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  For Flacks' essay, "Reflections on Strategy in a Dark Time," click here.

Richard Flacks Replies

The purpose of "Strategy for a Dark Time" was to help provoke reflection and discussion about progressive strategy and program -- so that democratic activism and grassroots movement might revive. The responses offer hope for new political dynamics. Joel Rogers, Janice Fine, Colin Greer, Ronnie Dugger, and Harry Boyte and Nancy Kari all mention specific local and national projects that may be harbingers of the revival of left political forces: local and regional electoral initiatives, pro-active local coalitions with
articulated strategies for economic development -- and national network development to encourage and coordinate these. Meanwhile, as some respondents note, the shake-up in the AFL-CIO may mean that the kind of national level push for a new political agenda -- focused on defending the wages of American working people -- might be in the offing.

Danny Schechter and Charlotte Ryan and Bill Gamson call for systematic activist attention to the need for a media strategy. I of course agree. In fact, the best single contribution the DC-based progressive lobby groups could make would be to launch such a media strategy. An immediate goal would be to figure out ways to insert ideas about social justice, equity, a living wage, and corporate irresponsibility into the daily talk of workplaces and bars (as Rush Limbaugh and company now are able to do).

Our thinking about media needs to include an examination of how to improve the usefulness of contemporary liberal and progressive publications. The Nation, In These Times, The Progressive, Mother Jones, and UTNE Reader now reach several hundred thousand subscribers. All have recently made exciting editorial and design changes. They have begun to use the Web and other media -- and are trying to build more community among their readers. But they remain deficient as sources of information about progressive activism; for example, few of the projects mentioned by Joel Rogers, Janice Fine, or Colin Greer have gotten serious attention in these magazines. Nor have they systematically opened up the sort of discussion of strategy and program we need. If progressives are unable to get serious reportage about their own activism in the magazines that speak to and for them, we obviously have a problem!

What kind of national structures are needed to create a political alternative? I suggested that the "quickest" route to national mobilization would be if existing national movement organizations forged a shared agenda and strategy to move the national debate leftward. I don't expect this to happen -- but do think that all of us who fund these organizations ought to pressure them to move out of their sectoral turfs toward progressive coalition. Fung, Loh, and O'Rourke are quite right to emphasize that a more promising, if more complicated, path is to "let the grassroots lead" in developing local coalitions and a national agenda. I hope the perspective they sketch can be elaborated so that it can become a guide to practice.

I think the most important substantive issues raised in the comments have to do with the political meaning of "globalization" and the related issue of "localism." We need a systematic debate about the impacts of globalization on the national state and the prospects for "domestic" political action. My point, which I thought I had made clear but perhaps did not, is that, although state capacities for economic steering had been further weakened by the threat and reality of capital mobility, we, as political actors, were nevertheless compelled to continue to use state action to defend living standards and protect rights. What we no longer can expect is that reform policies -- even when they appear to benefit general corporate interests -- will receive corporate backing; nor can we expect that national politicians of the Democratic Party will on their own initiative be able to enact even the policies they advocate. What I was arguing is that such reform will be made possible to the extent that it is demanded by popular movements operating assertively and strategically. It means opening up space to the "left" of the Clinton Administration -- especially with respect to issues that matter to working people -- and building long-term political forces in that space (while avoiding electoral moves that will allow the Republican right to consolidate national power). We need both to campaign on issues (like the minimum wage, health care, political finance reform) and to construct base building efforts both locally -- and if possible -- nationally.

But globalization requires that we think beyond restoring Keynesianism, the safety net, and the welfare state. I don't think any respondents would take issue with the importance of supporting cross-national movement building as a crucial priority. What is controversial is my suggestion that local empowerment -- at the level of region, municipality, and workplace -- is a central goal for social movements in the global era. The experience of the environmental movement is clearly relevant on this point: effectively mobilized regions threatened with pollution or other destructive practices by global corporations have often been able to compel those corporations to comply with or negotiate about local needs. Local environmental mobilization has been far more effective than federal regulatory controls in protecting local interests. But here is a point Fran Piven and Bob Ross seemed to have missed: I am not advocating the substitution of local authority for national government. Instead, I am saying that local empowerment requires the rule-making and resource-allocating capacities of the national state, and, as Fung, Loh, and O'Rourke suggest, law can help facilitate grassroots organization. I believe that the chances for democracy in the global age depend on the development of community-based mechanisms for popular power, that are supported and protected by national governments and, at the same time, consciously linked to communities across the planet facing common problems and threats. Theorizing the sources and limits of local empowerment and envisioning how it can be fostered and instituted is one of the most important projects for public intellectuals in this time.

Finally, the question of how to nationally organize progressive activists is deeply problematic. Experimental ventures ought to be welcomed; my point was that a national "party" that claims to be the voice of the grassroots and the center of social movement can't be constructed. Joel Rogers wants to build a left-wing version of the Christian Coalition -- which I take to mean a framework for strategically orienting electoral activity among progressives (and not the be-all and end-all of what's needed to foster progressive action). Ronnie Dugger thinks we need a new populist membership organization and is getting a response to his call for one. These kinds of national organizational initiatives are very promising but they will run into trouble if they claim hegemony, or put organizational imperatives ahead of movement-building, or if they try to forge ahead without taking account of the experience and priorities of already existing activists and organizations.

Ronnie Dugger's comments, which totally misrepresent what I had written, suggest that he already knows all the answers and therefore can't hear what other people might be saying. Since the Dugger I thought I knew from his writing is hardly a dogmatist, I fear that he is being "corrupted" by the sectarian logic of party-building. My own feeling is that the most pressing immediate need is for nationally coordinated spaces within which progressive activists and intellectuals can share experience, debate strategy, and build linkages without feeling pressured to pass resolutions, adopt policies, and divert resources from grassroots action to building up new organizations. Thanks to Boston Review for providing a bit of that space.

Originally published in the February/ March 1996 issue of Boston Review

Click here to return to the Boston Review Forum, Strategies for Rebuilding the Left.



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