Rise of the Local

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Banner from Movement for Black Lives

There have been two major and very similar policy platforms announced by the organization The Movement For Black Lives and the Green Party. While The Movement For Black Lives focuses on, well, Black lives, a lot of the policies it puts forth especially around economic justice are ones that would benefit all people (except those wealthy few currently controlling the economy and government). The Green Party has finally adopted a platform that is vocally in opposition to capitalism, a long time goal that many youth in the Party fought hard for. I highly recommend reading both platforms, sharing them with your colleagues, and supporting the efforts to get the policies passed and the Green Party (and other Left third parties) into power.

However, there is one component of both platforms I would like to caution enthusiasm and give some alternatives for. Community control, also called local control, is not an inherently problematic concept and I can certainly get behind community control of many things such as the internet. I will be focusing on two community control policies that could have some problems in implementation and result: The Movement For Black Lives policy to gain direct community control over local, state, and federal police and the Green Party policy of “return[ing] to the local, face-to-face relationships.”

When Direct Local Control Is The Klan

The Movement For Black Lives and the Green Party are certainly not the first to push for a return to local control and take power away from “big government.” These goals have been part of the Republican Party since the party’s founding: the business interests of the Party support local control because local governments often do not have the funding or power to fight multinational corporations. The white supremacist interests of the Party support local control because Black folks and people of color more generally are minorities in many communities. Local control has allowed de jure segregation of schools (which in turn allows for the militaristic policing of youth of color without upsetting any white bourgeois parents); it has allowed the KKK to begin regaining control of police departments; and it has facilitated even more police power over DAs offices.

Some liberals have taken such developments as proof of democracy’s weakness, particularly direct democracy as opposed to representative democracy. Their critical mistake is blaming electoral behavior rather than the crafting of the policies themselves. Generally local control is very limited in exercising democracy: town halls and other public hearings mask that the majority of decisions are made by a select few. Those select few usually remain in power when any “outside” control is prohibited. When “big government” is completely neglected in favor of only working on a grassroots level, it can result in those local groups being quickly overwhelmed by the bigots currently in control of their government.

One of the most obvious historical examples of the importance of Leftist involvement in federal government is Reconstruction. Taught in our racist education system as nothing but a failure, Reconstruction actually began as a massive success that allowed Black people and poor white people to participate in their governments for the first time. While as a whole it collapsed on itself, creating a vacuum filled by such evils as sharecropping and lynching and a Great Migration to the North, it provided the foundation for the Black communities that produced many of the civil rights and union organizers for the next century in cities like Durham, Jackson, Montgomery, Richmond, and many others. To just name one example, Reconstruction set up Montgomery’s public transportation and its subsequent mandated segregation in 1906 provided the battleground of a six decades long civil rights struggle.

Reconstruction’s myth of failure states that former Confederates and sympathizer President Andrew Johnson used a combination of racial terrorism and Supreme Court decisions to overturn Reconstruction. This myth ignores that racial terrorism existed since Reconstruction’s beginning. The reason it got worse towards the end of Reconstruction was the withdrawal of federal troops and the abandonment of federal political support. Why did this abandonment happen? The rise of local control politics that argued “[h]omestead and education legislation was far beyond the scope of the [federal] government’s authority.” The Northern publications of the bourgeoisie, scared by recent uprisings like the Paris Commune, quickly adopted the small government local control line, calling federal big government “unjust, tyrannical, arbitrary, overwhelming taxation, producing revenues which never get any further than the already bursting pockets of knaves and dupes” and many far more racist characterizations not worth subjecting you to here.

Grassroots community organizations and local governments are important arenas for fighting racist police violence and utter lack of accountability. But they will likely not be sustainable by themselves. Already many Black organizers are burning out, and there’s only so much local community support and self-care can do to combat that. Just like with the Black Panther Party and many other social movements throughout history, they are being killed off. Federal government, as with Reconstruction, could be a tool to somewhat mitigate this pressure (though the state is of course an inherently violent institution), but instead it is currently a tool to distribute military arms to those “locally-controlled” governments.

Think Globally, Act Globally

The Green Party posits its ideology of ecosocialism as an alternative to both capitalism and “state socialism.” It distinguishes itself from “state socialism” by focusing on grassroots organizations, bottom-up models of change, and the motto “Think globally, act locally.”

I have three contentions with this separation. First, most attempts at “state socialism” involved major mobilization of grassroots groups. Second, the state is only inherently an institution of violence, not an institution of violence against the proletariat. And lastly, no matter the means of transition, a transition from capitalism to socialism is logistically impossible without the resources that are currently held by national governments and multinational corporations.

From the Soviet Union to Burkina Faso to Venezuela, the attempts at establishing socialism throughout history have depended on the grassroots, literally the “soviet” in Soviet Union. George Ciccariello-Maher wrote an entire book, We Created Chavez: A People’s History of the Venezuelan Revolution, cataloging how the urban poor’s militias in the 1970’s led to the revolts of 1989 that created the political background for Chavez to take power. Even once Chavez was in power, grassroots movements still directed and pushed his government, such as Afro-Venezuelans warning the government about those like Caracas mayor Alfredo Peña who participated in the opposition’s failed 2002 coup. That vindication led to Chavistas more seriously fighting against racism in Venezuela and recognizing its connection to the revolution.

How is it that powerful states like the Soviet Union can work with, rather than just crush, local organizing? This question split the First International, anarchists believing that it was impossible to reconcile the two, whereas Marxists believed in the dictatorship of the proletariat. Marx’s idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, however, was underdeveloped (the guy wrote an exhaustive dissection of capitalism that has stood the test of time so I think we can give him a break). It was Lenin who built on Marx’s idea and presented a functional analysis of the state and its role in class struggle in The State and Revolution

Lenin called the state a product of the irreconcilability of class antagonisms. He further divides the two state into two stages: the bourgeois state that needs to be smashed and the proletarian state that will “wither away” as predicted by Engels. In fact, Lenin states that it is the proletarian control of the state that causes it to wither away, using the example of the Paris Commune:

[After the bourgeois state is overthrown it] is still necessary to suppress the bourgeoisie and crush their resistance. This was particularly necessary for the Commune; and one of the reasons for its defeat was that it did not do this with sufficient determination…In this sense, the state begins to wither away. Instead of the special institutions of a privileged minority (privileged officialdom, the chiefs of the standing army), the majority itself can directly fulfil all these functions, and the more the functions of state power are performed by the people as a whole, the less need there is for the existence of this power.

This dialectic (along the classic relationship of quantity’s effect on quality) is written about by David Harvey as that between domination and freedom. The anarchists’ shortcoming is to think the removal of the state is all that is needed, but of course this creates a power vacuum that something must fill. So why must it be a proletarian state rather than simply the people? Because, Lenin writes, a mechanism of violence is needed to (1) suppress the opposition of the bourgeoisie and (2) prevent the excesses that lead to exploitation. To put it another way, the proletarian state is needed to stop the regrowth of capitalism from either a violent reactionary revolution (as happened in Burkina Faso once the state’s power grew weaker) or economic attrition (as is happening now in Venezuela).

Lenin acknowledges without apology that the dictatorship of the proletariat, the seizure of the means of production, will not end inequality. And such a seizure will happen long before the consciousness of the average person is adept at living and working in a society without capitalism. The proletarian state allows for transition rather than regression, for all of us to first adjust to the abolition of private property before we continue to the abolition of oppression itself.

One major disagreement I have with Lenin’s conception of the proletarian state is that its task will be more simple than the task of the primitive state. However, this only underscores why a proletarian state is necessary to eliminate capitalism, though maybe modifies the smashing of the bourgeois state to its recycling. I understand why Lenin thought this living in an industrializing Russia and having no reason to foresee the rise of communicative capitalism. Whereas industrial capitalism lowered labor costs by eliminating labor, communicative capital lowers labor costs by tricking us into doing it for free, which can be just as or even more alienating and dehumanizing. The laptop and smart phone have permanently eliminated the bourgeois state’s ability to enforce a 40 hour work day. Most of this labor and what it produces is unnecessary and wasteful, but that doesn’t mean that people can simply unplug and be ready for socialism.

Communicative capitalism operates within a gigantic infrastructure built and maintained by national governments and multinational corporations. No matter what revolution does or does not happen, that infrastructure will not disappear any time soon and certainly won’t be seized by a loosely affiliated collection of grassroots groups. Globalization has made us dependent on transnational supply chains and buying in-season fruits and veggies from your CSA doesn’t change that the email updates you get about it are only possible with precious resources removed from the Congo. And climate change has increased the need and urgency of scientific innovation that historically has only been possible by the kind of resources possessed by federal institutions.

And Alyssa Battistoni provides the most grim consequence that will come with focusing only on the local:

[T]o turn away altogether from a politics that aims to capture the state and actively shape it is to leave the future to private actors who will be more than happy to build a livable world for those who can pay. At some point climate change will become so extreme as to threaten even the wealthiest, those who can afford to move to relatively climate-stable places or build homes that can accommodate climate extremes. But it’s a long way down to get there. Within the time frame that climate change presents, to “smash the state” in its entirety seems more folly than ever, a strategy that would leave the field of capital-intensive projects open to, well, capital.

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad State?

We have every reason to fear the bourgeois state as well as a long list of examples where a proletarian state was overthrown or regressed by its nationalistic limitations of “socialism in one country.” But we must not let our fear resign us to carving out small temporary pockets of justice rather than changing the whole world. I do not think that either The Movement For Black Lives or the Green Party are so resigned: both suggest policies that, despite their emphasis on local control, would require massive federal institutions to implement. There seems to be at the very least the potential for a politics of grassroots organizations working with (and most importantly constructively challenging) a proletarian state. So let us work to both build our local communities and to build international movements and parties to appropriate the bourgeois state into a proletarian one that can fund and protect those local communities.

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