The sparkly quadrennial carnival known as our “national election” is like a magnetic hole in space, sucking light and energy into its powerful jaws, energy and effort disappearing into a gloomy, starless void. Sensible folks can be found staring at the glittering sites of power we have no access to, taking our eyes off the sites of power we’re a natural part of—the workplace and the community, the classroom and the house of worship. Now that the carnival is packing up and leaving town—and not a moment too soon—we turn our attention to getting back to work. We’re joined in conversation by the consummate organizer and activist Aislinn Pulley, co-executive director of the Chicago Torture Justice Center and founder and a lead organizer with Black Lives Matter Chicago.
Voter suppression may be the only strategy left for the reactionaries, but, truth-be-told, voter suppression is as American as cherry pie, baked deep in the national DNA. Founded on war and conquest, land theft and forced removal, ethnic cleansing and genocide, kidnapping and a complex system of generational slavery based on African ancestry, the US is hardly innocent in spite of the noisy protestations of the White Nationalists. It’s a settler-colonial, racial capitalist system, and the founding documents are crystal clear: power will be exercised by and for the few. A fundamental revolutionary duty—and really the responsibility of anyone whose eyes are open—is to struggle to understand what time it is, and so we explore this treacherous, ominous, and oddly hopeful moment with a dear friend and comrade Barbara Ransby, historian, award-winning author, professor of history, Black studies, and gender and women’s studies at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Under the Tree: A Seminar on Freedom
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Howard Waitzkin’s Rinky-Dink Revolution (Daraja Press, and Monthly Review Essays, 2020) is small to be sure—light-weight, unimposing in appearance, and with an abbreviated wing-span of just 72 pages total, including 11 pages of fore-and-after-matter. A quick read.
But rinky-dink? Quite the opposite.
It may be a quick read, but it’s rapidly become an enduring force in my mind, now readily available for deeper reflection and for ongoing dialogue.
Waitzkin eloquently expresses a key contradiction in his text with this rather hefty subtitle: Moving Beyond Capitalism by Withholding Consent, Creative Constructions, and Creative Destructions.
And off we go, dancing the dialectic with Howard Waitzkin, a perfect dance partner, whirling and twirling between rinky-dink and creative destructions, between light-hearted observations and profound analysis, between suffering and resistance.
And as we join him, tripping the light fantastic, Waitzkin takes the lead, deftly grooving us into the future. But the future for him, and the future we behold, is not some imagined socialist utopia following a violent insurrection somewhere vaguely on the farthest horizon; rather the future is a tangible, practical way of living right here and right now, a beloved community in-the-making, always opposed by the powerful, and always within our collective reach. And so we explore the many practical expressions of a solidarity economy, for example, of communal living, cooperative housing and collective food production. Importantly, Waitzkin never frames resistance as a grim necessity, but always in terms, for example, of the “joy of war tax resistance;” or the exuberance that accompanies acts that slow down the smooth functioning of predatory capitalism; or the abiding pleasure of working arm-in-arm, shoulder-to-shoulder to solve the problem of food production.
Like the best revolutionaries in all times and places Howard Waitzkin is guided by a powerful sense of possibility as well as deep feelings of love. He’s pissed off to be sure, because he pays attention to the crimes of racial capitalism. But he also knows that “even anger at injustice makes the brow grow stern,” and that being pissed off will not take us where we need to go—only love and joy and generosity can do that. He illustrates over and over that the greatest weapon in the cause of liberation is our beating human hearts longing to be free.
This book is bantam-weight, as I said—the perfect mini-manifesto to slip into your back pocket or your backpack, a worthy companion as we mount the next action or tend the community garden.
Sweetheart, when you break thru you’ll find a poet here not quite what one would choose. I won’t promise you’ll never go hungry or that you won’t be sad on this gutted breaking globe but I can show you baby enough to love to break your heart forever.
This is the country we live in: a wildly diverse and energetic mix of peoples and communities; a history of generational slavery based on African ancestry; a tradition of genocide, ethnic cleansing and land theft; the enduring and deeply entrenched system of white supremacy; a massive military machine regularly asserting its exceptional power (in effect, a rogue state) against peoples in every corner of the globe; a large and consistent base of racists newly animated, energized, and mobilized.
Progressive people, reformers, radicals, and revolutionaries know all that—we are neither surprised nor are we resigned. Because we also know that an election is a door, not a destination.
The main-stream narratives spinning the recent election miss most of this. Yes, this election represented an historic turnout—136 million in 2016 and close to 160 million in 2020—but, for example, white voters went from 100 million in 2016 to 103 million in 2020, a modest increase, while LatinX voters increased their numbers by 8 million, a 65% increase from 2016, and an astonishing 2/3 of eligible LatinX voters cast ballots. And significantly, the percentage of white people, including white women, voting for Trump this time increased! Sit with that for a minute.
For organizers and activists, there is work to be done—we don’t elect a king or a savior, after all, we elect a target for organizing and mobilizing.
About the most significant election in modern American history, there is much we still don’t know. But some things are already becoming clear.A terrifying number of Americans would prefer to see their republic wither than have to share it with Others.A media that is shy to describe autocratic attempts as what they are, early and often, makes it easier to pull them off.Organizing our national conversation around polls that have no basis in reality is an extraordinarily wasteful use of mental space.Too many of us are not only unable to persuade people on the other side but also unwilling to try, uninterested in winning people over.Movements that agree on fundamental values need to learn to be better coalition allies to each other in spite of their differences.Men need to be taught to channel their feelings of vulnerability in an age of stagnation, chaos, plague, and change into solidarity, not strongman lust.The urgent work of making America less racist, indeed anti-racist, must proceed, while listening to those overlooked voices in the movement who emphasize expanding the circle more than circling the wagons.The fantasy that incremental change is most appealing to most people must be buried, and the prophets of real change must find the language and candidates to make the cause of social democracy less frightening to many Americans than it now is.The peddlers and enablers of disinformation won’t regulate themselves; we must regulate them.If as a culture you don’t prosecute cheats and scammers when they’re merely cheats and scammers, one day they may use public office as a shield from prosecution.We have ceased to be a country in disagreement; we are now a country of mutual disgust; and these widespread feelings of disgust essentially shut down politics.A country that can no longer deliberate about the future, drawing on the same well of facts, may be a country not long for liberty.The way out of this cold civil war is a politics that is thrilling, inclusive, substantive, visionary, galvanizing, empathetic, tolerant of different degrees of on-board-ness, and deft at meeting people where they are.Democracy is not a supermarket, where you pop in whenever you need something; it’s a farm, where you reap what you sow. Let’s plant.