When I facilitate trainings for grassroots leaders, allies, and staff on why we do strategic communications work in relation to our community organizing I inevitably talk about hegemony. Hegemony is the common sense we have to challenge when we are trying to make change. The limits of collective imagination and understanding create the limits of the change we can make. Once, in a training, someone offered this metaphor: hegemony is the water the fish swims in, it shapes the fish’s experience and determines understanding, it is everywhere. But hegemony isn’t just the water the fish swims in; there are limits to the fish’s world, hard edges beyond which the fish can’t move -- the fishbowl.
In the past few months the hegemonic fishbowl our country’s been living in has cracked.
Capitalism, as it has been talked about for the past 30 years, is in serious trouble and everyone knows it. The long time defenders of capitalism’s rules are now breaking them. The free market is only free when profit is made and all (the rich) are happy. With the U.S. economy in shambles from unregulated exchange (free markets) the government is stepping in to nationalize the banks, a big no-no for capitalists. We have Congress dancing around an Auto Industry bailout to the point that even President George Bush took action to rescue the big three while at the same time saying that government should not interfere with the market (at least that’s how I heard it).
These cracks in the faith of capitalism are huge. Now more people can align themselves with alternative economics, as their reality and experience of capitalism shifts. It is up to us to put forward viable visions for economies based on principles of justice, self-determination, and people over profit.
Millions of people were drawn to Barack Obama’s campaign because of his message of change. His campaign did not rely on the Democratic machine (solely) but built its own movement, creating a broad umbrella of Hope and Change that many could fit under. The campaign drew in young African-Americans and Latinos (who won the race for Obama in Florida, no thanks to young whites). It exposed many to activism, not at an issue level, but on a broad, almost movement level. This, plus the fact that Obama’s campaign held him up as a community organizer, has placed new value -- even new legitimacy -- in the hands of progressive organizers.
Hillary Clinton’s bid for the White House also cracked our fishbowl. The possibility of a woman president or a Black president illustrated a shift in what is possible, what is the norm in the U.S. As much as Obama represented advances for racial justice, Clinton represented advances for women, turning narrow notions of who can lead on their head. Although neither of these advances directly changes systemic racism and patriarchy, they do demonstrate possibilities and stimulate imaginations of another world.
Several weeks ago employees at the Chicago factory of Republic Windows and Doors occupied their workplace. The six day occupation was sparked by Bank of America refusing to extend a line of credit to the bosses to pay severance to employees as the factory closed. During this time President Elect Barack Obama said he supported the demands of the factory workers. The workers, members of the independent (not a part of the AFL-CIO) democratic United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America (UE), took the militant action and demanded their severance essentially from a bank that had just received a government bail out. Obama’s support of the workers is a signal not only to organized labor, but also to unorganized workers, it is a shift away from pro-business union busting neo-liberalism.
This action signifies another smaller crack. There is a growing trend of militant trade unionism and workplace solidarity. Workers are no longer satisfied with big business unionism and are taking matters into their own hands. This is happening through the shell of the old, and with some help from sympathetic union officials. Militant worker action is happening outside of the sanctioned workers organizations, demonstrated by wild cat strikes of truckers in and around DC last spring, the growth in the number and power of independent worker centers, etc. Although the demands of the UE action were not as far reaching as those of workers who reclaimed and ran factories in Argentina during recent financially troubled times, the militancy of the action captured the imagination of rank and file workers across the globe.
Now that we can see some of these cracks in the fishbowl, we need to expand the cracks and create many more so that soon the fish bowl will just fall apart.
Now more than ever we need to build grassroots multi-racial organizations that fight against oppression and for expansion of gender, racial, economic, and human rights. These bread and butter campaigns improve material conditions through reform while developing the capacity for political and practical leadership from the grassroots. It is also through organizing that we can capture and keep a new generation of activists invigorated by the presidential election engaged in our ongoing struggle. These organizations are crucial as we expand our movement (see below) because they ground the fight in everyday conditions and realities and serve as incubators for leadership from oppressed communities, those who should be leading the fight.
These smaller campaign fights have the potential to tap into that spirit of hope and change that Obama’s campaign did, but only if mass numbers of people hear about them and are touched by them. Strategically communicating is not only about reaching targets of campaigns, or reaching constituents, it is about shifting the debate to create the space for victories, for inspiring a wide swath of people to support you and move with you. There is all sorts of new technology out there that allows this type of creative story telling to happen. This new media allows us to by-pass the traditional media that is stuck in the fishbowl. New technology democratizes dreaming and allows us to bypass the traditional media, which is stuck framing their news within the limits of the fishbowl. We need to utilize this power and create larger cracks that traditional media cannot ignore. Our frame has the potential to be the main frame.
Building from grassroots organizing to communications, there has to be a way to test our effectiveness in building consensus and support for our ideas and actions. The electoral arena gives us that space. This means forming new types of organizations beyond 501c3s and even c4s. We must build our own electoral machines that not only move candidates but also move messages.
The right wing is amazingly effective at this tactic. With the use of ballot initiatives around what are often characterized as social issues, they mobilize and test their base. These issues, usually issues of abortion and gay marriage, are used in a narrow way to divide populations and encourage strife. The electoral tool has been under utilized by the left. While it has the ability to reach masses of people in a short amount of time and encourages them to take concise action it is not a replacement for community organizing, with its longer battles and fights and expanded opportunities of leadership development and deeper messages.
As capitalism is questioned from the left to the right, as millions are activated through self-interest to oppose the status quo in this crumbling economy it is time to make big demands based on big ideas and take bold action to garner attention and support. Let’s not rely on platitudes, and dogmatism that only makes sense in our own little circles, let’s push ourselves to reframe and repackage how we talk about things, to address where people now find themselves. We need to learn from actions taken by movements that have come before us and inspire us such as: sit ins and mass protests, lighting draft cards on fire, the Mississippi Freedom Party, Serve the people Programs, Gay Pride Parades, factory takeovers in Argentina, land takeovers in Brazil. Our action should draw on the vision of righteousness of these past actions and move beyond them, contextualize them, and make them bigger; not only in numbers but in vision and impact.
Actions that capture this type of energy are eviction blockades in Boston organized by Vida Urbana/City Life, the tenant union organizing happening in Miami, and the “progressives for Obama” blog of activists and intellectuals committed to ensuring Obama doesn’t drift to the center.
If there is any hope of building a better world we must be more than the sum of our parts. With capitalism in decline in the U.S. and the emperor exposed as having no clothes, the time is ripe to build a broad movement big enough to not only hold Barrack Obama accountable to the interests of racial, economic, and gender justice, but big enough to actually shift society at the roots.
Building a broad movement means building with sectors, organizations, and people who you may disagree with on particular issues. It is the job of principled leftists to mainstream our ideas and practices through engaging in coalitions, united fronts and movements, and winning people to our side, thus expanding our influence and pulling movements left. The fight is in the movement.
The task of maintaining principled left ideals while engaging in broad coalitions, united fronts, and movements is difficult. There is always the question of the edge of one’s politics; the point at which compromise is actually selling out a principled stance regardless of supposed unity or advances, and not compromising is a dogmatic clinging to the security of pure politics standing in the way of advancing the fight. But if we don’t take risks and throw our lot in with hope and growth over guarded skepticism and stagnation (which is failure in the end), how can we reach the majority of people, how can we truly build a better world? Let our goals be our guides to making allies and naming enemies in each fight.
With an Obama victory I am closer now than I ever was to the White House. Friends of friends are getting appointments with the new administration. As much as this presidency signals a historic shift, it is still a presidency within the U.S., and therefore certain lines must be maintained. Those friends who move inside the administration will certainly be forced to hold those lines, and those of us on the outside have to be clear about those dividing lines as well.
Now is the time to take advantage of the cover of an Obama presidency and build independent organizations, electoral machines, and movements. We must understand the limitations of the positions of the president, and make our role be to change the ground beneath his feet.