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The Left’s Middle-Class Problem


In “How Not to Unite a Class,” Felipe Bascuñán claims that Class Unity is insensitive to the different experiences of oppression that the ruling class uses to divide and conquer the working class. Bascuñán’s piece sadly mischaracterizes and shows little engagement with Class Unity’s actual stances and arguments.

Our 2021 DSA convention resolutions on amnesty for undocumented immigrants and universal childcare, as well as our call to discipline rogue DSA representative Jamaal Bowman for his flirtations with Zionism, clearly demonstrate our awareness of and concern for specific demands that would disproportionately benefit certain sections of the working class more directly than others. Where we differ from Bascuñán is that we treat these demands as representing the common interests of the entire working class, as Marxists always have, in contrast to an identitarian liberal framing that insists that “those interests that we all share be treated as belonging to this or that group.” In fact, a universalist approach is the only approach that can conceivably cohere a mass working-class movement capable of addressing the root political-economic causes of racial and other disparities.

For all his talk about how not to unite the working class, Bascuñán seems more interested in proving his own abstract theoretical model correct than in taking seriously the interests and desires of the working class in all its diversity. Consider how he approvingly refers to the calls to defund the police that gained steam in the wake of the George Floyd protests last summer as confirmation that “actual movements against racism tend to have no trouble understanding the deep links between economics and racial disparity.” Not only does Bascuñán seem unaware that cash-strapped police departments are often more lethal than better-funded ones, and that several of the whitest (and poorest) states in the country experience some of the highest rates of police killings — he fails to ask whether the call to defund the police is even supported by the working-class black and brown people activists claim it would benefit the most.

The available evidence suggests this is not the case. Only two months after the protests, a widely-circulated Gallup poll indicated that 81 percent of black people wanted police to spend as much or more time in their area. Since then, we have seen a black former police captain win the mayorship of New York City, with substantial support from black voters, after declaring that the defund movement was being led by “young white affluent people.” More recently, voters in Minneapolis rejected a ballot measure to replace the local police department with a department of public safety and to remove the requirement for a minimum number of officers per resident. Support for the referendum was significantly higher among white liberals than among black voters, only 14 percent of whom wanted to see a reduction in the size of the police force a year and a half after the cold-blooded murder of George Floyd at the hands of former cop Derek Chauvin.

This is not to suggest that proponents of defunding the police do not have legitimate and serious criticisms of policing — they do. And we certainly aren’t claiming that all workers are necessarily leftwing. But a new study provides data to support Class Unity’s belief that the best way to appeal to working-class people of all backgrounds is to focus on bread-and-butter economic issues and frame these in universal terms, rather than attempt to split the difference by cloaking them in the woke rhetoric that is so common among academics and NGO activists and so alienating to the majority of workers without a college degree.

But the disagreement between Class Unity and our critics runs deeper than this. In this rebuttal, we will seek to clarify its true nature. Our argument is simple: we believe that the vast majority of the key challenges facing the American left stem from its overwhelmingly middle-class composition, its refusal to acknowledge and mitigate that same class composition, and its habit of projecting the political interests and proclivities of its middle-class members onto the working class proper. The result is all too often a politics that aids and abets the very same ruling-class divide-and-conquer strategy that Bascuñán claims to oppose.

What we propose, in other words, is a class analysis of the actually existing American left, including DSA. Bascuñán’s own argument, on the other hand, is fundamentally idealistic: He advocates that the socialist movement “fight oppression” without ever explaining what this means in political-economic terms or why any socialist would disagree with “fighting oppression” in the first place. For Bascuñán, disagreement with his preferred politics is a moral failing of mysterious origin that emerges fully formed in the minds of his interlocutors, and support for his preferred politics is a moral imperative whether or not those politics make any sense from the standpoint of class struggle. This lack of analytical rigor leads him to confuse his own aesthetic preference for this or that utopian demand with the actual interests of the broader working class, and to fail to understand critiques of this politics from the Marxist left. As we will show in this rebuttal, this is a pattern of behavior in no way unique to Bascuñán: It is rather the predictable and consistent pathology of a left that has been severed from the working class for many decades — decades spent instead in eccentric orbit around mainstream liberalism.

Before we proceed, we must head off at the pass the inevitable and baseless claims that the middle class “doesn’t exist” or isn’t a proper Marxist category. As a matter of fact, Marx himself discusses the middle class at length in both Capital [1] and Theories of Surplus Value [2]. There is an immense amount of empirical data on the existence of the middle class, and Marxist economists and sociologists have dedicated a considerable amount of ink to this fact.[3] What Marx calls the middle class is a group of intellectual workers who do not produce surplus value directly, but rather facilitate the production of surplus value by industrial workers and its realization in the market by commercial workers. The portion of the working class that consists of manual laborers produces and realizes surplus value in industry and commerce, thereby creating the total revenue of all classes in society (e.g. workers, capitalists, landlords). The middle class, by contrast, is therefore what Marx calls an “overhead cost of production” (faux frais de production). It is, in his words, “useful” and “necessary,” but “unproductive” in the sense that it does not produce surplus value, even though it is exploited alongside the rest of the working class. It simply administers the production and realization of surplus value on behalf of absentee owners of capital. The function that the middle class must perform in exchange for its income (“cost of production”) is that it “supervises” and “disciplines” manual workers — either directly via the hiring and firing power or ideologically via authority over norms. And the way in which this economic function is translated into the political sphere is obvious in the character of leftist and liberal-progressive political rhetoric and attitudes towards the working class and its priorities. The middle class in general is preoccupied not with class or exploitation but with correctness and etiquette: It supervises, disciplines, and “educates” other workers at work, and it moralizes and polices people outside of work.[4]

We would like to make absolutely clear that our stance is not that every person from a middle-class background has bad politics, nor that every individual’s politics are mechanically determined by their class position, nor that middle-class people should be somehow excluded from the workers’ movement. The problem is not individual middle-class people. Rather, there is a characteristic kind of middle-class politics, though there may be numerous exceptions. And our argument is that the middle class should not be allowed to dominate the terrain where the workers’ movement should stand, as it does today. This domination results in the hegemony of liberal politics in the institutions of the left, and it leaves the working class, which has now largely ceased to participate in politics at all, without a political voice. We have no hope of resolving this existential threat to our ability to accomplish our stated political aims if we can’t even acknowledge that it’s a problem in the first place.

Marxist analysis, not wishful thinking

A clear marker of the middle-class character of the American left is its inability to apply or even properly conceive of the Marxist critique of identity politics that obtains in essentially every mass-membership social-democratic or communist party on earth. This critique, shared by thinkers as diverse as Eric Hobsbawm and the Indian Maoist revolutionary Ajith, has been most precisely formulated in the American context by Adolph Reed, who has termed identity politics “the class politics of the left wing of neoliberalism.” As such, we reject a key claim of Bascuñán’s piece, commonplace in the DSA, which states that everyone on the US left should be able to understand the fundamental distinction between the sort of superficial tokenism of, say, corporate-sponsored Pride parades and a thoughtfully philosophical and nuanced intersectional socialist project. There is in fact vanishingly little meaningful distinction at all in current US left practice between “fake” liberal identity politics and “authentic” socialist intersectionality. Any attempt to put forward a distinction based on subjective authenticity is itself a symptom of a revived US left that has long lacked a political character. Without a political record to point to, the only recourse is to claims of authenticity.

This politics of authenticity not only papers over the concrete forms by which current unequal social practices are maintained, it also hides the institutional mechanisms by which spurious accusations of insensitivity to oppression (like those central to Bascuñán’s argument) are deployed to undermine and destroy working-class politics. Though this was clearest in the contrived smears against Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, it is also a broad trend successfully employed in undermining workplace solidarity, enforcing labor discipline, privatizing public education, and so on down the list of neoliberal policy initiatives. Bascuñán’s blithe assertion that this is easily distinguished from socialist politics fails to note just how powerfully effective it has been in undermining socialist politics; this glaring omission demands a much sharper analysis.

These are bound to be controversial statements, so we are at pains to locate them in real time and space. The purported distinction between fake liberal identity politics and authentic socialist intersectionality is a fiction, but it is a fiction that persists because it is rooted in a specific political-economic formation. The US left’s population is not only skewed significantly to the middle class, its leadership stratum is skewed to a specific subset of the middle class. The actually existing US left, particularly in major cities, is almost exclusively based in the educated, liberal middle classes, and is completely interpenetrated at the leadership level by the Iron Triangle of academia, media, and NGOs. It therefore not only lacks an independent political base capable of upholding genuinely socialist politics, but is in fact subordinated to capital via these institutions.

In this piece, we will walk through the three legs of this Iron Triangle and clarify how they impact the left. If the US left is to become a serious threat to capital, it needs to recognize its subordination to these institutions, reject their ideology unequivocally, break from its dependence on them by developing its own thoroughgoing independent institutions, hold its elected politicians accountable to those independent institutions, and rebuild its base in the broader US working class. We hope this piece will contribute to dismantling some of the defenses that prevent a proper reckoning with this fundamental problem.

The Roots of DSA Dysfunction

The first thing to understand about middle-class capture of left parties and institutions is that it is not a phenomenon unique to the DSA within the context of the American left (such as it is), and it is not a phenomenon unique to the American left in the context of the global left. Piketty has written of the global emergence of a “Brahmin left,” and the declining share of the working-class vote going to left parties in Europe is a universally acknowledged fact. But this process is much more advanced in the United States than in most other developed nations, and the DSA as a result represents something of the ne plus ultra of middle-class capture of a left organization, at least in the major urban chapters and in many smaller chapters as well.

The historical reasons for the extreme class composition of the American left even in the context of a generally “Brahminifying” global left are straightforward. Almost alone in the developed world, the United States never saw the lasting emergence of a mass-membership social-democratic or communist party. A combination of a non-proportional electoral system, the Red Scare, and Stalin’s insistence that the Communist Party subordinate itself to a popular front with the Democratic New Deal coalition meant that no mass workers’ party ever achieved viability.

As a result, the American left has no lineal descent from or institutional memory of such a party. In Europe, some parties of the left have been able to retain predominantly working-class bases. These are typically post-Stalinist parties such as the Portuguese and Greek Communist parties, whose ideological and organizational rigidity has served to keep middle-class dilettantes at bay. A few other parties, such as the Socialist Party of the Netherlands, were founded with an explicitly “proletarian” orientation that they have largely preserved, though, again, via largely undemocratic means. But even those parties that have become substantively middle class, such as Labour in the UK or the Left Party in Germany, still remember what it was like to have an organic connection to the working class, even if that connection has been severed or is in the process of severing. This means that there are voices within those parties fighting to turn back the tide of middle-class capture, and that the rest of the party by and large cannot simply pretend that the phenomenon isn’t real.

The DSA, on the other hand, never had any working-class social base at all and so has no institutional memory of this phantom limb. The result is a tendency towards sheer denial. Class Unity’s attempts to point out the middle-class skew of DSA as the root of the organization’s fundamental problems have met such strong resistance within DSA that it demands a political-economic explanation. But first, we must underline that it is blindingly obvious. The “do-both-ism” that demotes class to one identity among a proliferating array of countless others is so much a fact of DSA practice that, rather than finding a hive of “class reductionism” in your local chapter, you will more likely struggle to find any working groups or chapter priority campaigns focused on labor issues or class struggle at all, as pressing working-class demands such as universal healthcare are systematically abandoned in favor of middle-class utopian fantasies like abolishing the police or electing “progressives” in coalition with liberals.

The average DSA activist is highly educated, poorly positioned for strategic-industry union efforts, and not particularly interested in such seemingly unglamorous work as salting or militant union revitalization efforts in the first place. This is clear injust need to realize it to achieve real class unity.

Another variation is to tut-tut that “middle class” does not represent a classical Marxist class, as if the confused class position of the US middle class were a flaw in the analysis of anyone using the term. Rather, the middle class exists in a “contradictory class positionin reality, because capital’s response to the radical labor movement has historically blurred class lines via widespread home and stock ownership, consumerism, credentialism, income-stratified urban neighborhoods, and the systematic propagation of bourgeois ideology. To not contend with these realities is to discard genuine material analysis in favor of a “Marxism” so vulgarized as to be unaware of Marx’s own lengthy discussions of the middle class.

Probably the most important factor, however, that prevents a square reckoning with this issue is the brutal demotion of a large portion of the younger, educated middle class into the working class by the long aftermath of the 2008 financial crash, a reality that is probably more responsible for the resurgence of leftism in the US than anything else. The most serious rebuttal against the charge that the US left is too middle-class is the reality that many are in fact currently in the working class, albeit often in a particular subset of devalued knowledge-worker and service jobs. Why trace any problems of the left to a skewed class composition when this proletarianization of the formerly aspiring middle class is so much in evidence?

One answer to this question is that the expectations that many college-educated millennial leftists had of middle-class careers, however, crushed by capital, create predictable problems. Notably, these problems have been encountered before in earlier eras:

Identification with the class interests of the proletariat does not come easy for many intellectuals. They may carry with them the baggage of their initial training and lifestyle: individualism, competitiveness, the attempt to resolve problems exclusively in the realm of ideas, expectations of personal prominence. Throughout history the intellectual who supports revolution has had to struggle with such tendencies. Many ultra-left errors can be traced to these class-based weaknesses.

This is particularly true in a movement that is composed largely of young people — almost entirely less than 35 years old. Many of these people are college educated but are working in situations where many of their coworkers are not. Many have a background of financial comfort and have not resolved their relationship to past or potential privileges. Many have not had the experience of settling down to a long-term commitment to a job, a community, or a family. These are significant characteristics that affect our world view and our methods of political work. Furthermore, the lack of social stability has made it difficult to identify and change the weaknesses that are typical of intellectuals — or, in fact, to recognize and develop the corresponding strengths.

Absent a reckoning with this cultural baggage, many déclassé leftists are not so much the vanguard of the working class but exiles within it, desperate to regain their birthright as its managers.

A more properly materialist point is that the DSA tends to be dominated in practice by the large metropolitan chapters (NYC, LA, Chicago, DC, the SF Bay Area, and so on), whose membership is broadly higher-income and has flexible-schedule employment that allows them an outsized voice in the internal debates of the organization. Those large chapters have also structurally consolidated power: Large strategic decisions are rarely put in the hands of the membership, but are instead solved by a byzantine network of working groups and steering committees filled by those members that have the time to run for those positions. While the national average DSA member may well be déclassé, this is hardly the case for the sector of membership that tends to occupy leadership of the major metropolitan chapters and hence of the organization at large. This leadership stratum has constituted a sort of elite within the organization that has distorted debate around key issues for self-protective reasons.

The emotional charge around the issues of race vs. class and the imaginary specter of “class reductionism” does not, in our estimation, reflect the actual severity of those issues within the DSA but rather constitutes a displacement of the class problem of the DSA onto less threatening territory. Reckoning with the overweening clout of the professional-managerial sector within the DSA is existentially threatening:

Waging war against “liberal elites” dovetails nicely with a conservative agenda or neoliberal project. Affluent liberals can acknowledge their privilege without jeopardizing their meritocratic, technocratic worldview, or their sense of virtue, so long as they adopt the contemporary noblesse oblige of a benevolent and caring overclass. But, for a socialist movement whose ranks draw overwhelmingly from the professional-managerial class and the downwardly mobile middle class failsons aching to join them, acknowledging the antagonism between its existing membership and the rest of the working class calls the entire political project into question.

Rather than confront this uncomfortable problem, a typical DSA internal debate revolves around the question of whether a given issue would be “alienating to potential allies,” a subjective standard that gives broad room for self-selected representatives of marginalized groups to narrate stories where some members of the group might be harmed by a given initiative. Their opponents can then either acquiesce, choose to ask for concrete evidence and risk seeming insensitive, or narrate a more convincing counter-story that convinces fencesitters that not taking up the initiative would harm potential allies more. Mysteriously, the “potential allies” in these marginalization stories seem to always be offended by the same things as a literature postgraduate at Bard. Bascuñán’s own critiques of Class Unity fall squarely into this genre.

We seek to cut through this idealistic fog and situate the DSA’s problems in the concrete institutional context of the professional left’s iron triangle of academia, media, and NGOs. Only by rejecting the paltry standard of current DSA debates can we hope to deescalate the emotional charge around these issues, point the way out of the particular vampire’s castle we currently find ourselves in, and refocus on the institutional realities limiting the political effectiveness of the modern US left.

The First Leg of the Iron Triangle: Academia

As an organization overwhelmingly composed of college graduates, often of elite four-year colleges, the DSA rank and file are molded by institutions whose primary purpose in American society is laundering class stratification into merit and rationalizing ruling-class dominance. It is a mistake, however, to assume that this is primarily accomplished by a thoroughly post-Marxist curriculum that has banished class analysis from all but a tiny fraction of lecture halls. Rather, it is the fixed features of academic life outside the classroom that matter in molding the identity of future DSA leftists: the admissions process, the peer network and job search, and the campus activist experience.

For brand-name universities, the admissions process is fundamentally one of learning to narrate an identity (specifically an identity that admissions officers want to hear), and that entails a projection of the US elite’s self-image as a multiethnic meritocracy on to the student. As Blake Smith writes,

What is new about education’s turn to woke identity politics is not the fact that administrators and faculty are influencing students’ sense of self, but rather the sort of values that the new ideal personality is supposed to uphold. The contemporary ideal, increasingly, is no longer someone so charmingly personable that others forget he is in fact a ruthless competitor, but a person who so convincingly narrates her having overcome some kind of social injustice that others forget she is in fact a beneficiary of systems of privilege [emphasis added].

In this process of a primarily suburban and urban multiethnic middle class squeezing themselves through the admissions keyhole, they learn to weaponize their own identity markers to simultaneously improve their chances of succeeding and disguise the ruthlessness of that climb in the language of social justice. They bring these habits into DSA leadership in largely unaltered form.

The networking and job-search process teaches another destructive norm to students as they attempt to climb into the professional stratum: Never say anything bad in public about your fellow professionals. You will likely depend on them for a crucial job connection someday, so be a team player. While this may seem like simple courtesy, it is terrible for democratic debate in left organizations, where, more often than not, apparent disagreements over principle are in fact suppressed personal rivalries.

The experience of campus activism is molded by the regular turnover of students. Experience is in short supply, and activist group leaders therefore can choose successors based on personal friendship or deny them based on personal hostility. Campus activist organizations are also molded by campus administrators who have professionalized the management of student protest, providing a safety valve for unrest alongside symbolic concessions that limit any threats to the operation of the institution. Rebellion is literally priced into the college experience.

The ritualized narration of identity oppressions by the privileged, the cliquishness and glad-handing masquerading as comradeship, and the deflection of dissatisfaction into safe channels are all epidemic features of left politics as a whole precisely because the same people who learned these behaviors in college are now the large majority of participants in the US left. This reality is why we have observed that the DSA’s “skewed class composition has hardened into an impenetrable middle-class subculture that reproduces the pathology and dysfunction of campus activism.”

Finally, we note that the retreat of many radicals into academic careers has had a deforming effect on the left’s understanding of its own priorities. Academics are incentivized to produce conventional-wisdom-upsetting new ideas, to upstage one another. This drive for novelty is at odds with the fundamentals-based, coalition-oriented, and often, frankly, tedious work of workplace organizing. A characteristic example of this “attempt to resolve problems exclusively in the realm of ideas” is Bascuñán’s treatment of race and class.

In examining race and class, Bascuñán argues that a wholly abstract understanding of “class” can’t elucidate complex empirical realities such as group differentiation or competition among workers. But for us this isn’t the point of contention — it’s rather the question of how those particularities continue into the present day, what historical changes they’ve undergone, and how they can be addressed. Bascuñán answers this with bog-standard liberal intersectional rhetoric that abounds in the same kind of ahistorical abstractions that he claims to overcome.

Bascuñán’s account of racism draws from various historical periods like the New Deal and Jim Crow to highlight racialized policies that created the historical conditions for today’s disparities. He gestures towards history in an attempt to explain the present, but his explanation raises more questions than answers: “Schools also remain segregated, and in a country that funds public education by local property taxes, the reproduction of disparate life outcomes along racialized class lines unfolds without needing overtly racist legislation.” If Bascuñán’s point here is to simply point out that racial disparities still exist, then his analysis is as uncontroversial as it is vacuous: racial disparities are real, but they’re the result, not the cause, of what he’s trying to analyze. And if overt, institutionally sanctioned racism isn’t needed to maintain racial disparities, then what is?

Bascuñán’s contemporaneous examples of Reagan’s demagogy about “welfare queens” and “the culture of policing” are unconvincing explanations for why stark racial disparities continue into the 21st century. They are unconvincing because they equivocate. In attempting to demonstrate the present-day continuity of racism as a “real material force,” Bascuñán blurs the distinction between present-day racist attitudes held by certain individuals and racialized social practices, such as racial discrimination in unions or Jim Crow segregation. While racist attitudes are obviously necessary to justify racialized social practices, and while they can serve to justify racial inequalities more generally, they cannot explain the continued economic existence of the latter. For this reason, fighting against vague constructs like “chauvinism” cannot bring about material change, because “chauvinism” isn’t a material category. Buscuñán himself notes that “workers don’t struggle against an abstract social relation” (such as “white supremacy culture”), they struggle for specific material goals such as civil rights, anti-discrimination laws, equal housing, and employment, and integrated schooling.

Bascuñán points to such material goals to gloss over the fact that his own (and the DSA’s own) “antiracism” is not programmatic or policy-based, but cultural. He emphasizes “the interpersonal side of oppression” and “chauvinistic attitudes on the Left,” rather than understanding how the incentives of capital accumulation produce uneven social outcomes, regardless of personal attitudes or beliefs. Despite Bascuñán’s supposed dismissal of liberal antiracism, he shares with it the conviction that racial inequalities are perpetuated by a nebulous “racism” that must be fixed by culture.

Since Bascuñán is unable to reconcile his cultural politics with contemporary political economy, his understanding of “oppression” results in the same view of “transhistorical forces with their own autonomous logics separate from capitalism” that he criticizes. Given this, his phraseology about “the particular and the universal” is meaningless, since he reduces the notion of class struggle to a simple collection of “all struggles against specific forms of oppression” with no unifying relationship to capitalist production. As we recently noted elsewhere, such an analysis requires nothing more than “ordinary, honest liberalism, the ideology of individual rights, which is prevalent in developed capitalist societies.”

Bascuñán is unable to offer any concrete guidance for DSA’s day-to-day political work. Since his “antiracism” is cultural rather than programmatic, he fails to actually establish any practical distinction between our “class reductionist” politics and his “intersectional socialist” politics. Both police reform and Medicare for All are universal policies that would help all workers, while disproportionately helping minority populations. To frame one as “anti-racism” but not the other is to draw a distinction without a difference. In the final analysis, we find that Bascuñán’s “intersectional socialism” either amounts to the same thing in practice as our “class reductionism,” or it serves to channel popular energy back into the predominant liberal race-relations framework, where it can be safely neutralized and subsumed by opposing class interests.

The Second Leg of the Iron Triangle: Media

The commitment of left media to an identitarian frame of reference has a further deadly consequence for socialist politics: Left media is unable to seriously and thoroughly critique the record and actions of politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who have set themselves up as both left voices and minority voices while accusing critics of establishment Democrats of racism. The complicity of left media in these latest spurious identity smears threatens to harden into a red-painted version of mainstream Democrats’ “vote blue no matter who” blackmail, where political figures rely on compliant media to distract from their poor record and browbeat a captive, morally-invested audience into voting for them in spite of their lack of results.

More broadly, the dependence of rank-and-file DSA members on left media for their understanding of politics and their self-understanding as leftists renders key conflicts invisible or distorts their stakes. For example, the definitive postmortem of what went wrong with the Bernie campaign is nowhere to be found almost two years on, because too many left writers and podcasters would need to burn their contacts if they assessed responsibility honestly. This also confers exaggerated political importance on fundamentally commercial rivalries, like that between the post-Bernie “dirtbag left” and the “post-left,” two competing niche-audience-consolidation projects superficially dressed up as politics. The baseline level of conflict of interest and dishonesty intrinsic to US left media keeps typical rank-and-file socialists perpetually confused about the fundamental issues facing the left, undermining the effectiveness of left organizations and playing into ruling class divide-and-conquer strategies via niche-media-market segmentation.

We do not claim that left media aids and abets the ruling class’s divide-and-conquer strategy in some disembodied idealistic void. This is not a question of left media figures being inauthentic sellouts. Rather, the specific model of identity representation reproduced in left media is itself promoted by a set of powerful institutions that have a direct financial interest in suppressing class politics. Under those pressures and the pressure of hysterical flak from a well-trained audience, left media cannot help but reproduce ruling-class divide-and-conquer, despite its participants’ best (or worst) intentions.

The Third Leg of the Iron Triangle: Liberal NGOs

Bascuñán’s authentic-versus-inauthentic analysis takes as its reference point the period of Black Power immediately following the US civil rights struggle, after the defeat of the regime of the concrete, legally formalized racism of Jim Crow segregation, as well as the Nixon-to-Reagan cultural reaction that followed. However, it crucially ignores the commodification and co-optation of formerly radical black politics by the rising Democratic-Party-adjacent black professional class in the Black Power era. As Reed describes:

In that sense, the nationalist elaboration of Black Power was naïve both in that it was not sufficiently self-conscious and in that it mistook artifacts and idiosyncrasies of culture for its totality and froze them into an ahistorical theory of authenticity. Two consequences followed. First, abstracted from its concrete historical context, black culture lost its dynamism and took on the commodity form (e.g., red, black and green flags, dashikis, Afro-Sheen, “blaxploitation” films, collections of bad poetry, etc.). Secondly, while ostensibly politicizing culture by defining it as an arena for conflict, black nationalism actually depoliticized the movement inasmuch as the reified nationalist framework could relate to the present only through a simplistic politics of unity. Hence, it forfeited hegemony over political programs to the best organised element in the black community; the administrative elite.

The rise of this “administrative elite” and its politics of professional racial representation in the Black Power era is not only the ideological reference point of a now much broader tendency on the US left to gesture towards an implicitly universalized ahistorical “oppression” as a necessary equal partner in the socialist fight against class exploitation, the institutions of urban welfare administration of that era serve as the historical prototype of the modern ecosystem of progressive nonprofits and other NGOs. This ecosystem has spread far outside black concerns and has become a sort of “simulated civil society” that redirects radical discontent across many different sectors of society into channels that are structurally accountable to the capitalist elite.

The history and politics of this sprawling so-called “third sector,” sitting in between public government and private capital, were treated extensively in a recent Catalyst article.

Fong and Naschek identify three characteristics of NGO politics:

  1. They are technocratic, focusing on the suppression of explicit political conflict in favor of the managing away of social problems by credentialed professionals.

  2. They are service oriented, focusing on improving the efficiency and quality of services delivered to politically fractured constituencies, rather than building the political power of those constituencies.

  3. They are community focused, because the amorphous concept of “community” both limits the scope of social reforms and allows the cultivation of a leadership class of professionalized community representatives.

Of these, the first habit helps explain how the DSA in major metropolitan chapters tends to be run as a machine where key decisions are made behind closed doors and presented to membership to be ratified, avoiding professionally embarrassing open conflict. And the third habit is important because it provides a concrete, material framework for how to understand identity politics in the first place.

The typical progressive NGO playbook involves professional political operatives shepherding a curated set of community members, perhaps drawn from their organization’s mailing list, into stage-managed meetings where their opinions on pre-selected plans are solicited. A successful meeting is one where any conflicts are managed away. To the extent that these political operatives enter DSA leadership, as is common in major metropolitan chapters, they bring these professional habits with them, effectively suppressing the political development of rank-and-file membership by suppressing conflict.

Once again, the concept of “community” invoked in the NGO pro world is so fungible that it effectively allows NGO pros and entrepreneurial politicians to narrate community interests into existence by presenting their own college-honed story of overcoming marginalization as representative of their broader community, and by micro-targeting local constituencies that are likely to agree with their message (or at least not contradict it in public meetings). Formal democratic accountability to actual communities is nowhere needed; community representatives represent their communities through the force of their biography, their carefully crafted media image, and their academic and professional credentials.

The key structural feature of the NGO ecosystem these professionals inhabit is its financial dependency on private capital donations. Historically, private capitalist foundations (in particular the large grant distributors such as Ford, Kresge, Clinton, etc.) have explicitly engineered this sector to depend on them. NGOs can therefore only provide technocratically-managed, community-ratified services within capitalism without overtly challenging it. This combination of professional career interest and sectoral financial interest is the concrete institutional base responsible for making “identity politics [into] the class politics of the professional-managerial class.”

NGO-styled “community organizations” arose in the neoliberal era to replace mass-participation-driven, internally democratic civil society organizations of the FDR- to Carter-era US, such as the NAACP, labor unions, and even general charitable service organizations like the Elks. These organizations drew from broad social bases and imposed limited but real popular demands on capital. Their replacement by professionalized NGOs in the neoliberal era armored the market against mass democracy while smoothing some of its more abrasive edges by taking over the provision of welfare services as the government abandoned them.

As Fong and Naschek argue, the DSA itself, with its mass membership and internal elections, is a good thing; it is a revival of the traditions of broad-based mass-democratic organizations of the pre-neoliberal era. But the DSA’s major metropolitan chapters exist under pressure from the surrounding NGO ecosystem, which often (correctly) views the DSA as a rival to their professional monopoly on civic participation and community representation. And the widespread overlap of DSA leadership with progressive nonprofit workers, political staffers, union bureaucrats, and so on has made DSA much less independent from the third sector than it needs to be to effectively fight capital.

In Chicago, arguably the birthplace of professional community organizing, the NGO leg of the Iron Triangle is exceptionally sturdy. Since the early days of Saul Alinsky’s Industrial Areas Foundation in the 1940s, the city has served as a training ground for activists and seminarians hoping to become organizers in the urban mission field. Much of the technical content of contemporary organizing culture on the local and global left (one-to-ones, targets, relational work, deep listening, agitation, building of leaders, etc.) owes its roots to these midcentury Chicago formations, and the city’s density of neighborhood-based nonprofits stands as clear evidence of the IAF’s long shadow. But by the late 1960s, the landscape of Alinskyite community organizing in Chicago was deeply intertwined with the priorities of local philanthropic foundations and the research interests of academics with new incentives to become “participant-interventionists” in the urban lab.

By the time the Daley machine entered a state of disassembly at the end of the 1970s, those lining up under the mantle of “anti-machine,” “independent,” “reform,” or “progressive” were also those with deep stakes in the NGO world. Accounts of Barack Obama’s early years in Chicago are a vivid roadmap to the many routes running between urban universities, community organizations, and philanthropic foundations. By the mid-1980s, “community” (purposefully vague in its invocation of an organic voice) had acquired a more literal and limited definition: the set of community-based nonprofits with a plausibly steady funding stream based in local foundations. These foundations — Woods, Crossroads, Joyce, Wieboldt, Crown, and Field — remain potent forces in Chicago, funding the city’s community-based civil society and delimiting the scope of local left politics. When foundations pull together, as they did in the 1980s and 1990s on school reform, or in a $10 million funding drive to “center Black lives and address anti-Blackness” in the wake of the post-George Floyd protests of 2020, the entire ensemble of urban knowledge professionals, media, and nonprofit managers has little choice but to dance to their tune.

It is common enough to hear NGOs criticized within the DSA in similar terms to what we have outlined here. However, the relative overconfidence of the left in the 2016 to 2020 Bernie surge led to an idea that the contradictions of the NGO sector and its overlap with the left represented an opportunity to pressure the NGO sector to move along more socialist lines. In any honest assessment of the post-Bernie left, the opposite has occurred. Instead of “a socialist movement composed of mass organizations with clarity of ideology and force of numbers that create a wake in which progressive allies either swim along or risk drowning,” we have instead seen a movement of liberals through mass organizations, dragging a liberal tide in their wake.

Conclusion: What the DSA’s Power Structure Actually Is, and What it Needs to Become

The analysis of the left Iron Triangle we have sketched here is not meant as an armchair criticism of the organization from the outside. Rather, it is motivated by the attempts of our members, many of whom were Bernie-inspired rank-and-file DSA members prior to joining Class Unity, to understand the baffling gap between the pointed socialist rhetoric of the DSA and its overriding tendency to become absorbed in ultra-liberal internal dramas, to politically tail liberal NGOs, and to run cover for elected representatives without securing their accountability to DSA in return. We are motivated to put forward an analysis of how power works in DSA because we think that a healthy mass-membership socialist organization rooted in the working class is a goal worth striving for.

Briefly put, the DSA as it currently exists does not put power in the hands of mass membership. Rather than power being exercised through the DSA’s formal internal democracy (fragile as it is) or through its official hierarchy of officers in the National Political Committee (NPC), the actually-existing leadership stratum of the DSA is characterized by an informal but densely interconnected social and professional network of career activists concentrated almost exclusively in the major metropolitan chapters (i.e. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, DC, and the San Francisco Bay Area). This network is highly dependent on the broader liberal-left Iron Triangle of institutions outlined above for clout, media coverage, and, in some cases, direct employment, subjecting it to split incentives and outright conflicts of interest that result in behavior that can be baffling to new members and that is counterproductive to the socialist goals of the organization as a whole.

This leadership network is distinct from the pre-existing institutions of the Iron Triangle, despite its overlap, and emerged only relatively recently during the DSA’s explosive growth in the wake of the 2016 campaign of Bernie Sanders. The key difference between it and the Iron Triangle proper (and the major source of confusion in understanding how it is even a problem in the first place) is its members’ thorough deployment of classically socialist terminology to disguise its fundamentally ordinary careerist form. Insidery professional networking is relabeled as “cadre development,” the professional-class habit of never badmouthing other network insiders becomes “cadre discipline” or “comradeliness,” the occasional bump-in-the-road exile into regular-schmoe work morphs into “executing the rank and file strategy,” and pandering to the collegiate moral self-identifications of the middle class and aspiring-middle-class millennial and zoomer DSA membership becomes “not alienating potential allies in the multiracial working class.”

All of this has combined in an organization that has largely squandered the momentum of the Bernie campaigns. There are bright spots, such as the heroic efforts of smaller and medium-sized chapters around the country, but many major city chapters are in states of advanced decay, NGO capture, or both. Membership growth has slowed to a trickle, and net growth is almost certainly negative. There is no sign whatsoever of a working-class social base. DSA politicians have, with a few exceptions, proved notably prone to going rogue — nowhere can DSA lay claim to a success story anywhere near as impressive as Socialist Alternative’s Kshama Sawant, despite being an organization at least fifty times as large.

Apparently, unlike Bascuñán, we view this as a serious problem for the socialist political project. The left exists to organize the working class. That is why we’re here. If we’re not successfully doing that (and we’re by and large clearly not), we have to think r