Written for teleSUR English, which will launch on July 24
One of the pervasive problems of the U.S. left, and I would wager around the world, is fragmentation. One of the abiding strengths of the U.S. left, and I suspect around the world, is diversity. How do we reduce the former without losing the latter?
People suffer some pains more than others, discern some oppressions more aggressively than others, pursue some agendas more militantly than others. When we dissent, as a result, we often focus on one oppression more than on others. WE proclaim one intellectual and activist “orientation” more than others. We develop movements of national, racial, and cultural communities, of women, gays and lesbians, of workers and poor city or country dwellers, and of young people, around such focuses as race, religious bigotry, gender, sexuality, poverty and class, local issues of power or distribution, or issues of safety, authority, war and peace, jurisprudence, 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 oppressive apparatus with many mutually enforcing aspects enforces all these oppressions. It is too powerful and too entrenched—in institutions and in people’s behaviors as well—to succumb to partial assaults. Separate efforts, important as each focus of course it, by their deparation, dilute strength and compete for allegiance, 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 that subsumed all the rest. Trying to use one single orientation inevitably trumps much of what is dynamic and influential in each area. Seeking to be comprehensive often addresses only a few central features. This not only excludes a lot, it often prescribes aims for parts of society contrary to the needs of those most oppressed by those parts rather than determined by them.
As a result many people on the left criticize fragmenting into single-focused efforts because they weaken the total movement and even each component by fragmenting energies, inducing competitions, etc. But most on the left also appreciate these laser-focused efforts because they elevate the true needs of those who feel each type of oppression most directly.
So 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 all these lines, into one big movement?
Surely the gains in enlarged outreach, increased membership and power, and economies of scale when trying to conduct campaigns 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, however elegant each lone string may be?
Perhaps there is no rush toward unity because 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, perhaps each party, project, periodical, and movement worries that in unity its priorities will be given only lip service. Those that are larger bemoan the hassle of working with smaller efforts with their peculiar people and their fanatical attention to things the large outfits consider peripheral or distracting. And those that are smaller feel, why should we dilute our serious intentions and risk subordination to the less attuned and less radical views of larger efforts? Everyone feels why should we reduce our prioritization of race, class, gender, sex, war, or ecology, or whatever is our special understanding and commitment and radicalism, by aligning with groups that have agendas emphasizing something we feel to be of lower priority, or that we find 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 1966 to now, I wonder if we can pursue a new kind of unity, advocating a new type of organizational structure and relations.
A New Kind of Unity
In the past “working together” has generally meant creating a coalition. You take the agendas and understandings of each potential ally and survey them for features they have in common. Then a temporary coalition is built around just the common aims. The process involves little mutual adaptation. Each side tries to benefit itself in context of a temporary overlap of some priorities. Worse, each coalescing outfit tries to entice members from the others, tries to build its own constituency, etc. And, if there is a way to subsume the supposed ally, or to infiltrate the supposed ally, so that when the dust clears one’s own organization is all that remains, okay, that is fine.
Here is a different hopefully more productive attitude. Suppose we decide that working together should mean merging agendas in a lasting larger framework designed to pursue collective efforts and mutual support while also retaining intact separate efforts. Using an example from the past, suppose the anti-Vietnam War movement, the hippies, the Civil Rights Movement, the women’s movement, and the National Welfare Rights movement, from a few decades back in the U.S., decided to get together. When they did in fact do so, 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. A temporary coalition.
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” of concerns (the modest amount that they all could agree on) but was instead the greatest common sum of all 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 the other’s domains 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 to support, provide person-power, and even share material resources with the Civil Rights movement for a Civil Rights movement initiated campaign, and vice versa for an anti war campaign? And likewise for the rest?
Okay, take this image up to the present. We would still have each project, periodical, and movement as defined separate entities, as we do now. And they would each still function in and of themselves, autonomously, with their own priorities in place, developing their owns views and agendas. But, on top of that, they would also exist within a larger structure, call it SAM for a minute (for Solidarity with Autonomy Movement).
SAM’s agenda would be the sum total of the agendas of all its affiliates. Sam’s consciousness would be the sum total of the consciousness of all its affiliates. It’s board is representatives would be from all the affiliates. Its budget would be based on direct fund raising, as well as proportionate contributions from all the affiliates. SAM would in turn gives support to projects in tune with the affiliates needs and potentials.
What about conflicts? Suppose two periodicals, or projects, or movements in SAM have different views on some issue. How could 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 should this be so hard?
It means that there is always need for patient investigation and discussion and assessment of differences and, in time, one would hope, this would generate progress toward more agreement. But until agreement on some controversial matter is reached, contrasting views on that matter would both co-exist in SAM. They would be respected, though if one disputant comes from an affiliate whose focus is that area and the other disputant is from an affiliate whose focus is elsewhere, the former would predominate in SAM program.
There is no point pursuing all the many complex variants and possibilities of organizational arrangement, definition, and structure here. The basic idea is to have an umbrella organization which encompasses and includes, supportively and respectfully, a vast range of progressive and left undertakings.
SAM would be the greatest sum rather than the least common denominator of all its affiliates. SAM would exist to enhance each affiliate and the whole. The affiliates would 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 themselves, alone, are, and to live with differences.
There is no presumption that one or another affiliate has all the answers. There is instead a presumption that within SAM as a whole, all the answers that we now have are present and a mechanism for testing their worth and finding new answers too, exists.
The critical first issue is who is included—what movements, projects, periodicals, or organizations? It can’t be “come one, come all,” clearly. There will have to be norms and structure, and new affiliates will have to fit well, in the eyes of those already affiliated. It has to be serious, committed, and each new inclusion would have to be acceptable to those already involved, to maintain levels of trust and participation.
Suppose representatives from four diverse organizations, parties, and projects 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 determined, 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 to help build, to some other constituency groups, projects, and organizations, agreeable to each of the initial four. Perhaps they go to some media projects. Or perhaps they go to some ecology organizations, or to community groups, and so on. Slowly and steadily the growing structure could reach out to include national, regional, and even local organizing projects, periodicals, and movement organizations. It could even go international.
Would it be everyone who calls themselves progressive? I doubt it. But it certainly could be a very large and diverse formation, in one country, and then later across countries, able to have a huge impact on solidarity and on the ability of progressive and left elements to focus their efforts effectively.
Is this a pipe dream? One might put that question differently, I think; do we want to win?
It seems to me that the idea of preserving the autonomy of each affiliate yet fostering solidarity among them all respects both the need for unity and the need for diversity. It seems to me that without something like this, some medium/mechanism that can lead to a sharing of ideas, views, and agendas, and that can foster honest debate and discussion of differences, pursue shared collective programs, foster shared insights, and that can merge human support, and enlarge and sensibly allocate resources all to foster and benefit from both solidarity and autonomy – we are not going to go forward. With something like this, however, it seems to me there would be real reason for hope.
The fact is, people of good will are not yet winning. 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., where I live, in all its myriad forms, and I suspect likewise spread across many other countries, 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 to me to be a viable and needed 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.