Author Archives: Frank

About Frank

One of the Sewer Socialists.

The Fight Over Sanctuary

As of press time, “resistance” is a hot topic. It seems like the word is on the tongues of everyone, from revolutionary leftists to the most mediocre of liberals. This, for the record, is good: more people being more engaged, and feeling pushed more to the left, is good and necessary. The real question is, what does that resistance look like?

The first flashpoint in the crisis of urban governance was this week’s confrontation at major international airports. However, another upcoming flashpoint that is interesting to us here at Sewer Socialists is the fight over “sanctuary cities.” One of us hopes to soon be an immigration lawyer. But more broadly, the fight over sanctuary cities is exactly the kind of flashpoint between cities and the federal government that we’ve recently written about.

What Are Sanctuary Cities?

A “sanctuary city” is a city that does not cooperate with immigration officials, or turn over immigrants for deportation. It is not an official designation, and different places may provide sanctuary in different ways. The Washington Post has a decent summary.

Many cities and counties provide sanctuary by refusing to hold people in jail because of their immigration status. One of the most common ways immigrants wind up in deportation proceedings is after getting arrested, often for drug possession or DUI. Many convictions make non-citizens deportable, and undocumented immigrants can be removed simply for being present without documents. For these reasons, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) asks state and local governments to keep immigrants in jail after their arrest or conviction, so ICE can more easily pick them up and put them in deportation proceedings. But thanks to federalism, state and local governments do not HAVE to comply with these requests, and many cities and counties refuse compliance in some way or another. This does not mean that ICE cannot deport these people—an immigrant with certain convictions is deportable no matter what—but it is much harder for them to actually do so.

This means that local noncompliance is a critical part of protecting immigrant workers and families. If more cities turn immigrants and immigrants’ information over to ICE, more people will be deported, and more families will be broken up. If fewer cities snitch on immigrants, fewer people will be deported, and fewer families will be broken up.

What’s The Deal?

Because mass deportation relies so heavily on the compliance of local governments, the federal government is coercing cities to bring them in line. The White House, through executive order, is trying to cut off all federal funds from any city or county that does not comply with immigration enforcement requests. This is probably illegal for a host of reasons. In fact, part of what’s so concerning about this is that the executive branch has said that it will ignore court orders and do whatever it wants. But at the end of the day, politics is about power, and we need to focus on how to fight these orders with power.

This is where the crisis of urban governance comes in. Cities and urban areas have immense political and economic power at their fingertips. Politically, they have the power to make mass deportation unsustainable, by providing sanctuary and refusing to cooperate. Economically, they have the power to shut down the economy. . The capitalist class that currently runs the government relies on cities. Without the ports of Long Beach, New Orleans, or Newark, the trade that makes big business rich grinds to a halt. Without railroad hubs in Chicago, distribution centers in Memphis and Seattle, or a thousand other factors all based in major cities, big business has nothing.

Cities will be pressured to comply with the federal government, especially on mass deportation. Washington has already threatened to cut funds from cities that do not cooperate. But cities can pressure Washington, too. That pressure will have to come straight from the people, demanding that their city governments act, but it will be effective. The American deportation machine, like the American economy, relies on American cities. That gives cities power. We should use it.

–Frank

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The Crisis of Urban Governance

The American constitutional order will be in a continuous state of crisis beginning with the inauguration of Donald Trump and his coalition. The source of the crisis is the fact that this coalition has absolute power at all levels of federal government and in most states, but has no base of support or legitimacy in the country’s major cities. At the same time, those same cities are the beating heart of American capitalism. Shut completely out of power despite making up a supermajority of the country’s productive activity, these cities will resist in ways that make them ungovernable. The American state under Trump is a colossus with clay feet, and it’s about to fall on us.

One of Jane Jacobs’ great insights was the urban development and economic development are in essence the same thing. Cities as economic entities grow out from the center, spilling over their political boundaries into suburbs and satellite towns. Agricultural productivity comes from innovations developed in cities, while rural manufacturing development is typically a redistribution of something from the city, such as a company relocating a factory to cheaper land outside a small town, or government using urban tax revenue to build infrastructure in rural areas. Jacobs was mistaken to argue that cities predated agriculture, but her analysis as applies to the present day is well-supported. Clinton’s overwhelming support relative to Trump in urban districts illustrates the lack of support for the Trump coalition in the most productive areas of the country. An analysis by the Brookings Institution MetroMonitor found that the counties Clinton won constitute 64% of the national GDP. More notable is the shape of that 64%. The largest three Trump counties by GDP are Maricopa County, AZ, Tarrant County, TX, and Suffolk County, NY. Only one of those, Maricopa County, is the central county of a metropolitan area (Phoenix). Tarrant County houses Fort Worth, but not Dallas. Suffolk County is the easternmost of the two Long Island counties, and its high GDP is attributable to spillover effects from New York.

The pattern of the country as a whole is mirrored in Trump’s metropolitan counties, as well. Put a simple overlay of the precinct results on a satellite image of Tarrant County, and you could almost predict election results by ground cover:

trump-clinton-overlay

It’s clear that Clinton won most of Fort Worth and Arlington but lost thanks to the exurban precincts. To make an unscientific illustration of this pattern, we can see that the dense Trump precincts look like this:

trump-more-dense

and the less dense Trump precincts look like this:

trump-less-dense

Meanwhile, a more dense Clinton precinct of Tarrant County looks like this:

clinton-more-dense

While a less dense Clinton precinct of Tarrant County resembles the more dense Trump areas, looking like this:

clinton-less-dense

This is not to say that certain urban spatial patterns are causing one candidate to win a particular precinct over another. But denser areas correlate to preference for the Democratic candidate, and also correlate to greater economic dynamism. It’s like a fractal. Clinton won the denser states, she won the denser counties within those states, and she won the denser precincts within those counties. And yet, our constitutional order is set up to value the votes in less dense areas more than the votes in denser areas. The more that the global economy concentrates its productivity in global cities and their immediate suburbs, the more the US economic system will punish the people who choose to live closest to them.

This is not limited to the Presidential election. If anything, the electoral college is the most forgiving to urban interests of all levels of government. This seems absurd considering that Clinton won more nearly three million more votes than Trump and still lost. This is as many people as live a metropolitan area the size of Baltimore, St. Louis, or Denver. It is as many people who live within the city limits of Chicago. An analysis by Peter Marcuse found that on average, a Clinton vote was worth three quarters of a Trump vote. Disenfranchising felons, requiring registration at a fixed address, and voter suppression efforts also tend to disproportionately reduce urban turnout. Despite all this, at least under the electoral college and other statewide races it is possible to run up the score in urban and inner-suburban areas within competitive states. A vote from New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, or Dallas is worthless in a Presidential election. However, a vote from Milwaukee, Cleveland, Miami, Philadelphia, Denver, Las Vegas, or Detroit is just as good as a vote from the exurban or rural areas of the same states. The density of these areas also makes canvassing efforts more efficient. The same number of canvassers can knock more doors in the same amount of time. It also requires less sophisticated targeting methods – in major cities, the vast majority of the population (at least in some neighborhoods) will either vote for the Democrat or not vote at all. Targeting by precinct, rather than by household, is a viable strategy. In suburbs, it is necessary to carry out extensive canvassing and phone banking to identify supporters and swing voters, and avoid the risk of turning out Republican supporters during get-out-the-vote efforts. The Obama campaign recognized the importance of both approaches, and placed large numbers of field organizers on the ground in all competitive states. Under their field plan, they “ran up the score” in urban and inner-suburban areas, while running an extensive persuasion campaign in small towns and outer suburbs. The effectiveness of this strategy convinced many Democratic insiders that they had some kind of mathematical lock on the electoral college and led them to ignore their failure in district races.

Unlike statewide races, district races generally do not allow urban citizens to have a meaningful vote in competitive elections. For the most part, major cities have a small number of congressional districts (often just one) representing most of the city’s population. The Democrats win overwhelmingly within those districts. Though competitive districts exist, they tend not to include major cities, and Democrats must rely more heavily on the persuasion strategy. In the 2016 House race, the GOP won 239 seats and the Dems won 194. And yet, the Dems came much closer under national popular vote totals, with 47.7% to the GOP’s 49.5%. Under a proportional system, the Dems would have had 207 seats, the GOP 215, with 13 seats going to various independent or third party candidates. These same patterns repeat themselves at the state level, with the additional problem of midterm and off-year elections depressing turnout. This further under-represents cities, since urban voters are less likely to turn out consistently. Once again, it is a fractal. The American political system under-represents cities relative to the country in Presidential elections, under-represents cities relative to the state in other statewide races, and under-represents urban districts relative to the overall composition of Congress and state legislatures.

Despite their edge, Democrats are hardly faithful representatives of urban areas. Urban under-representation in Congress sidelines urban issues in national politics, while constitutional limits on the scope of municipal power constrain possibilities at the local level. This, combined with one-party Democratic rule in major cities has made it harder for those same cities to have a rich and rigorous internal politics. There are many competing visions for the future of cities. Should zoning and land use policies encourage more development or encourage historic preservation? How much should transportation policy focus on projects that benefit city-center districts like bike lanes and downtown streetcars, and how much should transit authorities favor urban-suburban connections like commuter buses and regional rail? Should cities take an active role in distributing wealth and administering social programs, or should they leave those functions to the national government and focus on economic development projects? Rather than citywide elections turning on distinct answers to these questions, the only competitive urban elections are sparsely-attended primaries between Democratic power brokers.

If cities were better represented, urban politics could become a key component of national politics. Parties with an urban base could run on platforms that reflect the kind of cities they would build if elected. Instead, municipal elections rarely correspond to national elections, and the officials elected rarely owe their position to a movement base pushing forward a shared vision for the city. In this environment, the best strategy for an urban politician to thrive is to focus on projects that offer them the most visible opportunities to aggrandize themselves and reward other power brokers – often in exchange for supporting someone else’s own self-aggrandizing boondoggle across town. An urban political order with competitive, high-turnout elections would create an alternative path to urban power: to support a popular movement against inequality within cities, and against inequality between cities and rural areas. This movement would administer reforms for more efficient and effective services that would benefit the city and its region. Our term for this is sewer socialism.

Like so many contradictions and hidden crisis points in the United States, the crisis of urban governance has been put off for generations through a series of stopgap measures, coping strategies, and compromises. The most significant of these is that the Democratic Party once had stronger institutional and strategic relationships with the labor movement, which gave them a permanent infrastructure to support Democratic candidates in small towns and rural areas. However, Democrats have steadily neglected their allies in labor, while Republicans have made destroying unions a strategic priority. The spread of “right-to-work” laws at the state level have weakened organized labor. Meanwhile, when Democrats had a solid majority in 2009, they failed to pass the Employee Free Choice Act, which would have made it easier for workers to form unions. The final failure was the Clinton campaign’s complete incompetence at a tactical level. But even if they had won, this was only the final blow in a decades-long process of rejecting populist strategies and policies that can win swing districts outside cities while driving up turnout within them.

The result is that we have entered an era in which the urban party has no power apart from a few enclaves (including the municipal governments of the major cities themselves), while the anti-urban party has almost uncontested power within the federal government and in most states. Through a combination of its own failed strategies and the structural under-representation of cities, the Democratic Party’s defeat has revealed just how marginal cities are in politics, even as they make up the lion’s share of the economy itself.

It is difficult to predict how this contradiction will play out, but it is possible to sketch its broad dynamics. To do so, it will help to understand the relationship between the political parties and the capitalist class. Leftists are fond of saying that the Democrats and the Republicans are both parties of capital, which is true. However, they do represent rival factions of capital. Though on the whole capitalists are most likely to support Republicans than Democrats (or else donate to both sides for purely opportunistic reasons), some capitalists rely more on major cities for their accumulation than others. The Waltons and the Kochs have no need for anything a Democratic politician can give them that a Republican politician can’t. However, real estate investors, Silicon Valley venture capitalists, and upscale department store owners all rely on urban space and the agglomeration economies, institutions, and infrastructure that give that space value. Wall Street and Silicon Valley firms recruit from elite metropolitan universities like Stanford and Columbia. Real estate developers must build alliances with municipal governments to enact the zoning reforms and infrastructure upgrades they need to support their developments. Producer service firms like marketing companies and supply chain consultants tend to be located in global cities because global cities, by definition, are cities with large agglomerations of producer services. The capitalists with interests in these businesses may personally prefer Republicans, but they are hosted by places that are overwhelmingly Democratic and now have no federal representation to speak of.

So what will happen? The reactionary coalition that now controls the federal government will, in all likelihood, pass legislation, enact executive orders, or make court decisions that will harm and provoke urban dwellers. Left with no electoral or legislative means to resist – not because they lost fairly but because they are systematically disenfranchised by the system – they will respond in ways that make the cities increasingly difficult to govern, and therefore increasingly difficult to extract value from. Protests, strikes, and riots will accompany any attempts to roll back the programs urban dwellers rely on, or violate the rights they believe in. The federal government, unable to claim any real legitimacy with its urban constituents, will be forced to turn to violent repression if it is to exert control over the cities. Fortunately for them, they have inherited from the outgoing Democratic administration a ruthless machine of oppression: militarized police forces, a gulag archipelago of public and private prisons, a surveillance apparatus with little oversight and, if that fails, the military, the national guard, and the drones. If the acts of urban resistance are disorganized and sporadic, they will not pose a problem. However, if urban direct action occurs at a mass scale, there will be no way to put it down without damaging the very urban economies that the capitalist class relies om. What will it do to investor confidence if riot police are firing tear gas grenades at protestors in front of the stock exchange every other week? What happens to global just-in-time supply chains if mass protests shut down the Port of Oakland for days at a time? What happens to the real estate investors of any local city if a riot destroys their mixed-use condo developments? One function liberal democracy serves is to prevent violence from deciding questions of power, and in so doing create stable conditions for markets to function. The fact that it has come to this is unfortunate, and organizers supporting direct action should adhere to the principles of nonviolence as much as possible. But this election reveals that we do not live in a democracy, and this fact makes violence inevitable.

There are a few ways that this can play out. The worst-case scenario is that American capitalism will reconstitute itself as more peripheral, less productive, and less urban than before. The urban capitalists will lose money, the global economy may fall into another recession, and cities will become even more underrepresented than they are now thanks to racist voter disenfranchisement measures, reversing much of the social progress of the 19th and 20th centuries. Under our undemocratic constitution, this would be legal.

The middle-case scenario is that the cities fail to unseat the anti-urban coalition from long-term power, but do manage to come to an uneasy truce that preserves their independence and self-governance. If the anti-urban coalition maintains control of the federal government but takes a lighter approach to the cities, it may lead to a new division of political power in which cities and urban states take on more power than they have before, adopting some of the functions traditionally carried out by national governments. The beginnings of this kind of solution can already be seen in some urban social justice measures like sanctuary cities, in which cities set an immigration policy independent of the national government. The beginnings of a city-state arrangement are already in place: sister cities can be the beginnings of a diplomatic policy, militarized police forces the beginnings of a military, and so on. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio has pledged to refuse to aid the federal government in the establishment of a Muslim registry or deportations of undocumented immigrants, and the city has even built-in a protocol to erase all municipal ID card data in the event that the federal government tries to seize it against the city’s will. In a very real sense, there are people who are citizens of the City of New York but not citizens of the United States.

The best-case scenario is that cities will succeed in fighting back, and win nationwide in such a way that restores them to representation at the federal level. The danger to urban productivity will prevent some of the worst from happening, while a social democratic coalition remakes or replaces the Democratic Party in a way that can be competitive in exurban and rural areas while increasing turnout in urban areas. If this scenario comes to pass, the winning coalition should be willing to call a constituent assembly to rewrite the constitution, and produce a re-established and re-ordained constitution without the undemocratic and anti-urban ratification system the current constitution calls for. Unless we change our system to equally represent all Americans, the crisis of urban governance will only recur. A democracy that grossly under-represents urban voters is not a democracy, and a Democratic Party that grossly neglects rural voters is not a democratic party.

-Emil

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Out Of The Sewer, Again

Sewer Socialist (n): 1. Pragmatic socialist engaged in urban reform. 2. Tinkering revisionist. 3. Won’t shut up about Milwaukee’s plumbing.

On April 19, 1910, Emil Seidel took office as the first Socialist mayor of a major American city. For thirty-eight of the next fifty years, the Socialist Party would hold the mayor’s office thanks to their strong grassroots organization and their reputation for clean and efficient administration. In his inaugural address, Seidel called for radical socialist measures: an end to child labor, protection of women on the job, and better working conditions across the city. He also announced the kind of reforms we might associate with a good-government administration of any political stripe: a Bureau of Municipal Research, fair contracts for city workers, and home rule for the city. They shared this belief in clean government and rational administration with the progressive reformers of the same period: recognizable ancestors of modern liberals and urban centrists.

Two years later Seidel would be nominated as vice presidential candidate for the Socialist Party of America, alongside legendary labor leader Eugene Debs. Their platform (PDF) called capitalism a “soulless industrial despotism” driving Americans into a “yoke of bondage.” They demanded collective ownership of railroads, utilities, large-scale industries, natural resources, and the banking system. They called for a major program of public works to put the unemployed to work, and for shortening the work day with rising productivity, giving people more leisure time. Along with these radical measures, they included a series of political demands that would deepen democracy: stronger protections for the free press, a more parliamentary system, and suffrage and citizenship for the District of Columbia and U.S. colonies.

Squaring radical socialist demands and liberal-democratic administration was always a source of tension within the party. For the best one-hour introduction to American socialism in this era, see this lecture by historian Eric Foner. “Sewer socialism” was originally a pejorative lobbed at the Milwaukee moderates from left-wingers within the party who emphasized the more radical components of the socialist vision. The Sewer Socialists were notorious for boasting of their success at modernizing Milwaukee’s filthy sanitation system. To some in the party, this was setting the bar too low, but the Milwaukee party embraced the label. Since then, this divide between far-left radicals and practical socialists has widened, thanks largely to the politics of the Cold War. Liberals incorporated sewer socialists and left-wing trade unionists into enduring members of the New Deal coalition, while the far left evolved into its own distinct tendencies associated with Marxism-Leninism on the one hand and various decentralized strains of anarchism and post-New Left politics on the other. Conservatives and liberals broke the radicals by purging them in the Red Scares, while moderate socialists and the labor-left went from base to afterthought within the Democratic Party coalition. For their part, the Sewer Socialists’ last year in power was 1960: as Milwaukee’s Black population rose, Socialist Mayor Frank Zeidler was threatened and slandered for supporting integrated public housing, and hounded out of office.

But this is a new day, and we at Sewer Socialists think there’s something to learn from the Sewer Socialists’ example.  We believe that the old schisms—between reform and revolution, between competent administration and ideological principle, between working within the system and building an alternative—are false dilemmas. We put ourselves at the center of the left, more pragmatic and policy-oriented than vanguardist radicals, but unlike liberals, willing to challenge capitalism and fight for socialism.

We are also at the left wing of urbanism. We celebrate cities and metro areas as vibrant centers of economic, cultural, and ecologically sustainable life. This does not mean that we reject suburbs and rural areas: cities and the countryside need one another. People who live in cities are no better or worse than anyone else. However, because cities put so many different people, cultures, and ideas close together, they create something that is bigger than the sum of their parts. “The U.S. Economy” is a bit of a misleading term: there are dozens of regional economies centered around large and small cities and their suburbs. Urbanists are right to champion cities as prosperous and pluralistic, but they too often combine those beliefs with a snobbish sense of superiority over rural communities and smaller metro areas. People from those areas often identify social liberalism with elites, whose values emanate from big cities to the rest of the country through media outlets, prestigious universities, and liberal scolding. But racial, sexual, and social equality must be for everyone. If people in the heartland see them as elite values—values forced on the poor by the rich—those values will be weak. We don’t need to water down demands for racial, sexual, and social equality, and we shouldn’t. But we do need to offer people in heartland communities something that addresses their stagnant wages and lost jobs. Otherwise, more will drop out of politics entirely, and the rest will be vulnerable to demagogues steering their anger towards xenophobia and racism. Our concern for cities is not simply about defending the urban way of life, but about sharing the prosperity that cities create. That means not only increasing prosperity and equality within cities, but also sharing that prosperity among different cities, and between cities and their rural regions.

Our focus on urban issues raises the question of administrative competence and ideological principle. When one of us created the Twitter handle @mayorseidel, named after the socialist Milwaukee mayor, urbanist bloggers Sandy Johnston and Alon Levy made interesting points reflecting on it. We’ll respond in depth in a future post, but suffice to say we welcome their perspective but agree most with Ryan Cooper: “experts” seem neoliberal, and leftists seem anti-expert, because technocrats tend to follow the political winds. It was not rational expertise but neoliberal ideology that gave us the untested, unworkable model of the Affordable Care Act. A dispassionate analysis would have shown that socialized medicine is the most effective way to provide good healthcare. If socialist ideology were in the political mainstream, it would put good policies like universal healthcare and other Nordic model social democratic programs back into the realm of political possibility, along with a metropolitan agenda. We here at Sewer Socialists want to contribute to these agendas.

When we discussed reviving Sewer Socialists, we thought the political situation would be different than it is. We knew that the Democratic establishment was weak. We knew that Hillary Clinton was a flawed candidate, unsuited to an anti-establishment moment. We supported Bernie Sanders, a former sewer socialist mayor, for President not only because we preferred his policies, but because we thought he was better-suited to fighting back against the GOP’s right-wing populism. But we also thought that Hillary Clinton’s institutional advantages and the electoral math of the 2012 election left her with a strong enough firewall to beat the fascist threat. We thought that Trump would lose to a weak candidate, and that his loss would discredit the fascist tendency within the Republican Party. We worried that Clinton might lose in 2020, but we expected to have at least four years to build a progressive alternative inside and outside the Democratic Party. We knew that the Democratic establishment was incompetent and losing legitimacy, but we made the mistake of thinking that they had the basic competence necessary to defeat the least popular person to ever run for President. We gave the Democratic leadership the benefit of the doubt, and we were wrong.

It is hard to overstate how badly they failed. Clinton didn’t set foot in Wisconsin once during the general election. Pro-Clinton forces ran seven times as many ads in Los Angeles than Milwaukee. The DNC almost completely neglected Latino outreach.  The presumptive Minority Leader Chuck Schumer argued that it was no problem to neglect blue-collar voters, because suburban Republicans would switch to the Democratic side. The result? Trump got fewer votes than Romney or McCain, and didn’t even win the popular vote, but he  won almost entirely because Democrats lost working-class voters of all races. The mythical moderates the Democrats were relying on didn’t make up the difference—and why would they have? Republican voters, by definition, vote Republican. In light of their utter failure, the professional class that hold senior management positions in every major liberal political organization must resign immediately. They should be replaced by a new group of leaders who are willing to demand the kind of policies – $15 minimum wage, Medicare for all, getting money out of politics – that can drive up turnout in the cities and engage blue-collar voters in small towns and rural areas.

There is some hope. The organization most directly descended from the old Socialist Party that once held power in Milwaukee is called the Democratic Socialists of America. DSA’s membership has increased by more than 1,300 in the week since the election. And that is part of why we at Sewer Socialists are back. We hope to support a left-populist and socialist alternative, while building the urban and metropolitan elements of that coalition and its agenda. Socialists are climbing out of the sewer.

–The Sewer Socialists

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New Horizons

We here at Sewer Socialists have been a bit lax about posting over the last entirety of our existence. If we had to guess why, we’d probably start at not initially knowing what exactly this blog would be about, and having to pay bills with money we get at jobs. It’s a bit of a shame. A lot has happened since we began this project, in our own outlooks as well as in the wider world. One of the things that’s changed is that I, Frank, have finished my stint as an itinerant campaign worker and taken up work at a craft brewery.

It’s been an interesting experience so far. For one, the work itself is very different. I have begun moving into a traveling sales role, but for several months, I did mostly manual labor; my first task was taking the kegging and bottling machines out of their shipping containers. It is not bad work, but is radically different from working on a campaign, where your work takes place mainly on a computer or a telephone. But the difference in the work is nothing compared to the culture shock. In my previous life, the paradigm was Politics: Politics was what we thought, where we came from, how we saw our world. It could hardly be more different here. I am not quite sure yet what the paradigm here is. I have a strong hunch that it is Business, but whatever it is, it is certainly not Politics.

My thoughts on all this are still fermenting. I am still becoming familiar with a community which does not define itself, its world, its hopes, and its struggles in political terms. It gets me thinking about the challenges of organizing in conservative communities, white communities, communities which do not think of their life’s struggles as systemic problems which organizing can solve. I have begun reading George Orwell’s The Road To Wigan Pier, which feels appropriate. The second half of the book is Orwell’s thoughts on why the coal miners he lived with were not socialists. I have only just begun this part, and the American South in 2014 is a much different place than the English North in 1937, but I hope to do something similar here over the coming weeks and months. I have felt for some time now that we have a problem with the disconnect between the progressive intelligentsia and communities on the ground. Maybe now I’ll be able to put my finger on that problem more exactly.

As Ta-Nehisi Coates says, more to come.

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One Of Those Types

“So what’s your number one reason for being a liberal?”

The question caught me slightly off guard. I do not consider myself a liberal, nor do those who are familiar with my politics. But I didn’t really know this man. He is, however, a wealthy white man in his mid-50s, and a childhood friend of my boss. On top of that,  we were on our way to a bar, so rather than explain why I consider myself some mixture of a socialist, anarchist, liberal, social democrat, and nondescript leftist, I answered his question.

“Well, we could talk about what we think is most important for the country as a whole, but for me personally-”

“For you, what’s your number one reason?”

“For me, it’s voting rights. I don’t think that there is any good reason to prevent people from voting.”

There was a pause. “Voting rights. So you don’t think that there should be any restrictions on people voting? Not even showing photo ID?”

“Nope.”

“So if I just walked into a polling place, and said I was you, and voted, you’d be okay with that?”

Voter fraud doesn’t happen. The risk is so low as to be-”

“No, no, tell me. If I walked into a polling place, and said I was you, and I voted, you’d be okay with that?”

“Yes.”

“But why? We have to show ID to buy beer.”

“Buying beer is not a right. As much as I love it, beer is not necessary for the functioning of democracy.”

“Well, voting isn’t technically a right, either.”

“Then that’s only because our constitution is poorly written,” I said, forgetting certain amendments to our constitution.

Another pause. A deeper pause. He laughed a bit, mussed up my hair, and said “So you’re one of those types.”

I said yes, because frankly, I am one of those types. I believe in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I believe that people—all people, every single person—has the right to a say in their government, and I believe that when a nation denies this right to its people, it sins. I believe that the more democratic our government, society, and economy are, the better off we will all be. But thinking about it more, I do not want to be a part of any movement which does not value these things. I suppose that’s why I don’t call myself a “liberal.” I suppose that’s why I’m one of those types.

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A Metaphor

I had to staff a big rich person fundraiser recently, complete with a famous speaker and a roped-off VIP section right in front of the stage. My job at this big rich person fundraiser was to stand in front of the VIP section and make sure that no one tried to sneak under the rope or push it forward. The donors in attendance were not terribly pleased with being asked to please step back, don’t crowd the rope, we need to make sure that there’s enough room there, excuse me ma’am, please step back from the rope, we’re trying not to crowd the area, thank you. And as I was talking about this with my trusty fellow Sewer Socialist, he said “Let’s be real. People aren’t mad that there’s a VIP section. They’re mad that they aren’t in the VIP section.”

The VIP section is why we don’t call ourselves liberals. Liberalism is the idea that the VIP section should be bigger, and it should be easier to get into. But no matter how easy it is to get in there, there will always three men telling people to step back and stop crowding the rope, or to stay out of the building in the first place. Sewer socialism, economic democracy, is the idea that access to the event shouldn’t be based on your money in the first place.

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Lessons From The Crisis

As of press time, the United States government remains shut down.

How we got here is long, complicated, and a little hard to pin down, but it goes something like this: Republicans in Congress threatened to refuse to fund the government or pay its debts unless they get something in return. For us on the left, this is proof positive of something that actually inspired this blog in the first place: we cannot afford to sit out on electoral politics because the Democrats are not progressive enough.

Let’s look at the story so far. At first, the fight seemed to be over the Affordable Care Act, Pres. Obama’s remarkably centrist health care reform (also known as Obamacare, Barack Hussein Obama’s far-left fascist attempt to take away health care and end American liberty). Republicans in Congress refused to pass any spending bills that did not “defund Obamacare”; Ted Cruz even pretended to kinda-filibuster, speaking for 21 hours against Obamacare while blocking debate on the “defund Obamacare” bill that he proposed, because we apparently live in a Franz Kafka novel. But the picture that seems to be emerging now is slightly different. Based on recent interviews and press conferences, it seems that the Republican strategy is to use a government shutdown as leverage when they demand something in return for raising the debt ceiling.

This being the Age of the Internet, the saga has been exhaustively detailed, and is way too elaborate, dense, petty, intricate, Byzantine, twisty-turny, and downright straight-up confusing to go into in any comprehensive way. Matt Yglesias at Slate has had great coverage, and Robert Costa of (retch) The National Review provides an excellent view from behind Republican lines. But while the context and details may be too much to delve into here, the basics of this unfolding story illustrate a critical point that we at Sewer Socialists cannot emphasize enough:

Politics. Matters.

I couldn’t tell you how often we hear that Democrats and Republicans are the same. They’re both the ruling parties. They both serve capital interests. They’re all the same, they don’t listen to us, why should we vote for any of them? A pox on both their houses!

This shutdown should put that line of reasoning to rest permanently.

Don’t get us wrong, the Democratic Party is absolutely a capitalist party, with varying centrist and left-of-centrist elements. The Democratic Party has been too often in bed with institutional racism (see: Clinton’s expansion of the War on Drugs, Obama’s deportation policy), American imperialism (see: Obama’s drone policy), and misogyny (see: Bob Filner, Anthony Weiner, any pro-life Democrat), among countless other social evils. But it is one thing to say, correctly, that Democrats and Republicans are not different enough. It is another thing entirely to say that they are not different.

As we speak, one party is demanding political concessions for the continued functioning of the federal government. One party is holding the US government and the global economy hostage, and demanding as ransom that their (thrice-rejected) political platform become law. One party is intentionally inflicting pain on American families, hoping their hardship will force the government to give them concessions they could not win through elections. Their opponents may not be ideal, but that’s not enough. When you have a party that inflicts pain and shame on its own people because they want an extra bargaining chip, the self-righteous luxury of dismissing them evaporates. We can’t just ignore them.

We must beat them.

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