A few months ago my colleague William Connolly considered The Dilemma of Electoral Politics. Given how bankrupt yet at the same time essential the US electoral system is, how do those of us on the Left deal with it? His answer:
The formula is to move back and forth between the proliferation of role experiments, forging social movements on several fronts, helping to shift the constituency weight of the heavy electoral machinery now in place, and participating in cross-country citizen movements that put pressure on states, corporations, churches, universities and unions from inside and outside simultaneously. Indeed, perhaps the severity of the issues facing us means that we should prepare for the day when we are strong enough in several countries to launch a cross-country general strike.
I've used the concept of "proliferation" before when writing Occupy as it was occurring. I knew that it didn't make sense to focus solely on one strategy or to one movement or to one organization. And rather than having a top-down system guided by one set of actors (think modern day Goon Squad) we needed to be far more horizontal than vertical. We need to bring pressure to bear on as many points as possible in order to create the conditions for de-territorialization–to create the type of "a ha!" moment needed to bring to life new ways of being, ones that offer new opportunities for human growth and institutional development.
But this pressure must include electoral pressure.
The process of neoliberalization that's taken a shade more than 40 years to crystallize doesn't occur without elections, without electing school board members, city council persons, mayors, governors, congresspersons, state legislators. It doesn't occur without referenda–over 35 years ago California voters transformed the anti-tax movement into a viable means of radical state change when they passed Prop 13, which put a cap on property taxes and made it exceedingly difficult to pass tax increases.[foot]After its passage the only way taxes could be raised was through a 2/3 majority of state or local legislatures.[/foot] Cities have always been economic engines, but in the wake of a significant reduction in state and federal revenue sharing, cities were forced to rely even more on bond rating agencies…a move that forced them to be even more entrepreneurial. This doesn't happen without electoral change. Without citizens and institutions that recognize the importance of electoral power. As inevitable as neoliberalization now appears we have to "remember" (I put that in quotes because many of my readers weren't even alive when Clinton was President much less Nixon or Johnson) that there was a moment when conservatives were so convinced the US would become a REAL socialist country they made plans to flee–just like people talked about moving to Canada when Bush was elected. As emanable as government has always been to capital, it certainly didn't appear that way to capitalists in 1968.
I'd push Connolly hard on one thing. If the "goal" really is to prepare for something like a cross-country general strike, it seems to me that we have to start locally and move outward. When people ask me why I like Baltimore, I give them two reasons.
First, Baltimore reminds me of home. Like Detroit it has deep working class roots, a large black population, and a rich political history.
Second, Baltimore is big enough to matter, yet small enough to win. With the right push we could transform a city like Baltimore into something far greater, something that just doesn't seem possible in a city like New York without an Act of God.[foot]Which, given climate change is probably coming…but I digress.[/foot]
Along these lines there are an array of different organizations working inside and just outside of Baltimore. And we've got groups interested attacking the Baltimore problem from the standpoint of the economy. Here the BNote movement is an interesting one, although I think there's much more potential in the ideas put forth by Dream and Hustle. We've also got an array of groups interested in attacking the Baltimore problem from the standpoint of culture. Here I'm thinking about the constellation of organizations involved in the Baltimore Arts and Justice Project along with other groups.
But we don't really have any attacking the Baltimore problem from the standpoint of electoral politics. At least not one fully formed. Over the long term both the Baltimore Algebra Project and Leaders of a Beautiful Struggle offer possibilities (in fact LBS leaders have run for office in the past). However, in the wake of news that Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake has already begun focus grouping for her next election–testing the potential threat posed by Wes Moore of all people–we have to do more work here. And what "more work" means here is not necessarily finding people to run for office, but finding ideas worthy of generating so much support it doesn't necessarily matter who wins.
I think a city like Baltimore has much to offer Connolly theoretically and substantially. It's small enough to serve as a test case of sorts, small enough to plant seeds, small enough to see how the various seeds work in different soil types, small enough to see how they take root.
Small enough to win.