Saturday, February 24, 2007

A Vision without Power?

A Response to Sally Kohn's Presentation of the Movement Vision Project
by Ben Healey, Network Organizer, Public Policy Institute

The core pieces of the vision Sally articulated – active (or radically participatory) democracy, an inclusive economy, and international justice – strike me as very smart and truly do capture a broad spectrum of what progressive activists are trying to accomplish, each of us within – and sadly rarely across – our individual issue "silos." The language she employs is powerful and motivating, the values are clear, and overall there's not much within those pieces with which I'd disagree.

Nonetheless, I do take issue with what I see as one significant gap in what Sally presented: there needs to be a much more central place for a theory of power in this work. And by that I mean two separate things: 1) power as the thematic and philosophical linkage between the individual pieces of the shared progressive vision we are working to describe; and 2) power as a strategic goal that cannot be decoupled from the articulation of that vision.

1. Power as a thematic and philosophical link

What underlays – and fundamentally connects – the three big pieces Sally laid out last week is a radically different vision of power: who holds it, how it can be wielded, and why. Deeper democracy, in all aspects of civil society and in our relationship to the state; greater popular (or community) control over the economy; and a neo-cosmopolitan, rather than a nationalist or imperialist, approach to international relations – all of these ideas spring from a left understanding of who can and who should hold power, based on a serious (but underdeveloped, in my opinion) philosophy of personhood. Therefore, as a movement that must be (and at least rhetorically contends that it is) concerned with power, we should not be trying to represent a Kantian, individually-oriented view of autonomy as the end goal. Rather, let us imagine together a community-oriented, heteronomous view that considers all of us to be both mutually interdependent and also fundamentally valuable, as individuals, acting within the various spheres of our lives – where we, as individuals, should have real decision-making power within structures of democratic collaboration.

I use as an example Charles Knight's comments that evening: "We could get 50 Israelis and Palestinians – all committed to peace as an end goal – in a room to discuss what the internationally 'just' solution to that conflict would be, and we still probably wouldn't come out with an answer." He's right. And so I offer up this point: while the solution to the conflict matters immensely, what matters even more – in terms of our shared vision, at least – is that one side doesn't have the power to blow the other up, and thereby dictate the terms of negotiations.

Thus, I believe that we should share this common goal on the left and articulate it whenever we discuss our vision: that we work to transform relations of power so that human beings, working together in democratic structures, determine together how best we can create healthy communities; productive, meaningful and sustainable economies; and an improved quality of life for ever-increasing numbers of people.

2. Power as a strategic goal

Dale Bryan mentioned that Sally left out "conflict" in her analysis. His comment sparked in me this complaint, which is that Sally's analysis seems to operationalize the "progressive vision" only in so far as it is about how we tell our story, how we frame it, and how we seek to authentically actualize it in our organizations' work.

Maybe I'm missing something – but that just ain't enough, and I don't think I'm saying anything that we all don't already know. So why not say it? Our strategy has to be about gaining governing power, so that we can implement our vision. Not about opposition to power, but instead figuring out how our side is going to run the country.

In all facets of our lives, people do not choose to act unless they believe that they have some power (to influence, persuade, decide, etc.), and a movement won't grow unless those who share our goals (or, just as importantly, those who might come to share our goals if we present our vision in a compelling fashion and tell our values-based stories better) recognize that we are actively contesting for power – and that they will have more of it when we win! Sally's strategic trifecta doesn't seem to grapple with this reality, and I'm curious as to why.

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