CROSSROADS. Issue 41. May 1994
"Market Leftism: Money, Machines and the Left's Decline"
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Today, "one member, one vote" has been replaced by "one dollar, one vote."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. A FUNDRAISING MACHINE
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. TOWARD GRASSROOTS MOBILIZATION
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.