Monday, March 24, 2008

A Map of Progressive Strategy and Politics

So today we finally published the Progressive Strategy Brain (PSB), a dynamic map that connects some 4000 entries to show the complexity of progressive strategy and politics, to help progressives to become more aware of strategic considerations, in order to make progressive strategy more self-reflective, and ultimately more effective. We hope that over time it will contribute to the emergence of a 'progressive strategic community,' with PSB as its main reference.

Clearly, just like progressive strategy itself, PSB is very much a work in progress, and in many ways necessarily so. This is why it will be updated every Monday, so as to make it more accurate, relevant and comprehensive.

We very much hope that you will help us in the process. In fact, please feel free to post your response to PSB here.

The unusual format will probably take some getting used to. If you don't find what you are looking for right away, just keep clicking, you might be surprised what you find along the way! Indeed, clicking through PSB somewhat playfully might help you discover new connections that you haven't thought of before.

Unfortunately it does not yet have a search function, but that will hopefully be available soon. This will make it much easier to explore PSB, and to find specific information. For those of you interested in the developers of this great software, please go here.

In the meantime, we thought it would be a good idea to do a series of posts to introduce people to different contents of PSB and how best to use it - in lieu of a more standard user's guide, the beginning of which you can already find here.

In fact, every single one of the 4100+ entries in PSB has its individual URL. So what I will do below and in future posts is to link to certain areas of PSB that might make for good entry points and/or appear to be of particular interest.

So here we go. First, you can adjust the display by clicking on the small red arrow in the upper left-hand corner. You can also move the horizontal dividing line between graphics and text up and down. Sometimes, not all the related thoughts can be displayed, because they simply don't fit on the screen (I always found this to be a good expression of the limits of our ability to effectively deal with complexity, intellectually and practically). Be that as it may, the way to make the thoughts appear is to move the bar that appears on the sides in such cases.

For starters, in addition to the entries visible on the opening page, you might want to explore Finding Strategy, our survey of contemporary contributions to progressive strategy. As with over 1000 other entries, the full-text (typically pdf or html) and/or the web link are available. So this makes PSB a continuously growing archive, especially for documents that are harder to find or tend to disappear from the web after a while. Right beneath Finding Strategy, you find linked the entry Finding Strategy (2006) strategists, which are the individuals and organizations we reviewed in our report. Click on their names to further explore their publications, institutional affiliations, etc.

What you will find it that there are clusters of people, ideas, and organizations that are much more densely connected than others. I hope this not only reflects my selection criteria, but actually says something interesting about the structure of various progressive networks revolving around progressive strategy.

Conversely, this also applies to the many challenges facing progressive strategy. I have begun to list those under entries such as Progressive Challenges. More importantly, over time they will be increasingly well reflected in the very link and contents structure of PSB itself: The weaknesses will show themselves more and more clearly by the fact that they remain largely empty and are not well connected to other Progressive Strategy Components.

Ultimately, the goal is that the map that is PSB resembles more and more closely the actual territory of progressive strategy. The problem with this of course is that the map is not the territory, cannot be the territory, and should not be the territory, because then, among other things, it would be useless. Beware of reification!

Alternatively, you can start with Progressive Strategy Literature. Please note that I have discontinued Progressive Strategy Articles, because there were too many; so I decided to group them mostly by month and author, institution, etc. You can get pretty quick access by starting with Publications (by year).

Or you can further explore other dimensions of PSB, such as Progressive Strategy Types. In fact, I increasingly try to develop typologies to make better sense of certain areas of progressive strategy. For instance, in my taxonomy, Progressive Inside-Outside Strategies are one type of Progressive Movement-Electoral Strategies, which was a category that emerged from the research for our report, Finding Strategy, mentioned at the beginning of this introduction to PSB. It is this self-reference which I find very intriguing, as I hope do others. Of course, no internal without external reference, but this is what mapping, thinking, communicating, and braining, so to speak, is all about.

For now, I guess, my message is this: If you don't find something right away, keep clicking and discover new things along the way. Chances are it actually is in PSB. If not, please let me know, and I'd be more than happy to add it. But again, the added value of PSB is not only what it contains but also in how it links its contents - always with a view to improving strategic thinking, discussion, and action.

So this is a start. Please stay tuned. There is more to come.


Saturday, March 22, 2008

Beyond Exceptional Funding

One symptom of American exceptionalism is the degree to which its progressive left is dependent for resources on foundations. For the most part foundations are projects of the rich, so why would the American left allow itself to become so dependent on the largesse of a class of people most of whom will line up against the left when the left starts winning real change? Yes, five or ten percent of the rich may support the left, but to the extent the left is successful the majority of the rich are likely to respond by investing their resources in the right.

A strong American left will only have the resources it needs if the majority of its funds come from the lower and middle classes. There are currently only a few organizations of the American left that have those demographics of support – most of these are in the labor movement where members pay dues which provide steady income. The bad news for the left, of course, is that union membership has been declining for fifty years.

What does the American progressive left need in order to change this picture?

We need to renew a movement culture of active membership supporting regular contributions to organizations we identify with and trust. Imagine an expectation in progressive culture that every progressive gives five to sixty percent of income (on a sliding scale) to movement organizations.

There have been progressive movements with such cultures of resource gathering. We just don’t have it now and therefore it is hard to imagine.

What would it take to recreate such a culture of progressive giving? For one, we’d have to teach ourselves to become engaged members of movement organizations. It would no longer be enough to have progressive opinions, no matter how well informed or how passionately held. Rather, progressive culture would expect people to join organizations, struggle for and with a democratic decision-making process and work together for change.

Sustaining a culture of joining will require changes in our organizations. Organizational leadership can’t be remote. Leaders must have real responsible relationships with members. We must build greater trust in our organizations which only grows from dependable reciprocity. And our organizations must win tangible benefits and achieve inspiring goals.

Then the investment of time, money and spirit by members who are rarely rich will be worth their while. Then the progressive left will grow – with or without the foundations.

Charles Knight is director of the Progressive Strategy Studies Project at the Commonwealth Institute. He has thirty years experience raising money from foundations for progressive organizations and has spent some time helping organize the rich to support the left.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

'Movement-Building: Finding Common Ground' (Left Forum 2008 panel)

This was the description of that panel in the program: 'Drawing on organizing experience across race, ethnic, gender, and generational lines, panelists will discuss what kind of movement we need to build, how we can bridge theory and practice, how to raise difficult issues, and how older activists can make themselves useful to the young.'

Again, like with so many panels at the Left Forum, this sounded promising and relevant for what we call movement strategies. Unfortunately, the panelists did not systematically address the above issues, but only in a rather ad hoc, if not to say improvised fashion. Only one apparently had prepared a paper, only to run out of time before being able to present the full paper. Again, from my limited experience of the Left Forum in the past two years, there seem to be way too many unprepared panels. Still, this was one of the better panels, if only because the chair actually introduced the presentations and actively moderated the discussion, which also seems to be the exception.

Susan Wilcox, co-executive director of Brotherhood/SisterSol, a youth development organization in Harlem, spoke on 'Youth development for social change.' Cidra Sebastien, associate director of Brotherhood/SisterSol, talked about its Liberation Program. And Howie Machtinger, of Heirs to a Fighting Tradition, a North Carolina social justice project, presented on 'Intergenerational politics: Legacies of the sixties. It was moderated by Suzanne Pharr, who describes herself as an 'organizer, strategist, educator, author, and political handywoman.' She has worked with Highlander, a popular education and research center based in Tennessee, and co-founded Southerners on New Ground (SONG), an LGBT organization.

The presentations and discussion appeared to converge around the following main points. The starting, like with so many panels, was the recognition that the left continues to decline, and the question of how best to reverse that trend. Related to this was an emphasis on the importance of finding more effective to ways to move from a growing sense of isolation and individualism to a greater sense of interconnectedness and collectivity. The emerging theme, in short, was one of transformative politics as opposed to the more traditionally ideological approach. The key to this, as other panels emphasized as well, was to build personal, long-term relationships. The one way to achieve this that was most explored was active listening and especially story-telling, which is also emphasized by scholar-activist Marshall Ganz. In general, all panelists and most participants agreed, organizing needs to shift its emphasis from issues to relationships, which necessarily always involve multiple, interrelated issues, as reflected by the intersectionality of place, race, ethnicity, gender, and generation. This was also seen as one way to break out of the issue-siloes, which tend to solidify as a consequence of increasing competition for dwindling resources.

This conflict between traditional organizing privileging ideological purity and organizational independence, and this different type of organizing emphasizing interdependence and personal transformation, was illustrated by an extended discussion between a former member of the American Labor Party, and the panelists and the rest of the participants. This difference was also noticeable in other panels, with some calling for the creation of an independent labor party, and others focusing on building transformative personal/political relationships.


Monday, March 17, 2008

The Interplay of Movements and Electoral Politics (Panel, Left Forum 2008)

Strange how predictable some things are. The Left Forum, probably the biggest leftist conference in the world, yesterday evening concluded a whole weekend of panels and discussions, and it is not mentioned at all, and not only in the mainstream media, but not even in the leftist media, with this exception, a podcast of a panel on the prospects of a more coherent left. This is very ironic, because coherence is one of the many things not only the left is lacking, but also most of the presentations I attended at the Left Forum.

What is going on here? What a missed opportunity, all the more that it coincided with the Fed bailing out Bear Stearns, which some call 'the ultimate financial scam,' probably with more to come. Most leftists would agree that capitalism is in crisis, and yet the biggest anti-capitalist conference in the world gets no coverage!

From my rather limited experience at the Forum, one of the many problems is the often stark discrepancy between panel descriptions and panel performance, which was certainly the case here. This was the description: '
Focusing on particular movements, the perennial dichotomy between doing electoral work or movement work will be examined, as will what can we learn about the impact of electoral politics on political movements, and the impact of political movements on electoral politics.' Sounds promising, doesn't it? That's what I thought, too.

Alas, the promise was not kept, for hardly any of the issues were addressed, much less systematically. Curiously, none of the attendees seem to mind. Is this lack of professionalism a more general problem on and of the left? In any case, this is really too bad, because these are really important questions, and are being addressed by what in our report, Finding Strategy, we termed 'movement-electoral strategies,' which try to articulate these two components. Perhaps most well known is one variant of this type of strategy, the inside-outside strategy, especially as practiced by Progressive Democrats of America.

Dorian Warren, political scientist at Columbia University, said that Frances Fox Piven had asked him to talk about 'Electoral/movement dynamics in the labor movement,' adding that she would have been much better on this topic. He then proceeded to talk primarily about the perennial question of why an influential labor party never emerged in the US, and in very general terms. Potential 'solutions' to this problem include reforming the electoral system to make third parties viable, focusing on the local rather than the national level, and promoting municipal socialism. Unfortunately, as generations of political scientists have conclusively demonstrated for decades, the prospects for creating viable third parties are very close to zero. As Domhoff and many others have suggested, it is strategically much more effective to concentrate on transforming the Democratic Party into a more progressive organization by forming left-liberal alliances.

Howard Hawkins, Teamster, and former candidate of the Green Party in New York, and editor of Independent Politics: The Green Party Strategy Debate (2006), emphasized how important it was to build an autonomous left party. He concluded: 'Basically, we have to build a vast party of the left.' This sentiment seems to be widely shared at the Forum in general.

This is remarkable: After more than a century of failure, many leftists still pursue this chimera. This leads to an important question: How long do strategies have to fail before they are being abandoned in favor of more realistic ones? Apparently, for all too many, a century of failure is not enough. What a terrible waste of precious resources, and what a huge opportunity cost. Just imagine what could have been achieved instead. This is a key strategic insight: Strategy is as much - or perhaps even more - about what what you don't do rather than about what you do. There are still way too many losing strategies being pursued on the left. It is high time to abandon them.

Ron Scott, member of the Detroit Black Panther Party and a TV producer, primarily talked about the importance of building long-term personal relationships in building a movement. The other two panelists did not show up.

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Saturday, March 15, 2008

Cracks in the Edifice?

So here I finally go. Originally I wanted to blog live from the last Left Forum, exactly one year ago, if only because hardly anybody else did. Left Forum emerged in 2005 from a split with the Socialist Scholars Conference over strategy, governance, and personalities, according to reports.

While the Left Forum describes itself as the largest annual gathering of leftists in North America, and presumably in the world, it not only gets no coverage in the mainstream media, but is not even mentioned in the leftitst media. Last year, all The Nation did, was to announce it. Interestingly, while it called it 'one of the country's premiere progressive events,' it did not cover it at all. Neither did any other leftist media.

Why is that? Is it because of a lack of resources and/or a lack of professionalism in promoting it? After all, it does not take very much to post a news release. Or does it accurately reflect just how marginal the left remains, both in the US and globally?

At last year's opening plenary, Cornel West openly admitted that the left simply lacks the resources, in terms of finances, personnel, and infrastructure generally, to move beyond its marginal status. This however did not keep a number of panels and participants to enthusiastically debate how best to organize the revolution, and how to decide who should be part of the leadership once the movement reached critical mass. This kind of attitude always reminds me of Seymour Lipset's famous remark they overcompensate their political irrelevance with excessive rhetoric.

In any case, last year's motto was 'Forging a Radical Political Future,' and this year's theme is 'Cracks in the Edifice.' In both cases, there is a palpable sense of frustration with 'the system,' and a great desire to change it radically, and not only 'superficially' through reforms. Understandably, given the socialist background, the ultimate goal is not merely to reform capitalism and imperialism, but to overcome them. However, the main thrust of the contributions is one of criticism, protest, and resistance, and unfortunately there is very little on what to do, and especially on how to do it in a strategic sense. There frequently is a big disconnect between big picture analysis and criticism, and punctual and sporadic initiatives and activities on the ground.

Yesterday evening's opening plenary featured speeches by Tariq Ali, Adam Hochschild, Mahmood Mamdani, and Naomi Klein. They were encouraged by Left Forum to identify 'cracks in the edifice' and specifically address how to use those opportunities to bring about change. As was to be expected, with the exception of Hochschild, they were primarily critical.

Ali spent most of the time criticizing US foreign policy in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan, and ended by pointing out that the regional cooperation in Latin America could serve as a model for the Middle East.

Hochschild drew parallels between the late 18th century, emphasizing abolitionism, and today. He highlighted what today's activists can learn from that movement, focusing on the importance of new organizing tools and on never giving up ...

Mamdani criticized the Save Darfur campaign for egregiously exaggerating mortality rates, according to a 2006 study by the General Accounting Office. All of the $14 million spent by a professional advertising company on the campaign was spent outside of Sudan. His larger criticism was that Americans prefer to feel good by doing something about Darfur, however inadequate, instead of risking to feel guilty by organizing against the Iraq occupation. He emphasized how remarkable that discrepancy is, and concluded by insisting that Save Darfur has become one of the biggest obstacles to progress in Darfur. He is currently working on a book on this subject.

Klein declared that key points of the conservative ideology, especially concerning the economy, have been discredited by developments over the past 35 years, and especially most recently. This crumbling of neoliberalism opens many opportunities, but unfortunately she did not go beyond exhorting the audience to take on these forces and resist them. This is the same mode in which she wrote her most recent book, The Shock Doctrine.

Leftists tend to be strong on analysis and criticism, but weak on strategy. This is one of the main reasons why the left has not made more progress. This year's Left Forum would be a great opportunity to engage in what is known as SWOT-analysis: Systematically identifying the Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats, both of and for the left, and of and for its adversaries. This would be an important first step towards formulating and implement realistic and effective strategies. Regrettably, not a single one of the 116 or so panels seems to do this, at least not in explicit terms.

Of course it is so much easier to ridicule Obama's rhetoric of hope and change, and deride his record. Fortunately, some pointed out that the left also has itself to criticize for failing to build a movement that would lead to more genuinely progressive and viable candidates.

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