Chicago DSA’s adventures in liberal antipolitics

Recent visitors to Chicago DSA’s internal Slack have likely been perplexed by what appears to be an infestation of Ivy League-educated lawyers and real estate professionals leveling hysterical accusations of racism and white supremacy at a variety of ordinary chapter members. Upon further investigation, the source of the outbreak reveals itself to be a proposal titled “Transparency and Accountability to Build Socialist Power,” up for a vote at this Saturday’s general membership meeting.

The “Transparency and Accountability” proposal is ten pages long and consists of wide-ranging changes to the chapter’s governance and communications. Some of these changes are commonsense and unobjectionable. The provision requiring the Executive Committee to release meeting minutes in a timely fashion with a detailed breakdown of votes, for instance, would be a major step forward for chapter democracy. The same goes for the provision that would require the creation of an archive of the chapter’s debates and votes accessible by the membership.

Other provisions, however, are much more concerning, and the proposal as a whole is simply too damaging to chapter democracy to be worth passing.

The danger of race reductionism

Tucked away in the proposal is the following provision:

2.7 Notwithstanding the limits imposed on Member Comments by Section 2.5, if, in the opinion of 10% of the EC (rounded to the nearest whole number), a proposal specifically or disparately affects members from historically underrepresented or oppressed identities, in CDSA or in society at-large (e.g. BIPOC; Queer; Women; Older Adults), or members of official or unofficial groups or caucuses representing such identities within CDSA (e.g. AfroSOC; QueerSoc; SocFem), such members or groups shall be entitled to have up to two (2) delegates speak on said proposal for up to 6 minutes total, and to answer questions, at the EC meeting at which the proposal is being considered.

2.7.1 The delegates shall be selected and invited to speak by the members of the EC who made the determination that the proposal affects such members, in consultation with the EC.

There are, to say the least, several problems with this. The language of “specifically or disparately affects” is vague enough that any proposal could trigger the provision and reframe the matter at hand in terms of disparities between identity groups. This procedural change will mystify CDSA’s decision-making with a disparitarian worldview that has been orthodoxy for neoliberal economics since the 1950s, and has become increasingly hegemonic in anarcho-liberal circles. The trouble with disparity as a concept guiding political analysis and strategy is, in short, that it replaces the socialist goal of equality with the conservative goal of proportional inequality. Disparitarianism’s endgame is that all identities are equally represented across class positions. Obviously, spokespeople for disparitarianism tend to keep this conservative endgame implicit or unconsidered. 

Procedurally entitling certain “voices” in CDSA according to the notion of identity-based “disparate effect” necessarily aligns CDSA with this conservative endgame because it makes two reductive mistakes, implicit in the above provision:

First, the provision legislates a misguided understanding of identity that is reductive because its significance is determined only in relation to other ascriptive identities, and not in relation to socio-economic class. In other words, the provision separates identity and class, and it does so because of its reliance on an identity-based concept of “disparity.” For example, a disparate effect on black people is “disparate” in relation to how white people are affected. That poor white people may be significantly affected by the matter at hand, and rich black people less affected, doesn’t matter according to this approach. Thus, racial disparitarianism ignores both that poor whites are disadvantaged by their class position and that affluent blacks are not. Disparitarian rhetoric and identity-reductionist procedures foreclose nuanced discussion of how discrimination relates to capitalist exploitation and class structure—precisely the kind of discussion a socialist organization should cultivate. 

Second, this provision assumes democratic structures of representation within identity groups where there are none. Executive Committee meetings will therefore devolve into exercises in tokenism, as different factions call upon their favorite “racial voices,” or gender voices, or queer voices, or “old” voices (though the latter might not be so bad) to litigate political disagreements in the ritualized language of liberal identity politics. This would generalize the phenomenon of self-selected groups of college-educated millennials claiming to speak on behalf of “people of color” everywhere in the country into the cornerstone of all debate. 

Given the complexity of the “Transparency and Accountability” proposal, the provision calling for the creation of an ad hoc committee with wide-ranging powers to supervise its implementation is also troubling. A new bureaucratic body with its own separate procedures of nomination and election is the last thing the chapter needs at a time when it is supposed to be gearing up for delegate elections to this summer’s convention. More generally, the goal of improving decision-making in CDSA is admirable, but this proposal gets it very wrong. In the same way that US unions have increasingly taken the shortcut of technocratic polling instead of organizing their rank-and-file, this proposal pursues the shortcut of a conservative and anti-democratic procedural hack over the more difficult task of recruiting the very people whose identities it claims to represent. Rather than build identity-based brokerage processes into its procedures and bylaws, CDSA should recruit more actual working class people. And that won’t be accomplished by anointing more “voices” to speak on their behalf.

The stakes of this proposal may not be immediately apparent to members well-adjusted enough to not live and breathe CDSA drama. Why, for instance, do all the arguments pertaining to it actually appear to be about something else? Why are members of the chapter’s Executive Committee saying all sorts of weird, vague stuff on Twitter and Facebook that nobody outside the drama circuit can make heads nor tails of?

In short, Chicago DSA is witnessing a power struggle between two factions of careerists. They can’t make explicit what they’re actually fighting over, which is access to jobs and networking opportunities in the city’s sprawling and corrupt “progressive” ecosystem, so they argue about other stuff instead. It’s displacement.

In reality, the new guard wants to eviscerate the chapter’s internal democracy and transform it into an appendage of the city’s Democratic machine. It is important to underline that this is not a critique of the new guard’s perhaps sincere best intentions, but rather an acknowledgment of the political economy of equity and diversity consultants and professionals that surround blue state machine politics and urban real estate development in particular. Whether they realize it or not, the “Transparency and Accountability” proposal’s proponents are creating an opening that will be inevitably exploited by forces opposed to DSA’s whole mission.

The old guard, for its part, is too cowardly to make the above argument and contents itself with raising procedural objections while desperately hoping the whole thing blows over. This is fitting, since it’s the old guard’s own mismanagement of the chapter’s democracy that has gotten us into this predicament in the first place.

Chickens coming home to roost

It’s a common enough observation that DSA chapters tend to resemble the cities that host them. This is sometimes for good and sometimes for ill. In Chicago DSA, members are liable to remark that the chapter, just like the city, is run by a political machine. This “machine” is a narrow clique of a few dozen mostly professional activists linked by longstanding professional and personal relationships. They mostly work in the same fields and tend to hash out political disagreements behind closed doors before presenting proposals to the membership to be rubber-stamped. Chicago DSA’s machine is, of course, much less sinister than the city’s. Its conflicts of interest are only moderately corrupt and its backroom deals are considerably lower in stakes. And by the standards of other major-city DSA chapters, many of which have been thoroughly overrun by outright subculturalists, Chicago has long acquitted itself relatively well, and its election of six socialist aldermen in 2019 (now down to five) has been a point of pride.

Beneath the surface, however, things have been falling apart. The chapter hasn’t had a general meeting in almost a year, in clear violation of its own bylaws. While some degree of malfunction is to be expected of a volunteer political organization in the wake of the pandemic, this is well beyond inexcusable when meetings can be held on Zoom. A resurgent anarcho-liberal faction has taken advantage of the Executive Committee’s negligence by waging an escalating campaign to undermine the chapter’s internal democratic structures and its priority campaigns. Chicago could be on the verge of just the sort of collapse that felled Pittsburgh DSA in the aftermath of its own electoral successes.

If the chapter is in peril, it’s due to the fecklessness and incompetence of its own “machine.” The defining feature of Chicago DSA compared to other reasonably functional major chapters is the almost total depoliticization of the rank and file membership. In cities like Philadelphia and Boston there are organized factions that contest openly for control of the chapter and that, as a result, have an incentive to aggressively recruit and educate rank-and-file members. In Chicago, by contrast, there has been little open political debate, and such factions as exist are mostly glorified friend groups with little interest in recruiting from the rank-and-file membership of the chapter. Low levels of debate and factionalism translate into low levels of democratic participation: even before the pandemic, Chicago DSA regularly had difficulty meeting its modest 10% quorum for general meetings, whereas chapters like Philadelphia easily maintained a 20% quorum. Members would turn out to work on campaigns in large numbers, but they not unreasonably viewed general meetings as stage-managed wastes of time where all the real decisions were made in advance by the same crew of familiar camp counselors who all conspicuously appear to be each other’s roommates, lovers, or siblings.

This arrangement has historically suited Chicago DSA’s leadership just fine. A quiescent, politically underdeveloped membership is less likely to upset whatever careerist hustle leadership is trying to run at any given moment. But such a state of affairs is inherently unstable: the same lack of robust democratic debate and political factionalism that has allowed the chapter’s leadership clique to manipulate the membership into almost uncritically approving its agenda also means that there’s nothing stopping another clique from coming along and achieving the same thing. And that’s just what appears to be happening.

In the aftermath of last year’s protests against police brutality, many DSA chapters descended into an outright obsession with racial politics that now far outstrips the popular energy behind those very protests. The DSA’s politically naïve, middle class liberal membership were easy marks for the standard anti-socialist playbook of the urban NGO wing of the Democratic Party, which mostly consists of declaring that socialism is in some way racist and insisting that socialist organizations surrender some measure of organizational control to self-appointed representatives of “marginalized communities.” In truth, the only “community” they actually represent is that of Democratic politicians, nonprofits, and donors.

Like clockwork, a new opposition tendency affiliated with the DSA’s national Afrosocialist and Socialists of Color Caucus (AfroSOC) has emerged in Chicago and set about targeting those chapter activities most oriented towards the working class. Originally a happy hour-cum-networking event for New York City DSA members, AfroSOC now claims to speak on behalf of all “people of color” within the organization. This “caucus” is a stark example of the liberal race-relations framework that Adolph Reed has described, according to which individuals appoint themselves “racial voices” and ventriloquize “the black community” (or “the Latinx [sic] community,” or “the AAPI community,” etc) in spite of the fact that their “claims to speak for black concerns. . .do not depend on demonstration of accountability to any specific constituencies of black people.” In reality, the active membership of this caucus is minuscule and unrepresentative both of the organization as a whole and the broader public.

Chicago DSA leadership appears thoroughly cowed and unwilling to mount any sort of serious defense of the chapter. Indeed, it appears unwilling to mount any sort of defense of itself: members of the chapter’s Executive Committee have recently been promoting “Overcoming White Supremacy Culture in Organizations,” a liberal antiracist guide that is remarkable for its literal, actual racism. According to the guide, among the attributes of “white supremacy culture” are objectivity, schedules and timetables, and writing. Such antiracist liberalism is merely the soft bigotry of low expectations wrapped in woke language. Its function is not to enlighten or teach or argue: the value of the text is instrumental and weaponized.  Executive Committee members are being dared to object, and thereby expose themselves to accusations of participating in “white supremacy culture” by objecting.

“Overcoming White Supremacy Culture in Organizations” shares much in common with the rest of the burgeoning antiracism training industry pioneered by corporate consultants like Robin DiAngelo. In fact, the source of the document is Showing Up for Racial Justice, a group whose local chapter degenerated into complete ineffectiveness as it became the target of various anti-racist training entrepreneurs who realized they had a captive audience of well-meaning, guilt-ridden white liberals who could not openly object to obvious grifts.

The penetration of liberal antipolitics into the chapter doesn’t stop there. Chicago DSA leadership’s inexcusable neglect of its basic duty to hold regular general meetings has allowed AfroSOC and allied anarchists to aggressively pursue their agenda with no democratic deliberation whatsoever. Chapter decision-making has been concentrated in poorly-attended Executive Committee meetings where nothing much tends to happen and in the chapter’s formerly meaningless branch meetings. These latter have developed into hotbeds of “mutual aid” initiatives of the sort that Chicago DSA has historically been quite skeptical of.

Mutual aid, or hipster noblesse oblige

Sheltered under the rickety umbrella of “abolitionist organizing,” mutual aid has been the wedge issue at the center of AfroSOC’s efforts to reorient the chapter away from universal campaigns like Medicare for All, lifting the ban on rent control, and municipalization of the local electrical utility. The “we keep us safe” mantra has ramified across CDSA initiatives, clouding the political content of everything from tenant unions to immigrant labor rights to police accountability. A variety of mutual aid projects have percolated through the chapter in recent months, including a proposal that failed to pass the South Side branch, an anti-fascist working group proposal that passed at the last Executive Committee meeting, and multiple editorial commentaries by members behind the “Transparency and Accountability” proposal. In these accounts, mutual aid’s promoters reveal the paltry theoretical state of this entire suite of proposals. Claims that volunteers will “learn from communities” and “experience the power of their collective action,” or that neighbors may become “emboldened and curious” enough to be drawn “into the fabric of organizing” could be said of nearly any organizing project. As for bolder claims that these efforts will “build power” and “force the state’s hand,” mutual aid’s boosters provide no details.

With the strategic vision of mutual aid so poorly described by its local proponents, and its pop-intellectual icons resting their arguments on “prefigur[ing] the world in which [we] want to live,” new CDSA members are being politically miseducated. In place of a plan to develop a politics of class struggle, the mutual aid movement invites college-educated leftists to throw an artisanal, intersectional costume on something that thousands of soup kitchens, food pantries, block clubs, church congregations, mom’s groups, boy and girl scout troops, and fraternal organizations undertake on a weekly basis.

The notion that CDSA members are the first ones to think of taking care of their neighbors through networks of charitable giving or direct help is yet another expression of an endemic  professional-managerial class arrogance. These career activists appear fully unaware of how out of touch they are with the broader working class, even as they claim to speak on its behalf. 

This disconnect is due to the fact that DSA liberals’ propensity to self-flagellate over the organization’s “whiteness” is their way of displacing analysis of the organization’s severe class imbalance. The simple reality is that the DSA’s so-called “race problem” is more substantially a matter of the organization’s class composition. The reason DSA isn’t as black and Hispanic as the working class is because it’s an overwhelmingly middle class organization and the middle class is disproportionately white and Asian, so the race reductionist insistence that we defer to professional activist “community voices” and run our meetings as though they were Oberlin sociology seminars is more likely to exacerbate the problem than it is to attract regular, working-class blacks and Hispanics.

As evidenced in the negative experience of numerous chapters like Pittsburgh, Atlanta, and others where unscrupulous political operatives attempted to hijack the organization to serve their ambitions, as well as the collapse of liberal organizations like SURJ, the DSA needs to develop a robust and publically understood capacity to distinguish between multracial working-class base-building and liberal antiracist audience capture. CDSA members interested in embedding a socialist perspective in working-class communities by way of mutual support would do better to join groups active in those communities, build relationships, and then invite people into political organizing, instead of forming a cool-kids lunch-table version of local charity.

Hoisted on their own petard

It is worth noting that the leadership clique that is the target of the misbegotten and crippling “Transparency and Accountability” resolution includes various individuals who themselves are responsible for artificially suppressing CDSA’s immune response to liberal anti-racist grifts. This is particularly true of the local Bread & Roses caucus, who have regarded liberal antiracism and white supremacy hysteria as either instrumentally useful enough to them personally to keep around or potentially too reputation-damaging to combat. Indeed, Chicago B&R are the ones responsible for the provision in the chapter bylaws that allows for chapter endorsement of unrepresentative identity caucuses like AfroSOC in the first place.

In particular, Bread & Roses regularly asserts a stance of criticism of liberal identity politics within their caucus that they never forcefully articulate publicly because of their basic fear of being socially and professionally embarrassed by the pushback they’d inevitably get. They also view liberal identity politics as a useful tool for recruiting liberals under the vague idea that they’ll someday be educated into socialism. But like the “dirty break” from the Democratic Party that the caucus gestures towards, the day the liberals become socialists somehow never comes. Chicago B&R’s cowardly refusal to forcefully articulate a Marxist defense of class politics in the face of liberal-identitarian wrecking was in fact what drove them to sabotage the erstwhile Spring caucus, expelling 45% of its members for “class reductionism” in early 2019 and permanently damaging the DSA’s left wing in the process. Now they find themselves under attack by the very same “viciously mean-spirited narcissists” they’ve spent the last two years forming alliances with and giving the keys to the kingdom, and they certainly deserve no sympathy from any quarter.

Therefore, while Chicago Class Unity are necessarily siding with Bread & Roses and the rest of the chapter’s leadership clique as the last line of defense against anarcho-liberal horizontalism and liberal antiracist paranoia, it should not be forgotten that many of them are very much responsible for the mess the chapter now finds itself in. This is the trolley problem that permeates the DSA as it currently exists: the anarcho-liberal tendency is so manifestly awful that the careerist professionals look good in comparison. And when (if?) the anarcho-liberal threat is warded off, the professionals then promptly triangulate the organization back into a position where the same problems inevitably re-emerge. If the DSA is to mature into a serious threat to capital, this vicious circle needs to be broken permanently, and the practical failures and strategic commitments of these groups need to be named, critiqued, and ultimately rejected.

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