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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The New And Improved New Left

Perhaps you’ve already seen this article over at the Daily Beast by Peter Beinart. If you haven’t, read it right now. We’ll wait.

Ready?

Good.

Probably one of the best points in that article is that, since Reagan, there hasn’t really been a nationally significant left-wing party in the United States.  We’re all neoliberals now, the pundits have said (ad nauseum).  The GOP has drifted steadily farther and farther towards some kind of strange populist reactionary anarchism while the Democrats have mostly been content to take up right-wing positions that would have given FDR a heart attack to go with his poliomyelitis.

But what Beinart’s article is trying to say is that this might be changing in a big way very soon, because of a very peculiar new cohort of Americans in the labor force.  You know some of them.  Shit, chances are pretty good that you are one of them, if you’re reading political blogs on your work computer while you’re supposed to be doing your job as a “social media expert”. But it’s not because of the year you were born in. Not directly, at least. See, one of this piece’s other main points is that generations are defined not by decades, but by the political events that shaped the world during their most formative years:

To understand what constitutes a political generation, it makes more sense to follow the definition laid out by the early-20th-century sociologist Karl Mannheim. For Mannheim, generations were born from historical disruption. As he argued—and later scholars have confirmed—people are disproportionately influenced by events that occur between their late teens and mid-twenties. During that period—between the time they leave their parents’ home and the time they create a stable home of their own—individuals are most prone to change cities, religions, political parties, brands of toothpaste. After that, lifestyles and attitudes calcify. For Mannheim, what defined a generation was the particular slice of history people experienced during those plastic years. A generation had no set length. A new one could emerge “every year, every thirty, every hundred.” What mattered was whether the events people experienced while at their most malleable were sufficiently different from those experienced by people older or younger than themselves.

Grouping people into “generations” by age might be useful if you’re trying to sell time shares or iPhones, but it’s less useful when you’re talking about political consciousness.  The Reagan generation, Beinart says, was a lot longer than 20 years. In the 1980s, Reagan defined the parameters of political discourse. In the 1990s, Clinton operated in those same parameters. So everyone whose late teens or early twenties happened some time between 1980 and 2001 was shaped by that paradigm of discourse. That’s what we’re talking about when we say “The Reagan Generation”.

But we, the Millennials, are a different generation. We started coming of age in the early 2000s. And our formative years?  Let’s not mince words here, shall we? They sucked.

We’re the recession generation, folks.  Second cousins to retrenchment, in-laws to austerity.  Our parents had “Morning in America” and the fall of the Berlin Wall.  We got Iraq, TARP, Hurricane Katrina, and a Congress that’s about as effective as treating cancer with ibuprofen.  Every single day there are millions of us with college degrees who get up in the morning and go to work for jobs that don’t pay much money, don’t require a lot of skill, and don’t have anything to do with what we studied.  That’s for those of us lucky enough to have jobs at all.  The American Dream to us is either history or a sick joke, depending on how cynical we’re feeling.  We’ve developed this weird generational disquiet, this feeling that something is fundamentally broken.

This piece by Adam Weinstein is a pretty fine example. After years of unemployment, underemployment, and debt, we simply don’t buy the American Dream anymore. We’re not the first generation for whom the American Dream has been a lie, nor are we the first generation to realize it. Ask Angela Davis or Malcolm X. But we are the first generation, at least in living memory, where it’s been a lie for almost everybody. More and more of us are confronted with the hard truth that financial success is more often inherited than earned.  More importantly, we are the first generation, at least in living memory, where everyone’s starting to realize it. Even those, like Adam Weinstein, who played by the rules, who “did everything right”, and had their white-male-ness to help them, cannot win. And when an entire generation–especially one with as much education and access to information as ours–realizes that even playing by the rules cannot help them, we start talking about writing new rules.

So if you hear someone asking why we seem so driftless and unfocused, that’s why. Because we don’t have a default idea for what society should look like.  We rejected the idea of the way things were.  We’re looking for something new.

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Out Of The Sewer

Well, you’ve found your way to the home of the Sewer Socialists, two Midwestern guys who write about things. Don’t let the S-word fool you, though. We’re more interested in grappling with real political problems than debating reification. If you’re looking for a discussion of dialectical materialism or the Frankfurt School’s theories of language, you are in the wrong place. One of the reasons we’re writing this is because the left has a very well-documented history of paralyzing itself by bickering over rhetoric and ideology, and then losing. We’ve got no time for that shit. If you want to talk about post-structuralism or call us revisionists, go to r/communism. If we wanted to get yelled at by a bunch of Stalinists, we’d post a comment about Edward Snowden on RT.com.

So what does this blog write about? Politics, culture, race, language, probably professional sports.  The thing is, there’s a growing sense in the United States that something isn’t working.  Like, just to pick a few examples, the economy, the schools, the prisons, the government, and everything fucking else.  And in case you’ve just arrived in a DeLorean from 1995 the government isn’t doing anything about any of these problems. Also, if that’s the case, we should probably get you up to speed: there is a massive, easily-accessible network of all the information and entertainment ever recorded, grunge is dead, and Cleveland sports are somehow even more depressing..  Friends is off the air now, though, so not everything sucks.

But the reason we’re writing this blog is that if we look back in American history, we’re reminded of an ideology that’s mostly been forgotten outside of a second-level Midwestern city that probably made one of the beers in your fridge. The ideology was called Sewer Socialism and it actually started out as something of a joke.  Essentially, Milwaukee was the only big city in the country that ever had card-carrying socialists running the town, and they did a pretty damned good job of it.  They also apparently never shut up about the awesome public sewer system they put in, and the nickname stuck.  Sadly, socialism didn’t, despite what you may have heard.

What exactly we mean by “socialism” could be a whole other blog. But we want to avoid getting too caught up in it, because fights about definitions and labels have been the curse of the left since ever.  See, since socialism has become the kiss of death in political discourse, it has pretty much retreated into academia in the United States.  Now, that’s great if you want to build a tenure position on your thesis critiquing Jurgen Habermas, less good if you want to accomplish, well, literally anything of substance. But again, we don’t have time for that shit. Academia aside, we think there’s still value in that pragmatic, realistic, down-to-earth version of socialism that did so much for our home city.

So that’s what we’re here to write about. We’re not experts, and we don’t pretend to be. We just think that the government and the economy should work for us. We think that everyone—really and truly everyone—should have a say in how their society, economy, and government are run. And we think that our focus must always be on finding real solutions to real problems, and making them really work. Otherwise, what’s the fucking point?  We can write academic treatises all we like, but socialism, Sewer Socialism, was about getting things done.  So let’s get to it.

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