Boots outside the box

There are moments I keep going back to.  One is the run-up to Bush’s invasion of Iraq.  The demonstrations were incredible, propelled at electronic velocity through the internet and into the streets around the world.  Per Wikipedia:

“According to the French academic Dominique ReyniĆ©, between January 3 and April 12, 2003, 36 million people across the globe took part in almost 3,000 protests against the Iraq war.”

And where are the snows of yesteryear?  Same place as the demonstrations.

From time to time, I’ve talked about the “we,” and the question of how the blogosphere can be transformed — or not transformed — into so-called boots on the ground.  I’ve answered the question, how do WE stop fascism, with, first we have to develop the we.  When bold proclamators expound that WE must do this, WE must do that, WE must bend the politicians and their running dog lackeys to our progressive will, I’ve responded with, “Who is the WE?”

But I suspect that there’s some smart-ass out there saying, hey, you keep asking the same damn question, how about YOU giving us an answer?  No, I’m not now announcing that I’ve come up with the answer to who is WE.  Would that I were.  But I do want to give it a bit of a rassle.  See where it goes.

First, let me set out a proposed endpoint

You need a large but manageable organization (it is possible, of course, to have several), not committed to any specific issue, not committed to any specific constituency, but committed to progressive social change (socialism, anarchy, perfected welfare state, new international world order, that’s a whole other discussion).  This organization, with thousands of members, uses the blogosphere, but exists independently of it.  The organization would have a democratic decision making process for deciding what the direction of the movement needs to be, both strategy and tactics.  This organization could work inside or outside of any electoral party as it saw fit, but would never be subordinate to any electoral party.

The organization would have the support of mass-based organizations representing issues or constituencies.  It would be able to provide political guidance to these organizations.

This is along the lines of the Communist Party USA up into the 60’s, in more amorphous form in the radical movement of the later 60’s, and in bastardized form in the Democratic Party post-McGovern.  I am not interested in resuscitating any of the above, by the way.  I repeat two essential conditions for this organization.  It uses the blogosphere, but exists independently of it.  Likewise, it uses the Democratic Party but exists independently of it.

I set out the above, in discussing getting boots on the ground, because I have no interest in having boots on the ground in order to support the same old shit that’s gotten us into the disastrous mess we’re now in.

Now lets look at what is.  We have a massive political blogosphere.  I consider multi-issue groups such as MoveOn part of the blogosphere, in that they do not depend on any physical proximity for their operations, despite their use of small local demonstrations.  I would include single-issue groups such as NARAL and NOW in this category as well.  Their main activities are e-mailing their members to send e-mails to Congress and money to themselves.

For the record, the Full Court Press is part of the blogosphere, and shares its weaknesses.

The political blogosphere contains many blogs of varying size and quality.  The blend varies from blog to blog, but while they vary considerably in the shrillness of their rhetoric, they all have divisions along the lines of subservience to the Democratic Party vs. independence from the Democratic Party.

This is noteworthy because the Democratic Party, as the hegemonic organization on the left (both in size and in determining the terms of discussion) unites the pro-Democratic Party forces, while the more independent forces have no unifying organizational thread — other than their common (hostile) relationship with the Democratic Party.

I consider the progressive blogosphere a serious failure, at least in terms of the hopes of many.  While one may point out this or that accomplishment, I point out the failure to win any kind of public option in the healthcare bill, the failure to make abortion rights a serious issue in that fight, the renewal of the Patriot Act with hardly a peep, and letting Obama massively escalate the war in Afghanistan.

Thus the gap between what is and what is needed is huge.  If I thought there existed even a kernel of what is needed, I would clutch at it.  But I don’t see it.

So how was it done before the blogosphere?

In 1900 (to pick an arbitrary date), there were no blogs, not even in France.  Two elements are worth pointing out.  First, there were unions or workers wanting unions or workers engaged in shop floor disputes.  And however weak they were in the beginning, there was the proximity of the point of production.  The factory, the railroad tracks, the fields.  Second, there were students, with the proximity of the university.  They formed study groups, small to be sure, but gathering in the same room.  The union would develop a plan of action for organizing.  The students would come to agreement on how to change the world, and if they couldn’t, then they would argue and resolve themselves into multiple groups.  But there were groups — of students, of workers — with some physical proximity and some ideological cohesion.  Groups formed larger groups, workers committees formed organizing committee and later unions.

They gravitated towards each other, the students (or lawyers) or other professionals would have theories of justice and social change, the workers would have their grievances and their job actions.  Even when the numbers involved were terribly small, there was a synthesis.  The students and intellectuals did have some kind of vision. The workers had some muscle.  The students could write leaflets and get them printed.  The workers could dodge the foremen and organize their shops.  The workers were the driving force.

(I would add that in the U.S., much developed here as the results of radicals and workers fleeing Europe and becoming the core of the radical labor movement here, but the class dynamic still holds.)

There was life there.  There developed strong industrial unions.  There were socialist and communist and syndicalist and reform parties.  There were revolts crushed, and revolutions doing some crushing, all developing out of this, to use traditional terminology, petit-bourgeois/working class alliance — growing from kernels that entailed physical proximity, two units, the university and the factory.

In the 60’s in the U.S., the proximity evolved among two forces.  Students were packed into mega-universities with 40,000+ students.  Traditional methodology didn’t exactly apply, as the students in large numbers were being themselves proletarianized.  The driving force was the civil rights movement, and later the northern urban Black Power movement.  Again, it was a version of the petit-bourgeois/working class alliance.  The proximity units were the university and the city or ghetto.  Student radicals worked hard to expand their base outside the universities.  Any alliance was cut short as Nixonian repression and McGovern co-optation won the day.

Their proximity is now the proximity of the graveyard.

What do we have left?  The unions are completely dead in terms of driving social change.  They are a moderately liberal lynchpin of the Democratic Party.  There is action on the campuses, against cutbacks, boycotting Israel, etc.  But they are disconnected through no fault of their own from the national political scene, unlike the anti-war students of the 60’s.  (Why is a whole different subject, I’ll leave this as an assertion for now.)   What remains of the Civil Rights movement is long absorbed into Democratic Party politics.  The Congressional Black Caucus was not a leading progressive force in the recent healthcare debacle, for instance.  The radical constituencies of the 60’s and early 70’s relate less to each other than to the mediating Democratic Party.

There is a massive progressive blogosphere, on the other hand, as mentioned above, divided into many blogs, each of them with strikingly similar political divisions within them.  I would not call it dead.  I would call it impotent when measured in terms of its numbers.  The lack of proximity is a serious problem.  How do we call a Docudharma demonstration, for instance, even a small rally at some congressman’s office?  When we don’t even know where each other is from, when this or that commenter may live across the street or across the nation?  Additionally, apart from the basic practical difficulties, I think there is something paralyzing to our spirits from this lack of physical presence.

One obvious question, or so it seems to me, is why can’t all the independents, all the radicals, all those fed up with Democratic Party sellouts, come together?  A new, radical mega-blog.  A  new organization of any kind.  Don’t the times scream out for something like this?

I don’t think it can happen

The blogosphere operates as a massive petit-bourgeois intelligentsia  (to revert to traditional terminology).  Does the term irritate you?  Who me?  I work for a living, I grind it out in the office, the factory, the schoolroom, I barely make enough to get by, I’m economically on the edge, I can’t make my mortgage payments!  You dare call me a petit-bourgeois intelligentsia!

Yeah, I do.  And I hope it irritates you.  I also hope it irritates you that the blogosphere renders you as such, despite the fact that your economic status likely renders you working class.

It is not the failing of any individual, and in better times it wouldn’t be considered a failing at all.  It is problematic because in this country at this moment, there is no driving engine of social change.  No mass student movement.  No strike wave.  Demonstrations are rendered an empty ritual.  Many things are simmering — about the war(s), gay marriage, Wall Street — but none reaches the level of a driving engine.  None captures the national mood, none creates the spirit that can pull all other forces in their wake.  If there were a driving engine, the blogosphere could add to it incredible force, near-instant communications, national sense of unity.  The size and speed of the 2003 demonstrations would be equaled and eclipsed.  The organizational endpoint I outlined earlier could be achieved.

In the absence of such, the blogosphere cannot transform itself into boots on the ground.  It can only be transformed by something more powerful, something outside itself.  Something new.

On the ground, people are being destroyed

I wish I could end this essay with clear conclusions and some bold call to action.  All I can do is some general pointing.  Last year, I said it was the year of the Titanic sinking, and that this year would be the year the Titanic went under and people were in the freezing water.  That gloomy prediction is unfortunately coming true.  (Next year, the bodies start washing up.)  My experience with the Union of the Unemployed Thinktank shows me the potential.  In about a two weeks, I recruited 200 members to a Facebook group from the International Association of Machinists Union of the Unemployed, around the issue of the government starting a program of WPA-style jobs.  The IAM’s Union membership at the same time zoomed from 500 to 1,500 members in a few weeks — mainly from one small article in the AlterNet online site.

The IAM union is now being left to die by the IAM, membership stalled around 1,800.  The simple publicity work that could lead to it having hundreds of thousands of members within months is not being done.  Unemployed people are more radical than your average union member, and this would create problems with the IAM’s cozy relationship with the Democratic Party (there is a  long of history of this in American labor).  They can be moved.  They are smart.  I particularly love the picture of a sad and bedraggled homeless man crouched in front of his tent, pounding away on his laptop.  They are dangerous.  In a good way.

The homeless are increasingly starting to cluster in small tent cities, and the police are breaking them up.

The foreclosed are looking around in bewilderment.  Me, a poor person?  But I was living the American dream.

Families are living on food stamps AS INCOME!  Hospitals and schools are closing, and every social service is being cut, and city workers are now on the streets, and subway fares are shooting up and bus lines are being eliminated, and healthcare is falling apart, and women and children are being beaten and killed in their own homes by their desperate and ashamed men, and homeless shelters in New York are going to start charging rent, and abortion is getting ever harder to get while raising children is getting harder to do, and crime rates are going up, and hate crimes are going up, and the workplace is being transformed into a hellhole because employers can sexually and racially harass, and Latinos are being stopped in the street Gestapo style and asked for their papers, and people are walking into places with loaded guns and opening fire, and the poor are dying, and …  And Obama and the goddamn Democrats are letting it all happen while they clutch their useless congressional majorities.

(I’m very far from being okay)

The poor and those being destroyed can’t stop it.  The anger is there, yes.  But the anger is overshadowed by fear.  Reasonable fear.  Fear of near-total vulnerability.  Little social leverage (can’t go on strike, can they?).  The fear that comes from being alone.  Politically abandoned.  They can’t do it alone.

Yet if the poor were organized, if they weren’t alone, the anger could overpower the fear.  You would have that driving social engine that could drive the entire progressive movement.  You’re poor?  Close the Pentagon.  You’re poor?  Take Wall Street’s trillions.  On and on, we all know the litany.  We don’t have the engine.

One idea kept floating through my head when Cindy Sheehan and Peace of the Action were setting up a tent city in March in Washington, DC as the base for weeks of protests.  Suppose the unemployed and homeless showed up at the tent city and, in exchange for shelter, joined the protests?  Sheehan later even said that had been their idea as well.

It didn’t happen.  The expected mass of protestors didn’t show up in significant numbers.  They’ll try again this summer.

But I went to the Peace of the Action website, saw that their demands were getting troops out of the Middle East, reparations and benefits for veterans.  Nothing about jobs and the poor.  Checked out their housing stuff and saw it was adequate for only a few hundred people at most, read that the police had not allowed people to actually camp in the tent city.  Having the unemployed descend on them would have created all sorts of legal and logistical difficulties.

Okay, they tried.  I respect them for that.  The resources weren’t there, the base of support that loved Cindy Sheehan back in the day had moved on to more important things like Obama’s disastrous healthcare bill.

But the concept still has power.  Of the millions that a group like MoveOn raises, what would it take to make something like this work?  Or the unions?  Forget it.  The important thing is to defeat Blanche Lincoln (who indeed deserves it).  But dumping Lincoln solves little.  Building an alliance between the blogosphere and the poor would transform everything.

Here’s where I — who hates bold proclamations and dramatic calls to action — wish I could make a bold proclamation and dramatic call to action.  Sorry, can’t do it.  All I can do is suggest and point.

Organizing and mobilizing the poor isn’t just another good issue, along with all the other good issues.  I’ve been known to be rude.  So let me be rude here.  Mobilizing the poor is MORE IMPORTANT than other issues.  Not all other issues, to be sure.  But more important than filling MoveOn’s coffers.  More important than re-electing our Democratic incumbents.  More important than funding thousands and thousands of letters to our congresspeople and online petitions that end up in online trashcans.  More important than the Full Court Press, if you must ask.

We have to do this.  And I’m thrown up against my own damn question, who is the we?  I don’t know.  Blogosphere can’t do it.  I can’t do this.  I can’t make it happen.  You, as an individual, can’t make it happen.  I suspect it has to be done, in some way, outside the blogosphere, independent of it.

But it has to be done.

        *  *  *  *  *

Want to try something?  Go to Paladinette’s Facebook group Now: Jobless / Next: Homeless and join.  You won’t be turned away if you have a job.  They are trying to mobilize by having people fax their resumes to our politicians to protest there being no Tier 5 of unemployment benefits (no benefits beyond 99 weeks).  Mayday SOS Fax Resumes to Washington.  It will hearten some very good people.


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    • jeffroby on April 18, 2010 at 01:02

    Buy low, sell high.

  1. Having a real investigation into the events surrounding 911 would have stopped both wars cold.  That being said all of the anti-war groups shun the 911 truthers.  This is fact, has been reported about many times over the years I have been in the movement.  Both parties villify 911 truth as do foreign governments, corporations, all large organizations like moveon.  It is a coalition of the ignorant or more likely a coalition of the corrupt.

    Outside of the Project for a New American Century what other ugly secrets were just too big for American’s to handle on 911.

    • Xanthe on April 18, 2010 at 02:44

    Sometimes I think the blogosphere is detrimental to political action. We do not come together in meetings, groups to discuss – to ring doorbells – to go into the street and sell the agenda.  To hit the streets enmasse – you blog, you feel better – you forget it.  The city party apparatus does some of those things, it’s true but they are generally entrenched in a status quo mentality.  But really we should do it as well – those of us who for instance come here to Docudharma.

    Blogging is too easy.  Good idea to send operatives into tent cities and agitate for change – to shelters – to women’s shelters – recruiting centers.  You think these people are too dispirited to rise up – or maybe just ready to do so.

    Wait, jeff, aren’t you the guy who wrote about civility.  Change of heart?  

    • jeffroby on April 18, 2010 at 03:51

    This is good news.  Unions are very schizo about whether to organize or not.  This sounds good.  The question remains, what will happen when this starts pissing of Democratic officeholders?

    Ninety days after its launch, UCubed remains a work in progress. But the foundation has been laid. And cube by cube, Ur Union of Unemployed is expanding. UCubed is fast approaching 1,950 …jobs activists in 1,600 zip codes. It now has 404 cubes and 17 neighborhoods across 48 states. Another 1,012 folks are signed up to follow us. In ninety days, UCubed jobs activists sent 17,000 messages to Congress. That’s right. Seventeen thousand emails and letters landed on Capitol Hill with a thump! Almost 10,000 of those emails supported a long-term extension of unemployment benefits. Another 2,000 activists signed the “Throw the Bum Out” petition after Senator Jim Bunning stopped a 30-day extension of unemployment and the COBRA discount. And nearly 1,400 WARN Notices were sent to elected officials.

    And the UCubed website,, saw twenty thousand more visitors than in February and 112,000 more page views. With over 66,000 visitors to the site and 354,000 page views, UCubed has an expanding audience, one that values its online resources.

    Starting this month, UCubed will engage its jobs activists in a unique and useful deliberative process. The first step is to gain feedback quickly on a 16-point plan to put Americans back to work. Called Hire US, America, the draft plan will be emailed to every UCubed leader and jobs activist for their reactions, additions and comments. So those 16-points may get bigger and even bolder. A copy of the draft Hire US, America plan can be found here. On May 1st, the re-drafted Hire US, America plan will be sent to every UCubed leader and jobs activist with a link to an online survey. That way everyone can weigh in with their opinion. The policy points supported by a majority of those participating in the online survey will be the basis for our Hire US, America campaign. Bumper stickers and yard signs are being printed. And UCubed leaders or jobs activists can order as many as they need to drive home the point – We need jobs. We want jobs. Hire US, America. Throughout this summer, UCubed will be asking its cube leaders and jobs activists to visit their local campaign headquarters. Theirs will be a simple request to each candidate running for state or federal offices: Put a Hire US, America yard sign in your yard or on your office wall; Put a Hire US, America bumper sticker on your car; and Issue a press release supporting the Hire US, America plan.

    In an election year, that’s the very least a candidate running for public office can do for the jobless in their state or district. But UCubed leaders and jobs activists want action between now and Labor Day on significant elements of their Hire US, America plan. So, this is only one way UCubed intends to pressure the politicians to act decisively. And what if candidates are unwilling to put up a yard sign, place a bumper sticker on their car, or issue a press release? Then UCubed leaders and jobs activists will have a trident pronged choice come Labor Day. They can campaign AGAINST the politicians who could care less about America’s jobless. They can campaign FOR only the politicians who fought the hardest to put Americans back to work. Or they can urge the jobless to SIT OUT the 2010 midterm elections saying to ersatz friend and adamant foe alike, “You forgot about us, so forget about you!” That trident choice – three very pointed options – will be made over Labor Day weekend. It will be made by UCubed leaders and jobs activists gathered online, at labor parades and picnics and in the public meetings they organize. And their choice will be backed up by a full-fledged campaign to persuade the 31 million Americans idled by this Gravest of Recessions to follow their lead. In the 2010 midterm elections, the most critical voting block – or non-voting block – is the unemployed. Their righteous anger at being ignored and idled for months, if not years, is like magma raging within a volcano’s vents: potentially explosive and unstoppable when it erupts. Clearly, something unpredictable is stirring below the American landscape. You just might want to keep an eye out for UCubed Update 4.0 coming at you a month from now.

    In unity – strength,

    Rick Sloan

    Acting Executive Director Ur Union of Unemployed

    You ever know anyone who always agrees with the last person they spoke with?

  2. Besides the vulnerability that you mention, I believe that psychologically, the poor will not be as activist-oriented. There must be reams of data on this, so please correct me if I’m wrong. But part of the reason for what I will admit is a guess is a show that I saw maybe over 30 years ago. It showed pictures of people drawn by children, and compared those of children from a ghetto (I think they were black children), with those from outside a ghetto.

    The poor, black kids were a few times as likely to draw human figures without arms. I don’t think one needs to be a psychologist to realize that this is not good.

    Although I don’t like the notion of manipulating people, I do think the middle class can be appealed to, by making clear to them their declining economic prospects. And, even more so, the declining prospects of their children.


    About 6 weeks ago, I set aside an unfinished draft for creating an entire Democratic infrastructure. I don’t want to go into it, now, but I will mention that one piece of low-hanging fruit is a candidate pipeline. I subsequently wrote up a few pages on a candidate pipeline (which I also don’t want to get into, sorry), but I will say that while the mechanics of throwing together a website for such a purpose should not be very challenging, stocking it with candidates might be, if you don’t think outside the box.

    I laid out a bunch of early adopters, starting with kids (e.g., boy scouts.) , to make things easier and inevitable. However, I’ll guess that the smartest demographic to target might well be college students. I wsn’t into fraternities when I was youg (and wasn’t into partying much at all), but I think fraternities are a natural demographic for early adopters of a candidate pipeline. They already have a structure of some sort, with networks that are keyed not just to having fun during college, but getting a (middle class) job. Some of the are also service oriented.

    What better service could they render than rescuing democracy from plutocratic control? Which would simultaneously help them actually profit from their college education?

    If you want a mass movement, get the word out to fraternities that their members are getting screwed, economically, their prospects will decline, and that independents outnumber Democrats. Furthermore, get the word out that all activist roads – for ANY activist – should lead to Washington. Absent both a candidate pipeline and a widely adapted vote bloc technology, closely wedding your activism to controlling who wins the next election for Senator in your state is, well, a huge problem.

    Ah, but the fraternity brothers of US could also provide the basis for a proto voting bloc, also. I mean, if fraternity brothers won’t back you, who will?

    Again, I’m sorry, I don’t have the energy to explain this very well, right now. Hopefully, you or somebody will take away from my not terribly eloquent writing that I think college kids could spark a peaceful revolution, but not by tuning out, and not by appealing to or demanding of the government. (Yeah, I know MLK succeeded with street demonstrations.) If they organize large street marches, their target should be enlisting their fellow citizens, and their MO taking control of Congress, not supplicating it.

    We will never be able to beg/demand/whine/plead with enough enthusiasm to make either the Democrats, or the Republicans in Congress, as they are now constituted, to do what’s best for the country. I’d love to see millions of people in the streets, but without those boots treading the ground inside polling boots, I’m afraid that it will be for nought.

  3. Yes I am vulnerable and yes I have family to consider.

    The possibility of a Jimmy Hoffa-esque must be considered.

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