Market Leftism: Money Machines and the Left's Decline
Market Leftism

Nathan Newman and Anders Schneiderman connect the
proliferation of "market leftist" organizations and the
decline of progressive politics.

     The scene: a nondescript office building in a D.C.
suburb. Thirty-five young workers talk earnestly into phone
headsets. Salesmanship permeates the room. But these workers
are selling clean air, Native American rights, pro-choice
legislation, and other left causes. This is a "boiler room"
hired by progressive organizations to renew memberships or
make special appeals for funds.
     On any given day, the hired callers will not know the
organizations they are representing, but they learn the rap
fast. They call the "usual suspects" who belong to a dozen
or more groups. The "usual suspects," who are also barraged
by direct mail and door-to-door canvassing appeals, will
almost never be involved in electing the leadership of these
progressive organization or even be asked to volunteer.
Checkbooks are the main way the "grassroots" have any say in
these progressive politics.
     Today, "one member, one vote" has been replaced by "one
dollar, one vote." This is "market leftism," where the
funding market chooses the direction of the movement. Market
leftism has the same corrupting effect as market capitalism:
those with more money have more power, and the poor and
youth who have less money end up with little voice. The
bottom-line is that the proliferation of "market leftist"
organizations has killed democracy on the left.


     This is the political world we live in, a world that
alienates youth from progressive politics. Today, "the left"
is really a professional apparatus of leaders, a fundraising
machine, and mailing lists that no one bothers to mobilize.
Instead of establishing a human relationship, a phone call
or a door-knock or a letter from a progressive group is
almost always just a way to raise money. As a result, more
and more young people are refusing to even answer their
doors or phones when political groups call -- which isn't
often, because young people can't make large contributions
of cash that attract contact by progressive organizations.
When youth do get involved in Market Leftist organizations,
they are likely to end up as serfs in one of many little
fiefdoms. Not surprisingly, most young people aren't
interested in working for "the movement" when its "leaders"
spend their time clinging to their petty power centers.
     Market leftism has also made it impossible to change
the direction of the left. Market leftism gives young
activists and the rest of the left the same kind of
"choices" that the "free market" offers us for getting where
we want to go. We can "choose" between several brands of
(used) cars; we just can't choose to build a better system
of mass transit.
     The only people who really get to "choose" the
direction the left takes are the big money foundations and
governments. A few years ago, Michael Albert at Z Magazine
estimated that progressive organizations have raised an
impressive $1 billion in the last 25 years. But because the
left is so fragmented, progressives don't really control
this capital. Instead, many progressive organizations are
dependent on foundation and government money. In a sense,
the foundations and governments are the venture capitalists
of the left -- and that venture capital can dry up when
foundation or government elite fads change or when groups
get too radical.
     So what should our generation of young activists make
of this undemocratic disaster? We could just blame it on the
power-hungry, graying activists who find it more comfortable
to run their own small bureaucracy than participate in a
broader movement. But that's too easy an answer. The present
mess is a result of the efforts of another generation of
young activists who fought for democracy and youth
participation. We need to understand their struggles to
understand what we need to go today.
     The Sixties youth rejected the centralized,
bureaucratic democratic decision-making of the unions,
parties, and the established civil rights organizations (the
legacy of another generation of young activists). Instead,
organizations like Students for a Democratic Society (SDS)
and the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC)
believed in the ideal of engaged "participatory democracy. "
They believed this was more likely to occur in smaller, more
decentralized organizations where everyone could "do their
own thing." These smaller groups would also allow young
people to overcome the racism, sexism, imperialism, and
other shortcomings of the older, top-down organizations who
refused to respond to growing demands from the grassroots.
     In the 1970s, the attitudes of SDS/SNCC, the women's
movement, and the new environmental ethic of "small is
beautiful" converged with the lawyer/lobbyist-driven
Naderite activism and the community organizing gospel of
Saul Alinsky. These ideas would spawn an explosion of
organizations, by some estimates leading to a total of as
many as two million citizen groups encompassing 15 million
people by the 1980s. Since many organizations were too small
to support themselves through their members, they relied on
assistance from the government and foundations.  They
gradually became professionalized, and the goal of
democratic participation went by the wayside.
     In 1980, Ronald Reagan was elected -- in no small part
because decentralized progressive groups could not unite to
effectively oppose him. Under Reagan and Bush, the federal
government "defunded the left" and many foundations followed
suit. As a result, the 1980s would demonstrate the limits of
participation without mass democracy.
     With little ability to coordinate comprehensive
campaigns, each group had to retreat more and more to single
issues to maintain its funding ability. Vibrant democratic
community organizations might continue to exist at the local
level, but the dreams of a national upswell of
"participatory democracy" had given way to an alphabet soup
of competing non-profits and an alientated membership.


     So what are we to do?
     Our generation needs to bring together the ideals of
two previous generations: the 1930s ideals of solidarity in
one movement -- "the One Big Union" -- and the Sixties ideal
of full participation by everyone in "the movement." We live
in a world where police brutality, the lack of jobs, the
collapse of the educational system, racism, sexism,
homelessness, attacks on immigrants, and international
economic blackmail are too closely intertwined to split into
five contribution checks each month or 20 disconnected
meetings each week. But we also have to fight for the ideal
of grassroots democracy in all aspects of a unified
movement, the ability of minority views to be heard at all
times, and the ability to promote creative actions within
that broad umbrella.
     What our generation of activists brings to "the
movement" is a greater sense of how that has to be
accomplished: with respect for the integrity of different
communities in our multi-cultural society and a rejection of
the petty sectarianism that has divided the left. In the
environmental justice movement, we now see the melding of
environmentalism and community activism on just that basis.
And new radical union organizing campaigns like Justice for
Janitors are melding the discipline of labor with the energy
of the racial communities that are the most exploited
workers in our society. If we are to mobilize the youth of
all races and classes to social justice, we need to build
just these kinds of trust across issues and organizations to
build the broad democratic movement of the left.
     To do so, we need to move away from a focus on
foundations, government, or "boiler rooms" and towards an
active focus on grassroots-based mobilization. For example,
we might set up a structure where grassroots groups collect
funds and organize themselves on whatever basis makes the
most sense locally but pay some percentage of those funds to
the broader unified movement for long-term investments in
new organizing and youth training. Unions operate on this
principle in organizing different industries and  places;
the same could be applied to organizing different
communities or different styles of progressive organization.
     But we can't count on the petty, graying McDictators of
the left to make these changes. Young activists will have to
fight from below and force progressive groups to start
working together. We need to push them to move beyond
temporary coalitions and create a funded umbrella
organization which can revitalize the dreams of democratic,
grassroots empowerment. Ultimately, it is up to our
generation to restore "one person, one vote" and get "the
movement" back on the track of true democracy.