Monday, June 10, 2013

Hope in organizing?

The panels I attended at the Left Forum on Saturday (mostly analysis) were depressing, Sunday (engaged activism), optimistic.

It's a public forum, so I shouldn't expect any revelations, but still, familiar boilerplate analysis is tired. Even the solutions were depressing since there was no hint of how to get the world to implement them.

Cathy O'Neil, from Occupy's Alt Bank group, provided the only positive suggestion I heard all Saturday: a people's lobby. She thinks office holders are completely in the dark (she seems to ignore their aids some of whom ought to know something) about the complexity of the financial system. All their information comes from corporate lobbyists with a biased slant that serves the immediate corporate interests' grasping. Electeds hear no one from the general public looking out for the overall health of the economy. Office holders, she maintains, need education in the dangers that those narrow corporate interests pose to the overall economy.

There's a big 'if' here: electeds will respond to knowledge if they are not already bought by the corporate interests. If they are bought, then the lobbying is really just providing electeds with their corporate-friendly talking points.

Money is not the only leverage on electeds. Voting is the counterbalance to corporate campaign money, but the voters also need education.

Sunday was more optimistic. Occupy held a round table about current local Occupy efforts including Occupy Astoria/LIC, Occupy Kensington and Occupy Sunset Park. These folks are engaged and getting somewhere. Occupy Kensington is focused on a labor struggle with a specific store, Golden Farm, but they've also become a hub of community discussion. That's also true of the Astoria/Long Island City and Sunset Park groups.

No tired analyses in this room, the discussion was about how to be more effective: how to connect with each other, how useful is the Occupy horizontal organizing, how to sustain momentum, how to get more people off their asses and make a difference, how to take advantage of not-in-my-back-yard & pocketbook issues to expand them into larger social justice activism.

At the last panel the last presenter, Nabil Kamel, gave us the most optimistic history: two instances in which rebuilding from a natural disaster became an opportunity for community groups to improve their circumstances, rather than yet another opportunity for capital to displace the disempowered and rebuild for the revenue-creating rich. Kamel finds that community successes are facilitated by 1) the existence of a prior community organization (e.g., Black Panthers in Oakland, where, decades after their creation, they managed to redirect the rebuilding of a bridge, eventually getting the municipality to train and employ and pay the community to build it themselves), 2) a network of organizations, 3) focus on a single site and 4) 'carving out' of capital interests to gain assistance.

On the downside, any local improvement tends to gentrify the neighborhood. So the Marxist analysis may have the last word if capital turns every reform to its benefit. Chomsky offered a bit of light observing the leftward turn in Latin America. It was fitting that the closing speech was given by the Bolivian Vice President Alvaro Garcia Linera. He made this point that local struggles must be placed in the largest context. Good advice.

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