Saturday Sep 18

Winter 2020

Community Organizing’s Legacy Treasure V. The “Foe of The USA” No-Show Forfeit or Fearless Faceoff

 

Optimism has returned to the country since last year’s electoral victories have led to President Biden signing into law the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, families have received sorely needed money from the federal government, multiple vaccines have subdued the pandemic, and significant progressive legislation is on the horizon. But our faith and hope remain subdued. We’re unsettled by the threats to our democracy: the disunity on matters of fact and science, partisan circling of the wagons, reactionary sedition,and perhaps most appalling, full-scale legislative assaults on the right to vote and, even more dismaying, on election administration —all of which wear away what ought to be a growing sense of safety and confidence. It’s easy to see, when “. . . access [to the ballot] is thwarted by connivery, deception, intimidation, or fraud, the fabric of the nation begins to unravel.” Yet, despite the gravity of the threats, we see little popular movement to defeat them.

The path away from the breach that has divided much of the country has many twists and turns. Finding our way back to some semblance of national unity and well-being promises to demand much more than the best that community organizing (CO) has achieved in the past.

 

 

 

MORAL CORRUPTION ERODES UNITY

Our political and social fracturing follows from the decades-long moral corruption of the Republican party, led by its billionaire donors and patrons, and most recently pumped up by its base of true believers deluded by Trump and his accomplices. Their constituents, whom they have maneuvered into cheering on our transition from an electoral democracy to a fascist oligarchy, have solidified the disunity of the nation by their MAGA-mindset- plugging of a tissue of lies about the 2020 election. The successful strategy has created a populist constituency aligned with the ruling oligarchy, inspired by reactionary nationalism, and ready to sacrifice all for its leader(s) and the nation, which they regard as one, against all opposition. In this scenario, the oligarchy “. . . feeds [nationalist] populism to the people, delivers special privileges to the rich and well-connected, and rigs politics to sustain its regime.” Macbeth inadvertently describes the current rhetoric of the Republicans: “. . . full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing.” The parsimonious explanation of their anomalous behavior is that their party has become a cabal of “cool alternators.” They have morphed into actors not truly dedicated to the principles they espouse but using their party’s credibility, such as it is, to achieve their covert objectives. With cool affect, they alternate between publicly posturing as patriots and privately devoting themselves to amassing institutional power, wealth, and social prestige. Although, lately, they’ve dropped even the pretense of patriotism.

Most Americans see the betrayal, the demise of money-corrupted representative government, and the dwindling national unity. They see the Republicans using Trump-hyped white grievance to divert their base from the party’s economic rip-offs, which has been their sleight-of-hand SOP for several decades. Most of our fellow citizens are not deaf, dumb, and blind to these shenanigans, only powerless. They understand intuitively that the loss of democracy heralds the end of the historic struggle to defeat the country’s poverty, oppression, and injustice. But the present internal threats are only beginning to be understood as far more insidious than any posed by a foreign power, because our adversaries live among us, posing as patriots, claiming the same rights and privileges they have openly dedicated themselves to cripple.

LEGISLATIVE AND JUDICIAL SALVATION

From what quarter should we expect an effective strategic response? Do we imagine that the rising tide of fascist oligarchy is going to be reversed by electoral politics, by the same political processes and personalities— left, right, and center—that thrive on sub rosa billionaire dollars, patronage, and perks? According to Choi and Galbraith, economic inequality. . . has had two main effects on American political life. One is the rise of oligarchs and their designated agents, especially in the Democratic Party. . . . Oligarchs have long dominated the Republican Party, so now American politics has become, to a large degree, a contest between billionaires of different stripes, mediated by other billionaires in control of the major media, both traditional and social.

The glitch in the fantasy that Congress will reverse the effects of economic inequality is that it fails to see that billionaire economic power will not be challenged structurally by either party. Those who make such futile gestures rarely survive politically. And even in regard to policy, despite leftist hopes that demographic shifts will lead to the demise of the Republican party on the national stage, the reliable commitments of billionaires infuse confidence into right-wing arguments that “. . . the Democrats’ hold on power is razor thin. Redistricting will narrow it further, as will midterm losses for the party that holds the White House.” Particularly worrisome, there’s good evidence that rising diversity will be neither a magic bullet for the Democrats nor a poison pill for the Republicans.

Perhaps it makes sense to tamp down our optimism, to consider that what we’re going through now may be similar to the unsustainable hope we had for structural reforms from the Clinton and Obama administrations, which were also beholden to billionaire wealth. And that what happens in rural-dominated, Republican-controlled state legislatures regarding voting restrictions and rights in coming years may be much more telling than national outcomes.

Nevertheless, Democrats are hopeful, because the House has passed H.R.1, the For the People Act, which if signed into law will implement progressive election reforms to counter Republican voter-suppression initiatives and gerrymandering. It will also establish disclosure requirements for “dark money” political contributions, mandate paper ballots, create a code of ethics for SCOTUS justices, and much more. Yet the Democrats don’t have the votes to pass the companion Senate bill, S.1, nor the support of all their own members to eliminate the filibuster, to allow passage with a simple majority. Maybe they will manage to change the rule, carving out exceptions, like protection of voting rights, making it more onerous for the minority to throw up obstacles, or eliminating the filibuster altogether as unconstitutional. But maybe not.

Besides, we may be overly optimistic to believe that the passage of S.1 in the Senate will lead to the implementation of its policies. We have come a long way down from
the high ground of Justice Black’s 1964 opinion in Westberry v. Sanders, which noted:

“No right is more precious in a free country than of having a voice in the election of those who make the laws under which, as good citizens we must live. Other rights, even the most basic, are illusory if the right to vote is undermined.” Nowadays, if reactionary Republicans and their donors run true to form, we should expect judicial challenges, repeatedly appealed up to the SCOTUS by unlimited resources, which will certainly, be their modus operandi given their experience of the last decade:

In the same period, the Supreme Court dismantled much of America’s campaign finance law; severely weakened the Voting Rights Act; permitted states to opt-out of the Affordable Care Act’s Medicaid expansion; expanded new religious liberty rights permitting some businesses that object to a law on religious grounds to diminish the rights of third parties; weakened laws shielding workers from sexual and racial harassment; expanded the right of employers to shunt workers with legal grievances into a privatized arbitration system; undercut public sector unions’ ability to raise funds; and halted Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

The momentum of the SCOTUS and a majority of state legislatures, based on endless rationalizations coupled with legislative schemes to suppress the franchise, shows no sign of letup. Their advocates have a win-or-die commitment. (As of this writing, more than 361 bills with “restrictive provisions” to suppress liberal votes in 47 states have been introduced, most in response to H.R.1. And the Republican domination of state legislatures shows no signs of weakening.) Given the 6-to-3 conservative bias of the Court and its recent decisions, why should we expect that progressive electoral reform will be sustained judicially?

The money-corruption of American electoral democracy is deeply motivated, now as a matter of Republican survival, in state and national representative government, and likely to be upheld in the coming decades by many state supreme courts, by influential appellate judges, and by the SCOTUS.

 

PRECURSORS OF DIMINISHED CITIZENSHIP

Many in our profession may nonetheless believe that CO, considered as a movement, can hold back the anti-democracy tide—stay dedicated, fighting and winning. But no movement is static; it’s either accelerating or decelerating, the historical direction of its momentum only known when considered in relation to the strength of its adversaries. In that regard, there is little doubt. The successes of CO over recent decades pale next to the growth of reactionary forces, powered up by ballooning economic inequality.

If our adversaries were limited to would-be authoritarian office-holders and their billionaire patrons, that alone would be an unnerving challenge. But they have indoctrinated a third of the electorate against their own economic self-interests. For several decades, unpublicized and unaccountable billionaires have subsidized a veritable army of servitors: hidebound Republican politicians, so-called populist Republican activist associations, anti- government militias, white-supremacist mobilizations, right-wing media echo chambers, reactionary “scholarly” institutes, and budget-starved conservative academic departments. But the most fertile seedbed of political perversion, enabled by the common-interest conspiracy of tech billionaires, may be the Internet’s social networking sites (SNS). And although unacknowledged, CO is not likely to achieve measurable impact nationally while strategically ignoring how SNS foment reactionary politics and disunity on a massive scale, while simultaneously sabotaging moral values.

One of the most devastating effects of social media is that ever fewer individuals follow religious moral teachings. The upshot, humorously ridiculed, is that
“Our new belief system is a blend of left-wing political orthodoxy, intersectional feminism, self-optimization, therapy, wellness, astrology, and Dolly Parton.” Humor aside, pop-spirituality promotes the replacement of shared systems of morality with cultural obeisance to individual, self-regarding autonomy.

Peer-reviewed research confirms “. . . consistent support for . . . [the] prediction that social media reduce users’ moral sensitivity.” Clearly, “The basic architecture of SNS and its users are such that they promote autonomy, control, and the fluidity of (religious) commitments. . . .” The moral and ethical shallowness shows in that contemporary spiritual enlightenment often doubles as entertainment. For example, take the women leading this phenomenon on Instagram, who have been described as “Instavangelists,” the new “neo-religious leaders of our era.” In effect, “The whole economy of Instagram is based on our thinking about ourselves, posting about ourselves, working on ourselves”—rarely a basis for moral and ethical citizenship.

When socialization treats individual autonomy as if sanctified, regardless of the consequences of boundless self-entitlement, then broad acquisition of moral compass is subverted. In the resulting do-as-you-like religiosity, one is neither bound by any higher law nor challenged to consider more than personal comfort, convenience, and career. “Citizenship” is not included in the vocabulary of the denominations of cyber-religion. Predictably, the moral-spiritual infrastructure, which serves to reinforce both personal and civic goodness, based on criteria that go beyond what benefits oneself personally, has been dissolving.

 

SELF-ENTITLEMENT RUNS AMOK

How far do the consequences of the amorality of self- entitlement extend? On the level of mundane personal experience, Khulda’s stunning encounter with a dog- walker one morning was both enlightening and physically threatening. When the dog approached Khulda, growling and baring its teeth, she stopped in her tracks and asked the owner to rein in the animal. The owner’s response: “You’re giving off bad vibes and you have upset my dog!”

 

The societal effects of self-entitlement include the spreading of deadly disease by millions of anti-maskers, who prioritize their “personal liberty” over preserving human life, including that of their own families and friends. In a 2021 Kaiser Family Foundation poll, 28 percent of Republicans declared they will “definitely not” submit to COVID-19 vaccination. In a 2021 NPR/PBS NewsHour/ Marist poll, 47 percent of Trump 2020-voters said they would not get vaccinated. They do not opt out quietly, but pose as patriots for the media, like the delinquents at the Idaho Capitol, the “. . . children [who] tossed surgical masks into a fire . . . to protest mask mandates as an affront to their civil liberties,” while their parents stood nearby applauding. The Republican politicizing of mask mandates shows a callous disregard for the suffering and death and the economic consequences for millions of families and thousands of small businesses. But the potential for Internet-nurtured evil doesn’t end there. SNS and other digital channels serve as thriving recruiting and training grounds that promote online racial and ethnic hatred, cyber-terrorism, violence-prone militias, white supremacists, and physical violence. A March 2021 report from the Director of National Intelligence confirms our worst fears about violent extremism. The report was prepared under the auspices of the AG, DHS, NCTC, FBI, CIA, and DIA. Some of the key points include:

The IC [intelligence community] assesses that DVEs [domestic violent extremists] exploit a variety of popular social media platforms, smaller websites with targeted audiences, and encrypted chat applications to recruit new adherents, plan and rally support for in-person actions, and disseminate materials that contribute to radicalization and mobilization to violence. Newer sociopolitical developments—such as narratives of fraud in the recent general election, the emboldening impact of the violent breach of the US Capitol, conditions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and conspiracy theories promoting violence—will almost certainly spur some DVEs to try to engage in violence. . . .

Tristan Harris, a former “design ethicist” at Google and more recently co-founder and president of the Center for Humane Technology, described the effects of the Google social media model: “. . . to create a society that is addicted, outraged, polarized, performative and disinformed.”

SOCIAL MEDIA ROOTS OF FASCISM

While optimistic liberals and progressives may imagine that rewriting Section 230 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act will limit the worst abuses of the Internet and social media sites, the likelihood of reform reaching beyond sex trafficking and child abuse seems doubtful. Perhaps Democratic majorities in the Congress can limit blatant discrimination, harassment that has material consequences, cyberstalking, advocacy of insurrection and sedition, and wrongful death. But the opposition from Republicans and Big Tech itself to any regulation of political content seems likely to generate an all-out judicial challenge that inevitably will be appealed to the SCOTUS, which is much more reactionary now than in 2010 when the Court created out of whole cloth the First Amendment rights of corporations in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.

The Internet’s social media may be destined to remain a powerful, largely uncontrolled disunifying force in American political life unless, like it’s distant cousin, the anti-immigrant Know-Nothing movement of the nineteenth century, it chokes politically and socially on its own nativist bile. But it’s also possible that white grievance may evolve into popular nativism, perhaps even mainstreamed by Republicans in the next year or two. If so, it may continue to infect American culture for many decades, as it did in the past.

In any case, the poisonous role of social media in the promotion of disunity through mendacious reporting and commentary, magnified by TV and talk radio, will continue to corrupt our public discourse. It’s essential to recognize that the effect of Internet “post-truth” is “pre-fascism.” The record of national transitions from democracy to fascism reveals the decimation of truth to be the main harbinger of disunity, which weakens the national will to defend democracy. That the U.S. is on a similar heading has been well-documented. Perhaps the most significant takeaway for CO is that, through continued cyber political exposure, largely uncontradicted by face-to-face human relationships in liberal and progressive settings, the political opinions and partisan commitments of much of the electorate will continue to be manipulated to serve the ideologies and interests of a growing fascist oligarchy.

POTENTIAL FOR MASS MOVEMENT

Still, it’s plausible to believe that when conditions get bad enough, tens of millions of our citizens will rise up in a mass movement to stop the corruption. Yet it’s equally likely that the human wherewithal needed for such a movement may have already been enfeebled. The far-reaching power of corporate consolidations that have created Big Food, Big Pharma, Big Chem, and Big Tech, make it impossible to avoid the devastating effects of their huge political influence, unscrupulous advertising, and addictive toxic products. Market domination of major sectors of the American economy has been achieved by a handful of these global corporations. Through their masterful control of information media, marketing, and manufacturing, they have become exceptionally profitable by selling products that induce toxic addiction: they reinforce usage by giving immediate pleasure, simultaneously building tolerance, so that greater amounts are required to achieve the same neural effects, thereby becoming toxic when overused.

The products, wildly popular for their pleasurable effects, include: sugar, which has been a major contributor to premature sickness and death, while simultaneously creating disabling personal and institutional debt by driving metabolic syndrome diseases (e.g., diabetes and heart disease) to epidemic levels; alcohol and drugs, which have been relentless contributors to the failure of family life and public education, especially for minorities and the poor; and electronic devices, which offer irresistible social networking while they play a pernicious role in the loss of face-to-face socio-emotional bonding that now characterizes much of family and community life, which in the past have been the most dependable venues to inculcate personal and civic morality, responsible citizenship, and resistance to corruption. Simultaneously, the consolidated corporations have created persistent compelling distractions from the many long-term physical and psychological consequences of abandoning moral boundaries.The upshot is that on virtually any measure of sickness and death, the United States is at the top of the list of industrialized nations, which limits our potential for mass political activism.

NO-SHOW COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

Despite widespread dispiritedness from physical maladies, base-building CO as a movement has been remarkably unresponsive to the morbidity and mortality resulting from Big Food’s policies and products, to take but one of several examples. While CO projects have mounted countless campaigns against local gangs, drugs, failing schools, inadequate housing, poverty wages, and every other kind of oppression and injustice, they have remained unmoved by the diet-driven epidemic of sickness and death in the communities in which they’re organizing, as if it could be ignored without affecting citizen-participation in their own campaigns. Surely, if CO doesn’t take on the battles that ensure the health of our citizens, allowing them to focus on more than physical survival, why should we expect that they will fight to save democracy?

The CO movement, divided by proud, independent, competing federations, has little or no hope of winning a campaign to reform the worst abuses of Big Food. On the other hand, the most pernicious effect of remaining unresponsive to the mass sickness and death is the common view that CO doesn’t address vulnerability to integrated-institutional oppression and injustice when all the elements within an institutional sphere coordinate to achieve shared objectives, which silently suffocates hope and faith in social action for the commonweal. Despite winning thousands of local campaigns, the CO of our era has reinforced the belief that the condition of the “ordinary” citizen precludes surmounting institutional powerlessness. The lesson learned is that, while it’s possible to reform a law, policy, or practice by the costly ad hoc organizing and mobilizing of a smattering of citizens,
the citizenry at large has no meaningful influence in the gigantic public and private institutions that monopolize and abuse power.

 

 

HOPE SPRINGS ETERNAL OR INFERNAL

Maybe, then, as some believe, our national salvation must hinge on the likes of President Biden’s New Deal-style initiative, which appears to be a historic force for the commonweal. Biden began with a one-of-a-kind $1.9 trillion down payment, the American Rescue Plan, aimed at the coronavirus. He has followed up with the $2.3 trillion American Jobs Plan, aimed at infrastructure, and the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan; and he supports other progressive proposals, such as the For the People Act, immigration reform, gun-control legislation, a minimum-wage increase, DC statehood, and the Protecting the Right to Organize (PRO) Act.

The elements of Biden’s initiative add up to comprehensive infrastructural revivification. The proposals reflect awareness that the crisis of American culture and society calls for reviving not only our physical infrastructure, but our social and moral-spiritual infrastructure as well. On the social side, the size of proposed appropriations for research and training, home- based care for the elderly and disabled, Civilian Climate Corps, and the American Families Plan, demonstrates a commitment beyond simply remediating physical decay. Biden’s commitment to moral-spiritual infrastructure began with uncommon rhetoric during his presidential campaign, which repeatedly emphasized the unity of our common interests and values as Americans, that we have much more that unifies us than divides us, and that we all have a stake in overcoming racial inequity, poverty, and voter suppression. The signature theme of his campaign was the restoration of American ideals, specifically in the face of renewed racism, nativism, and anti-Semitism. Biden didn’t shrink from proclaiming that the soul of the nation hangs in the balance.

We can’t precisely calculate the effects of opposition to Biden’s proposals, or know how well the legislation, if adopted, will spread timely benefits, or how many administrative hurdles will arise in newly created programs. We might reasonably suppose that the success of the Biden initiative may come down to the size and substance of the proposed legislation, the extent of popular and Congressional support, the timing of implementation, the competency of benefit-delivery, and the practical effects of the benefits in the lives of the people.

It’s certainly possible that Biden’s proposals will ultimately produce outcomes comparable to Roosevelt’s New Deal. In effect, that comprehensive infrastructure spending within a compelling timeframe, carefully targeted to create millions of green jobs, to reduce unemployment to historic lows, to jump-start capitalist innovation and new markets, and to unify the citizenry in the belief that government can play a productive role in the well-being of the nation, stimulating an economic boom—that all this will derail for decades the reactionary nationalist populism that energizes the momentum toward fascist oligarchy.

It may bury cultural Trumpism, reshape the Republican Party, and incentivize a strategic retreat of the billionaire brotherhood. Whereas Roosevelt’s success deflated the far- left of that era, Biden’s success may deflate the far-right. But it’s also possible that in relation to the vulnerability of our democracy, Biden’s initiative may be for naught. The denouement of the Big Lie, that the 2020 election was “stolen” from Trump, resembles the debunking of the Obama “birther” conspiracy: both claims served as hooks on which to hang one’s reactionary Republican hat; but delegitimizing them has shown no sign of assuaging white grievance, driven by resentment and the fear of racial, cultural, economic, and political disempowerment. Every day it grows more acute and receptive to conspiracy theories, as America’s celebrated racial, ethnic, and cultural demography become more diverse. Professor Johanna Ray Vollhardt describes “. . . the psychology of grievance or imagined victimhood among dominant group members, who are driven by a sense of status loss and entitlement as well as resentment of minority groups that are viewed as a threat.” Carefully considered in all its ramifications, including the potential for violence carried out in the belief of restoring what is regarded as the rightful moral order, the potency and longevity of white grievance can hardly be exaggerated. Many of the aggrieved still carry the flag of the secessionist Confederacy and they may yet take the country to a very dark place of disunity that few of us can imagine today. If the optimism for Biden’s comprehensive infrastructure and family plans turns out to have been mistaken, we will continue to be confronted by the fact that the CO movement has been AWOL from the battle to save our democracy.

FASCIST OLIGARCHIC PLAYBOOK

The powerlessness of the demos has been a precondition for the transition of our democratic republic to a fascist oligarchic empire (FOE). It has happened with the acquiescence if not active cooperation at times of both Republican and Democratic administrations, which oppose more direct forms of democracy because they limit their power. In the course of the transformation, the ideal of commonweal has disappeared from our national consciousness; it no longer defines the root of our representative governments, since they have ceased to be our governments. Those of us committed to serve the commonweal have been steamrolled politically and economically by the bloated power of reactionary ideology and interests, the naked oligarchic fascism that now reigns against the commonweal in nearly half of the country. As Michael Gerson, no less a Republican evangelical, concluded, “The 45th president and a significant proportion of his supporters have embraced American fascism.” It may nevertheless seem impossible that in the next few years, perhaps in a decade or two, while we will secure progressive legislation, a reactionary institutional take- over will follow. Even a cursory reading of history reveals the potential for that outcome, given the trends noted above. The primer on the subject is historian Timothy Snyder’s On Tyranny: Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century. We hope organizers will read his history of the road to tyranny and will recalibrate their estimates of the existential threat to our democracy.

FASCIST OLIGARCHIC TAKEOVER

While Americans may regard the threat we face as sui generis, the failure of modern democracies is so common as to be considered virtually inevitable. As Snyder notes, “The bad news is that the history of modern democracy is also one of decline and fall.” It’s easy to see the parallels between the current political developments in this country and the fascist-oligarchic takeovers of other democracies. By now we should recognize the fascist playbook: the unabashed appeals to white grievance that revel in the power of will over reason and the denial of objective truth in favor of preposterous lies, repeated ad nauseum by elected officeholders who fatuously claim to be patriotic champions of the people.

We have reputable studies of would-be authoritarians openly declaring their intentions to use democratic institutions to gain the powers that enable them to destroy those institutions. “The mistake is to assume that rulers who came to power through institutions cannot change or destroy those very institutions—even when that is what they have announced they will do.” The depth of the attack on the foundational institutions of American democracy can’t be fully grasped without knowing that it has been produced and directed by a malevolent brotherhood of billionaires. They have financially sponsored a vast legion of politicized and corporatized sycophants and hirelings, who have numerous triumphs to their discredit:

• They have destroyed the vision and path of public education as the backbone of informed and responsible citizenship.

• They have transformed the judiciary, so that it is extensively monetized, largely a tool of the wealthy; racialized, meting out blatantly biased verdicts against organized minorities; and economized, routinely denying justice to the impoverished.

• As already noted, they have vandalized the universal franchise with every conceivable stratagem, most not even thinly disguised, to suppress the votes of minorities, students, ex-convicts, and the poor.

• They have corrupted a significant proportion of state and federal legislators, both Democratic and Republican, with unaccountable financial contributions and the promise of future position, possessions, privileges, and power as their reward for supporting legislation, especially the economic

variety, that betrays the commonweal.
• They have transformed the fourth estate into a cacophony of ideological fact-bashing that leaves the citizenry highly polarized or disgusted to the point of chronic disinterest in public affairs, with much of the mainstream media barely recognizable, having become purveyors of this-one-said, that-one-said fake-journalism and the worst neoliberal policies.

Their transformation of the SCOTUS to a 6-to- 3 conservative majority will demonstrate how far its members will go on their behalf to muscle the transition to fascist oligarchy by endorsing voter suppression legislated by the states. The rush by Republican state legislatures to enact such legislation, likely to be appealed soon, will reveal the extent to which the justices show themselves willing to pervert the doctrine of states’ rights in the guise of “electoral integrity.” We should learn this year how much pessimism or optimism is justified when the Court decides the fate of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act in the case of Brnovich v. Democratic National Committee.

CYNICISM OF FASCIST OLIGARCHS

As we assess the take-down of our democracy, do we imagine that Republicans, who have opposed almost every practical means to suppress the pandemic, have not made the connection between the disproportionate COVID-19 deaths of African American and Latin American voters and the increase in their own electoral prospects? The pandemic is ideal for them, because eventually it has the same effect as their voter suppression tactics, to achieve greater control of the “public powers” of all three branches of government.

Republicans have a recent history of promoting policies that cause thousands of deaths to enrich and empower themselves. Their callousness has been visible more times than we want to recall, so we may fairly suppose they delight in the knowledge that the pandemic disproportionately kills liberal-voting minorities. Their indifference to human suffering and loss of life has been aptly described as “necropolitics.” We may also suppose they’re enthused knowing that in the past year, the pandemic has been a $360 billion bonanza for the richest nine of them. Yet it’s doubtful most Americans imagine that a ruling class of oligarchs regards the pandemic as their generation’s opportunity to transform our electoral democracy into the Fascist Oligarchic Empire of the United States of America (FOE of the USA) with themselves as its leaders.

Like other moguls before them, they may not hesitate to bring on another Dark Age. They have every reason to believe that as their wealth and power grow, so too will the quality of their health care, the luxury of their homes, automobiles, yachts, the value of the education received by their children, the acumen and ethical indifference of their lawyers, and their favorable treatment by leaders, courts, and legislatures wherever they settle. They can choose to live in Switzerland, Paris, London, or on the Riviera. To see the potential outcomes of their evil, we need only look to the Syrian and North Korean regimes, which have ordered the physical devastation of entire cities, unconscionable denial of human rights, secret detention without trial, and mass murder. If it seems wildly improbable that Republicans would promote the disintegration of the nation’s physical health and crucial infrastructure, consider that every Republican in Congress opposed Biden’s coronavirus legislation and they oppose his infrastructure spending to create green jobs, fix VA hospitals, and remove lead water pipes from schools.

Compounding these circumstances, the toxic addictions noted above entail vulnerability of the citizenry to political and economic tyranny. It’s the modern version of Rome’s appeasing the plebeians with “bread and circuses.” But now alcohol, recreational drugs, prescription anti-depressants, pornography, food-obsession, and endless cyber-based entertainment divert the attention of the people, not only from the enervation of their democratic institutions, but from their personal disempowerment, sickness and death. It seems reasonable to conclude that, given the totality of these circumstances, the constituent organizations and federations of the CO movement, as now divided, will not unite and respond as one to the FOE of the USA. What also seems likely is that the organizing model of the last half-century, if unreconstructed, will not meet the challenge but will instead fail tragically in the coming decades. If that’s true, we may reasonably expect that CO, as we have known it, will continue to marginally improve the lives of all those it touches; but we should not be surprised if it has no discernible effect on the downfall of American democracy.

 

LEGACY TREASURE OF COMMUNITY ORGANIZING

Do organizers in our base-building tradition— community, faith-based, and labor—now have an unprecedented calling? Do we who have built organizations by recruiting members one-by-one, face-to-face, now have a previously unimagined mission? Is our potential contribution in the present crisis something more than what will ease the pain of the people as they encounter the catastrophic loss of democracy? If so, surely our mission calls for more than our theoretical knowledge, methodological know-how, and power-building tactics. Because those characteristics are not exclusively our professional job requirements.

If we are called to do more, what do we do first about the people’s loss of faith and hope, which they will need to respond to the historic threat?

What we profess to the people can puncture the cyber- reality, that the world in which they live is a maelstrom, that they can only hope to avoid its cruelty briefly; that there is no effective remedy, because the political condition of life is to be unvalued and vulnerable; and that it’s only sensible to “take care of number one” and “do unto others before they do unto you.” Our calling now ought to be unmistakable, because our one-to-ones with people in their homes, their neighborhoods, their faith communities, and their workplaces is the most powerful antidote to the alienation and anomie of the Internet culture that props up oligarchic fascism. The prospect of restored democracy is a reflection of each and every citizen who comes to have faith and hope that the threat can be crushed. It begins with their individual faith and hope because without it they lack the confidence to take on their obligations as citizens.

It takes faith and hope to accept that our rights as citizens come with the duty to pass them on to the next generation. Faith and hope hearten us to meet our obligations: to support and defend the Constitution, to serve the country when our government calls, including taking up arms, performing non-combat military service, and carrying out “work of national importance under civilian direction when required by the law”; to support causes and political campaigns; to obey federal, state, and local laws; to respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others; to participate in one’s local community; to stay informed on issues that affect one’s community and country; and to pay taxes honestly and on time.
Is it possible that our obligations as citizens do not include active opposition to the fascist oligarchy threatening our democracy?

 

Community organizers can fortify those obligations by strengthening the faith and hope of the people, which happens when we connect them with others in reenergized citizenhood and true fellowship. As base-building organizers, we have the means to countervail the cyber- dreck of the Internet and SNS. When we’re actually present in response to the struggles and suffering of the people, we create an opening to revive their belief in the possibility of freedom from poverty, oppression, and injustice.

When we look through the annals of dedicated organizers, we’re inspired by the faith and hope that they, grinding away day after day, decade after decade, raised in thousands. Those who found their raison d’être in organizing, whatever the challenges and conditions of the job, refused to abandon their version of a moral vision of democracy, one that demands the unending pursuit of righteousness, truth, justice, freedom, peace, and compassion.

For those of us who cling to that vision, how do we understand our own faith and hope, what we want to convey to others? Faith need not be of any particular religious variety, although of course it may be strengthened by religion. Our faith amounts to an irrepressible belief

in the possibility of creating ever greater goodness among humankind, for which we use up the days and decades of our lives. When we allow our faith to enrich our lives, its realization in our action is the most important source of our hopefulness. Every act for the good that we experience through our own initiative gives us greater hope that more goodness will emerge in the world. When we engage others to act for the good, challenging those who are not, we reinforce their hopefulness and our own. All of that we pass on to those who have lost their faith and hope, which is the legacy treasure of our community organizing.

It’s our privilege and honor to bring faith and hope to the powerless, many of whom languish in despair. We can help them to empower their citizenhood, to truly believe in and trust their God, themselves, and one another. Perhaps that’s why they have trusted us in the past, risked so much to rely on our faith and hope in a non-sectarian moral vision of a far better world than the one we know now. This is our legacy to the communities that took us in although we were strangers, and our endowment to the organizers who come after us and also possess that faith and hope. It’s the honor of our profession, which allows to us to share the sorrows and fears, the joys and laughter of the people; but it’s an honor that comes with unending demands, which asks much of us.

 

CO FAITH AND HOPE IN THE FUTURE

It now asks, what’s to become of the CO treasure of faith and hope? Shall we leave it inert as a historical remembrance, that we passed this way in these times but were bereft of vision and valor at some of the very darkest moments in the history of our country? That we only knew how to do what we had always done, sealed in boxes of our own making? That we were too proud or proprietary to join forces to save this democracy, deciding instead to forsake our faith and hope and all those who might yet rely on it? Are we fated to remain myopically fixated on fixing unjust and oppressive policies and practices while the fabric of our democratic institutions is commandeered by fascist oligarchs, who will inevitably end any democratic policy or practice obstacle to their own enrichment and empowerment? If otherwise, how shall we begin to respond to the slow-motion collapse of the nation’s democratic institutions?

We must first acknowledge the prevailing strategic situation: the fascist oligarchs play a long game. Unlike community organizing’s two- to five-year campaign and funding cycles, they build on multi-generation objectives— how long they can continue extracting energy from the earth, how long they can dominate the appellate courts and the SCOTUS, how long they can hold majorities in state legislatures, how long they can delay environmental protections, etc. Over decades they make thousands of investments to achieve those ends, so they won’t be defeated by our standard, poorly funded, conspicuously short game.

Surely, countervailing the oncoming menace demands a visionary strategy for the empowerment of the demos, one that enables the people to rise up together, en masse, against the betrayal of the nation by those who raise themselves up in that treachery. Surely, the threat requires that our citizens begin to exercise their power not only through representatives but directly, according to their collective wisdom. Surely, they must hold accountable all other exercise of power by representatives who belittle their power and seek to make them pawns of a fascist oligarchy. If we fail to actively ally ourselves to that cause, then whatever treasure we leave to the people may eventually be reported like many ancient chronicles of failure; thankfully, it may only faintly convey to future generations that our response to the impending death of American democracy was measly.

NULLIFYING THE “FOE OF THE USA”

The alternative requires us to admit that it’s dangerous to delay the development of a unified, strategic CO response to the growth of the fascist oligarchy, because
the window of opportunity to respond will not stay open indefinitely. Any hope of future success demands recognition that we have entered the first century of the FOE of the USA. It’s no longer a theoretical possibility; the political ground has been well plowed, the produce seeded, and the harvest begun. There is no remaining uncorrupted institutional force to countervail the billionaire brotherhood from strengthening their oligarchy. We should no longer have an expectation that the money-corrupted Congress or the power-grasping Presidency will challenge the economic inequality that powers the evil. The best we have any reason to expect is progressive legislation from time to time. The most demoralizing aspect of the transfiguration from electoral democracy to fascist oligarchy, chewing up the faith and hope of the nation as it goes, is the judicial endorsement and the bipartisan legislative and executive buy-in that has made it all possible if not inevitable.

 

BASE-BUILDING STRATEGIC VISION

Even so, it’s not naïve to take courage, because we have inherited the outline of a promising strategic vision. Our era is similar in kind to what labor organizing faced in the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Then the robber barons of industrialization were hell-bent on imposing their version of oligarchic empire on the citizenry. They, too, were adept in the use of electoral- manipulation, company and government spies, police violence, kangaroo courts, mental and physical torture, and blatant political corruption.

What was labor’s response in that era, when the SCOTUS and every level of government marched in reactionary lock-step? Labor’s multi-generation strategic vision was to build a base of face-to-face member- organizations from the bottom up, which eventually were to wield institutional power nationally. The model was “union.” The movement’s power originated in countless “locals,” established over a half-century, at the cost of face-to-face workplace organizing, which was not deterred by unrelenting legislative and judicial oppression and physical violence. They eventually unified nationally in an institutionalized structure that combined the might of the CIO industrial unions and the AFL craft unions. What they achieved after a half-century of intense struggle came to be called “social development” by academics, because it empowered and lifted up tens of millions of lives throughout the entire society.

Although we support the labor movement, especially those of us who have been union members or organizers, it’s more than a stretch to imagine a restoration of labor’s heyday. We find it unimaginable that the empowerment of the demos can be achieved by a revitalized union movement, given the present corporate options to reposition their political influence, manufacturing assets, and labor force from one country to another; especially when coupled with the anti-union bias of the growing number of authoritarian governments overseas and conservative U.S. courts. Union-based campaigns aimed to achieve accountability of global corporations and the federal government may be doomed before they’re launched. They face the likelihood that the workers will be cut off at the knees with every conceivable tactic, legal and illegal, if they threaten corporate power and the oligarchs of the advancing FOE.

Efforts to strengthen the union movement can improve the distribution of income, but they’re not likely to effect the redistribution of wealth and the power it generates. Democratic Party efforts to bolster union power, through the PRO Act, will test the movement’s ability to hold its ground. Solid Republican opposition to the bill in the Senate undoubtedly reflects corporate unanimity to defeat the bill at all costs. We won’t be surprised if the bill dies in the Senate, killed by a Republican filibuster, but we certainly will celebrate if the Democrats end-run that obstacle.

COMMUNITY ORGANIZING’S BANNER

Although evidently, unions will not be the means, we know that the threat to our democracy will only end when our democratic institutions are redirected from the grassroots: when the people at large, mindful of their citizenship, reclaim their inalienable rights, roles, and resources; when they come together in-person to discuss and decide how to use the public powers, which in a democracy derive from the demos, to reshape the governance of their neighborhoods, their cities, their states, and their nation. The banner of base-building CO must proclaim the right of the citizenry to exercise public powers directly.

It’s ironic that we can begin to secure those powers not through some mass mobilization or legislative victory, but in one-to-ones in neighborhoods, faith communities, and workplaces. The public powers become accessible because we uphold the promise of a future in which all those we reach, uplifted by faith and hope, see that it’s within their reach as aroused citizens. As extravagant as it sounds, faith and hope can raise the poor from despair, lift the oppressed from despondency, and bring the scales of justice to within the sight of every citizen. It is possible to countervail the corruption of representative government, by giving our citizens the confidence to take direct control of the most accessible public powers, which must be at the heart of their institutionalized empowerment. The political miasma will end only when we depose fascist oligarchic power with public power exercised by the demos—not by partisan parties, themselves in hock to the oligarchs, not by mass demonstrations that briefly engage the populace like shooting stars, and not by the short-term, self-interest- dominated model of CO. Democratic forces must join a long struggle for institutionalized directly democratic control of public powers, the power-leverage of the people that will benchmark structural change.

REMAKING DEMOCRACY FROM THE BOTTOM UP

We believe a corresponding strategic vision must define a path to remake the governance of the cities,
to win directly democratic control of the government jurisdictions in which the majority of our citizens live and work, and which have an ever-greater, pivotal role in the global economy, by forming popular assemblies with public powers throughout our metropolitan areas. The assemblies would not replace other urban governments, but operate as powerful institutions in their own right, able to use their powers to hold accountable and negotiate with municipal, state and federal officials on provision of services, regulation of economic enterprises, and political rule. Thereby, CO could shape the institutionalized uprising, solidarity, and empowerment of the demos, which will mark the beginning of the end of oligarchic fascism.

What we face may dwarf all our history of disunity and destructive outcomes, with the exception of the Civil War. If it comes to pass, our choice will be to exist as consumer- ciphers of a fascist oligarchy or to live as activist-citizens of an electoral democracy. If we forego the struggle, the future of the United States may be foretold in the history of all the powerful nations that were defeated not by external forces but by their own internal corruption. Knowing as much, we might ask ourselves: In the modern histories of Argentina, Brazil, China, Germany, Hungary, India, Italy, the Philippines, Poland, Russia, Spain, Turkey, and other nations taken over or threatened now by fascist oligarchs, when, if at all, did the citizens recognize that, “If none of us is prepared to die [i.e., use up our lives in the cause] for freedom, then all of us will die under tyranny”? But the threat will begin to end if we pledge our lives, our reputations, and our resources to the revitalization of our democracy by championing public powers to the people.

MOSHE BEN ASHER AND KHULDA BAT SARAH :are the founders and Co-Directors of Gather the People (www. gatherthepeople.org), which provides resources for congregational and community organizing and development, Moshe has organized for ACORN, Citizens Action League of California, and one of the PICO projects (OCCCO); he was Assistant Director for Organize Training Center; and he taught sociology and social work at California State University, Northridge. Khulda has organized for the North County Community Project and the Marin Congregational Organizing Project.

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