Autonomy Within Solidarity

One of the pervasive problems of the U.S. left is fragmentation. One of the abiding strengths of the U.S. left is diversity. How do we overcome the former without losing the latter?
People do not automatically develop multi-focused political priorities. We have different life experiences which sensitize us to some sides of social life more than others. We suffer some pains more than others, discern some oppressions more aggressively than others, pursue some agendas more militantly than others. When we dissent, we often focus on one oppression more than others and on one intellectual and activist “orientation” more than others. We develop movements of national, racial, and cultural communities; women, gays and lesbians, workers, and young people around such focuses as race, religious bigotry, gender, sexuality, poverty and class, authority, war and peace, and ecology.
The bad side of this multi-facetedness is that none of these agendas can be accomplished by only those who see it as their first priority. A single vast apparatus with many mutually enforcing dimensions enforces these oppressions. It is too damn powerful and too damn entrenched—in institutions and in people’s behaviors—to succumb to partial assaults. Separate efforts dilute strength and compete for allegiance, priority, resources, and status.
The good side of this multi-facetedness is that each separate effort better utilizes the insights of those most attuned to the complexities of its focus than would any single orientation subsuming all the rest. Trying to use one single orientation inevitably subsumes much of what is dynamic and influential in each area, picking out only a few central features to address. Worse, it might imperially extend the views characterizing one area as with Marxism (or radical feminism or anarchism) elevating economics (or gender or the state) and “reducing” other phenomena in the process. This not only excludes a lot, it often prescribes aims for parts of society contrary to the needs of those most oppressed, rather than determined by them.
So we criticize fragmenting into single-focused efforts because they weaken the total movement and even each component by fragmenting energies, inducing competitions, etc. But we also appreciate these laser-focused efforts because they elevate the true needs of those who feel each type oppression most directly.
Think of the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, the hippie movement, the labor movement, and the anti Vietnam War movement. Or think of the more recent incarnations of these, with the addition of the gay and lesbian movements, the green movement, and even sub-movements such as the unemployed or religious and racial sectors, or vegetarians or vegans. The strengths of focus and weaknesses of fragmentation are evident.
And now, we have still another round of focus and fragmentation: The New Party, The Labor Party, The Green Party, NOW’s thoughts about a Party, and The Campaign for a New Tomorrow, plus multitudinous media projects, and an endless stream of single issue national, regional and local organizing efforts.
Why isn’t their more unity? Why don’t lots of political parties, media projects, or organizing projects merge into a single encompassing party, media, or activist project, or, even better, why don’t they merge with one another across these lines, into one big movement? Surely the gains in enlarged outreach, increased membership and power, and economies of scale are obvious. If each party, periodical, project, and movement is a potential thread in a large mosaic, why don’t the threads intertwine so that we get a garment rather than just a jumble of discordant strings going nowhere?
Well, each party, project, periodical, and movement has little time for what they see as spurious efforts at unity that won’t advance their day to day survival and may even siphon energies from it. More, each worries that in unity its priorities will be given only lip service, or worse. Each feels it voice, leaders, and vision will be subsumed by the scope of the larger ally or overrun by the energy of the smaller one. Those that are larger bemoan the hassle of imbibing other efforts with their peculiar people and their fanatical attention to things peripheral or distracting? And those that are smaller feel, why should we dilute our serious intentions and risk subordination to the less radical views of larger efforts? Regardless of size, everyone feels why should we reduce our prioritization of race, class, gender, sex, war, or ecology, or our special understanding and commitment and radicalism, by aligning with groups that have agendas emphasizing something we feel to be of lower priority, or insufficiently radical, or too extreme?
In the face of all this, which has existed virulently every day of every year of my politically involved life from roughly 1967 to now, I would like to offer a proposal for a way forward. It involves advocating a new kind of unity, advocating a new type of organizational structure and relations, and taking a few simple first steps.
A New Kind of Unity
In the past “working together” has generally meant coalition. You take the agendas and understandings of each potential ally and survey them for features in common. Then a generally temporary coalition is built around the common aims. The process involves little mutual involvement. Each side tries to benefit itself in context of a temporary intersection of some priorities. Of course, each ally tries to entice members from the other, tries to build its own constituency, etc. And, if there is a way to subsume the ally, or infiltrate the ally, so that when the dust clears one’s own organization is all that remains, larger by a bit, OK, fine.
Here is a different attitude. Suppose working together means merging agendas in a lasting larger framework designed to pursue collective efforts and mutual support, while also retaining them intact for one’s own separate efforts. Using an example from the past, suppose the anti-Vietnam War movement, the hippies, the Civil Rights Movement, and the National Welfare Rights movement, from a few decades back, were going to get together. It would always be (and it always was) for some limited event or project chosen because it was amenable to all, with everything else about the groups remaining separate, non-interactive, non-supportive, and often even competitive.
What if instead these groups had retained their identities but also merged into a lasting larger structure which wasn’t the least common denominator of their “laundry lists” or concerns (the modest amount that they all could agree on) but was instead the greatest common sum of their agendas, the total of all of them combined, with no deletions? And what if each group pledged its support to the others for anything within their own domain that they undertook…accepting leadership from each other for each other’s priority areas? And what if this meant that the anti-war movement, for example, would turn out support, provide person-power, even share material resources, with the Civil Rights movement, for a Civil Rights movement initiated campaign, and vice versa?
Take this image to the present. You still have each project, periodical, movement. And they still function in and of themselves, autonomously, with their own priorities in place, developing their owns views and agendas. But, on top of this, they also exist within a larger structure, call it SAM for a minute (for Solidarity with Autonomy Movement).
SAM’s agenda is the sum total of the agendas of all its affiliates. Its consciousness is the sum total of the consciousness of all its affiliates. It’s board is representatives from all the affiliates. Its budget is based on direct fund raising, as well as proportionate contributions from its affiliates. SAM in turn gives support to projects in tune with affiliate needs and potentials.
What about conflicts? Two periodicals, or projects, or movements in SAM have different views on some issue. How can such contradictory positions be held within one organization, SAM? Well, as long as becoming part of SAM is a self-conscious choice that has to be ratified by existing members, so that basic agreements are preserved and enlarged, why not? Why is this so hard? It means that there is always need for patient investigation and discussion and assessment of differences and, in time, one hopes, progress toward more agreement. But until agreement on some controversial matter is reached, contrasting views both exist in SAM, are both respected, etc., though if one comes from an affiliate whose focus is that area and the other is from an affiliate whose focus is elsewhere, the former predominates in SAM program.
There is no point pursuing all the many complex variants and possibilities of organizational arrangement, definition, structure, at this time. The basic image is of an umbrella organization which encompasses and includes, supportively and respectfully, a vast range of progressive and left undertakings. SAM is the greatest sum of all these affiliates. It exists to enhance each affiliate and the whole. The affiliates, each understand that they have to be less purist and more willing than in the past to support something larger and therefore more diverse than they are, and to live with differences. There is no presumption that one or another affiliate has all the answers. There is a presumption that within SAM as a whole, all the answers that we now have are embodied and a mechanism for testing their worth and finding new ones exists.
The critical first issue is who is included—what movements, projects, periodicals, organizations? It can’t be come one, come all, clearly. There will have to be norms and structure, and new recruits will have to fit well, in the eyes of those already affiliated. It has to be serious, committed, and each new inclusion has to be acceptable to all those already involved, to maintain levels of trust and participation.
First Steps
Suppose representatives from the Greens, the New Party, the Labor Party, the Campaign for a New Tomorrow, and NOW got together with the purpose of creating SAM. They hammer out the structural norms—a clear understanding of what allegiance implies, what dues there are, how resources are distributed back to affiliates and to overall projects, how SAM sponsored campaigns and projects are originated, what SAM affiliates have to do vis-a-vis one another, etc.
Then they take this vision, which they are ready to participate in and help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, organizations, agreeable to each of the initial four. Perhaps they go to the Nation, say, or to Z. Or perhaps they go to Greenpeace, say, or IPS, etc. Slowly and steadily the growing structure could reach out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects, periodicals, and movement organizations. Would it be everyone who calls themselves progressive. I doubt it. But it could certainly be a very large and diverse formation, with a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.
Is this a pipe dream? I don’t know. It seems to me that the idea of preserving the autonomy of each affiliate, yet fostering solidarity among them respects both the need for unity and the need for diversity. It seems to me that without something like this, some forum/medium/mechanism that can lead to a sharing of ideas, views, and agendas, to honest debate and discussion of differences and pursuit of collective programs, to sharing of insights and merging of human support, to an enlargement of and sharing and sensible allocation of resources—to fostering and benefiting from both solidarity and autonomy—we are not going to go forward. With something like this, however, it seems to me there is real reason for hope.
The fact is, people of good will are not doing very well right now. It seems to me it is time to take a chance…as the old saying goes: there is little to lose and a whole lot to gain. Either what we have, spread across the U.S. in all its myriad forms, is a basis on which we can build (which I tend to believe)—in which case the SAM type approach or something like it seems a viable and needed first step forward—or what we have is just not worth much as even a starting place, and we have to create something entirely new from scratch, which, if it is the case, we better find out sooner rather than later.