By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
I and others been mulling how to write such an agenda for some time, but a confluence of articles from several sources provokes me to think that this topic is about to become part of the, er, conversation, so I thought I would put this post together, imperfect though it certainly is; it’s a sort of Frankenstein’s monster, patched together from other people’s quotes and relying on galvanic assertion far more than reasoned argument. But since it is, after all, Bastille Day,
The first provocation comes in the form of two articles from Matt Yglesias, who seems to have recently applied for his Communist Party card, amazingly enough, but even the lowliest worm etc. Yglesias on July 11:
It was convenient for Democrats that for years, Republicans were committed to profoundly unpopular positions on entitlement programs that made it possible for Democrats to win the votes of some cross-pressured, culturally conservative whites. But even though Trumpism hardly amounts to a coherent ideology, the promise to protect the of older working-class people has some real appeal on the merits.
As NC readers know, I’ve been advocating for a focus on “concrete material benefits” for many years (I owe the phrase to a long-time, now silent blogger named AnglachelR). So if this earworm has, through whatever devious channels, worked its way into the brain of Matt Yglesias, and hence into the hive mind of the political class, I think a little celebration is in order, as we all do our bit to drag the (actually triangular, not linear) Overton Window left.
And then on July 12 Yglesias doubles down. The headline:
Democrats should take the class warfare message to upscale suburb
And the deck (and I hope somebody told Neera Tanden to put down her coffee, because otherwise she would have lost a keyboard):
It worked for Jeremy Corbyn, and the opposite failed for Jon Ossoff.
And Yglesias concludes:
Democrats, in short, shouldn’t mistake the possible ambivalence about soaking the rich of their own multi-millionaire donor class for the views of any substantial block of people. The broad American upper-middle class, full of college-educated professionals whose cultural sensibilities broadly align with mainstream Democratic Party politics, is perfectly happy to raise taxes on the rich to pay for universal social services.
It’s a good message that Democrats ought to take to all kinds of districts, but especially the ones full of college graduates that party leaders have rightly identified as the most promising near-term pickup opportunities.
But of course “universal social services” (I would say universal programs that deliver concrete material benefits, especially to the working class) is a concept, not a message. What is required, therefore, is an agenda. How would such an agenda be constructed? We’ll see, but first the second provocation–
This, from Grassroots Economic Organizing, which was in Links yesterday, but I think should be called out again. This was the key point for me:
All too often, I think, we have a tendency to organize more-or-less short-lived mass gatherings as a sort of knee-jerk reaction to anything we are trying to oppose or support (but mostly oppose), without thinking through exactly what purpose in our long-term strategy that action is serving. There are times and places where a march or a petition might be exactly what is called for, but I think a lot of us tend to assume that organizing a march or a petition are good things in and of themselves. But if the march is just the equivalent of the doctor’s shot of morphine or a night out with the girls then that’s not necessarily the case.
And, as in the metaphors above, our inclination to engage in actions that simply allow us to “let off some steam” without moving us any closer to real solutions does, in many cases, keep us from .
Pink pussy hats. Giant puppets. Clever signs. Memes. Etc. But what do those “steps” look like? An agenda, obviously, but before that, the third provocation from Hampton Institute (named for Fred Hampton) amplifies the second by raising the question of how long a “long-term strategy” must be:
In brief, I’ll conclude that in order to make Marxism consistent with itself it is necessary to abandon the statist perspective to which Marx and Engels arguably were committed, and which they transmitted to most of their successors. It is necessary to conceive of revolution in gradualist way, not as a sudden historical “rupture” in which the working class or its representatives take over the national state and organize social reconstruction on the basis of a unitary political will (the proletarian dictatorship). According to a properly understood Marxism, even the early stages of the transition from capitalism to post-capitalism must take place over generations, and not in a planned way but unconsciously and rather “spontaneously,” in a process slightly comparable to the transition from feudalism to capitalism.
In a way, I find this perspective freeing; it’s never bugged me that I might not live to see everything that I dream of come to pass. How many generations? Striking a blow at random, I’d say three, because I think people can think as far out as their grandchildren, with a little effort. I realize to somebody who wants to go out and smash up an ATM machine, that might seem “gradualist” (a word Hampton concedes) but in historical terms, three generations is a very short time.
So let me translate this into requirements for what I will unblushingly call the perfect revolutionary agenda. I will assert (this is the three tricks part)
(1) Every agenda item should be a concrete material benefit
(2) The agenda items should be staged
(3) Stages may be generational in scope
(Staging the items is only sensible; pick the low-hanging fruit first. Win some victories. Train people to exercise actual power through experience. And so forth.)
Let’s look at a list from Beth Lynch and Andre Roberge of Progressive Army (and kudos to them for putting one out there. I’m not trashing Lynch and Roberge, at all; they’re both about a hundred years younger than I am, which is a good thing, and Progressive Army is an excellent site you should check out). But to make the point:
If the Democratic Party has any interest in winning elections, it will have to find its soul and its roots as the “Party of the People.” The party will have to run on the same issues that got so many Independent and first time voters to the polls during the Democratic primary:
- Single-Payer Healthcare
- Liveable Wages
- Debt-Free Public College
- Halting Climate Change
- Overturning Citizens United
- Criminal Justice Reform
- Ending Military Interventionism
- Job Creation
- Immigration Reform
- Racial Justice
- Wall Street Reform
I agree in principle. But there are some… snags. First — I’ll crassly go into the imperative mode, here — focus on the concrete material benefit. “Single-payer health care” is accurate, but a “Medicare for All” item brings the concrete benefit home. Similarly, #FightFor15 is more concrete than “Liveable Wages”; everybody can translate more money in their pocket to what they can buy. “Racial Justice,” sadly, is so vague as to be meaningless, as is “Wall Street Reform.” “Job Creation” might be replaced with “Jobs Guarantee,” an idea for which there’s a solid literature (and “guarantee” sounds better anyhow). And so forth.
Second, put the agenda in rough order of execution. For example, “Criminal Justice Reform” won’t be easy, but it’s certainly easier to execute than “Halting Climate Change.” So why is the easier agenda item after the harder one? Doesn’t it make sense to rack up some victories with what’s do-able first? More subtly, if the agenda items aren’t ordered, you can’t put mutually reinforcing items next to each other. For example, a Jobs Guarantee is not only good in itself, it solves the problem of how to help all the people who used to work in the insurance industry, before Medicare for All nuked it. Finally, even accepting “Racial Justice” and “Halting Climate Change” as precisely formulated universal concrete material benefits, the left can’t deliver them in a year, ten years, or twenty years; they really will take at least two and probably three generations to play out. So why not begin with that time-frame in mind?
I lied about the three tricks, though. There’s a fourth:
(4) A separate agenda for changes in the political infrastructure, necessary to achieve the main agenda.
(Programmers call this “separation of concerns.” Infrastructure — like co-ops, say — is not good in itself, but good only insofar as the concrete material benefits it brings. Ditto for lefty shibboleths like “the revolution.” If the revolution becomes just another reason why we can’t have nice things, just as before, Animal Farm-style, then what good was it? So put the benefits in one agenda, and put the infrastructure in a second agenda.) One critical infrastructure item is elections with hand-marked paper ballots, hand-counted in public, with election day as a national holiday. We can hardly expect to win any battles if election fraud is as easy as it is! Another infrastructural item would be MMT; we’ve got to get out of the neoliberal box that Federal taxes pay for Federal spending and that deficits are sinful.
So, happy Bastille Day! Again, I’m sorry this isn’t as well-worked out as the topic deserves, but the provocations were there, and I felt I should get these thoughts out “on the table” so that others could make use of them, if they like.
 That’s not strictly true. If you believe (as I do) that Trump on the trail at the very least expressed skepticism about our military adventures (and especially adventurism against a nuclear power like Russia), that’s partly an appeal to youth: Older people don’t die in wars. Young ones do.
 I would throw in a Post Office bank, too.
 MMT provides a solid reason why Medicare for All should be implemented by the currency issuer, at the Federal level.
To be clear, my dream for the left is that it stop acting like a squillion different tiny non-profits selling papers on the street or trying to get the next grant from a donor, and that the left accepts a common agenda as described above (think of it as “the promised land” that everybody wants to get to). I don’t think common institutions are needed or even possible, though of course one might emerge from the pack, but on the agenda, it really is hang together or hang separately.