Talking with Elites?

Recently articles have appeared claiming that Black Lives Matter has devolved into an ineffectual chat partner for democratic party hopefuls, particularly Hillary Clinton. Maybe this is true. Maybe, and one hopes, it isn’t. I am not in position to know. But the issue of how to assess talking to Clinton, or to elites more broadly, exists in any event.

When does it make sense for a movement, or for  movement leaders, or even for individual activists to engage in discussion with elite actors in society such as candidates for President?

Suppose you happen to find yourself on an airplane sitting next to such a person – not likely, but suppose it happens, in any case. There would not be much point in fashioning a weapon out of your belt. Better to sleep or talk. If you do talk, why do it? To what end?

Well, maybe to probe around and try to learn something useful about the elite flight companion’s attitudes or commitments, or about what they know of their peer’s views. That seems fine. And, in such a personal context if it is along flight and you have nothing to read, you might even try to convince them of the efficacy of some viewpoint, I suppose, though sleep might be a better choice.

Now suppose instead you are in a mass movement and somehow, by whatever means, you are in position to speak to some such elite personage. This is also not common but does occasionally occur. Perhaps you are in a union and on strike and have an audience with the owner of your workplace, or an emissary of the owner. Or, perhaps you are by some happenstance chosen or selected to somehow represent a movement, meeting with some elite person, even, say, Hilary Clinton.

In this new case, what makes sense? The situation on the plane, and the other situations, are quite different. The first case is mainly personal. The other cases are mainly social.

Does it make sense to think you are going to appeal to Hillary’s intelligence, her reason, her compassion? Does it make sense to think that by dialogue you are going to convince someone like Clinton – not force her, but convince her – to take a better stance, and based on that to do something truly desirable?

Here is Frederick Douglas on this exact isssue: “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.” And: “Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground.”

Douglas’ point is simple but also profound. More, it should be uncontroversial among those with the slightest regard for historical and social lessons. When you sit and talk with an emissary of wealth and power – with Hilary Clinton, for example – her agenda and yours represent two opposed universes. You want to use ideas and facts and sentiments to unearth a degree of solidarity from her, yielding a change in her agenda, and then via her acts taken in accord with that change, in society. She wants to make you go away less inclined to agitate. That’s it.

But if you are not going to convince her of anything, how do you affect her in any way? The answer is by pressure. By exhibiting sufficient organization and commitment that she fears where you are headed and wants to deter you from getting there, even, if necessary, by giving in on some issue or other. So if you have a militant movement, good. If you win access via the pressure that that movement generates, good. If you use that access to try to impress her with knowledge and reason, speaking to her moral being, not good. That is her succeeding in reducing agitation. You, in such a case, would be accomplishing nothing. If, instead, you use the access to deliver demands and to impress upon Clinton the danger of ignoring those demands, you are threatening more agitation. Maybe you negotiate, sometimes. That’s it.

When Black Lives Matter confronted Sanders it had a “partner” who might actually listen, but it also delivered, regardless of that hope, a message of pressure. Ignore us at your peril and at the peril of your agenda. For Black Lives Matter to approach Clinton the same way, would be fine, I suppose. But to treat her, not over dinner, but in a political and social context, as a thinking and caring person you can reason with – is simply misguided. In a political and social context she is neither thinking freely nor caring sincerely. She is an agent of power and wealth moved only by calculations of enlarging power and wealth, or of diminishing threats to it, not moved by morality or reason.

Returning to our starting point, if there were many activists of Black Lives Matter who do not understand what is presented above, that would surprise me, but it would mean those who do understand it should be explaining it to those who do not. If most do understand, and some don’t, okay, the few who don’t – if they are now doing so – should not be representing the rest.

And while the proximate discussion now occurring is about Black Lives Matter talking to Clinton, the substance applies as well to labor movements, women’s movements, anti-war movements, and so on. As Douglas put it: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”


  1. avatar
    David Jones October 31, 2015 12:33 pm 

    For a demand to be taken seriously it needs to have an “or else” attached to it. For an “or else” to be credible, lots of on-the-ground organizing has to have taken place prior. This is the difficult, slow, often tedious aspect of “struggle” that is so often supplanted by a quick jump to “militancy”, flashy, heroic volunteerism that really isn’t much threat to power structures. Effective. militancy requires discipline and organization, too often ignored by the lovers of spontaneity.. Guess we’ll see where BLM falls in this spectrum.

  2. John Vincent October 28, 2015 8:59 pm 

    Very good analysis Michael. I surely hope Black Lives Matter does understand what you have resented above.

    • John Vincent October 28, 2015 9:00 pm 

      Good grief: “presented” not resented.

  3. Tyler Healey October 28, 2015 3:20 pm 

    Power concedes nothing without a demand and a legitimate threat to power’s status. It never did and it never will.

    The New Deal was a concession from the ruling class. They feared capitalism was going to end if none of the proletariat’s demands were met.

    I have plenty of demands for Congress, about which they could not care less. Why? Because both houses of Congress are controlled by the Republican Party, a party whose sole purpose is to conserve the domination of society by an aristocracy.

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