor movement of organized unions, federations and internationals, but also wildcat labor, undocumented labor, precarious labor, the whole gamut of working class strategies and movements that strive toward self-activity and self-organization. Karl Marx argued that the working class must move from a “class in itself” as defined by its relation to the means of the production in order to become a “class for itself” and constitute the proletariat actively organized in pursuit of its own interests. As such, workers have the capacity to seize power and realize socialism, or alternatively, to be a decisive element in a self-managed, self-emancipated socialist society even without a political party.

Fixating on the self-perpetuating political party is what’s problematic here. At the risk of being accused of the “false and misleading counter-positioning of mass politics and movement work,” I see a contradiction between emphasizing “the importance of our party as a base of militant organizing within the class” and the claim that “electoral work must be subordinated to, and flow from, that organizing” of mass politics and movement work (“A Party of Our Own” by Turl and Sepehri). Wishing party work to be subordinate to socialist organizing doesn’t make it so, especially given the party-über-alles stance of most of those engaged in the “new socialist movement” debate. That’s like hoping your square parents understand the weird music you listen to when all they know is easy listening. They just don’t get it.

SOURCES
Personal recollections
The Poverty of Philosophy by Karl Marx
Ringolevio by Emmett Grogan
Broke-Ass Stuart’s Guide to Living Cheaply by Stuart Shuffman
Hardcore, Punk, and Other Junk: Aggressive Sounds in Contemporary Music edited by Eric James Abbey and Colin Helb
“Why Bernie Sanders’ movement is much larger than this election” by Tony Karon, The Guardian (4-18-16)
“A Party of Our Own” by Adam Turl and Saman Sepehri, Red Wedge (4-14-20)

Let's Party

 

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Tales of Capitalism: “What’s Left?” January 2016, MRR #392

Tales of Capitalism

Pascal Rigo is a baker and an entrepreneur, a French citizen who moved to the United States and became an American. After opening a bakery in Los Angeles, he moved to San Francisco and started a French-based bakery called La Boulangerie on Pine Street. The concept as well as the food was a success with locals when Rigo opened a café/restaurant nearby called La Boulange, then another and another, until he had a small chain of 23 food establishments around the Bay Area (and one in LA). As his empire grew, Rigo partnered with other restaurateurs and investors to start up or buy out local restaurants, coffee houses, even another confection-oriented baking chain.

Now, having vacationed in Paris a number of times, I’d grade his La Boulange effort a C+/B-. The Franco-American fair was decent, meaning above average for the Bay Area and below average for Paris. Rigo had managed to capture a semblance of the Parisian sidewalk café experience without succumbing to the excesses of Bay Area coffee house laptop culture, with many of his stores becoming popular neighborhood hangouts. But as his economic empire grew, a less benign side to La Boulange surfaced. Rigo managed to sidestep or finesse most of the City’s rules against chain store proliferation as a local chain with a lot of clout. Yet toward the end of La Boulange’s rapid expansion, plans for prospective stores met with increasing neighborhood resistance, as when West Portal residents unsuccessfully opposed the closing of a local grocery store to make way for yet another La Boulange. As the La Boulange chain grew, baking shifted from the Pine Street bakery to a South San Francisco factory, which meant standardizing the product and reducing its quality.

There was grumbling in the Bay Area over the chain’s precipitous growth, but Rigo’s business success generated national corporate interest. Starbucks bought out the La Boulange chain for $100 million, gave Rigo a VP position, and integrated a selection of Rigo’s bakery items into Starbucks coffee shops, all announced on June 4, 2012. That meant more local grumbling, even some anger and fear, as quality continued to decline and Starbucks’ intentions became clear. It was an old-style faux friendly corporate takeover strategy where the corporation taking over strips away all the important assets from the taken over corporation before discarding what remains. Starbucks had all of Rigo’s recipes, so they claimed they could no longer afford to operate a parallel chain of restaurants and announced Starbucks was closing the entire La Boulange chain by the end of September, 2015.

Hundreds of people lost their jobs as a consequence of Starbucks’ corporate shell game, and in the end nothing could be done. Capitalism does not respond well to the hard power of the working class expressed in labor agitation, organizing and strikes. The soft consumer power of “voting with your dollars” through economic campaigns, targeted shopping and boycotts often gets a more conciliatory response.

The Bay Area’s angry reaction to Starbucks’ move filled the newspapers, blogosphere and airwaves for weeks after the announcement, causing the coffee giant concern for its reputation, its customer base and above all its bottom line. And Rigo, always the savvy businessman, saw a golden opportunity. He and Starbucks negotiated a deal by which Rigo agreed to take back his original Pine Street bakery and five of the most popular La Boulange store locations as La Boulangerie de San Francisco on September 25, 2015, thereby preventing tech money from installing chic high-end restaurants in their place, diffusing any potential consumer revolt for Starbucks, and making Rigo into a local hero of sorts.

***

This modest tale of capitalism is not intended to elevate some element of capitalism (markets, value, wage labor, the commodity, valorization) to centrality, even though I’m fond of chapter one of the first volume of Marx’s Capital. Nor will I argue over whether capitalism is an open system (per conventional Marxism) or a closed system (a la Marxist Value Theory), even though I consider a closed model to be an abomination before the big G (Gödel). Nor am I saying that small-scale capitalism is preferable to corporate capitalism or that government regulation should favor the former over the later. We live in a capitalist society within a capitalist world order, and continuous economic expansion is the only abiding reality of capitalism. The consequences of capitalist growth-without-end are increasing social misery, economic inequality and ecological destruction. Small-scale mom-and-pop or individual entrepreneurial capitalism inevitably becomes large-scale corporate and monopolistic capitalism. Yet there is a popular preference—whether ill-advised or enlightened—for small shopkeeper capitalism over large corporate capitalism as being somehow fairer, more equitable and less environmentally damaging. I myself enjoy a lively farmer’s market, in San Francisco or Paris, to the sterility of a supermarket any day anywhere, despite my economic fatalism. So, here are a few recommendations for socially responsible capitalist products or small-scale capitalist businesses to patronize:

The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution (movie): This favorable yet even-handed history of the Black Panther Party in the 1960s by documentary filmmaker Stanley Nelson is a treat not just for nostalgic scenes of Oakland and cameo appearances by 60s celebrities. It’s also a powerful if cursory discussion of the triumphs and failures of the Party in general and individual Party members in particular which concludes with a searing indictment of J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI, and their state-sponsored Cointelpro campaign to disrupt and destroy the Panthers. Fred Hampton’s assassination by Chicago police was only one of many government “liquidations” of Black radicals intended to prevent the rise of a “Negro messiah.” This might still be playing in movie theaters when this column hits print, but it will be available in DVD/streaming/download formats soon enough. (theblackpanthers.com)

Jacobin (magazine): The latest attempt to found “a leading voice of the American left, offering socialist perspectives on politics, economics, and culture.” Available in print edition or pdf download, Jacobin began with charting the death of liberalism and continues to offer quasi-radical socialist alternatives. Despite the bloodthirsty extremism implied by its name in honor of the Jacobin Clubs of the French 1789 Revolution and their unremitting reign of revolutionary terror, the magazine’s solutions rarely go beyond the social democratic let alone democratic socialist. The layout and graphics are surprisingly stodgy and there is no letters section, lively or otherwise. Their business model, in shunning advertising for a solid subscription base intended to fund the magazine, is sound and theoretically sustaining. I’m a subscriber. (Jacobin, 388 Atlantic Avenue, Brooklyn, NY 11217/jacobinmag.com)

Arizmendi Bakery (worker-owned cooperative): A market economy based on producer and consumer cooperatives has been touted as a variation on capitalism, perhaps an alternative to capitalism, that avoids the excesses of capitalism proper. I’ve never found this analysis compelling, but I do enjoy a delicious chocolate thingy from Arizmendi Bakery. This is a thriving chain of six worker-run coop bakeries, plus the East Bay Cheese Board, that keeps the ideals of a coop economy alive. And just try asking an Arizmendi worker where to find the tip jar. Inspired by the Bay Area’s OG coop Rainbow Grocery, Arizmendi belongs to the Network of Bay Area Worker Cooperatives (NoBAWC) which has some thirty member workers cooperatives. (arizmendi.coop, nobawk.org)

The Green Arcade (bookstore): An individually owned and operated bookstore in downtown San Francisco, this narrow space is crammed floor-to-ceiling with progressive-to-radical books, periodicals, pamphlets, calendars, and ephemera. Despite its location in the City’s bleak Hub neighborhood, the questionable viability of books and bookstores, and the vagaries of leftist politics generally, The Green Arcade has been open for seven years now. It sponsors community and political events, often in the McRosky Mattress Company building across the street. And it offers to locate hard-to-find items for customers as well as other bookstore services like gift cards and online ordering. Sweet. (The Green Arcade, 1680 Market Street @Gough, San Francisco CA 94102, (415) 431-6800/thegreenarcade.com)

Again, this is not offered as part of any comprehensive, radical critique of capitalism, but as suggestions for capitalist businesses and products that can make our lives a bit less harassed and a tad more enjoyable. For any true critique of capitalism, I still recommend starting with volume one of Marx’s Capital.

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