Hope in a Time of Elections: Movement Building at the Summer Conventions

Cindy Milstein

(Note: This essay is reprinted from the July–August 2008 issue of Left Turn magazine, which features a special section on the elections; it was written before Obama secured the nomination.)

“The world as it is, is not the world as it has to be.”1 Long our basic aspiration, this ideal now springs from a U.S. presidential contender. And yet the gap between the change that Barack Obama promises and the transformation that we know is crucial may offer a space of possibility. For even as liberals are utilizing “hope” to captivate millions this election, embodied in Obama’s “New Politics,”2 I would maintain that those of us who seek a nonhierarchical world are still the real carriers of utopia. Nevertheless, this election supplies us the opening to reject statism in a way that’s sensitive to the historical moment and prefigurative of a directly democratic society—but only if we mind the gap.

As libertarian leftists, we view presidential contests as egregious reaffirmations of the state, and thus challenge electoralism’s connection to statecraft but also hierarchy. Yet often the best we can muster is an anti-politics, where our organizing goes into decrying those institutions and social relations we oppose. We seem to forget that presidential campaigns are one of few times when there’s widespread interest in politics; a public, political culture in this privatized, depoliticized country; and occasionally, such as now, tremendous involvement. Also, uniquely, there will be a female or black Democratic nominee for president. Engaging in a thoughtful, imaginative way with this election could allow us to hold out a reconstructive vision for those thousands who will be disappointed by the new administration, and so potentially looking for alternatives. And we just might learn something about ourselves.

Lessons learned

Nearly as early as the candidates, anarchists were crafting their own campaigns, aimed specifically at the Republican and Democratic National Conventions (RNC and DNC). Much good work has gone into these plans; still, it’s helpful to briefly recall several examples during the 2000 and 2004 convention protests, in an effort to build on our achievements and limit similar missteps in 2008.

Back in 2000, the conventions followed on the heels of the emergent North American branch of the global anti-capitalist movement, which for its part gave visibility to both anarchism and a horizontalist zeitgeist. This sense of potentiality carried through into the DNC and RNC, translating into lived experiments with self-organization. From convergence centers and Indymedia, to skills trainings and affinity groups, the stress was on direct democracy. We created our own (albeit temporary) counterinstitutions for collective decision-making—a precondition for any egalitarian, nonstate-based society. But the “we” was limited. To cite one example, radicals guarded spokescouncil meeting doors during the RNC to determine who could and couldn’t enter (based on who looked the part?). In turning people away, we disenfranchised those who also wanted to practice face-to-face politics, thereby undercutting our aim: power by all the people. Another case during the 2000 RNC was the March for Economic Human Rights, in which some 15,000 people, pledged to nonviolence, walked single file, flanked by “March Security Teams.” Many anti-capitalists either ignored the poor people’s march or all but taunted its supposed passivity and reformism. Militancy trumped solidarity, even as the police threatened the many at-risk marchers, from single parents and people of color, to children and people with disabilities.

The 2004 conventions also saw some intriguing new experiments. First, there was the DNC-to-RNC bike ride, where anti-authoritarians pedaled between the conventions to explicitly relate the two, stopping in small towns along the way to highlight, in contrast, community self-management. This culminated in the cyclists entering New York City for a march for direct democracy, conversing with passersby about a nonelectoral politics. Then there was the “Don’t Just (Not) Vote” campaign, devised from a National Conference on Organized Resistance panel to encourage the idea that politics should be the collective self-organization that’s done 364 days, 23 hours, and 55 minutes of the year—versus the 5 minutes of voting (or not) on Election Day. At its best, this campaign spurred literature on self-governance and shifted our own stance to a proactive one, reflected in the sentiment borrowed from the Argentine assembly movement: “Our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes.” These and other efforts, despite trying to reach a wider range of people, remained fairly insular, thereby signaling a turn to a politics of (our) everyday life—necessary but not sufficient without larger self-instituted decision-making bodies as eventual replacements for states.

Both the 2000 and 2004 counterconvention organizing strove to move beyond protest, and both captured their times.

Current challenges

Now we arrive at 2008. The progress here is in the long view taken by the organizers, via a string of consultas, outreach tours, and transparent action frameworks. Much appears to be a step backward, however. There seems to be little thought about accounting for—and acting in relation to—this specific moment in political history. Unconventional Action—an emerging network aiming to complement the work of local organizers in Denver (DNC, August 24–28) and the Twin Cities (RNC, September 1–4)—issued a broadsheet, for instance, that says a simple no to white supremacy and patriarchy. Sure, Obama and Clinton won’t eradicate either, but for millions the viability of a person of color or female president has profound meaning in the struggle against racism and patriarchy. Moreover, the assertion in a more recent Unconventional Action broadsheet, titled “False Hope vs. Real Change,” that the color of the president doesn’t matter, seems almost willfully designed to alienate these millions, and assure that they view anarchists as anything but allies in working through the legacy of slavery, segregation, and so on in the United States.3 It’s not that Obama is the antidote to racism; it’s that if his self-described “improbable journey” moves many, many people, we should at least be cognizant and perhaps understanding of how a president of color might matter in certain ways, at a certain time and place. One last example here is the “Disrupt the DNC!” zine, which doesn’t even mention Obama at all, thereby signaling offense through omission.4

The trick is to meet people “where they’re at” yet boldly encourage them to venture beyond “the world that is,” toward the “world that could be.” This would involve asking ourselves a series of hard questions, including: Which convention might be best to focus our efforts on? How could we approach the conventions as an explicit campaign toward something, such as mentoring future generations of radicals, linking local and global horizontal experiments, and offering visions? And how do we relate to an election that brings relief globally from the Bush era as well as hope around the idea of a black or female president?

Honest answers might lead to different conclusions about the form and content of our actions—and it’s not too late to reconsider, especially given the changing landscape. The DNC may in fact demand flexibility in our responses to questions of gender, race, and even representative “democracy,” depending on the Democratic primaries’ outcome (or fallout, or simply how various social movements choose to engage with the DNC).

This relates to our motivations. For many, the conventions appear as an elixir to revive the anti-capitalist movements of the late 1990s, or for some, even the nostalgia of the 1960s. Others feel despondent about our radical milieu or disempowered, and want to cathartically shut something down. Still others claim that since “everyone” will be protesting, we should be part of the spectacle too, and even create a counterspectacle. Sadly, one can’t wish a watershed into existence; nostalgia can blind us to past mistakes—do we really want, as Denver’s “Re-create 68” argues, “to pick up where our predecessors left off”? And in an era when states and capitalism increasingly thrive on creating spectacle, adding to it only seems to linger within the same detestable logic.

The medium and the message

The lack of a substantive “why” in these motivations, despite the understandable feelings behind them, is evidenced in the lack of meaningful messaging—that is, slogans and literature that grapple with this historical moment. It’s hard to express much of anything in a tagline for a mobilization or on a banner, but one thing that’s gotten lost over the past few years appears to be the desire to try. Compare this year’s “Crash the Convention” to the “Convergence against Capitalism” slogan from early 2000. The former is an empty descriptor, mirroring an empty action: blockading the RNC, essentially an expensive party celebrating a done deal. The latter phrase, conversely, holds substance: our convergences were infused with a sensibility that allowed us to reject shifts within capitalism. So when we tried to shut down the World Trade Organization, for one, we were exposing a powerful decision-making body, even as we ourselves practiced a self-organized unity in diversity, thereby prefiguring a world without hierarchy.

It is a step back that in 2008, the notion of putting out reconstructive ideas seems to be off the table. The slogans emerging so far speak volumes about the poverty of our own planning and self-understanding, and put us further out of touch with the many people embracing hope. Take such anti-convention phrases as “we’re an ungovernable mass” or we’re in the “serious business of fucking their shit up.” Shouldn’t a nonhierarchical politics assert that “we’re a self-governing society of individuated people,” or that we seriously intend to “unfuck their shit up,” humanely remaking the world, not adding to its crap?

The DNC is another story; we might face not a party but a feud. Yet even here, what will our “days of resistance” be addressing, when likely there will be many outside the convention angry over why a female or black has lost, or why the so-called Democratic Party is acting undemocratically or hasn’t adequately dealt with a variety of issues such as the war. We might just want to seize this moment of disillusionment to exhibit a “festival of democracy” that doesn’t reside in one park (as is planned) but lives daily as the very body politic by which everyone self-governs. Perhaps our actions could always combine, coextensively, the best of both social critique and social reconstruction.

What’s been lost in both these mass mobilizations is a messaging framework, precisely as a way to bind our aspirations to the action frameworks. Such a unifying slogan, though, should also tie the DNC and RNC together under a clear statement that captures why we’re all there, since as anti-statists we do see a relationship between the two: politics. Of course, for us this means contrasting visions of directly democratic politics to the hierarchical form of representative democracy. Just as self-evident, any such overarching tagline needs to be open enough to meet the diversity of political concerns that will and should be brought to the convergences. It should also, I’d argue, take as a jumping off point the possibility that can be gleaned from this historical moment. In this light, one especially apropos suggestion for a potential messaging framework, made by someone at the recent Unconventional East Coast Convergence in Washington, DC, is this: “Hope comes from people, not from presidents.”5

Possible visions?

Beyond a single slogan, however, there are three areas that deserve our particular attention, and that could all provide promising, perhaps necessary ground for qualitative forms of engagement.

We could queer and trouble identity. We strive to be antiracist, pro-feminist, and so on, but when confronted with a public debate on the meaning of race and gender expression, we remain largely silent. Part of the reason, I fear, is that we have little to say; that alone should be rationale enough for us to struggle with the meaning of race, racism, and antiracism, with sex, sexuality, and gender, in ways that are at once historically situated, complex, and liberatory. Even if we only self-educate, that would be enormous. But this moment could also allow us to act in critical solidarity, particularly with those people of color and female- or feminist-identified people who find meaning in this election. For regardless of who’s the Democratic nominee, many will be moved by this “historic” moment, which is historic within the U.S. context. Maybe it is precisely at the DNC that we can learn from those who feel newly empowered, and also offer them a truly empowering politics beyond electoralism and representation.

We could also substantively link hope, change, and needs/desires. Obama has clearly created a space for the hope that millions already hold to visibly manifest itself. We, too, should believe in the human capacity for simultaneously aspiring toward higher ideals while meeting needs—but also connect it to a revolutionary tradition. For unlike the alleged either-or of “Obama as change” or “Hillary as realpolitik,” it is essential to continually couple social transformation with qualitative improvements in daily life. Obama has done far more than we have of late to nurture people’s yearning for hope, yet he won’t fulfill that promise. And that’s exactly why we should assume that the desires for hope, change, and dealing with survival issues are genuine, and that we have much more to offer by pointing to the ways that today’s horizontalist movements are attempting to institute social freedom. We shouldn’t circumscribe hope; rather, we should work to expand its horizon, and the horizons of those who long for change.

Finally, we could encourage self-organization and participation while radicalizing the newly politicized. This focus builds on, though contrasts Obama’s community organizing style of top-down politics, which nonetheless has raised expectations. Obama comes across “as a nonhierarchical, collaborative leader who can inspire autonomous individuals to cooperate for the sake of common concerns.”6 He speaks of the influence of the civil rights and New Left movements. We can scoff at Obama’s organization, or learn from its results and go one better. Even Obama understands that once activated, the desire to self-organize can coalesce into social movements that contest the very institutions or individuals that gave rise to the impulse in the first place. And that’s our task. To pick up where Obama’s liberalism leaves off—encouraging, mentoring, and providing mutual aid to those who soon may want to collectively struggle for a world without messiahs or masters. But this also means that we’ll need to be good community organizers, rather than merely good at countercultural projects. We could, say, counter Obama’s summer 2008 Organizing Fellows program—meant to develop “a new generation of leadership that believes . . . real change comes from the ground up”7—with our own summer 2009 Organizing Radicals camps, promoting them at the conventions, or do our own door-to-door campaigns for everything from neighborhood assemblies to noncommodified food security alternatives.

In terms of the DNC and RNC, let’s turn the tables on the spectacle. Rather than playing into it, let’s spend our time conversing with and organizing events for newly politicized nonradicals, to both listen and educate, laying the groundwork for the day when they, too, will want to break with the spectacle. This would imply that we blanket the convention cities with propaganda and projects that speak to our ethics, rather than merely our critiques. So let a million visionary flyers rain on the conventions’ parade! Let gigantic posters and “bike-in” movies depicting our dreams overlay the high-rises! If we do blockade, let’s use the action to wrap the entire convention center in banners—facing outward, with us in between—calling for face-to-face assemblies, on the spot, thereby utilizing our time together to do long-term strategizing and movement building, while publicly illustrating self-governance! Let’s show that the world as it is, already contains glimpses of the world that ought to be!

Cindy (cbmilstein@yahoo.com) is an Institute for Anarchist Studies board member, co-organizer of the annual Renewing the Anarchist Tradition conference, and a collective member of Black Sheep Books and Free Society in Montpelier, VT. For her essays related to direct democracy and anarchism, see http://www.freesocietycollective.org/archives/cat_cindy_milstein.html; for a longer, audiovisual version of this essay, see http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=3162255534532924685&hl=en.

1 Barack Obama, “Join,” Super Bowl ad, February 3, 2008.

2 David Brooks, “A Defining Moment,” New York Times, March 4, 2008.

3 Also, as someone pointed out to me, this same broadcast has the word “bullshit” printed over a photo of Obama’s face; see http://hackasheville.com/nornc/uaftp/downloads/falsehopevsrealchangespreads.pdf.

4 This zine (available at https://lists.riseup.net/www/d_read/unconventionaldenver/Disrupt_the_DNC.pdf) also illustrates one of the problems with ignoring Obama. For better or worse, he inspires tens of thousands to believe that “yes, we can,” again echoing the do-it-ourselves sensibility, albeit stripped of its utopian thrust, that anarchists and others on the libertarian Left have long advocated and practiced. Rather than meeting this circumscribed “yes” with our own many expansive affirmations, as the Zapatista movement should have taught us, this zine as well as the DNC and RNC direct actions all seem to be only capable of loudly proclaiming “no.” For example, there’s a “We Vote No!” direct action planned by anti-authoritarians for August 26 at the DNC, but it would be lovely if we “voted” yes in this direct action instead to everything from self-organization and mutual aid, to a free and ecological society, and so on—as a way to start from where people are at and yet hopefully radicalize the content of their yeses.

5 Thanks here to the participant at the convergence for this intriguing slogan idea, which emerged during a “messaging caucus.” For info on the recent DC organizing weekend, see http://ecc.dead-city.org/.

6 Brooks, “A Defining Moment.”

7 As described on the Obama Web site, available at http://www.barackobama.com.