Josh Lewis lays out how the geography of US capitalism creates problems for building a diverse, 50 state mass organization – and what DSA can do to overcome stubborn tensions between our core and periphery.
DSA is facing an internal political crisis that often presents itself as a struggle between our core and our periphery. In the minds of many DSA members from large chapters, pursuing class struggle through highly coordinated electoral and issue campaigns represents an obvious opportunity that the working class must seize upon. For chapters and regions with less influence over national priorities, the picture is muddier. Why should a national campaign for Medicare For All be prioritized in areas where it feels out of reach, and even superseded by the immediate prospect of fascist violence? Can we truly generalize and adopt a unified front across our many social, material, and geographic differences? Why should we trust the national office in New York to understand organizing realities thousands of miles away? Many members have deeply felt concerns that particular factions or regions dominate the political life of DSA, to the detriment of its membership in smaller or more remote localities. This is no doubt true. Many of the proposals before the DSA convention seek to address some aspect of this disconnect between core and periphery. Unfortunately, many of the proposed solutions risk heightening core-periphery tension and introducing new forms of dysfunction into the organization at a critical moment. But before we address where these proposals fall short, and where we believe state and regional organizations can play an important role, let’s delve into some more detail about the core-periphery crisis unfolding in DSA.
The crisis we are struggling with is incredibly common in political organizing, and really for any group trying to coordinate their actions across geographic distance and social and cultural differences under capitalism. We live our lives through the uneven and unequal world that colonialism and capitalism have created. Capitalism itself functions through a core-periphery structure, where some regions (often coastal cities) become centers of capital accumulation. Second-tier cities, towns, and more rural areas are subject to brutal resource extraction and worker exploitation, and oppressive forces like white supremacy create intense headwinds that present special and specific challenges to collective action among workers. The membership figures in chapters in DSA largely reflect this dynamic. The DC-Boston urban corridor, Los Angeles, the Bay Area, and Chicago represent some of the highest concentrations of both population and financial capital on Earth. They are also our largest chapters. We live in a world organized by capitalists, designed to concentrate capital and political power in a few centers that coordinate to exploit more peripheral places. This is achieved in part through strategic efforts by capitalists and the bourgeois media to 1) divide the urban working class along racial and ethnic lines and prevent them from seeing the rural working class as worthy or strategic allies, and 2) reinforce the perception among more rural workers that everyone in the urban core, regardless of class, doesn’t respect them or take their lived reality seriously. Our challenge is to work against the capitalists on this front by finding understanding and solidarity beyond these tropes and attempts at division.
Living under this system where capitalism’s effects are differentiated across geography means that we often struggle to grasp the lived realities of our comrades. Our minds habitually get stuck in well worn ways of thinking. For many members in large urban regions, this means that the campaigns and tactics they’ve adopted are taken as universally applicable and obvious. Peripheral chapters who raise concerns or pursue other projects are seen as backwards, quaint, and diffuse formations in need of standardized organizing solutions developed in the core. I’ve experienced this dismissiveness from comrades in large urban chapters on multiple occasions. As New Orleans DSA developed our Brake Light Clinics and considered organizing projects relating to hurricane response and mutual aid, we were widely ridiculed by our comrades as engaging in meaningless “charity” — despite our efforts to articulate both the promise and limitations of mutual aid strategies in DSA, and the immediacy of state violence, especially when disasters strike. Obviously DSA should pursue organizing beyond mutual aid. But in my conversations mutual aid itself was dismissed without a single question being asked, it was like a conditioned reflex. Did these comrades have an in depth understanding of political dynamics in Louisiana or the Deep South? Why was an assumption made that we misunderstand our own circumstances in our own communities? That’s what the core-periphery problem looks like for smaller chapters.
On the other end of things, comrades in smaller localities have similarly knee-jerk reactions to actions that could be perceived as an attempt to concentrate or exercise power by comrades in the core. I will never forget an episode at the 2017 convention where an attempt was made to form a Southern Caucus and have Southern chapters sit together and operate as a bloc. A comrade from a Southern chapter was attempting to whip votes, walking between tables in advance of a vote and declaring things like “This will fuck the South!” with no explanation or argument as to why the resolution would impact our region specifically in a negative way, and we had no clear and democratic mechanisms for making decisions regarding political questions. The US South itself is a huge region (37% of US population) with a lot of geographic and social diversity. But the well worn pathway of Southern exceptionalism maps onto the core-periphery structure of US capitalism and is culturally resonant with many Southerners. This is a common response from peripheral actors in political systems – leaning on cultural or social forms of power to engage political questions. I will defend my gumbo and biscuit recipes to the death, but comrades, that is entirely different field of struggle. There is no doubt that members of the NPC and members of the national staff have made serious errors over the past two years, unwittingly or intentionally inflaming core-periphery tensions with tone deaf responses to crises and exhibiting poor understanding of regional differences. Our challenge here is to create democratic forums outside of social media and the National Convention to have face-to-face interaction, discussion, and debate.
CPN’s Regional Organizations plank (CB16 and R26) aims to do this. Instead of relying solely on national staff to conduct trainings, or on national commissions to dictate political priorities, regional organizations enable members who share similar challenges to convene, strategize, and support one another. Regional organizing means greater democracy, autonomy, and campaigns sensitive to distinctive regional conditions. For DSA to be a meaningful political force beyond its current base in large urban regions, these regional formations are critical. These bodies give those of us in small and rural states ways to pursue our political work collectively, to shape national priorities more effectively, and even to respond to disasters or other catastrophic events. In the Gulf South we understand the value of regional comrades and allies when storms come our way. The DSA National office and the NPC, not to mention our own local governments, have little capacity to offer us meaningful, material aid. Regional organizations on the other hand, are potentially vital tools for worker solidarity and mutual aid in a crisis situation.
Some of the most contentious measures we will discuss at the 2019 convention are in response to these core-periphery tensions I’ve tried to lay out. Certain proposals envision doing away with a national office or NPC in lieu of an “Assembly of Locals” with hundreds of delegates overseeing critical functions of the national organization. This proposal represents the most aggressive response to the core-periphery tension in DSA, though the political philosophy that informs the proposal differs significantly from the mass organization model favored by many DSA members historically. But many of us understand that more diffuse models are still subject to power dynamics. The core-periphery problem isn’t something that can be solved immediately by a corrective fix. We need structures and resources so we can work together to overcome it. If we want to be ambitious and work towards a larger and more democratic national leadership, we believe CB#31 is a better bet (“A Regionally Elected National Organizing Council”). This proposal, put forward by members of the Socialist Majority Caucus, would enable regions to elect delegates to a council that would serve as a decision-making body for DSA between national conventions. State or Regional Organizations, once they are widely adopted, would form the electoral basis of the National Organizing Council. These layers of democracy, from chapter to regions to a national council, are replicable structures that bring a new dimension of political accountability and governance into DSA, and provide venues for face-to-face political debate and exchange that help alleviate the tensions and misunderstandings that arise from unaccountable and ineffective national bodies.
Other ideas, like CB#2 “Pass the Hat” for instance, seek to channel the discontent and frustration felt by chapters in the periphery to implement a seemingly simple financial fix that would alleviate perceived imbalances and empower small chapters. This has obvious appeal for many members and I cannot fault comrades who see a monthly stipend as a useful and even transformative change for their chapter. But I also suspect that for many small chapters, gaining access to this stipend will prove more difficult than many may assume. I also suspect that the national office will struggle to implement these stipends in a timely fashion, which threatens to open up additional tension along the core-periphery axis of DSA. At best the stipend system proposed in CB#2 is insufficient to meaningfully transform organizing constraints in smaller chapters, and by claiming a monopoly on remedies to core-periphery tensions, it distracts members from other proposals that are also devised to serve their interests and empower them.
For some in DSA, the core-periphery division is utilized as a tool for personal and political gain. It is disingenuous and wrong. This happens all the time from nearly every tendency. In large chapters fears circulate about peripheral members gaining influence and destabilizing the organization or sabotaging national priorities. Others work to mobilize the dissatisfaction of peripheral members towards unclear and scattered political goals. We believe that a mass organization of workers in the United States is our most immediate political horizon. We have to implement reforms now that can absorb new members and generate compelling political campaigns and organizing projects that can resonate and win in every part of the country. That doesn’t mean the core gets to dictate priorities to the periphery. It means that peripheral chapters need collective power to shape those priorities, and the capacity to adapt strategies and campaigns to regional and local conditions. This is what CPN’s Regional Representation Plank is all about.
To our comrades in the core — in New York and Chicago, in LA and the Bay — take some time to reflect on how you think about members beyond your regions, check yourself when you get caught in old tropes about the backwardness or lack of seriousness of members in the periphery. To my fellow comrades in the periphery — in the South, the Midwest, in the rural counties of the West, in the small cities and towns where we feel forgotten, denigrated, and disrespected — through a mass organization with democratic regional structures we can achieve greater confidence and effectiveness in our fight for socialism. Financial support is useful. Dramatic changes to our national leadership may hold appeal in a time of deep frustration. But we also need democratic vehicles like regional organizations to act collectively to ensure that our path in the struggle reflects our experiences and our analysis. With greater autonomy and collective power, we will inspire more to join us in the struggle for socialism. It is within our reach.
Josh Lewis is a former co-chair of New Orleans DSA and a lifelong Southerner.
This article draws on social theory elaborated by Stein Rokkan and Jason Moore, among others.
Photo credit for Praise Da Lard Cracklins to Josh Lewis