On Sunday, January 23rd, UCLA Professor and acclaimed historian Robin D. G. Kelley joined Voices for New Democracy for our latest monthly political forum discussing the past and future of Black liberation.
The wide-ranging conversation touched on important reflections on where the Left stands today, and explores some of the lessons from historical experiences in the struggle for Black liberation from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to BLM, and the reactions and backlash these struggles have faced. Building on recent forums and essays on Voices for New Democracy exploring some of the recent challenges and defeats we’re facing, Kelley asserts that the present moment is still full of opportunity. But to seize the moment, Kelley challenges us to think deeply about how we can build a unified Left, inspired by new ideas, that operates with organized cooperation and accountability. And as capitalism undergoes new structural changes in the face of concurrent crises, the Left will have important opportunities to advance our movement in different places at different moments. Whatever dark moments lie ahead, Kelley reminds us to maintain our commitment to the struggle.
Biden could have broken with Trump’s anti-immigrant policies and allowed anyone who wished to apply for asylum to be able to do so at a port of entry and increase the possibilities of immigrants from Central America and from places like Haiti to obtain lawful employment (through such measures as H-2B visas).
Instead, the Biden administration has kept in place a Trump-era policy, Title 42, which does the opposite by indefinitely closing the border to “nonessential travel” (to supposedly “limit the spread of the coronavirus”) and increases the deportation of those who are seeking work or who are seeking to apply for asylum. Title 42, under both the Trump administration and now under Biden, allows for the Border Patrol to decide who can enter the process of asylum and who cannot. As a result, in the last year, border authorities applied Title 42 to more than 80% of encounters with immigrants resulting in 530,000 expulsions of which 16,000 were children migrating alone and 34,000 children-plus parents. Adding to the number of expulsions, the Biden administration has moved on speeding up deportations of some migrant families through “expedited removal,” allowing for ICE to deport them without a hearing before an immigration judge.
In this light, our organizing efforts, in addition to supporting DACA and Temporary Protective Status measures, has to include a halt to the contradictory government policies of Title 42 and a call for humane refugee asylum policies.
Along these same lines, it is important to organize against the Biden administration’s reinstating of a Trump-era “Remain in Mexico” policy, that is part of a deal struck with the Mexican government forcing asylum seekers to stay in that country until their U.S. immigration court date. Under this policy, about 70,000 immigrants have been returned to Mexico. Although the Biden administration justifies its actions by claiming that it is only following court orders, that it is applying “humanitarian speed-ups” of court proceedings of migrants and refugees, and that it is providing avenues for access to legal counsel, there is no getting around that the ‘Remain in Mexico’ policies are resulting in mass deportations and inhumane treatment. There are thousands of immigrants, seeking protection from increased violence in their home countries, who are being deported back to areas where they are met with brutal attacks and kidnappings perpetrated by deadly cartels and corrupt officials. For instance, according to Human Rights First, there were at least 1,544 publicly documented cases of rape, kidnapping, assault, and other crimes committed against individuals sent back under these policies this last year.
Meanwhile, Kamala Harris has been assigned to focus on the “root” causes of migration in Latin America, announcing that the plan will deal with issues of economic insecurity and inequality, combating democratic corruption, and promoting respect for human rights.
While some of us in the immigrant rights movement have promoted policies that would focus on changing the economic conditions in the sending countries that are forcing so many to migrate here, the reality is that they are meaningless in this time period when there is a need to prioritize the passage and implementation of pro-immigrant legislation here in the U. S. These gestures by Kamala Harris, focused on the conditions abroad, affect very little in the immediate and, with the Republicans already making immigration a central issue, the prospects for building the kind of movement that is needed to ensure the defeat of the right in the mid-term elections is further damaged.
This article will appear in the next issue of the New Labor Forum.
Fundamentally, we need to build an immigrant rights movement to create the change we need. Reliance on the Democratic Party or on policy formulations alone will never result in meaningful change unless we can successfully build a movement led by immigrant workers and immigrant youth.
The Obama-Biden administration was responsible for more than two million deportations, the worst record in U.S. history. During his 2020 presidential election campaign, Biden promised immigration reform within his first year in office. Not only do those promises remain unfulfilled, but unfortunately, Biden has maintained some of the repressive anti-immigrant policies implemented by Trump.
We support the necessity of building a broad-based alliance to advance meaningful immigration reform. The alliance must include undocumented immigrants themselves, the labor movement, African Americans, youth and students, environmentalists, and the faith-based community.
While we obviously supported the Biden-Harris ticket, and celebrate the end of the horrific Trump administration, we should not be surprised about Biden’s lukewarm commitment to immigration reform in light of his track record. The Biden administration will only do the right thing if there is a strong movement demanding change.
DACA (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) was one of the few immigrant rights victories that was won during the Obama-Biden administration. DACA was a breakthrough in providing a relief to more than 800,000 immigrant youth who otherwise would still live under the constant fear of deportation and would not be able to legally work.
The immigrant youth movement played a decisive role in securing one of the few immigration reform victories under the Obama-Biden administration. Yet it is important to note that DACA was not prioritized or actively supported by major immigrant rights organizations. Even the Federal DREAM Act (Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors) was not a priority of major immigrant rights organizations, because of their fear that if the DREAM Act moved forward as a stand-alone bill, this would undermine the passage of comprehensive immigration reform.
We strongly disagree with this analysis and approach. The one-sided push for comprehensive immigration reform and reliance on the Democratic Party has been a failed strategy, that has effectively yielded nothing.
The right wing understands the benefit of incremental change on immigration. They have tried to secure anti-immigration victories wherever and whenever possible, at a federal, state, and local level. They have built an anti-immigrant movement grounded in racism and nativism, and have used the anti-immigrant issue to mobilize their primarily white constituency at the ballot box.
Instead of relying the Democratic Party, we believe that we must focus our energies on movement building. And two major movements that have helped to shift the national debate on immigrant rights are the immigrant workers movement, and the immigrant youth movement. We would benefit from deepening an understanding of the role of each, in order to confront the challenges ahead.
Immigrant Workers Movement
The U.S. labor movement has a decidedly mixed history when it comes to immigration reform. From their support of the passage of the racist Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, U.S. labor has historically embraced anti-immigrant policies. During the last major immigration legislation passed by Congress, the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act, labor advocated for employer sanctions to impose civil and criminal penalties for employers who knowingly hiring undocumented immigrants. They erroneously believed that this would safeguard jobs for U.S.-born workers.
Employer Sanctions has been a disaster that has done little to nothing to punish employers for hiring undocumented immigrants. Instead, employer sanctions have caused great to harm to undocumented immigrants who been viciously exploited with little legal recourse, and driven further into the underground economy.
The emergence of the immigrant workers movement was a powerful force that helped to reinvigorate parts of the U.S. labor movement, and harness the power of a new generation of predominantly Latino immigrant workers to transform parts of the labor movement. In Los Angeles, the legendary Justice for Janitors Movement and the organizing of the Hotel Workers under the leadership of Maria Elena Durazo represented historic breakthroughs in not only immigrant worker organizing, but the embrace of social movement unionism. The victory of the Home Care workers, led for years by black women, also greatly diversified the labor movement of California and brought more women, people of color, and low wage immigrant workers into the labor movement than any other organizing campaign in decades.
The national debate on the AFL-CIO policy on immigration came to a head during the 1999 convention held in Los Angeles. On the opening day of the convention, the Los Angeles County Federation of Labor organized a march within the convention hall with hundreds of recently organized immigrant workers of color. The marchers jumped on to the podium where the largely aging, white male AFL-CIO Executive Council was seated, dramatically contrasting two distinct parts of the labor movement. A remarkable change in the AFL-CIO immigration policy came the following year, in 2000, led by a progressive coalition of key unions including UNITE-HERE, SEIU, UFCW, and the United Farmworkers of America. For the first time, the AFL-CIO lined up on the right side of history on immigration, calling for full rights and a pathway to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
In 2003, UNITE HERE launched the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride, a series of national bus tours that drew on the tradition of the Civil Rights movement. In states and cities throughout the country, the Freedom Ride built union and community alliances with a movement-building orientation. Congressman John Lewis and Rev. James Lawson Jr. worked with the Immigrant Worker Freedom Ride to connect the emerging immigrant rights movement with veterans from the Civil Rights movement from decades before.
In 2006, the largest May Day marches in U.S. history held in dozens of cities across the country were organized to respond to draconian anti-immigrant legislation in Congress. It was a profound reflection of the power of the immigrant workers movement, that successfully led to the defeat of the pending legislation. Ironically, the largest May Day in U.S. history was not led by the U.S. labor movement, but by immigrant workers themselves. In fact, some conservative union leaders watched from the sidelines, refusing to support the just demands of immigrant workers to end deportations and for a path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants.
The election of Tefere Gebre as the AFL-CIO Executive Vice President in 2013 was a breakthrough. For the first time in history, a black immigrant and political refugee became one of the top officers of the U.S. labor movement. Gebre was previously the leader of the Orange County Federation of Labor, where he mobilized the power of immigrant workers to not only reinvigorate the labor movement, but to change the political landscape. Orange County in 2016 voted for a Democrat for President for the first time since the 1930’s, and in 2018 Democrats swept the entire Congressional delegation in what was previously a bastion of right-wing politics.
In 2021, Liz Schuler was elected as the first woman President in AFL-CIO history. Currently, her two other national officers are black men, another historic first. The first leadership team of women and people of color within the AFL-CIO could change the national political environment through building a grassroots movement to support immigration reform.
Immigrant Youth Movement
Immigrant youth have been at the forefront of securing meaningful immigration policy victories over the last decade. Though immigrant youth have been organizing for a long time, the year 2010 was a game changer.
In May of 2010, five undocumented youth held a nonviolent sit-in at the office of Senator and former presidential-candidate John McCain, risking arrest and deportation. This courageous act exposed McCain’s political opportunism as a Senate leader who had previously co-sponsored the DREAM Act, yet instead withdrew his support to align with Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
In the coming months, immigrant youth engaged in unprecedented activism from hunger strikes in Los Angeles and Texas, a 1,500 mile march on-foot from Florida to Washington known as the “Trail of Dreams,” a “Dream Freedom Ride” caravan from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., and many other forms of nonviolent civil disobedience. The emergence of United We Dream, a national coalition of undocumented youth organizations, as well as “Dream Teams” of undocumented activists in states and cities across the country set the foundation for a new immigrant youth movement.
For more than twenty years, the DREAM Act, overwhelmingly supported by the public, has been blocked in Congress. The DREAM Act could provide a pathway to citizenship for qualifying immigrant youth and could change their lives, as well as the lives of their families and their communities. Despite the tremendous efforts made by immigrant youth, the DREAM Act was unable to get through the Senate because of a threatened filibuster in December of 2010. This was a bipartisan failure. A handful of Democrats voted against it, while some senators like John McCain and Joe Manchin, did not even show up to vote. As heartbreaking as this loss was, immigrant youth did not give up. Instead, they directed their attention to other efforts that could harness their energy and collective power.
The failure of the DREAM Act in December 2010, was the impetus for the launch of “Dream Summer” in 2011. Dream Summer is the first and only national fellowship program run by and for immigrant youth, launched by the UCLA Labor Center with support of United We Dream. The program aims to empower the next generation of social justice leaders by providing leadership and professional development opportunities to immigrant youth that embraces an intersectional, intergenerational, cross-racial approach. In its first year, the program received over 1,000 applications from eager immigrant youth that were ready to join the movement. Since its founding, the Dream Resource Center (DRC) of the UCLA Labor Center has emerged as a national source for innovative research, education, leadership development and policy on immigration issues.
Dream Summer centers the immigrant youth voice in local and national conversations that directly impact them in order to achieve representation, opportunity, and justice for immigrant communities. Over the past ten years, Dream Summer has played a pivotal role in developing immigrant youth leaders who have secured legislative victories such as the California Dream Act, DACA, and Health4AllKids in California.
In 2011, immigrant youth organized actions across the state of California to secure the passage of the California Dream Act, which for the past decade has provided tens of thousands of immigrant youth access to state financial aid for eligible undocumented Californians. Between 2016 – 2017 alone, more than 54,000 California immigrant youth applied for the California Dream Act.
Undocumented immigrant youth, many of them leaders of Dream Summer such as Neidi Dominguez and Ju Hong, were instrumental in advancing a national strategy to push President Obama to introduce Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) in 2012. Today, over 800,000 immigrant youth have been able to work and have protection from deportation as a result of this victory.
In 2013, Dream Summer launched the Health Ambassadors Fellowship. The late Beatriz Solis from The California Endowment led the effort to support 114 immigrant youth to work at the intersections of health and immigration. The Dream Summer fellows produced a series of reports entitled, Undocumented and Uninsured, which informed policymakers about the need for health care for all Californians, regardless of legal status. In 2015, California passed Health4All Kids, which expanded full-scope medical to low-income children under the age of 19, regardless of immigration status. Most recently, immigrant youth were also key in securing the passage of the California Values Act, which limits collaboration between law enforcement and immigration officials in the detention and deportation process.
2021 marked the 10th anniversary of Dream Summer. Since its inception, more than 820 immigrant youth from across the country have participated in the program. Dream Summer has also developed partnerships with over 265 social justice organizations. Many Dream Summer alumni have gone off to hold leadership positions in various national, state and local social justice organizations. Undocumented immigrant youth continue to be at the forefront of the fight for immigrant justice.
Movement building is essential to advance Immigration reform. Unfortunately, some immigrant rights organizations speak on behalf of undocumented immigrants, while not promoting undocumented immigrants in key leadership positions. This is problematic, and has contributed to a failure to focus on movement building and a commitment to undocumented immigrant empowerment. History teaches us that we must build the immigrant workers movement and the immigrant youth movement to secure meaningful immigration reform.
Please join Voices for New Democracy for our next monthly political forum on Sunday, January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET for a conversation about the past and future of Black liberation with UCLA professor Robin D. G. Kelley. Click here to join the forum when it begins.
Professor Kelley will discuss the past and future of the latest iteration of Black liberation (BLM and more), and also reflect back on where we were 25-30 years ago as a way to think about the folks we recently lost and the lessons we might take from that moment, which Kelley believes was as dynamic and potentially transformational as 2014-2020.
As background reading, Professor Kelley encourages participants to read this short piece by Jamala Rogers, which sums up some of the internal crises facing the BLM movement: “things we don’t want to talk about but must.”
Voices for New Democracy joins our friends across the country in mourning the passing of Lani Guinier, a tireless fighter for political and social justice.
As an educator, Guinier blazed trails as the first woman of color to be appointed as a tenured professor at Harvard Law School. As a legal scholar and theorist, she devoted much of her life to wrestling with thorny questions and innovative ideas around the structure of our democracy, the importance of social inclusion, and the centrality of racial justice in fighting for progressive change and broader social justice. And as an activist and friend, she touched many of us with her thoughtful and compassionate spirit.
As we remember Lani Guinier, we invite you to listen to her words about the lessons of the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, which she delivered at an anniversary event in 1999. While her remarks are over two decades old now, the lessons about power and community are timeless.
Click the link here or below to watch the video and join us in honoring Lani Guinier’s memory.
As we enter the new year, Voices for New Democracy is proud to announce our next monthly political forum will take place on January 23rd at 4 p.m. PT / 7 p.m. ET featuring UCLA Professor Robin D. G. Kelley.
In anticipation of the upcoming forum, we are reprinting an interview with Kelley from March 2021 by the writer Vinson Cunningham, which delves into key themes of his work and analysis. In it, Kelley discusses Black Marxism and the legacy of Cedric Robinson, highlights the role of the Black radical tradition in the summer 2020 uprising, interrogates and clarifies our understanding of racial capitalism, and highlights the importance of solidarity in advancing movements for justice. Among other wide-ranging topics, Kelly also touches his experience with the Communist Workers Party and his personal history of activism.
Robin D.G. Kelley is, for my money, the great historian of our era. He has written groundbreaking works about, among other things, Alabama’s Communist Party during the Great Depression; the life of Thelonious Monk; and the visions of activists and thinkers from the African diaspora. On top of his work at UCLA — where he is a distinguished professor and holds the Gary B. Nash Endowed Chair in U.S. history — he issues a steady stream of limpid, persuasive, almost casually brilliant essays on politics, current affairs and cultural matters for Boston Review and other outlets. He keeps an eye on grassroots movements and on how maintaining a fertile, humane vision for the future creates new opportunities for radical action in the present.
In the year 2000, Kelley led the charge to reissue “Black Marxism,” a great, globe-spanning work of political history by one of his mentors, Cedric Robinson — successfully rescuing the book, then out of print, from near-obscurity. Since then, he has quite accidentally become the foremost authority on the late Robinson’s work and ideas. (“I did not want that,” he told me, sounding good-naturedly harried by the distinction.) Last year, after the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, among others, at the hand of police officers, and the global protest uprising that followed, UNC Press decided to reissue “Black Marxism,” which — as Kelley had predicted two decades earlier — had become more relevant than ever.
Kelley wrote a rousing foreword for the new edition of “Black Marxism” and is working on a book called “Black Bodies Swinging: An American Postmortem,” about how the protests of 2020 are connected to a long history of resistance.
Vinson Cunningham: I’ve been thinking about you and Cedric Robinson. I love how, in your foreword to “Black Marxism,” this new foreword, you always call him by his first name. It’s like: Marx and Engels and Cedric. That’s moving to me. It reminds me of one of my favorite essays, “Looking for Zora,” where Alice Walker goes to find Zora Neale Hurston’s grave. There’s a kind of artistic and intellectual lineage that’s not only about reading — there’s an affective aspect, something to do with feeling and familiarity. What is it about Cedric for you?
Robin D.G. Kelley: I was a student of Cedric’s. He was on my dissertation committee. I was in awe of him. Reading “Black Marxism” that first time in 1984, it just blew my mind and changed my whole orientation. Everything I do as a scholar can be traced back to that book — everything.
He passed in 2016, and with his passing, that’s the first time I ever really dug into his biography. His widow, Elizabeth Robinson, knew that I was close to Cedric intellectually and in other ways. She said, “Look, no one’s writing an obit. We can’t get an obit anywhere.” And I said, “I’ll write one.” I interviewed her, talked to her, and learned all these details that I was kicking myself. I was like, “If I had asked the question … .” I didn’t ask the question because I’m a very shy person. I know that I’m in the public and stuff, but it’s a different thing.
VC: Why did you think the time was right for this third edition?
RDGK: I confess, I’m not the one who came up with the idea of putting it out again. It was UNC Press: Brandon Proia. In the midst of the protests — you had 26 million people on the street. He emailed me and Elizabeth and said, “Look, now’s the time to put out a third edition.” With the new foreword I wanted, one, to really tell Cedric’s story, to situate his intellectual biography to understand where this book came from. Two, to situate the book in relationship to the rebellion of 2020 and talk about it as a manifestation of a black radical tradition. So much of the conversation in political circles, coming out of or preceding the 2020 rebellion, all use terms like “racial capitalism” more than anything else. So I wanted to try to understand this movement, while also trying to clarify what Cedric meant by (a) Black radical tradition and (b) racial capitalism.
VC: What are the difficulties in defining what racial capitalism means?
RDGK: The slightly more traditional Marxist scholars reject the idea that capitalism can actually be racial. They say, “Race is real. It’s a phenomenon. But it’s not really the fundamental one. It sort of gets in the way of what’s really the root of oppression: the reproduction of a capitalized class.” That’s class reduction. And then meanwhile, the so-called race reductionist position — you could call it Afro-pessimism lite — is that we’re just for Black people. They say, “The whole structure of Western civilization is based on anti-Blackness and anti-Blackness alone. And therefore, there can be no allyship, there can be no solidarity.” This kind of standoffishness, saying Black people need to just be for Black people, is not Cedric’s position at all.
The class reductionist versus race reductionist debate doesn’t really advance us. Cedric advances us by helping us understand how capitalism is based on racial regimes. So, for example, property may be capital, in the Marxist sense, but property values are dependent on things that are nonmaterial — that are ideological, or superstructural — like race. Capitalism is rooted in a civilization that is based on difference. This doesn’t at all mean that white people are the enemy, or that Black people are all victims, which I totally reject. It doesn’t mean that all white people benefit. It just simply means that capitalism is structured through difference.
I have made a point of the fact that Cedric was writing a critique of Marxism — but not a hostile critique. He wasn’t rejecting all of Marx and Engels’ ideas, but he felt like Marxism was a window to understanding forms of radicalism that neither Marx nor Engels, nor Lenin, and others, could really grasp. Ironically, some people have gone to a kind of extreme, saying, “There’s nothing in Marxism that’s useful. It’s just a white man making up some stuff, and Cedric is right.” And I’m like, “No.” I find myself actually becoming more of a Marxist in my defense of Cedric.
VC: What do you view as your role as an intellectual? As you write “Black Bodies Swinging,” how do you make sure that what you’re describing is not only scrupulously true but also feeds into a politics that helps us both survive in the present and get somewhere more free in the future?
RDGK: That’s a great question. I feel like it’s not mandatory but it’s really important for me to be engaged in these movements, to make no pretense about some kind of dispassionate, detached objectivity. I think that we need to practice something that’s even better than objectivity. And that is, as you know, critique. Critique, to me, is better than objectivity. Objectivity is a false stance. I’m not neutral. I’ve never been neutral. I write about struggles and social movements because I actually don’t think the world is right and something needs to change.
As a historian, as a writer, I’ve got to try to be as critical as possible. I’m always trying to be truthful. As I write and produce this work, I learn things that we didn’t see before, but then, the work also reveals things that I failed to understand. And so to me, it’s always a process.
VC: Speaking of that kind of deep involvement, I would love to hear you talk about what California — and maybe Los Angeles, specifically — has meant for you in terms of your life but also in terms of your imagination of struggle.
RDGK: I came to California by way of Seattle in high school at the age of 15. It was in Pasadena. I was able to go to a state university where the tuition or the fees were $90 a semester. Cal State Long Beach. This was a time when we had a lot more Black students and brown students in college. I was involved with the Black student union. I had a part-time study group that was organized by the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party in Long Beach. That’s where I read Walter Rodney and Samir Amin and C.L.R. James — not so much in classrooms but in study groups.
A lot of the young people at the university and older people were working-class people — these were not the elites. In the ’80s we had the invasion of Grenada, we had the sanctuary movement, and the wars in Central America that were just driving Central Americans into Southern California; there was the anti-apartheid movement.
I ended up joining the Communist Workers Party at some point around 1983 or ‘84. I can’t remember when. [Jesse] Jackson’s 1984 campaign was really, really important. We had the Olympics come to Los Angeles in ’84. We organized a whole protest around the Olympics called Survival Fest. And we had a march down Wilshire Boulevard, MacArthur Park. There were like 10,000 people. Got no press, but 10,000 people marching down Wilshire Boulevard. Demanding what? Our demands were jobs, peace and freedom. It was a very exciting time.
VC: I’m glad you mentioned Jesse Jackson, because I have often lamented our resistance to his idea of a Rainbow Coalition. He was explicitly tying rural whites to Latino immigrants to Black working-class people, and putting forward the idea that we can only do this together. Solidarity was in the air.
RDGK: And, of course, where does Jesse Jackson get the idea of the Rainbow Coalition? It comes from Fred Hampton. He coined the term. The Black Panther Party, Illinois chapter, coined the term. And it’s through, specifically, a man named Jack O’Dell. I knew him. Jack was a former Black Communist, a close associate of Dr. King’s and then of Jesse’s, who bridged the generations and brought a left orientation to the civil rights movement. He was the one who introduced the Rainbow Coalition to Jackson. In our current moment, it’s hard to talk about things like a Rainbow Coalition politically. It goes against the white-ally idea, which I’m not really big into, where the ally is perceived to stand aside, standing there ready to be …
VC: … happy to help.
RDGK: Yeah, “happy to help.” The Rainbow Coalition’s more like, “We need to build a movement and we’re all in it.”
VC: And my freedom is a part of yours. I can’t get mine without you getting swept up too.
RDGK: Absolutely. The Rainbow Coalition notion really happened at the grass roots. It had less to do with Jackson and more to do with all the organizing on the ground. When Jackson ran for office, there was a vacuum because the Democratic Party establishment did not like him. The Black Democratic Party establishment did not like him. So that vacuum meant that all of these left-wing organizations basically swept in and became his advisors, Line of March, Communist Workers Party, the Communist Labor Party. I can name them because I was part of it. I was a member of the Communist Workers Party working on the Jackson campaign, all part of this underground of left-wing forces.
VC: You’ve said that in some ways the Black radical tradition comes together at “the crossroads where Black revolt and fascism meet.” What does fascism have to do with our moment, and what resources do we have to fight it?
VC: In order to fight it, you have to fight it everywhere it exists and be in solidarity with — show love for — everybody who lives under it.
RK: Internationalism is the Raid for the cockroach of fascism. Because fascism, it’s always about using nationalism, and the nation, as a bludgeon to generate support for death policies, on behalf of death governments. For violence and repression and exploitation, internationalism is the antidote, always.
On Sunday, December 12th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our latest monthly political forum exploring the climate crisis and what it means for today’s left.
Moderated by our very own José Z. Calderón, the discussion was led by Voices for New Democracy friends Bob Eng and Harrison Carpenter-Neuhaus, starting with a presentation highlighting the scope of the climate crisis and the path toward a decarbonized world. The discussion touched on important and challenging issues raised by the specter of climate change: the disruption of extreme weather events, demobilization due to “climate grief,” a new era of geopolitics driven by demand for clean energy commodities like lithium, and the threat of exploitative business models driving the global energy transition. Conversation with the audience also raised important questions about how the left should orient itself politically amid these headwinds: whether we must embrace the movement for “degrowth,” prioritize indigenous liberation and anti-colonialism in our efforts (as advocated in The Red Deal), and how to engage with more mainstream labor-climate proposals like the Green New Deal.
Given the scope of the climate crisis, our presenters believe that climate politics represents the political terrain of the 21st century. But big questions remain about how the left can rise to the moment, and we need your analysis.
With that in mind, we encourage our readers to write to us to share their thoughts and analysis around these questions. If you’re interested in responding to any points raised by this discussion, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
On Sunday, November 14th, Voices for New Democracy hosted our monthly political forum on the importance of voting rights, the ongoing assault against them, and key insights for today’s Left as we work to build a more democratic country.
Moderated by civil rights lawyer and new Dean at Tufts University Dayna Cunningham, the discussion was led by longtime voting rights lawyer, Senior Counsel at Forward Justice, and national leader in the fight for voting rights Penda Hair. Throughout the wide-ranging conversation, Penda provided an important historical view of voting rights in the 20th century (including the Voting Rights Act of 1965) and highlighted the intimate links between voting rights and racial justice. She also gave an important update on the latest right-wing efforts to restrict voting rights, including SCOTUS rulings undermining the strength of the Voting Rights Act, redistricting and gerrymandering efforts aimed at securing Republican minority rule, and the dire implications these trends have for the Left, including in the 2022 election cycle. We also discussed signs of hope, understanding that the forces of reaction have been triggered by the real progress and momentum that the Left has made around the issue, and highlighted several promising bills in Congress that could strengthen our democratic rights.
In our latest monthly forum, Danya from the U.S. Palestinian Community Network joined Voices for New Democracy to discuss political developments in Palestine and recent uprisings throughout the occupied territories. Exploring the history of Zionism, Palestinian activism and resistance, and ongoing developments in the region, the conversation offers an important overview of the status quo in Palestine and possibilities for political change.
Hidden too often in the mainstream’s version of history in this country are the many collective efforts that have created economic and political models of systemic structural change — models nationally and globally which have sought to create structural changes in Capitalism.
We have the commonality that there is a need to advance a dialogue on the contradictions inherent in the system of capitalism, deepen research on the new local and global economic models that are emerging, and promote the growth of a movement based on the creation of transformative structural models of equity.
With the inability of traditional politics and politicians internationally not being able to come up with viable solutions to a growing economic crisis, there is a growing movement to advance theories and practices for a new economy.
This movement is one that is based on rethinking the nature of ownership and rethinking the definition of “growth” as a basis for gauging whether there is progress. This is a movement advancing a transformation of the economy so that the public, rather than a small elite, little by little come to control the productive assets in the society.
At the base of this rethinking is the turning around of a system that survives on the existence of an unequal stratification system and the divisions it creates on the basis of wages, wealth, and opportunity.
An emphasis on the quantity of profit over quality of life has led to the rise of a right-wing movement to make sure that our potential power is scattered and decapitated through: deregulating and allowing corporations to spew chemicals in the air that result in more of us dying (particularly in people of color and low-income communities); through the cutting of our cutting health care; through incarcerating us (we have more African Americans in jail now than we had in slavery); through keeping us from voting by gutting the voting rights act and unjust gerrymandering; and through increased enforcement, deportation, and limits on asylum of our immigrant young people, families, and refugees. This movement, particularly evident in the policies of the past Trump administration, continues to rear its head by waging a war against our communities (and particularly those who have been in the forefront of any gains made in civil, human, and environmental rights in the last decades).
We have the Alt-Right, the Bannons, the Rockford Institute, the neo-conservative movements in this country who promote white supremacist, racial-nationalist and neo-fascist ideologies, who push a deregulated free enterprise system, more funding for the military, and stand against anything that promotes a system based on equality. These are movements that continue to defend and promote the privatization of our economy and that, rather than advancing spaces and places of a more just and equal world, are seeking to foment a politics of individualism and ignorance about global warming and the economy.
This trend promotes an unregulated economic system where corporations rule, where the needs of our communities are put aside for the priorities of profit-making interests, and that advances a form of neoliberalism that places emphasis on privatization and consumerism with the outcome of destroying any ideology that truly advances practices for the collective good.
To combat this right-wing conservative trend, we need a program that: transforms power at the top; abolishes a structure that allows the wealthy, the corporations, and businesses to manipulate the tax system in their favor; reverses banking concentration and supports a system of decentralized community accountable banks and credit unions; combats unjust gerrymandering; abolishes the electoral college; moves toward a form of proportional representation and builds a social movement in support of a living wage; health care with universal coverage; accessibility for everyone to a quality education; a guaranteed basic income; investment in pre-school, K-12, and higher education; public financing of elections; and trade agreements that ensure environmental and labor standards.
At the local level, we need a social movement to create transitional forms of a new structure or a new system that is based on the collective and not just the interests of the individual. Some of these transitional forms include employee-owned enterprises; cooperatives; and businesses that are used in the interests of the community.
About 130 million people in the country are members of various urban, agricultural, and credit union cooperatives. In Cleveland, Ohio, a group of worker-owned companies has been developed that is supported in part by the purchasing power of large hospitals and universities. The cooperatives include a solar installation and weatherization company, an ecologically advanced laundry, and a greenhouse capable of producing over three million heads of lettuce a year. The Cleveland model is not simply about worker ownership but the democratization of wealth and building community particularly in the low-income areas. They are doing this through the creation of community-serving non-profit corporations, a revolving fund, agreements that the companies cannot be sold outside the network and that they must return ten percent of profits to help develop additional worker-owned firms in the area. Further, an important element are the agreements with local hospitals and universities who, until recently, spent their $3 billion on goods and services per year, outside the immediate neighborhoods. The “Cleveland model” has now won over these entities to be responsible as publicly-financed institutions and to allocate part of their spending and assets to the worker co-ops in support of a larger community-building vision. There are other cities now creating similar models (Atlanta, Pittsburgh, Amarillo, Texas, and Washington, D. C.) and there are unions, such as the United Steelworkers, that are developing co-op union models of ownership.
This is about an alternative form of municipal development and land use. In some cities, such as Washington, D. C. and Atlanta, cities bring in millions by capturing the increased land values that their transit investments create. The town of Riverview, Michigan has been a national leader in trapping methane from its landfills and used it to fuel electricity generation (providing both revenues and jobs). There are 500 such projects nationwide. Many cities have established municipally-owned hotels. There are nearly 2,000 publicly-owned utilities that provide power and broadband services to more than 45 million people — generating $50 billion in annual revenue. In Alaska, state oil revenues provide each person living in the state, dividends from public investment strategies.
Related to this is the creativity of Community development Banks, like the Bank of North Dakota (a state-owned bank founded in 1919) that are designed to facilitate economic revitalization of poor communities. In recent years, the bank returned $340 million in profits to the state. In Oregon, there are efforts to develop a similar bank, a “virtual state bank,” with no storefront. The South Shore Bank in Chicago is another example (developed in 1973) that provides real estate management, technical assistance, job training, equity investment, and economic consulting. It has assets exceeding $1 billion with $150 million invested in low-income communities.
This direction, in the contemporary period, includes some contemporary writers and thinkers that are thinking along the lines of the need for a new economy. Some of the ideas that relate to the post-industrial thinking advocated in the 1980’s by the New Democratic Movement are now being promoted by such economists as Richard Wolff, Emeritus in Economics at the University of Massachusetts; Gar Alperovitz, historian and political economist; Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard of the Democracy Collaborative; and Joe Guinan, Executive Director of the Next System Project and Martin O’Neill, Political Philosophy at the University of York. There are many names being given to these models that, in addition, to post-industrial a post-industrial economy, include: stakeholder capitalism, the solidarity economy, new economy, sharing economy, regenerative economy, and the living economy.
In connecting with some of these themes, in the contemporary period, economist Richard Wolff, proposes systemic change “where the nature of work is transformed;” where people “once again control production;” where the creativity of workers is valued, and where they are in “control of the entire product.” Agreeing with Marx’s notion of surplus value, Richard Wolff proposes “workers self-directed enterprises where workers, who produce the surplus capital, are in charge of the profit (and not the managers or executives). Similar to aspects of the post-industrial article, Wolff proposes that production works best “when performed by a community that collectively and democratically designs and carries out shared labor.” The transformative element for Wolff is the “reorganization of all workplace enterprises to eliminate exploitation … where the workers become collectively self-directed at their work sites.”
In his book Democracy at Work: A Cure for Capitalism, Richard Wolff proposes that these models are fine but that what needs to change is the class structure of production and that many of the systemic models, including private and state capitalism have had the commonality of advancing state-capitalist class structures of top-down production that exclude the workers from production decisions and the distribution of their production. He proposes that even in the transitions from capitalist to socialist economic systems in various countries, there was a lack of prioritization or did not “explicitly include, or if they came to power, institute an economic system in which the production and distribution of surplus was carried out by those who produced it.” Overall, he argues that even in those countries categorized as “socialist,” there was a lack of prioritizing what he proposes as workers’ self-directed enterprises (where the workers who produce the surplus generated inside the enterprise function collectively to appropriate and distribute it). His solution of “workers’ self-directed enterprises” emphasizes that workers must partly or completely own the enterprises where they work and have a decision-making voice in the surpluses they produce. Such a transformation, from his outlook, will also advance the abilities of “workers to become informed, competent, and full participants in the democratic governance of the communities in which they reside.”
Similarly, Joe Guinan and Martin O’Neill in The Case for Community Wealth Building propose that organizing at the local level, in what they call “local justice,” can be a means of developing models (such as the ones that have been presented here as examples) that both take on the power of corporations and “build a more equal and democratic economy.”
Gar Alperovitz, in What Then Must We Do, proposes a direction that builds models of democratizing wealth and the building of a cooperative and community-based economy from the ground up. Like aspects of the post-industrial article, Alperovitz proposes cooperative models that include community land trusts, worker-owned businesses, and employee stock ownership plans.
In this vein, Marjorie Kelly and Ted Howard, in The Making of a Democratic Economy, present models that are “making what was once radical seem more like common sense.” These models include: “cooperatively-owned work places; of cities committed to economic policies rooted in racial justice; of ethical financing and investing; of communities on the frontline of crisis-building” to show us that “a different economy is not just a theoretical possibility but that it is something happening in right now in the real world.” The models include policies such as that of the Green New Deal (proposed by Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) to shift to 100% renewable energy in 10 years, to create tens of thousands of new jobs, and to advance the implementation of publicly-owned banks like the North Dakota Bank. Already, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and California Governor Gavin Newsom have committed to establishing state public banks. This follows with the thinking of Gar Alperovitz that a whole new economic system is emerging that already include models of economic development with racial justice at the forefront, employee-owned companies, and local purchasing by anchor institutions. Agreeing with other economists, Alperovitz presents “anchor” models that are not just about theory but are “real models” that have taken the example in Cleveland (the Cleveland Model) and are now being constructed in other places ranging from St. Paul, Minnesota, to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, to Rochester, New York, and to Richmond, Virginia.
The rise of this new economy include worker-owned cooperatives ranging from the “Si Se Puede” cooperative (a Brooklyn house-cleaning enterprise owned primarily by Latinas) to union cooperatives (such as the Communications Workers of America Local 7777 in Denver (Green Taxi) where the leadership and board is made up entirely of immigrant drivers from East Africa and Morocco). Further, worker coops are being implemented now in New York City, Newark, Oakland, Rochester, and Madison. There are more than 6,600 employee stock ownership plans (ESOPs) throughout the country with $1.4 trillion in assets and “businesses owned by the people they serve” (that include credit unions, agricultural cooperatives, and consumer cooperatives) that represent $500 billion in revenue and employ more than 2 million people.
There are four principles that involve moving in this direction:
Thinking of new ways to democratize wealth
Placing the building of community and what is in the interests of community in the forefront in all development
Decentralizing power in general – so that there is community input
Planning in the interests of quality of life
The character of capital and corporations is that they have the highest level of planning in individual corporations that do everything competitively to reap the most profits with a culture of greed and selfishness in the forefront. However, there is the capacity for a new kind of planning, with a culture of collectivity in the forefront, to use the earth’s resources to solve the many problems threatening our survival.