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Surviving and Going Beyond


Wise folks now realize The Virus is going to cause countries to wind up moving either hard right with fascistic racism, authoritarianism, lies, and manipulation in the saddle, or moving seriously left with militant, angry, honest, and anti corporate pro change leftism rising. Which will it be, and if the later, how far can it go?

The most compelling writer I know, Arundhati Roy put it this way:

“Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

There are lots of wonderful calls for positive changes currently circulating, perhaps most promisingly by The People’s Bailout and its hundreds of supporting organizations. Many of the aims were deemed outlandish and unaffordable just a few weeks ago, yet many now seem almost pedestrian. Of course “outlandish” earlier really meant not within the priorities of our corporate overlords, and “unacceptable” meant costly for those same overlords. But now minds are opening and demands are flowering. 

Some of these positive changes now garnering growing support include drive through testing; extensive voting by mail; enforcing price controls on pharmaceuticals; nationalizing health care producers to massively increase production of needed ventilators; providing free medical care not only for treating the virus but for treating all ailments of all people all the time; moratoriums on firing workers while providing full wages for those who must go home for safety; dramatically reducing the prison population by releasing non violent offenders; turning over unoccupied housing to the homeless and to released prisoners with nowhere safe to go; moratoriums on rent and utility payments; expanding unemployment insurance; subsidizing farmers and small businesses; expanding childcare; cancelling student debt; providing direct monthly income payments to all citizens; establishing means of safe voting by the entire population including vote by mail or online; and initiating campaigns designed to protect against future pandemics, global warming, and other environmental threats.

There will likely soon be further refinements, though the list is already plenty good. For example, to house the homeless and prisoners, how about reopening hotels for them and staffing with people who are well protected? Good use for Trump’s property, no? For that matter, how about a massive project to build new low cost Green housing employing lots of prison guards and military, and prisoners too, all of whom also get to live in the product? How about using schools while closed to students to provide rooms for beds for the sick on the way toward schools becoming multi purpose night time adult education, social service, and community centers when the crisis abates? How about nationalizing major delivery systems for food, medicine, and essential supplies – like Amazon and Walmart? How about a universal minimum wage of $20 an hour, or more, starting now? How about making loans to large corporations contingent on their welcoming unions and implementing not only worker safety but also means for workers to exert influence over policies? If we can pay for people to be home to flatten the curve, how about if we pay for people now in fossil fuel industries to learn to build and maintain wind turbines and solar farms to save civilization? And of course, how about ending all international financial, trade, and armed violence toward other countries and instead re-orienting the military to silencing The Virus and then global warming? And on and on.

Nowadays there is obviously a whole lot to write/talk about. There is refining the above types of demand, but also and in particular there is how to win the gains via civil disobedience, strikes, and other actions in the time of social distancing, as well as how to expand still further the incredible patterns of mutual aid that are now emerging among diverse populations in countless cities around the world. So all that as well as removing Trump and others like him around the world from positions of authority is undeniably paramount in this critical moment. What is a poor writer to prioritize? Holed up in a little dwelling, alone, I have no particular likelihood of saying anything very useful about all the above that isn’t already being said by many others – and so I would like to instead address an issue where it is at least conceivable I may say something useful precisely because not near as much is yet being said by others. 

The issue I have in mind is: how do we move from winning temporary gains that help us survive a disaster that may otherwise become a calamity that may otherwise become an apocalypse, to once we survive to the other side, preserving our temporary wins and embarking on winning much more? How do we avoid limiting victory over The Virus to returning to pre-Corona business as usual? How do we instead move victory over The Virus on toward achieving a permanently better society?

When you are scrambling to avoid drowning under high waters it may seem premature to think about the time after the high waters abate, but I suspect if we don’t think about that future even while we are now gasping, then our courageous efforts to survive will only take us back to business as usual. We may celebrate attaining the status quo ante, but we will then endure the same horrid pains we have endured in the past and, worse still, we will lay seeds for even worse calamities to come. 

Fighting for and even winning diverse gains over coming months won’t automatically lead to keeping them later. It won’t automatically lead to winning much more after The Virus. What do we additionally need?

I think the answer is very probably that we additionally need three things: deep understanding of the present; great desire for the future; and effective organization to go from here to there.

The deep understanding we need is that going back to business as usual isn’t only going back to non-crisis injustices – which would be horrible enough. It is also going back to a launch pad into new and even worse crises. It is arguably social insanity. I think the good news is that lots of factors are already contributing to this becoming a lesson learned.

Writers are enunciating it in essay after essay. Bernie Sanders and some others on the national stage are repeatedly teaching it. And ironically The Virus is revealing it to be the reality and the process of fighting for immediate survival via winning the gains listed earlier will keep hammering the point home. Watching social distancing breed solidarity and empathy is quite the teacher. Taking Trump and his fellow barbarians to task needs to highlight that they are systemic products, not one-time aberrations, but that too is well within range of existing approaches. It appears that this first condition of further advance, deep understanding, will be met over the coming months even with no change in current activist inclinations. It is happening.

What about the second need: great desire? When things are increasingly horrendous we naturally want to escape the horror. We even eagerly fight to do so. But we don’t necessarily desire to exceed that. So where does future-looking desire come from? There is likely no single full answer much less a single path that ensures the sought result. But I think there is one critical aspect of any good answer. To have shared, widespread, forward looking desire requires having shared, widespread forward looking vision and having shared, widespread forward looking belief that one’s vision can be attained. 

The famous formulation that “There Is No Alternative” (or TINA) was precisely conceived to stifle forward looking desire. If we believe there is no better future, we won’t desire a better future. If we don’t desire a better future, we won’t fight for a better future. 

The forward seeking answer to TINA was the activist’s counter formulation: “Another World Is Possible.” It was perfectly succinct. It was directly on point. But didn’t demonstrate. It proclaimed. It didn’t make a convincing case. Desire awoke for a time but then dozed again.

One necessary part of people desiring a better future is people knowing at least the main attributes of a better future and why those main attributes are desirable, why they are possible, and why they would work. But if part of large numbers attaining great desire will be large numbers sharing informed vision of what new liberating institutions can replace current oppressive ones, then don’t writers, speakers, and doers need to elevate describing and making a convincing case for alternative institutions a priority alongside our other priorities?

What about the third need: organization? The Virus is actually producing a lot of organizing, as does global warming, economic inequality, war, racial assault and violence, sexual predation, evictions, and all the familiar contemporary violations of human potentials. But the organization we need to battle beyond substantial mitigation of pre Corona ills toward new social institutions need to be different in two major ways. 

First, we need organization that addresses the totality of oppressions with a totality of liberating aims. We need organization that doesn’t mirror or even aggravate the fragmentation of contemporary siloed activism. We need organization that links our many activist silos into an encompassing movement of movements. 

And  second, we need organization that structurally and operationally reflects its commitments. New organization needs to involve members from diverse backgrounds in determining their own futures. New organization needs to openly and aggressively self manage, be participatory, patient, and supportive. New organization needs to pursue shared encompassing desires even as it preserves, enriches, and expands them. 

Can the long-time but now considerably expanded DSA become a massive national organization rooted in local grassroots leadership with an encompassing plain-speaking agenda based on clear but constantly developing vision? Can the countless emerging mutual aid projects merge into being that? 

Can the People’s Bailout campaign move from being a massive hugely important coalition to being a massive and even more important visionary bloc of mutually supporting movements pursuing a greatest common sum totalization of all their agendas? 

And can such a new organization of organizations and movement of movements embrace an anti-sectarian welcoming attitude to internal dissent and a local chapter/assembly/council based foundation of self managing participation?

It is a certainly a lot to ask for. But isn’t it what we will need to not just survive The Virus and for that matter the far more lethal climate catastrophes we face, but also what we need to move beyond survival onto a steady trajectory toward more fundamental gains? If it is, then this too must become a priority focus of thought, writing, discussion, debate, and activism.

If on-going success requires deep understanding of the present, great desire for the future, and effective organization to go from here to there, doesn’t it follow that asking how to achieve these aims – and especially the latter two – and then testing and finally fully acting on proposed answers must become a priority of our current practice, even as we also seek to win the many survival-related gains we seek? 

So let’s pursue that, propose that, debate that, refine that, and begin to implement that.

2 Comments

  1. H H April 13, 2020 3:54 am 

    This still seems like a rehash of what the Left has been politely and without much success asking for for the past 40 year, at least. Unfortunately, this is only addressing the needs of the (albeit large) minority at the very bottom. When will you come up with something that might make life better for the small, but very influential coordinator class? What about a drastic reduction in working hours (24-hour work week) in addition to or instead of expanding the unemployment insurance?

  2. avatar
    Ray Ballisti April 10, 2020 11:06 pm 

    Many of the ideas you mentioned now can be found in your book RPS/20. But I am missing something: if we want to build something new, and hopefully better, we have at first start to make a deep analysis of the elements with which we want to build something new, and those elements are the people. We need to understand the basic of mankind behaviour. This behaviour has been build up by the evolution of mankind. As every being on this planet, survival is the first goal. From this you can derive everything. Survival refers to different social components and is build up in concentric spheres, where the core is the survival of oneself, the next of the own family, then the tribe (clan) and so on till the modern national state and finally the whole planet. Survival can be achieved with different strategies, one of them is collaboration: team work by hunting in the pre-historical time, team work in modern companies. Another method is based on a more egoistic, say egocentric, behaviour, where the single is competing with everybody else for supremacy. This is what we have today with the philosophy underlining the “American Dream”, where the single can achieve wealth by being smarter and, why not, better then others. A new society has to take those archaic instincts into consideration, and thus it requires a lot of patience and a basic work starting with the new generations, as the old ones are too much biased for a change be successful. To make it short: we need to understand the basic of mankind behaviour if we want to find the way to build up a new world.

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