A mostly finished writing on Ty Moore, Socialist Alternative, Occupy and SEIU in Minneapolis. For the 'sewer socialism' reference in the title, see this Great Moments in Leftism strip.
This was originally written in October 2013, but then I decided not to publish it or even adequately finish it because I thought the immediacy I felt when I wrote it was overblown. Also, putting something out like this before the election would have just made me look like a jerk, which I probably do a good enough job with any way. Since then, two other articles have been written about this topic. The first, by First of May Anarchist Alliance, is, frankly, the common anarchist response to elections, which maybe is worth repeating, but was something I tried to avoid writing. The second, by John O'Reilly, take a different angle of who the players are here, which I mostly agree with.
Minneapolis can be a strange city. Sometimes called the “Portland of the Midwest”, white counterculture types, fourth generation Scandinavians and large recent immigrant populations live simultaneously (yet mostly separately) in the same neighborhoods on the Southern part of the city. Remembrances and tributes to the iconic and often violent 1934 Teamsters strike can be found incorporated into the public transit stations where the battles once raged, as well as the now yuppiefied Warehouse District where the strikers once labored. Sitting on your porch, you can witness the parents of Baby Boomers attending the still existing Norwegian Lutheran church they probably attended as children, while Somali kids run around yards, playing games. Turn your head and you might see a pack of fixed gear riding hipsters pass a house full of Ecuadorians sitting on their porch, taking in the same scenery as you.
This is all against the unique backdrop of the state of Minnesota as a whole, a solid “blue state”, where the Democrats retain the name of the more left party they merged with, and where elements of the New Deal and The Great Society still exist in a way they do not anymore elsewhere, if they ever did.
It is in this context that the very real possibility of a self-identified socialist being elected to city council almost happened. Ty Moore, a paid staff organizer for Socialist Alternative, ran for the Ward 9 city council seat for Minneapolis. His campaign had raised nearly the same amount of money as Alondra Cano, the DFL-endorsed candidate, while gaining the endorsement of of the SEIU State Council. In the end, although he ended up losing, it was a competitive race.
SEIU usually campaigns for and is one of the biggest single fundraising sources for President Obama and the Democratic Party. In fact SEIU has raised more money for Obama than Obama’s own Super PAC. This is the first time I’m aware of that any body of them have endorsed a candidate to the left of the Democrats. I don’t want to exaggerate this though, Alondra Cano ended up getting the endorsement of all the other ‘political player’ unions (AFL-CIO Regional Federation, AFSCME, etc)
While no organization is monolithic, every organization has broad ideological agreements that can be generalized off of. With SEIU, it could be said that the prevailing way to see themselves is as a progressive force that pushes the Democrats to the left while supporting them regardless as the ‘lesser of two evils’. It could be that this endorsement of Moore means that at least portions of the union have become disillusioned with the ‘returns’ on their ‘investments’ in Obama and the Democrats, and are now willing to experiment with other candidates on a more local level. While not widespread, this strategy could also come into play with their Fight for Fifteen fast-food campaign, which, when you slice the fat off it, is largely a public pressure campaign to pass minimum wage legislation at the local and state level.
Related to SEIU, as there is a fair amount of social and political crossover with SEIU Local 26, is Occupy Homes. Ty Moore’s candidacy represents the Occupy movement’s path to local level electoralism in Minneapolis. In other regions, Occupy has either disintegrated or splintered off into many dozens of other smaller projects. But here, besides a technically still existing but tiny grouping still calling itself Occupy Minneapolis, there is Occupy Homes.
Occupy Homes started out as a side project of the then larger Occupy Minneapolis, but quickly outgrew the main (however loose) organizational body. As the purpose, viability and appeal of public square occupations became lessened, organizers with a thirst for concrete projects drifted to Occupy Homes. When the movement nationwide dwindled, a series of relatively high profile and confrontational foreclosure defense campaigns propelled OH to the center of attention, either inspiring or confirming the decision of other cities to engage in the same work.
Between these high profile foreclosure defense campaigns and the start of Ty Moore’s campaign, differences of opinion emerged within OH. This was not simply a conflict between organizers who wanted to ‘get serious’ and some of the more incoherent, activisty parts of Occupy. Rather, it was a familiar disagreement once the mass appeal of a movement starts to wane. On one hand, you have institutionalization in the form of paid staff and seeking non-profit status, and the other view is seeking some way to not accept the limitations of the state while remaining volunteer led and as participatory as possible. OH is not the first project that has faced this issue and will not be the last.
Unlike many other socialist organizations, SA is worth taking seriously. While their politics of strategic electoralism may leave something to be desired for this Wobbly, they avoid some of the pitfalls of their contemporaries. Unlike, say, the Stalinists of Freedom Road Socialist Organization-Fight Back!, SA is generally easier to deal with on a personal and political level. In Madison, they were one of the few loud pro-general strike groups, and they backed that up with organizing strike factions in the few unions they were in. They have also done fast-food organizing, as opposed to being nearly entirely campus-based, as other socialists groups often are. In Minneapolis, they have supported IWW campaigns publicly, as well as usually showed up to back up our pickets. I think when it comes down to it, I think they're more interested in managing capitalism rather than abolishing it, but compliment that 'they aren't as crazy as their contemporaries' means something.
SA, or at least parts of it, seem to believe they've found a niche. In the limited American political system in which the viability of only two major parties seems almost built-in, there exists a large gulf in between the furthest left of the Democratic Party, and the beginnings of the various socialist organizations. This space has usually been attempted to be formally filled in by the Green Party, now too fractured and in many ways still discredited from the Nader candidacy of 2000. But what usually occupies this space is whatever social movement that exists (anti-globalization, anti-war, Occupy, etc.).
The contradiction that supposed anti-capitalists have in formally filling with electoral politics this space is that while it is a wide terrain, being left of the Democratic Party is still about occupying a space that's about how to manage capitalism. It's about 'fixing' supposed holes in the current economic system, not transcending the system itself. Also, this terrain isn't only about socialism. The pressure of meeting this middle ground is to compromise on issues, to say nothing about the problematic concept of legislating socialism in the first place.
In some ways, SA is contradictory with this. On one hand, their explicit promotion of independent social movements reveal a faith in the ability of working people to establish the seeds of a new world, or at least be a coercive threat to politicians who are too reactionary. But the establishment of election campaigns, and the subsequent close alliance with elements or at least remembrances and representations of these independent social movements reveals that SA believe working people cannot achieve even minor reforms without 'the right person' in office.
Socialist parties often run candidates,not because they seriously believe they can win, but because its a time many people are talking about and thinking politics. These candidates exist mostly as protest campaigns that attempt to use this elevated platform to bring up issues that they feel may be neglected or ignored by the major parties. The fact that many of these socialist groups run candidates who are technically not even eligible for the office they are running for show this is the case.
There are many things to be said about this strategy. From a communist or Wobbly point of view, we generally don't see the electoral process as something that makes revolutionaries or is even a tool revolutionaries can use. Another criticism is that the time, energy and money it takes to even run a hopeless protest campaign draws away from other work to be done.
But what if instead of merely a protest campaign, there is an actual chance of winning, such as Ty Moore's case? This situation, at least in our contemporary times, is rare. This isn't the early 20th Century, where even places like Davenport, Iowa had self-identified socialists in local government.
The radical left often has a poor understanding of capitalism and the state. Both get described as consisting of evil people with bad intentions or well meaning people without a backbone. This neglects the role capitalism and the state have as systems that shape our lives. Saying you want to push $15 minimum wage is fine, but whether it is possible is another thing. That goes for a lot of rhetorical demands.
Of course, many socialists would agree and counter that making these impossible demands will expose the limitations of capitalism, therefore resulting in a desire for transcending capitalism. In practice, though, rather than exposing capitalism, it make whoever's advocating them, at best, look like an extreme version of what Democrats are already for, or naive and detached from reality. A strategy based on someone advocating what they believe to be impossible tends to reflect on the one saying it, rather than facilitating the political transformation of another individual.