Skip to content Skip to footer

Social Movements, Political Instruments, and Governing Power, a panel hosted by Momentum

Hosted by
Article published:
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Hegemonicon - An Investigation Into the Workings of Power
Social Movements, Political Instruments, and Governing Power, a panel hosted by Momentum

In 2011 the Occupy movement kicked off a new generation of left-wing protest in the US. In 2016, Bernie Sanders’ campaign harnessed the energy of the insurgent movements, and directed it to the political arena. Since then, a broad current of the US Left has been practicing the “inside/outside” strategy—building powerful organizations and protest movements outside the halls of power, while also electing champions to work the inside game. 

This episode features a panel on the inside/outside strategy hosted by Momentum and moderated by Hegemonicon host William Lawrence. The panel asks: What have we learned about bridging the outside and the inside? How close are we to our goal of actual governing power? How important is it to deliver material wins to communities through political action while building “political instruments”?

The four panelists each have built a somewhat different political instrument for their own contexts: Lizzy Oh of NYC-DSA; Kamau Chege of Washington Community Alliance; Asha Ransby-Sporn, Chicago organizer; and Evan Weber of Sunrise Movement and Our Hawai’i. The panel was recorded live on Nov. 30, 2023.

Additional links:

Independent Political Organizations: A Strategy in the Making

Momentum Movements and State Power by Evan Weber

[00:00:00] Sound on Tape: This podcast is presented by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights.

[00:00:12] William Lawrence: Hello and welcome to The Hegemonicon, a podcast from Convergence Magazine. This is a show about social movements and politics, strategy and ideology, the immediate present, and the rapidly onrushing future. I’m your host, William Lawrence. I spent my 20s as a member of grassroots social movements, most prominently as a co founder and national leader of Sunrise Movement, the youth organization that put the Green New Deal on the political map.

[00:00:39] Now I’m in my early 30s trying to make sense of what we’ve collectively learned in this last decade plus of social movements and heightening social crises. I talk with activists and researchers on the left exploring the guiding theme of power, what it is, how it’s exercised. And how it’s distributed.[00:01:00] 

[00:01:02] Good morning. Good evening. Good afternoon. And welcome back to the hegemonic con today. We have a very interesting panel on social movements, political power, and political instruments with Kamau Shege, the executive director of the Washington community Alliance. Lizzie Oh of New York DSA, Asha Ransby Sporn, who is a Chicago organizer, is multiply affiliated, she wears many hats, and Evan Weber of Sunrise Movement and Our Hawaii.

[00:01:32] This panel was broadcast live on November 30th as a webinar hosted by the Momentum Training Institute. Before the panel began, we heard a presentation from Evan, who published a report with Momentum on how to build political power as part of Momentum style social movements. That report is included in the show notes, and our recording picks up just after that.

[00:01:54] Also in the show notes, I’m going to include a recent Convergence article on Independent [00:02:00] Political Organizations, or IPOs, which I think excellently complements the conversation here. Okay, without further ado Here’s our panel.

[00:02:13] Um, I think Evan, uh, summarized some of, uh, what we were able to do well and Sunrise in particular. If, if you know me, you know that I’m a little bit more inclined to dwell on the things that we lost and failed. Uh, Congress is hard. Presidential politics is hard. And when you fail, you also fail hard. And so that’s part of the story of this moment too, is I think a lot of people who maybe felt like we were on the upside of something, uh, during the, the Trump years when, you Progressive candidates left champions were still in the game are now feeling like at least federally, we’re on the downside of the wave and the prospects are pretty poor, at least for the next few years.

[00:02:51] So that’s part of why, uh, we, we need to be here having a conversation. And as Evan mentioned, you know, the, um, I think something that we have now [00:03:00] that we didn’t have, uh, five or six years ago is a, a really powerful proliferating set of local, uh, efforts to do some version of this same thing of figuring out how to wield the power of social movements in the political arena.

[00:03:14] And so that’s why I’m so excited to be here with, uh, a variety of panelists who Have different ideas and are part of organizations that are taking different approaches to questions like, you know, how we define ourselves as politically independent while operating within the political realities of the two party system.

[00:03:32] We may disagree about how hard or how fast to make a break from the Democratic Party, or if that’s even the right question to be asking. So, um, it’s a really rich moment to be asking these questions and I’m, I’m, I’m glad to be here with, with Evan, with our other three panelists. So, um, briefly, I would just like to begin with a quote from the Chilean writer, Marta Harnaker, who has been a leading theorist and participant in the Latin American socialist movements that have been so [00:04:00] successful over the last few decades, and frankly, really outstrip us, um, in, in North America, United States, in terms of their sophistication about these questions.

[00:04:09] Um, so that’s why I wanted to start with that. This quote, and I quote, uh, in order for political action to be effective so that protests, resistance, and struggles are genuinely able to change things to convert mass uprisings into revolutions. A political instrument, a political instrument capable of overcoming the dispersion and fragmentation of the exploited and the oppressed is required.

[00:04:36] One that can create spaces to bring together those who, in spite of their differences, have a common enemy, That is able to strengthen existing struggles and promote others by orienting their actions according to a thorough analysis of the political situation, and that can act as an instrument for cohering the many expressions of resistance and struggle.

[00:04:57] Um, and that’s from her essay, um, A Political [00:05:00] Instrument Appropriate for Each Reality. And, um, What I like about Harnaker’s term political instrument is that it’s deliberately broad, and she says this, it’s deliberately broad so that it can encompass everything from a Marxist Leninist revolutionary party to various coalitional formations, and really any other organizational form that might accomplish the task that she sets out, which is to unite our actually existing social movements and social bases.

[00:05:29] and bring that power to bear on the realm of government and state power. And she emphasizes, and again, I quote, organizational questions cannot become the objective itself. Organizational questions are just a tool that enables this objective to be reached. And the form which this struggle takes depends on the reality of each country.

[00:05:53] And here I would add different realities within the same country, uh, depending on where you exist within these [00:06:00] 50 states and, and many territories. One cannot have a single formula for the organization. It must be defined to fit the characteristics of each social reality, end quote. And once again, we’ve invited these different panelists because, um, You’re great organizers, you’re great strategists, and each of you have advanced experience with building and participating in different sorts of political instruments, um, one that has responded to each of your specific social and political realities.

[00:06:30] Uh, you’re all from blue states, um, New York, Illinois, Washington, Evans from Hawaii. But the political and social conditions of each of these states are different. And I have a hunch that this, among other factors, has shaped the form that your work is presently taking. So, um, we’re going to start by hearing about, um, what you’ve built, what’s gone well before moving into, uh, Some self critique and some crosstalk about the challenges of these respective models.

[00:06:59] So I, I [00:07:00] think Evans introduced himself. So, um, let’s hear from our other three panelists. Um, go ahead and introduce yourself. Tell us about the political instrument or instruments of which you are a part. How it coalesces grassroots struggles. To wield their power in the political arena, and maybe one accomplishment that you’re really proud of, um, that your political instrument has been able to achieve.

[00:07:22] So let’s do this, uh, from west to east, beginning in the Pacific ocean, going to Hawaii, Chicago, and then New York. So over to you, Evan. 

[00:07:31] Evan Weber: Aloha kakou from Hawaii, everyone. It’s great to be here with you all. Um, yeah, my name’s Evan Weber. Um, I help to lead an organization called Our Hawaii. Um, it’s a multiracial organizing and political power building group here.

[00:07:47] To a lot of you, you might know me, uh, as one of the co founders and former political director of Sunrise Movement, um, that I helped start. Uh, with my good friend here, uh, Will Lawrence, amongst others. And it’s definitely safe to [00:08:00] say that without momentum, um, Sunrise Movement wouldn’t exist, at least in the way that it did, but it really gave folks like Will and I the tools to be able to really meet and have some of the strategic conversations that, um, really led us to finding each other and others as allies.

[00:08:17] Um, so yeah, I’m really grateful and blessed to be here. So that’s it. That’s all for me. Kamau, you can introduce yourself next. 

[00:08:27] Kamau Chege: Thanks so much. This is a really exciting conversation. My name is Kamau Shege. I’m the Executive Director of Washington Community Alliance and Washington Community Alliance Action Fund.

[00:08:39] It’s a network of dozens of organizations across Washington State focused on building multiracial social democracy in Washington State. Um, I think. The political instrument that we use in terms of our network is our member organizations. Um, [00:09:00] and one reason I was excited to organize with them is for a long time, I think, leftists have not done as much as we could to organize pre existing institutions that have a lot of trust, even if, even as their memberships have decayed over the, um, last few decades, and organize the leaders of those institutions to see, uh, Bold, radical, and transformative change as a way that they could both revive their memberships and also the leaders in their community.

[00:09:40] And I think there’s also just a larger question for the left about how we build our governing. Uh, practice and muscle and a good way to do that is by being able to say, uh, govern a city or a county [00:10:00] or a state as we’re trying to have more ambitious plans for, um, being in a place to shape the governing direction of our country.

[00:10:09] William Lawrence: Thank you. Come out, you know, just, just, just brag on yourself for a minute. Tell us about one accomplishment or one victory, uh, so that the people can know how, how strong your work is. 

[00:10:18] Kamau Chege: I, well, I think one of the most recent things that we’ve been able to do is wield our network to pass a suite of budget provisos to study a lot of, to study the feasibility of implementing big solutions.

[00:10:36] One of them was right now, the state of Washington has to study the feasibility of a social wealth fund. And it’s a small thing, but it is one of those, uh, First building blocks for. Making sure that even your opposition in the establishment are taking your ideas seriously and [00:11:00] have to contend with them.

[00:11:01] So I’m excited about that. And then this year, uh, we also, the network contacted 2. 5 million voters in Washington state and trying to more and more to build that muscle as well. 

[00:11:15] William Lawrence: Thank you. Uh, let’s go to Asha. 

[00:11:19] Asha Ransby-Sporn: Hey y’all. Yeah. Happy to be here. Thanks. Thanks Will, Evan, Momentum, um, for, for holding this space.

[00:11:27] So I will just say a little bit about how I kind of arrive at this. Um, I come to this work out of the movement for black lives, really out of movement building and issue organizing. Um, I co founded a group called BYP 100 and I saw that political project really as being, you know, and my specific role is figuring out how do you translate the mobilization, the mass protest into political home with robust membership.

[00:11:55] That’s like, Organizing in a way that translates into material wins, [00:12:00] and I watched our movement literally mobilize millions of people into the streets put forward really good proposals for changes do good organizing and yet have political leaders at many levels who were very determined and uninterested in meeting our demands and without political imperatives to give us wins.

[00:12:22] Um, and I specifically saw that play out in Chicago and with mayors who, you know, were, were hostile to our movement, even when we were doing effective organizing, um, turning lots of people out to all the, you know, town halls and this and that, and protesting at their house, ousting a state’s attorney, like demonstrating some political power.

[00:12:43] And so I think, you know, many years of those experiences led me to believe like, we can’t actually You know, if we’re serious about creating the change that we want to see, we have to see the project of building political power as a part of it, um, and participate in the work of demonstrating that we can choose who is and [00:13:00] isn’t in office to make those decisions.

[00:13:02] So I’m kind of here to talk about the Chicago Project, right? It’s a neoliberal city, a segregated city, an unequal city along the lines of race, like many of the places that Um, we organize in and so, you know, decades of neoliberal reforms, getting public infrastructure privatization that has resulted in increased inequality along the lines of race, um, means that our political project here is reversing that.

[00:13:27] So, and I’m talking kind of about an aligned set of movements, um, a series of coalitions that are working to beat back neoliberalism and structural racism. Um, I think what’s important about Chicago is that it’s a city very rich and dense in terms of old school community organizing groups that have been around for like 50 just as long as those neoliberal reforms have been happening, um, longer news, like a lot of kind of new school grassroots movement oriented groups and then also strong [00:14:00] progressive labor unions, um, that are willing to put money into elections.

[00:14:05] So in 2019, a handful of progressives, um, and some pretty strong socialists were elected to our city council and, you know, really kind of began this phase of experimenting with co governance with seeing folks that we see as movement leaders, like literally that come out of some of those community organizations in city council.

[00:14:27] There are 50 people on our city council. Um, our mayor was very hostile to that block, so they didn’t have a lot of power. And this year in 2023, we’ve kind of expanded. Now there are 19 progressives on our city council and we were able to elect a mayor that comes out of the Chicago teacher’s union, um, and the labor movement and really ran on, you know, the, a platform of the issue demands of our movement, you know, and the, the.

[00:14:56] Campaigning just to get there. We were outspent. [00:15:00] We like knocked half a million doors. It was a, you know, massive, massive organizing project. I, you know, was a part of the field, um, you know, one of the field directors on that campaign. And, you know, you just don’t get that type of organizing power without strong, really strong organizing ecosystem that is willing to kind of flex its power.

[00:15:20] Um, and that ecosystem includes, um, Um, an organization called United Working Families, which is a party formation really anchored by unions and a growing like individual membership, but largely by labor unions and a set of independent political organizations, um, that operate at like the neighborhood level, like by ward.

[00:15:42] Um, around our city, then kind of more informally, our movement around police violence and community safety. That was a huge part of the narrative, um, in this election, like, really mobilize the labor movement and then we had coalitions, um, and a table in particular of C3 groups that showed up in an [00:16:00] important way.

[00:16:00] That, like, you know, arguably set the compelling agendas that, you know, allowed for many of those candidates to win. And I think we’re able to sort of set a tone of some contention even during campaign season. So, yeah, now stuff is hard and we’ll get into that in later questions, I think. But yeah, I’m proud of that.

[00:16:20] And I think, uh, just like an issue when that I think is even more important to uplift than than the candidates is something called treatment, not trauma. So, you know, one of those neoliberal reforms that I talked about was our former mayors closed down like the majority of the city used to have a bunch of publicly run free, uh, mental health clinics.

[00:16:43] They closed most of those down. There’s a ton of data about, you know, the horrible impact of that. And so TNT is this proposal to reopen them and create a non police crisis response system for mental health. Folks have been protesting and calling out, you know, the clinic closures for a decade. The [00:17:00] last of them were closed in 2012.

[00:17:01] So protest movement has been happening. Community organizing mutual aid stuff for years. Then in 2020, one of those socialists, older people wrote a great policy called treatment, not trauma. That was like a solution to it. Last year in 2022, we put a referendum on the ballot in three specific wards, particularly impacted by this issue to show popular support.

[00:17:23] It passed by like 97%. So really demonstrating, you know, our organizing power and popular support on an issue. And the goal of the referendum was. To make it, it was in the November election. Our municipal elections were at the beginning of this year, uh, to make it like a top issue and it became every debate.

[00:17:43] It was asked about, like, every candidate was trying to, like, you know, at least use the slogan, even if they weren’t behind the policy, you know, it became a big thing and now it’s like been one of the biggest priorities and places where we’ve seen success with our new mayor and city council, there’s funding for [00:18:00] two clinics just in this first budget.

[00:18:01] 15 million behind the crisis response program. Um, and so, you know, yeah, get our people in there, but it’s like where we have strong organizing and like multifaceted strategies where we’re actually going to see those concrete wins. 

[00:18:15] William Lawrence: Thank you, Asha. And now let’s go to Lizzie. 

[00:18:18] Lizzy Oh: Hey, y’all. Honored to be with some of the greats.

[00:18:22] Um, my name is Lizzie. I’m a member of New York City DSA. I’m currently on the steering committee of our org. We are defined as a mass socialist organization, and we define ourselves as Big Tent. So there are various ideological tendencies within our organization. And so we make Decisions democratically with a very clear laid out leadership structure, um, in order to decide a priority campaigns and figure out our strategy to move our members to those campaigns and make [00:19:00] sure that we win socialism at every every level of government.

[00:19:04] And so, in our efforts, we’ve engaged in key issues, issue level fights, um, electoral, uh, fights, and also just abolitionist organizing, mutual aid, things on the ground at BIPOC. The local state and now global level as we try and with all our might to, um, stop the genocide that is happening in Gaza and just to provide a little bit of context about New York City, which I love, I’m a born and bred New Yorker.

[00:19:37] It is the most expensive city in the world. The rent is too damn high always, but it is. Pretty it’s pretty acute here. Um, we have a cop mayor, Eric Adams in response to the 2020 George Floyd uprisings and, um, continuous austerity budgets that have been handed out [00:20:00] over now. More than like 30 years. Right.

[00:20:04] And New York is where you can see the, like, very. Disparate, um, effects of redlining and gentrification and displacement. So we engage in local fights, but as a part of our strategy, right, to ensure that our demands are met, that we win material benefits for working class people, we’ve been Doing an inside outside strategy by also trying to get socialist electeds in power in government and then working and organizing very closely with them in a co governance structure so that we become the left flank in a lot of ways.

[00:20:48] Abolitionist presence, not absence. So investing in our communities, rent control, taxing the rich, um, building public renewables, among many others. And right now we have [00:21:00] two Socialist City Council members and eight state elected, uh, Socialist state elected, and of course, um, we have, we were able to elect AOC in 2018 and she, um, we’re trying to organize more with her, uh, at the federal level.

[00:21:18] There’s so much that I can talk about in terms of What I’m proud of as, you know, during my 10 year here at, um, while organizing with DSA, but 1 thing that I want to really tout is our efforts this year to pass the build public renewables act, which is going to enable the New York state. power authority to build renewable energy, have it be publicly controlled, lower energy rates for low income communities, and also close fossil fuel plants that are primarily in environmental justice communities like mine.

[00:21:53] I live in Astoria, which is also called Asthma Alley. So, I mean, that fight alone took four years of my [00:22:00] life, um, many more for a lot of our other comrades. And so that was a key piece of what we would call a Green New Deal legislation that, um, brought more power. Back to the public and, you know, ensure that just transition is publicly controlled.

[00:22:17] So I’ll end it there, but happy to be here and continues conversation. 

[00:22:23] William Lawrence: Thank you, Lizzie. Well, there’s a lot. I’d love just to follow up on with all those, but I, I’m going to, I’m going to move us through the questions that we have because we’ve got, uh, Some important debates, debates to get into. I really want to explore the trade offs between, um, more coalitional forms of building a political instrument and more self contained organizational or party like forms.

[00:22:46] And I think within the. People in this room, you know, Kamau, you talked about Washington Community Alliance being a coalition of, um, many different, um, base building organizations, including a lot of legacy organizations, and you’re kind of converting them to a [00:23:00] more ambitious vision. Asha, you know, I know you’ve talked about.

[00:23:03] Kind of coalitions nested within coalitions, a variety of neighborhood level and ward level organizations in Chicago, United working families has taken on a role as one of the leading expressions of that at a citywide level. But, you know, then I know that there’s complications and sometimes misalignments within that.

[00:23:22] And then, um, with Lizzie in New York, DSA, you know, DSA is, Proudly independent and describes itself as a party in formation, uh, and, um, engages in coalitions, but, um, it really puts a prime emphasis on its ability to, you know, kind of take care of business and be independent as an organization. So, um, Uh, just going back to the three of you, maybe in that same order, uh, if you wanted to speak briefly about why it’s taken the shape it has, um, and how you’re experiencing those choices of, um, how to structure your political instrument.[00:24:00] 

[00:24:00] Kamau Chege: Yeah, I’m happy to kick things off. I think this is a really important question because there are real trade offs and or at least more or less constraints with different structures. I think one of the benefits of the structure we have as network of organizations is Plugging into pre existing networks of credibility because so often our ideas on the left are popular.

[00:24:30] But people don’t think that you can win them, or even if you do win them, people don’t think that they’ll actually do what they’re supposed to do and let people have that kind of lived experience of promises made and promises broken. Um, and especially when. When a message is coming from someone that’s an organizer, someone that they view as an activist, rather than the leader of the local urban league, it, like, hits different, [00:25:00] and that’s incredibly helpful and also begets more credibility, um, and trust to make it easier for these issues to be understood as common sense solutions, um, and not just something that we know.

[00:25:16] make it so easy for the left’s vision for change to be shunted and cornered and isolated. So I think that’s a huge benefit. One of the, um, You know, things that happened recently, and was we passed a capital gains tax Washington State has the most aggressive tax code in the country. We don’t have an income tax.

[00:25:42] We have very few taxes on other rich and corporations. And I think that was in part helped by the Having lots of community based organizations, um, driving that message. At the same time, I think there are real drawbacks, because if you’re a coalition of [00:26:00] organizations, you are relying on your organizations to do the organizing to bring up membership.

[00:26:06] Um, and, You have to actively be doing political education to raise the expectations of your members about what they could win if they, um, if they fought together. Um, leave it at that. 

[00:26:23] Asha Ransby-Sporn: Yeah, so I, I’ve been kind of describing. An ecosystem in Chicago. And I think that’s like the best way to understand our project, you know, but an ecosystem isn’t a permanent coalition.

[00:26:37] Um, we have a lot of tables that come together for a specific thing. Like that’s a big. Part of the organizing culture is like coming together on one specific campaign or one specific budget cycle, um, and like coming together with what are, you know, red lines are, but those are not necessarily permanent coalitions.

[00:26:57] And I do think that means there’s not always [00:27:00] formal space to debate and struggle across the breadth of different formations doing the work. And it really is like. You know, a large number of organizations, um, that that went into something like our last election cycle or like, um, we have a ballot initiative, uh, coming up around housing, um, a fight like that.

[00:27:20] So, yeah, I think the pitfalls, right? Are that like different people in like our political project or sometimes defining who they’re. In coalition with using that language differently and therefore defining who they’re accountable to differently, whose interests they serve differently and and those things are not always the same.

[00:27:39] And then that said, I think, you know. There’s some space and freedom that I think is important to know that you are like a part of a political project with different formations that are going to play different roles at different times. And I think it is important, um, that that freedom and that level of.[00:28:00] 

[00:28:00] Uh, that just dynamic nature of an ecosystem gets to play out, right? So there are some organizations that honest that, like when the mayor contracts, a company that runs detention centers to build camps that are going to house asylum seekers that need shelter, like they need to be able to protest and there are other people that are going to need to take meetings with the mayor to, like, push what that looks like.

[00:28:25] And I think an ecosystem. You know, allows people to not be silenced and having a like play their role in moments like like that one. Um, and then, you know, you use the word co governance. And I think that’s one that has become like an out word for us in Chicago. We were like using it a lot right after the election this time around.

[00:28:49] And yeah, I I do think that framing can sometimes obscure where there is actual power. Um, so I think the closest [00:29:00] thing to what co governance looks like that we have in Chicago is at the ward level with some of our city council people, particularly some of those socialist incumbents who have a really strong ward based independent political organization that they are a member of that ran them.

[00:29:16] That, like, does a robust field at, you know, program every time around at the neighborhood level that they’re in conversation with about, like, every important vote. And I think that is, like, close to co governance. Um, I think at the city level with, like, the mayor, that’s not actually an accurate word. Like, we are organizing in a front in a.

[00:29:38] In some ways, friendlier landscape that is changing and like, not always what exactly what we had expected it to be like, but, um, I think at this stage that we’re in, I think it’s important that, you know, we. Are clear that we have like political power. We may have more influence. Um, [00:30:00] and we can wield that power, but we like the movement doesn’t necessarily have governing power.

[00:30:07] Like we got someone from our movement in there and he has governing power. So anyway, I just think those like getting really specific about who has power is important. Um, when we talk about these things, and I think the IPOs are useful as one example. 

[00:30:23] Lizzy Oh: Yeah, I, I love that you mentioned Power Asha because that’s something that we, we kind of get stuck on is.

[00:30:33] So I bought a hot take, which is I kind of feel like coalition, the word itself and also coalitions are where the work like doesn’t happen sometimes. And I think we sometimes conceive of power as many orgs and all of their logos on a sheet of paper that says that we’re going to advocate for the Green New Deal or Um, for, to tax the rich and like, we’re like, that’s powerful because there’s a broad base of [00:31:00] coalition and that can be, but for us as DSA.

[00:31:04] Um, as a mass organization that is, you know, decidedly a socialist and we engage in, um, in fights that are strategic and that everybody is involved in that strategy, we actually tend not to defer to coalitions because we kind of want to Um, the left flank of the historic block in a very Gramscian sense and, you know, be principled, be moralistic.

[00:31:33] If we want our, um, socialists in office to reject a budget that does not tax the rich, that, that does not include universal health, um, child care, that does not, Does not have rent control, then we want all of them to vote no on that budget. Um, and for us, even if that is not necessarily building power, um, and of course, in that co governance sense, like it actually shows that we don’t have power because the budget will pass regardless.

[00:31:57] For us, that moral line is in [00:32:00] fact, power building for us in terms of setting the The parameters of what we will, um, do and what we won’t settle for. Um, so for our membership, our power comes from mobilized members, but also organized members who are clearly leaders and able to drive, um, the organizing forward, um, who are able to carry out various tactics for our broader strategy and like the next five, 10, 15, 20, a hundred years.

[00:32:26] And so. We tend to like define ourselves. We tend to in to be in coalition. We’re always going to be in coalition. We obviously are, um, they’re so necessary in our landscape right now, but we like the sort of nimble nature and, um, like to maintain our own character and want to have a clear leadership pipeline, um, and build up the left flank.

[00:32:53] William Lawrence: I’d love to explore in another conversation, um, just how much of this is conditioned by the [00:33:00] landscape and ecosystem that each of you grew up into and inhabit, like Asha mentioned, like the strong Chicago community organizing tradition, which then was joined by a bunch of new movements, which then also has this incredibly strong left labor tradition.

[00:33:15] And it’s hard to imagine anything other than a sort of sprawling, but really vibrant ecosystem. Given that, you know, I’m a little less familiar with the Washington state context, but it sounds like you had some people that you could parlay with who some, some, some legacy organizations, but then who were, you know, in this blue state, maybe ready to feel hungry for more.

[00:33:37] And then Lizzie, I mean, I would love to live in a city where, I mean, There’s like just a lot of unaffiliated young socialist minded people, honestly, I don’t think there’s that many places like New York City in the world where you’ve got like 1000 socialists moving to town every single day, I bet. And they’re showing up at your new member meetings.

[00:33:55] I mean, I see I see you posted about them. And it’s really inspiring. But, um, [00:34:00] I wish they would move to Lansing instead. Here we have none of that. So we’re trying to do something else, you know, um, and Evan could tell us about Hawaii, but, um, we should do another version of this conversation for people from small and medium sized cities with like very little infrastructure of any of these types, and then the question is how to build it to, you know, again, is it a coalition, is it a, is it a freestanding group, but, um, uh, so I’m musing on that.

[00:34:30] Sound on Tape: Hi, this is Kayden, the publisher of Convergence Magazine. There are a lot of places that you can put your hard earned money in support of our movements, but if you’re enjoying this show, I hope you’ll consider subscribing to Convergence on Patreon. We’re a small independent operation and rely heavily on our readers and listeners like you to support our work.

[00:34:47] patreon. com slash convergence mag. Subscriptions are pay what you can, but at 10 bucks a month, you’ll get goodies as well as knowing you’re helping to build a better media system, one that supports people’s [00:35:00] movements and fights fascism. And if you can’t afford it right now, don’t worry. All our shows will be free for you to enjoy.

[00:35:05] You can also help by leaving us a positive review or sharing this episode with a comrade. Thank you so much for listening.

[00:35:16] William Lawrence: I want to ask a question about like, how important is it in your analysis, um, to win things, to win material gains through the process of co governance or just pressuring people. And because I frequently hear it asserted that like the way that we build power over the next 10 years on the left is to deliver victories.

[00:35:39] For working class people who are then going to see that it’s socialists and progressives who are fighting for them effectively and actually delivering the goods, which is going to convert more people to leftism and so on. So I want to ask, is this part of your theory where you are operate? Um, and, um, you know, do you buy it and [00:36:00] are there any, um, uh, caveats or, or context in which you don’t buy it?

[00:36:04] And I’ll just open it up to all four, um, including Evan and, um, hear from whoever wants to jump in on this. 

[00:36:10] Asha Ransby-Sporn: I think it’s like a nice idea to believe would be true. Um, and I think it is not that simple. I think, like, you know, there’s so many factors that impact someone’s lived material reality in the world in a given year.

[00:36:34] And You know, I think regardless of how transformative like a policy when that we get, I just think it’s so hard to actually like isolate that out and impact. Um, and a lot of the times, the impact of the things that we’re fighting for is like the difference between your life and staying the same instead of getting much worse or getting less [00:37:00] worse or less worse than it would have gotten.

[00:37:04] And I think that people, you know, your assessment of your reality, the city that you live in, the systems that you live under, is like a thing that people interpret. And people aren’t necessarily taking, um, All of the data points in the world and doing like a structural analysis of that, um, for their own life.

[00:37:25] But people are filtering and making sense of their experience with frameworks for understanding the world. And I think that people make choices about the frameworks that they latch onto based on like what they already believe in, what feels good to believe in. Sometimes people believe in political ideas that like are not in their self interest because it’s more comforting than like Facing, you know, reality, or it’s like closer to something that you’ve been fed for a long time.

[00:37:55] And it’s like an idea that you can wrap your head around. So, you know, [00:38:00] I think that is, and a lot of times the material wins are like, maybe they make one community’s life better. Maybe they don’t actually impact everyone. I just think it’s really hard to Say that people are going to have like the ability to measure that in a super clear and concrete way and I think it, um, it’s just also not how people like think necessarily and experience the world.

[00:38:24] So I do think we have to deliver material wins. I kind of think almost to like Lizzie’s point about political lines. Like, I actually think it’s really important for us to keep going for like proof of concept for people that are already bought in a little bit. And, and, you know, structure tests for what we can do that build coalition, um, to test out whether the strategies that leftists are employing, you know, like whether they work or not.

[00:38:52] Um, and they’re important, obviously, for impact, but I think it has to be matched with, um, Movement work that offers [00:39:00] people frameworks for understanding things that are going to feel good to believe in and are going to, like, resonate with their experience and are going to be compelling enough to go through the discomfort of maybe undoing something that you believed in before.

[00:39:14] You know, capitalists have made people believe in and support ideas that, you know, don’t support their like material self interest forever. And so it’s just, it’s just not enough to only live in that plane. Um, and it’s also not good organized, like, you know, if we got to make people believe in something and like, be in the idea space, if we want to organize people enough to probably get big wins in the first place.

[00:39:35] So I think my answer is, it’s just not as simple as that. And I think we have to like, Really give weight and care and attention to like the psychological and social piece of that and offer people a way to interpret their experiences that resonates and that feels good. And, you know, yeah, that they’re going to want to believe in to make sense of those material changes and reality, um, and [00:40:00] understand that sometimes it really is, um, not going to make people’s lives way better.

[00:40:06] Um, but that doesn’t mean it’s not. Substantive win. 

[00:40:11] Kamau Chege: Yeah, I think I basically agree with that, that material wins don’t speak for themselves and policy victories don’t sell themselves. It’s still important for us to be really focused on material fights and not just sloganeering or a kind of Culture, you know, and and and campaigning on vibes, but I think one story that articulates this well to me recently was earlier this year, we won social housing in Seattle as a ballot initiative.

[00:40:49] And so it’s clearly like a very material thing, like, you know, um, the rent is super high, uh, in in Seattle and the way that. It took place because it was [00:41:00] a special election in February, uh, had a couple components of this, like, yes, we’re focused on this, um, material win. I don’t think we were, you know, doing that because we think then it’s going to build, uh, This, like, long last statue that remembers who won, but I do think the way the fight and the campaign took place was a really interesting synthesis of what we’ve been talking about.

[00:41:27] On one hand, uh, it was a community based organization that was leading that effort, uh, uh, called Washington Can, and Real Change, uh, core members. And, uh, At the same time, Seattle DSA, uh, was campaigning really hard for that initiative because it lined up with what they, uh, were doing, and because we had built up this, uh, credibility and trust, we had just taken over the VAN, um, or the voter file for the state, which is usually a tool that, um, and a gatekeeping tool [00:42:00] that is used against, uh, left organizations.

[00:42:03] The campaign won, um, it passed, now it needs to be capitalized. And to me, the Big takeaway is you have to fight for material change, but at the same time you have to articulate what the endgame is or what the horizon is that you’re working towards so that what if you get an incremental victory, people have a story in their head about the fight not being over, even if that’s just a story for your organizers, um, and volunteers and people support you.

[00:42:33] Lizzy Oh: Yeah, I basically agree with Asha and Kamau. So when we’re fighting for material gains, we’re often fighting for non reformist reforms, right? We want to basically better the, like, conditions in a, in a, uh, In a very real way, um, that’s not going to change our entire structure. We’re like not overhauling our capitalist system, but we’re winning [00:43:00] some welfare benefits or where some able to decrease inequality by this much.

[00:43:06] And so the question that comes up for me is. When we build that, when we win that material win, right? Did we actually build power? And by power, I mean, do we have a developed base? And are they leaders in their own right? Um, do we build an independent coalition with labor unions, with government workers, et cetera, et cetera?

[00:43:31] The other question that comes up for me is, Are we actually able to implement that material win? So I know Seattle just passed social housing, which is so incredible. And I’m like, okay, so are, are people now going to build that social housing? Um, is that, is that social housing built? Like, are we going to take a picture with it with our hard hats on saying that we built that, you know, um, part of winning is like, we also have to own that.

[00:43:56] And the narrative has to be progressives [00:44:00] and people who care about you want this, and we’re going to be. able to do more of this, right? Because often what happens is as really good organizers, we hustle, we win the campaign, and not all of us are equipped to actually do that winning the win implementation part.

[00:44:20] Um, And that’s actually some, as, as leftists, like, we actually have to get better at that. And I think Evan’s, uh, report delves into that, that aspect, right, of statecraft, um, and of our actual implementation. And then the, the third question that comes up for me is, um, are we Are we set up politically, like to actually to fight more fights, material gains, right?

[00:44:48] Because the horizon is far and it’s, it’s not nowhere near as where it should be, um, is that, is our material win going to be beat down automatically [00:45:00] by capitalists? Um, is some nonprofit developer going to come in and try to co opt our social housing? Or is we, we just want. Of the bill public renewables act.

[00:45:09] Right. And so the question is, are we going to ensure that actually builds it? Are we, like, just selling ourselves short by, like, having maybe some private renewable energy developers come in and, you know, Take over these projects, like 10 years down the road. So these are all questions that come up for me, which is winning.

[00:45:27] The win is not just that. It’s like, were we able to build power? Are we able to maintain that win? And are we set better set to actually, um, keep fighting because. Often, more often than not, what we’ve seen is as we’ve built power, um, capitalists and our enemies and the fascists are so quick to knock us down and we need to get better at building our fortresses, right?

[00:45:56] With every material gain. So those are the questions that I [00:46:00] always ask ourselves and, um, try to think through in every campaign now, because it’s beyond just when it’s. It’s our ability to survive and thrive beyond, um, the non reformist reform. 

[00:46:16] Evan Weber: Yeah, I agree with a lot of what has been said about the sort of like complexity of this question, um, especially at the state level.

[00:46:24] Um, I do think it’s like, uh, I do think that at a state level, um, and a local level, people do care a lot more about the sort of material questions of like, What is the infrastructure in your community like, um, what did the school get built and like, how does that affect your child’s life? And I think that that gives an opportunity for leftists and progressives to both kind of win those things while waging these ideological battles.

[00:46:57] I think at the federal level, the jury’s still [00:47:00] out, um, and it’s constantly changing. I think we I spent a lot of time, unfortunately, uh, looking at the right and studying Republicans. I think my neighbors might think that I’m a Republican because I have like Fox News like clips blaring all the time. Um, but, uh, yeah, I think we look at the right in this question of do material, winning material gains necessary for helping build power.

[00:47:25] The answer would obviously be no, the Republicans have not delivered anything, um, really over the last several decades and yet in 2016, a far right faction of MAGA, Tea Party, whatever you want to call them, was able to seize the presidency, take the House and the Senate, um, and really shift the ideology of this entire party.

[00:47:47] In what all polling suggests is actually a center left country. So when you look at this nationally and you look at what the Republicans have been able to do, the answer is no, that delivering material gains is not necessary, [00:48:00] um, for building power. Now, does it help? Uh, unfortunately at the federal level, I think, unfortunately, the jury’s still out on that.

[00:48:09] And we’re not going to really be able to have. As good of a test case, uh, as we had wanted to, um, I was spent a lot of time in 2019 and 2020, basically selling this idea to Democratic senators and, um, so that they would like go along with our Green New Deal, um, scheme and crafting what became Build Back Better.

[00:48:30] But because, uh, one Democratic Senator, Chuck Schumer, did a really bad job at Senate candidate recruitment and interfered in a lot of primaries, um, in 2020, um, Joe Manchin, uh, who, um, is now thinking about running for third party as president and, and hasn’t really been a Democrat for a while, um, was the deciding vote for Democrats in Congress.

[00:48:52] And, um, we didn’t, We both didn’t get to really implement that sort of like factional compromise vision between the [00:49:00] left and liberals that build back better represented and then go around to the country and start selling it. But also to Lizzie’s point, because, uh, the Joe Manchin dragged the process along for so long, um, the implementation of those victories and what the material reality means in communities, haven’t really begun to get, get realized.

[00:49:19] Yeah, I’m working on implementation of the Inflation Reduction Act and the infrastructure law here in Hawaii now and like the funds aren’t there yet like they’re, they’re going to be trickling in all the way through the summer of next year. Um, and, and so what is there to really sell. So, I, you know, I think it’s really unfortunate, because, um, If that were the case that we could have really strongly sold something, um, and it led to bigger democratic majorities in 2024 and a re election of President Biden, that would actually be a really strong case for, to continue the left liberal alignment and the non [00:50:00] reformist reform strategy that Lizzie is outlining at the federal level.

[00:50:05] William Lawrence: Excellent responses all around. Thanks so much for that. I want to ask this question. That’s really grounded in the present situation in Gaza, which as we know, has changed the conditions dramatically within the last two months, um, commitment to us militarism and imperialism, whether of the soft or the hard variety, I think we can agree is an absolute consensus position among political elites, and that’s actually been one of the conditions for entry into the political elite.

[00:50:34] And historically, because of this, I think a lot of the Uh, you know, progressive except for Palestine types have feared that they will be shunned or iced out if they take a different position. And this would prohibit them from accomplishing their domestic or municipal priorities and delivering from the people who they want to deliver for locally.

[00:50:54] Um, so I just want to ask straight up, is this fear of retaliation? Justified. [00:51:00] What are the consequences you’ve seen of left representatives holding anti imperialist positions, and is it indeed necessary to sell out one’s most radical principles, or at least to bite one’s tongue about them, in order to sit at the table of who’s Co governing of, of governing power in that posture of co governance and based on what we’ve all seen unfold over the last two months and these conversations as they’re playing out in your organizing spheres, um, what do you think is the, the principled and strategic stance, um, that, um, uh, we as organizations and our representatives in office, um, ought to be taking on internationalism and, um, uh, other third rail issues as well.

[00:51:46] Maybe we can start with, um. Lizzie, and then anyone else who wants to jump in. 

[00:51:52] Lizzy Oh: Yeah. Thank you so much for this. And, um, I just want to start off by saying DSA nationally, um, we just made [00:52:00] 300, 000 calls to, um, congressional members to call for a ceasefire, a permanent ceasefire, um, in Gaza so that we can end the genocide that is happening, that is funded by the U S military that is backed by U S imperial interests.

[00:52:16] So the. Short and dirty answer is no, we do not betray our principles. We do not betray, um, the Palestinian people, um, because their interests are actually our interests. Right. Um, and I think part of our, what we faced in New York City was. Quite astonishing. I did not even know that a pack was that mobilized.

[00:52:39] We made a bit of a comes, uh, curve, uh, kerfuffle, um, after October 7th and, um, uh, we were, you know, our leadership, our socialist electeds were doxxed were harassed, you know, they were threatened by, um, by democratic leadership. [00:53:00] Um, they’ve been through hell. But I think the bright side of knowing that is that people are seeing the underbelly of Um, the Israeli occupation.

[00:53:10] Um, we have been principled, and I’m not saying that it wasn’t a struggle, even within our own membership and our own electeds, right, to be able to hold that line. Um, that exact question of Will standing with the Pol Palestinian people, prevent us from doing sewer socialism has literally been brought up by, um, socialist electeds, and the answer is.

[00:53:37] Even if so, our conscience, our principles, um, as leftists, you know, I hope that we are far better than thinking about, again, the short term wins over our broad horizon, which is, um, liberation for all people, all oppressed people all across the world. And so, I want to talk a little bit [00:54:00] about our role in the Imperial Corps, because that’s where we are right now, right?

[00:54:05] Genocide is happening. Um, we’re, mass protests on the streets. Um, phone calls every, every day, right? Phone banking, um, direct action at congressional offices. And, What’s, what, what I’m seeing right now, um, is that there’s actually, there are cracks in the logic of capitalism, of imperialism, of US militarism happening in the public right now.

[00:54:32] Um, what is it, like 80 percent of Democrats support a ceasefire, right? And so our role in the imperial court, and this is whether I’m in Cuba or in Korea, or even in England, right, in the UK, folks will say, your role as a leftist in the US is to ensure that US imperialism crumbles, is to, um, is to detract [00:55:00] the, the carceral logic, the, the militarism that is oppressing people all across the world.

[00:55:06] And that. Bring those fights home and make people understand the reason why the cost of living is so high, the reason why there’s so vast inequality, the reason why that you’re not able to, like, pay off your debt, um, even though there is a, but there are billions and billions of dollars for Israel to commit a genocide.

[00:55:29] It’s precisely because of that. It’s because The U. S. needs poverty and needs you to be in living in substandard, um, in a completely alienated state, um, to, you know, turn the, the machine, right? The military machine. And so I think our role is to connect our issues to draw the connections as deeply as we can to use the moment to further raise people’s consciousness [00:56:00] and build it into our, our, our work, everything is connected, right?

[00:56:05] Like, why does the NYPD, um, train with, um, The idea of, um, why does APAC have millions of dollars funding electoral cycles? These are all questions that we want to ask and our working class people to understand, um, so that we feel solidarity with people all across the world and not just here in the U. S.

[00:56:29] Evan Weber: Yeah, I, I, I want to jump off of what Lizzie shared, uh, at the end there. I think I agree that the cracks of empire, um, are beginning to crumble and it’s our job, um, to accentuate those cracks here, here in Hawaii. Um, Last year, we won a big fight against the U S Navy who poisoned the water supply for, um, basically half of the state’s population.

[00:56:54] Um, and basically got them to back off and, um, back down and, and, [00:57:00] um, planning to, The fuel that was a fight led by Native Hawaiian organizers and others, um, and it’s really like changing the context of our very real imperial such situation here. I also think when we look like will said, I’m kind of doomed optimist.

[00:57:15] And I think when we look at the backlash that we’ve seen from, um, Uh, a pack and others like it really is because of the progress that the left faction has made on this issue, um, over the past several election cycles. You know, when we were everyone on this panel here was growing up. Barbara Lee was the only person to vote against the war in Afghanistan.

[00:57:39] Right? And now we have, uh, Uh, a squad, um, that has come out leading this effort, uh, for a ceasefire, uh, we have 40 members of Congress as of today, I think, or 45 or something like that, who have, um, backed a ceasefire, um, and an end to the war in Israel and Gaza. [00:58:00] So the reason that AIPAC is freaking out so much, um, is because, uh, the cracks really are there and beginning to show.

[00:58:08] People might not know this. I’m, um, part of my viewpoint advantage on this is that I’m on the board of directors for if not now, which is a momentum movement working to end the American Jewish support for the occupation and apartheid in Palestine. And we organize young Jews in particular, but trying to shift the communal support overall and I help a lot with our national political strategy.

[00:58:30] A lot of people might not know that. APAC didn’t engage in elections at all, um, before 2020, um, and the reason that they started engaging in elections was because of the 2018 victories, uh, that Justice Democrats and GSA and, um, others led to get the squad elected and have real voices that were unabashed and unafraid to speak out for Palestinian humanity.

[00:58:55] Now they’re the biggest, one of the biggest spenders in elections. Um, and we dealt with that in a [00:59:00] really real way in the 2022 election cycle. Um, and they’re now planning to spend four times, um, what they spent in 2022, uh, in 2024, which would make them, Basically the equivalent of a third party, um, in the United States.

[00:59:18] They’re, they’re spending, planning to spend as much as the Democrats congressional campaign arm, a hundred million dollars. Um, so, um, I think like the honest answer, uh, that, that I want to push back on a little bit is like, are the, are the, are the retaliation risks real? The honest answer to that is like, yeah, they really are.

[00:59:39] And, um, You know, Andy Levin was like one of the only Jewish members of Congress who had an ounce of courage, um, on this issue and was pushing for Palestinian humanity. He, uh, he was kicked out of Congress by AIPAC, a supposedly Jewish organization, um, and replaced with a non Jewish, uh, carpetbagger. [01:00:00] Um, they spent like basically like 700 something thousand dollars to defeat him, um, in his own district.

[01:00:07] This is like a legacy politician who comes from a political family and a history of labor organizing, um, just for Darren to speak up for Palestinian humanity. So the, the, the reputational risks are real. Um, but I agree with Lizzie that it doesn’t mean that, um, we can’t, we, we have to figure out ways forward and through.

[01:00:25] Asha Ransby-Sporn: And I would even just put like, yeah, appreciate what both of y’all said. And I agree that there’s, you know, retaliation risks are real. And I think that, you know, is because I think an American left that is like internet, deeply internationalist is a threat to, you know, the country. Systems in power, and I think the question like sometimes gets framed in this way of like the stuff we actually have control over, like the stuff that we’re fighting for is like unrelated.

[01:00:53] And I would just argue that it’s the same political project, like, we live in a global world [01:01:00] and we have a global economy and a capitalist world order and the priority of a U. S. Of U. S. Foreign policy, as has been the status quo and of U. S. Militarism is to maintain that capitalist world order, and the U.

[01:01:17] S. Is placed in it. And so if you know, our goal is to undermine capitalism or fight for, you know, something closer to socialism, um, as leftists in the U. S. We have to understand that as an international project, there’s no social democracy, like on the top of an empire like that’s not what we’re fighting for.

[01:01:39] Kamau Chege: Yeah, and the last thing I’d add is that these struggles in particular require us to be at our most disciplined, because the stakes are so high and also because Especially when the public rightly is on our side, [01:02:00] that they’re armed with messages to persuade the people in their lives to be part of, uh, the anti war and peace movement.

[01:02:10] Um, and so I think that’s been one of the most encouraging things about, um, the last, oof, uh, two months. It is just how disciplined, uh, um, our movements have been in mobilizing public pressure. 

[01:02:26] William Lawrence: Thanks everyone. Um, we’re going to do a speed round of, uh, I think two audience questions, um, and some quick responses.

[01:02:36] I, I, there was a question for Asha that is about elaborating a little bit on what you said about the vision of co governance that you had before you were able to elect a mayor. Uh, and now, uh, Afterwards, maybe while some of the disappointments are coming into view for those of us who are not so fortunate to have good problems like having elected a mayor and now learning all the [01:03:00] downsides of that, um, how would you say about the vision of co governance?

[01:03:04] Um, kind of evolving or maybe moving away from that frame? 

[01:03:10] Asha Ransby-Sporn: Hard question. I mean, we used a lot of what we had it. Like capacity as the movement just to get across the finish line. Um, so I think some of the real answer is just like. We were fighting just to win. And I think we know how to win elections in Chicago, but like we’re not as many people know how to govern or like collaborate with people who are governing.

[01:03:37] Um, and that’s just like a whole other question. And I think on the left, we talk a lot when we talk about political power. A lot of times we’re just talking about elections, which is like, that’s step getting in the room, you know, and governing is just like another thing. So I think it’s opened up a lot of.

[01:03:54] Yeah, just hard realities of the contradictions that come with inheriting like the fucked up [01:04:00] system and set of private contracts that the city has and the way that things are. I do think that different interpretations of how we won. And who’s organizing did that and in what way have led to different interpretations of what we should do now.

[01:04:19] And that’s like, just 1 really important lesson. And so being able to tell that story, um, in a grounded way is then. You know, power for your position about what should be happening after. 

[01:04:33] William Lawrence: Thanks, Asha. We’re going to have to stop it there. And I got to pass it back to Amanda to, uh, tell us about the other upcoming panels with momentum folks.

[01:04:42] This has been really incredible. Um, you should all come over to my house and we can drink wine and we can talk more about this. And, uh, appreciate everyone who’s come and listened and apologies for the questions we didn’t get to, but, um, we know this is just the, uh, one in an ongoing series of conversations about these [01:05:00] vital talk topics.

[01:05:06] This podcast is written and hosted by me, William Lawrence. Our producer is Josh Elstro, and it is published by Convergence, a magazine for radical insights. You can help support this show and others like it by becoming a Patreon subscriber of Convergence for as low as 2 per month at patreon. com slash Convergence mag.

[01:05:25] You can find a direct link in the show notes. This has been the Hegemonicon. Let’s talk again soon.

About the Host