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

Out of the Darkness

Archon Fung, Penn Loh, and Dara O'Rourke

We applaud Dick Flacks' essay as part of a much-needed dialogue on democracy, and agree with his proposals for "decentralizing power, fostering grassroots energy, and encouraging democratic participation." But we are skeptical about his account of national leadership. We doubt that groups like NOW, NAACP, Citizen Action, and the Sierra Club can lead us out of the political night. We should look for national leadership at the bottom, and build progressive politics out of novel coalitions and publics that are not currently self-identified leftists. Times, they have a-changed. The Washington lobbies made important gains for their constituencies, but have since entrenched themselves in increasingly irrelevant national battles. Rather than nourishing and harnessing the political energies of the next generation, the progressive establishment has alienated younger activists and turned ardent would-be allies into small armies of young interns. Aiming for respectability, fundability, and access, national organizations have forsaken the mantle of social change and demobilized the grassroots. So Minister Farrakhan and Public Enemy capture the political anger and imagination of Black youth far more than the hemming and hawing of the NAACP. The Sierra Club struggles to avoid clashes with new constituencies such as urban people of color, who seek safe and clean places to live rather than vacation spots in which to hike, fish, and watch birds.

Focusing on our points of agreement with Flacks about the importance of local progressive power in a new national strategy, we propose to extend his reflections in three ways which emphasize the importance of local progressive power in a nationally transformative strategy.

First, we agree that the existing left is divided into jealous ghettos of identity and issue. But frameworks for bringing people together and building progressive solidarity are already being created at the local and regional level -- parallel to, not within, the stodgy left. Under the banner of environmental justice, for example, numerous practical alliances have emerged which bring together experienced activists, affected communities, government agencies, and businesses. Highlighting the practical over the ideological, these alliances build bridges based upon common need and provide reasons for the unpoliticized to participate. Similarly, alliances to improve failing local schools might aim to increase teacher job security (labor) in exchange for credible promises of teacher performance (parents), open up the school to after school programs to fight gang recruitment (community), and demand that local businesses (capital) and government (the state) fund these changes. When they work, these alliances between suspicious friends thicken the bonds of trust and solidarity through experience; they strengthen the community's capacity to imagine and implement a progressive agenda.

Second, we agree that national efforts should expand community power. One component of this effort is to disseminate otherwise private information in ways that are useful to community groups. Such a strategy might favor, for example, enhancing the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) database, which requires all plants operating in the United States to report release levels of hazardous substances; opening the books of corporations; and establishing policy discussions among the various stake holders in local health care (employers, clients, HMO executives, and doctors). Another component is to facilitate the organization of groups which arguably advance public purposes. Laws enabling labor organization come immediately to mind. Other possibilities include public subsidies to organizers of neighborhood groups, and associations of parents or health care clients.

The understanding of how such power-devolving strategies work, and the specific measures which might advance them, is still quite crude and thus presents promising territory for joint exploration by intellectuals and activists. These strategies have the potential to transform the current high tide of anti-statist sentiment into support for quite a different kind of state -- one that is far more dispersed and permeable, but for those reasons more just and effective. That prize, we think, is the one toward which local and national agendas ought to strive.

Finally, we generally agree with the content of Flacks' national agenda, but as
stated, most of the items are boring, old-
left issues. They are boring partly because they result from an a priori style of reasoning rather than an organic process. If a
national progressive agenda is going to work, it must excite people as they are, not as the sophisticated social democrats one might like them to be. The best way to build such an agenda is to construct it from the ground up -- from pieces of what people are
actually doing.

Letting the grassroots lead can be threatening. Community strategies may diverge from orthodox progressive wisdom. But new directions are exactly what we need. Increasing the social wage might mean weaving together the best (most fair) of
the HMOs rather than fighting for
national omnibus health care legislation, and it might mean giving up on welfare as we know it in favor of progressive experiments which deliver. Expanding community power may mean widening the progressive tent to include "good neighbor" agreements between local government, industry, and community as well as direct action and resistance.

Compare the political situation that gave rise to the New American Left with our own dark time. Dick Flacks and others at Port Huron looked uncomfortably at the world they inherited, and at the existing vehicles for changing it: sectarian communists on one side, the Democratic Party on the other. Rejecting both, they sought to mobilize unpoliticized publics and change the world. Flacks' analysis suggests that we are now in a similar situation. "Bureaucratically mired" national left organizations are "locked into knee-jerk routine." The cycle of political regeneration should begin once again by rejecting, perhaps simply bypassing, the national so-called "leadership;" effective action requires the participation of young people, not just as Washington interns but as political leaders. The fast path to a national progressive movement is through new coalitions of community groups, students, intellectuals, and presently unmobilized publics. We welcome the big issue groups to the extent that they are willing to help through lobbying or by throwing resources our way. But experience has taught us not to expect this assistance. We hope instead that the broad-ranging strategic reflection and discussion urged by Flacks will map the way for the grassroots to create a more
cooperative, and thereby more progressive, national future.

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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