The re-election of Barack Obama represents one of the most important political opportunities of our time. I know that many people on the left will read that opening line, dismiss me as a hopeless radical-turned-liberal and refuse to read any further. They’ll be wrong.
Obama himself is not the question. He is a complicated figure, politically and historically. He does not have the intention or capacity to advance a radical, progressive or even a very liberal agenda.
So what is the political opportunity I’m talking about? It’s that fact that – for the first time in my political lifetime – a wide cross-section of the left and the progressive movements knows that now is the time to really fight. Had we seen a Romney victory, we would have had a year of demoralisation and disorientation. We would have been pulled into innumerable defensive battles over the next several years and we would have continued to fight over whether the main strategy should be to protest or to engage in electoral organising to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen in four years. Instead, we know where we stand, and – while there are undoubtedly still defensive battles ahead – we are (almost) ready to fight.
Almost everyone agrees that we need to get in the streets as soon as possible and build a head-to-head challenge to the Obama administration over the next four years. We have the possibility of building a strategic convergence between what has come to be called the ‘institutional left’ – unions, political organisation, community groups, independent worker organisations – and the more ‘outsider’ activist movements like Occupy. Last year, when Occupy burst onto the scene, you could see that realignment start to take shape. But we never quite got there because we didn’t know how to navigate our political and organisational differences, and the window of opportunity was a small one. These different forces have real differences on innumerable questions: ideology, relationship to electoral politics, racial composition, revenue sources…you name it, we have differences. But everyone agrees on a few core points:
1. We are facing a series of life-and-death battles. The basic survival of the social safety net in this country is under threat. Economic and environmental crises are going to continue to rock our communities unless we can make some radical changes quickly. We have a number of core fights that we need to build in the next period. We need a strong fight against the austerity agenda and, in the process, we should work for a radical expansion of the social safety net. We need to fight for the solutions to the economic crisis that should have been rolled out years ago, starting with a moratorium on foreclosures. We need to push back against the rising tides of racism and anti-immigrant sentiment, calling for the legalisation of the millions of undocumented people in this country and putting forward a new vision for what the United States should be as a nation. We need to finally end the energy wars and fight for a real solution to the climate crisis, a solution that will stop corporations from extracting the fossil fuels that are warming the planet.
2. Change will not come from inside the Obama administration; it can only come from the streets. Whether you think that’s because Obama and the Democratic Party are tools of the ruling class or because you think they’re good people but up against such great odds that they can’t move their agenda, everyone is clear that insider influence is not the path to winning the kind of change we need. It is direct action and mass protest that will turn the tide.
3. None of us have the power or capacity to win on our own, but we can be stronger together. Instead of fetishising our own strengths and poking holes in other groups’ flaws, more and more people are starting to believe that we can draw on each other’s assets and build a strategic division of labour. The institutional left has resources and institutional capacity, but it has not been able to be as flexible as necessary or to mobilise in massive or dynamic ways. The Occupy movement was able to mobilise and to put out radical ideas in ways that the institutional left could not, but, as a whole, it lacks sustainability and strategic clarity. Community groups and workers organisations are based in the working class communities and communities of colour that many believe must be the fundamental force for change in this country, but they generally haven’t been able to achieve the flexibility and scale of other sectors of the movement.
Instead of attacking each other for our deficits, we are learning to complement each other’s strengths. Instead of drawing lines in the sand over our differences, we can now figure out how to each play our role in order to contribute towards building the biggest wave of protest that our generation has ever seen. To do that, we need to push ourselves, even more than we have over the past couple of years, to leave our circles of political safety and to learn to disagree, to struggle with each other and to make space for multiple truths and strategies. We need to try new things, and we need to be ready to fail at some of them but also be prepared to succeed and to learn how to run with the wind at our back.
So the question is not whether or not Obama will save us. The question is: Can we take advantage of a relatively favourable terrain and build an effective fight? Can we develop functional strategic unity between a broad cross-section of political forces to build a powerful protest movement demanding transformative solutions to the waves of crises coming our way? Or – to put it more simply – can we fight to win?
Harmony Goldberg is a left educator and writer based in New York. She currently works closely with Domestic Workers United, the National Domestic Workers Alliance and other independent worker organisations around the United States.