Proposal for a Progressive Alternative in Pittsburgh
THE SITUATION: Three forces combined to create an historic moment
(1) The rise of Trump in the U.S. and proto-fascist movements in Europe and elsewhere. Trump and his ilk aim to roll back basic liberties and economic reforms won in the last 75 years. Using crisis, racism, nationalism and chaos to pave the way, the Trump Administration is undermining basic liberties, intensifying a heartless austerity program, expanding the military, and further concentrating wealth and power among the one percent.
(2) The failure of the Democratic Party in the U.S. and social democratic parties in Europe to address the fundamental and devastating economic and social problems arising out of the current crises created by neoliberal capitalism. The mainstream of the Democratic Party remains tied to the corporate & banking elite and unwilling to embrace a populist message challenging the source of growing economic and social inequality.
(3) The demise of the historic left and progressive movements. While the broad-based movements of the ‘30s and ‘60s resulted in many important reforms, they created few mass radical organizations and alternatives relevant to today’s crises. In the past 35 years, despite a great deal of excellent organizing around a host of issues, no national or even local group has been able to present a vision, strategy, or tactics to launch and sustain a powerful and transformative progressive movement.
THE TASK AHEAD: Basic Principles, Vision, and Strategy
Trump’s ascension to power provides a great opportunity to build a powerful progressive anti-capitalist movement. We are witnessing an enormous increase in activism and militancy. The “resistance” however is unlikely to be successful in creating a transformational movement unless it can overcome the two forces related to Trump’s rise to power described above while projecting an alternative societal vision that addresses people’s basic needs and frustrations. The task ahead requires an activist movement that does not only “resist” but combines action with a vision of a fundamental change in our political and economic environment. The creation of such a movement requires sustained base-building efforts in local communities, and not reliance solely or primarily on national and local mobilizations. It requires developing a broad and diverse organization in cities such as Pittsburgh which have a vision of how to move forward in this era. The first task of creating a movement is to develop a central narrative or unifying vision which offers people an accessible explanation for the root cause of our societal problems and suggests a solution. The right has successfully done that, with a narrative that big government was the evil and the solution was to reduce taxes, reduce regulation, and privatize public wealth.
(1) Our central unifying theme is that the structure of capitalist economic arrangements, which promotes corporate/banker greed and a drive for profit over people and planet, has intensified extreme inequality between rich and poor, accelerated environmental catastrophe, and exploited racism and xenophobia. We must both protect the most marginalized and defenseless among us who will bear the brunt of the Trump attacks AND challenge the corporatist, elitist vision of this Administration and the two parties more generally. Our narrative starts with the basic proposition that corporate profit, wealthy greed, bank speculation and the resulting obscene inequality between rich and poor are our main problem. Such a narrative forms the basis of radical and thorough structural change to remove corporate power over the economy and government. If we can agree on this basic understanding, our task would be to actualize it in a local program for activists.
(2) The movement must be independent of the Democrat and Republican parties and from corporations and foundations. For too long, a major goal of progressives participating in electoral politics has been to “push the Democratic party to the left.” While that might in fact happen from the development of an independent political movement, that should not be our goal. The Sanders campaign is a great illustration of both the possibilities of independent political action around an anti-corporate narrative and the dilemmas of starting on a national level. The success of the Sanders campaign demonstrates that millions of people are prepared to support a radical anti-corporate message. Yet Sanders was constrained by running in the Democratic Party and not being part of a broad electoral/activist movement for fundamental change. The answer is not necessarily to support marginal third parties on a national level. Rather, we must start at the local level and do what Sanders did in Burlington VT years ago: build an independent movement that combines issue activism and electoral struggles into one movement.
(3) Combine electoral and grassroots activism in Pittsburgh and surrounding communities. Electoral campaigns in the U.S. have been divided and separated from political activism on concrete issues such as women’s rights, racial justice, LBGT rights, housing, and immigration. Indeed, the Constitution was designed to create a yawning gap between the elected representatives and the people. As Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and an important voice for ratification of the Constitution in Pennsylvania, put it: “all power is derived from the people, they possess it on the days of their elections. After this it is the property of their rulers.” Activist organizations are generally separate from the electoral campaigns of the two parties. There is no organic link between the election of representatives on all levels and an activist movement. We want to create an organization in Pittsburgh which would make such a link and unify under one umbrella many of the activist networks currently struggling around affordable housing, mass incarceration and criminal justice, civil rights and anti-discrimination work, workers rights, environment, women’s rights, school issues, mass transit, etc., eventually seeking to run candidates on an independent ticket for local office. Those candidates would come out of the activist work and a support a platform with a vision of Pittsburgh as a people’s/human rights city and not one beholden to the corporate elite. Election campaigns would aim to educate, organize and engage people around that platform and, as a key aim of the electoral work, seek to draw people into the activist work of these movements. We envision that our organization would also have some electoral flexibility. While the overall goal is to develop an independent political organization that connected independent candidates to an activist movement, tactics might include running independent candidates in the Democratic Primary. The touchstone would be to maintain both independence and flexibility.
(4) Create a program with a radical vision of Pittsburgh. The overall goal of the organization should be to articulate a positive vision of Pittsburgh, presenting a radical, equitable, democratic and more egalitarian Pittsburgh than that articulated by the current elite in the city. Activists should be involved not only in specific reform campaigns, but seek to tie those struggles to an overall platform for a different Pittsburgh. For example, housing activists would promulgate a perspective on how to develop Pittsburgh without displacing poor people and increasing racial segregation, ensuring that everyone has access to affordable, decent housing. So too, challenging the racial inequities in Pittsburgh must play an important role in any platform, tied to the overall struggle for economic and social justice. The point would be not simply to oppose injustice but to develop an intersectional program, with alternatives to the policies offered by the elites who run the city. The program would come out of existing grassroots struggles, and place it in a national and international context, incorporating the lessons and principles of international human rights.
(5) Create more democratic, popular participation in Pittsburgh neighborhoods. The U.S. Constitution was deliberately designed to have representative government but not with active participation by all. A radical movement should focus on increasing popular participation in all aspects of governmental and civic life. As simply one illustration, police regulations in this City are not transparent, to which the public often has no access. This organization should spur dialogue about how to increase popular participation in city and county decisions that affect people’s lives. We seek to create popular institutions such as neighborhood assemblies to build a movement.
(6) Create a diverse, welcoming, non-sectarian organization and movement. Leadership of the organization needs to be flexible, changing and democratic, with people who are open to new ideas. Within our principles there can be diverse and differing ideas that can co-exist. Radical organizations such as the National Lawyers Guild have been able to survive for a long time while continuing to do progressive work because they were open to new and diverse leadership and to new ideas which did not contradict their basic radical principles.
(7) Imagine and create institutions that prefigure a cooperative, socialist society. One of the problems that the progressive movement has had over the past 50 years is in imagining and arguing for a fundamentally restructured society. Great transitions in history or in knowledge do not generally emerge fully formed out of the chaos of the old order or theory. Rather, as what happened when industrial capitalism developed and supplanted the feudal, serf or slave system, pieces of a new system emerge within the body of the old and compete within it for year or centuries. Progressives should begin to create new institutions in cities and towns such as Pittsburgh which would reflect a different economic and societal model, one that emphasizes cooperation and not individualism, social usefulness over profit, solidarity over go-it-alone thinking. One of the tasks of this organization should be to think through areas in which these new institutions, even very localized or small scale, can be started, nurtured and expanded.
(8) Maintain an orientation that emphasizes non-violent tactics, humility, dialogue, and respect for disagreement. As an organization, we should adopt a radical egalitarian stance and non-violent tactics that confront state power and challenges unjust laws. A corollary to non-violent tactics is engaging in non-patronizing and respectful dialogue, even with people disgruntled with our current system but who have racist, misogynist, or xenophobic ideas. Too many intellectuals, leftists and democratic party liberals have written off white, rural working class voters as simply misled, racist or stupid.
In addition, the organization should have relationships of respect among group members, including between leaders and members. We must commit to humility, and compassion for ourselves and others. We should also embrace disagreement and conflict with a humility to realize that someone else might be right. We come from different backgrounds and experiences, and will not always agree, but our goal should be to learn, grow, and build transformative relationships by listening to each other, and when disagreeing, doing so respectfully.