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May. 17 2010 - 1:22 pm | 3,351 views | 0 recommendations | 4 comments

Saturday night socialist happy hour

English: Chinese poster with Marx, Engels, Len...

Image via Wikipedia

I went to my first socialist happy hour last Saturday. What is socialist happy hour, you ask? It was a fundraiser at a bar for the San Diego chapter of the International Socialist Organization. Ten bucks got you a dollar off your beers all night. Not a bad deal if you feel like drinking. An even better deal if you’re curious about the state of alternative political representation in America.

Even the Tea Partiers have figured out the two-party system is a failure. But what else is out there? Ron Paul is consistently sane, but I don’t know anyone who would actually want the majority of his ideas put into practice. Everyone (wrongly) hates the Greens since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign helped put Bush in office.

So what are the socialists up to these days? With the country stuck in two interminable wars, the economy a mess, Wall Street bathing Scrooge McDuck-style in swimming pools of tax-payer money, you’d figure there might be some underground drift towards socialism. Southern California has plenty of Latin American immigrants after all. They haven’t been conditioned to hate socialism on principle like the rest of us Reagan-brainwashed American dolts. Immigrants both legal and illegal come over here, are generally exploited, subject to police harassment and deportation at any moment — socialists should be making huge traction in these communities, no?

As it turns out, not so much. About 10 people showed to socialist happy hour. This despite the fact the event was listed in the San Diego CityBeat, the local alt-weekly rag. Publicity was not the problem.

The folks who showed up were perfectly nice and earnest about their causes. They were mostly white; educated; well-spoken enough, but not compelling. What was their political platform? Aside from generically believing in the need to restructure the American economy, their main issues were supporting social justice, immigrants’ rights, banning-offshore oil-drilling and rallying against the Arizona immigration bill. The closest thing to a local issue was protesting budget cuts to the public university system. Oh, they didn’t like Prop 8 either, which for those of you out there living in a hole, constitutionally bans gay marriage in California.

All well and good, but I failed to see how any of these issues differentiated the socialists from any other casually liberal Californian. Practically every Democrat in the state supports the same things. And most of this stuff was national politics – how are a tiny band of socialists in San Diego going to make a dent in political consciousness of a nation talking about the same things everyone else is? Wouldn’t it make sense for a socialist organization to start small – keep their platform hyper-local? Or at least regional?

“With all that’s going on with Wall Street and political corruption in both parties,” one of them told me, “we think can capitalize on the public outrage by embracing national politics.”

Ummm, no, you can’t.

People are assuredly pissed off about the state of our national affairs, but they’re perfectly capable of expressing their impotent rage without your assistance. What possible immediate real-world impact could the American socialist party have on containing the ills of Wall Street?

If California socialists really want to score political points with a disaffected public by fighting a dead-end cause, they should go after Prop 13 –– which caps property tax rates in California. The state is broke because of it, our public institutions failing. But Democrats are too terrified to touch the measure for fear of being accused of raising taxes. Prop 13 basically has no chance of being repealed anytime soon, but at least it’s a dead-end cause no other party is touching. There’s enough anger over it that it could win someone some political traction.

Worth a shot in my opinion, but Prop 13 was a non-starter at socialist happy hour. No one really knew what it was.

Sitting around with these folks – intelligent and well-intentioned as they were — it started to dawn on me why socialism has absolutely no traction in America. Because socialists don’t know what the fuck they’re doing. Contemporary socialism is all about Mumia and Palestine and aforementioned impotent rage.

So I spent some time thinking about it and here’s my socialist game plan. The following is meant for a local ISO chapter of about 10-15 people. It involves ditching Berkley identity politics and getting back to Little Red Book basics.

First, establish a home base – preferably in the poorest most disenfranchised neighborhood in the city. The socialists in San Diego didn’t even have an office – a space people could physically visit and associate with the movement. No good. Try to find a compound with some land. You’re going to need it. For reasons to be explained later, this home base should not have any formal affiliation with the political wing of your party: but, make no mistake, it’s your headquarters.

Found a spot? OK then, time to move in. All of you.

You say you want to nationalize industry and strip the country of our ill-gotten free-trade consumer crap. Then prove it. Collectivize. Any socialist organization that isn’t living collectively really isn’t serious about revolution. You’re posers. You don’t have to share bank accounts — but living and working together proves you’re actually serious about your stated political goals. Not only that, collectives also happen to be the greatest possible grass-roots political advertisements out there for your cause. They don’t even have be particularly well run. Contemporary America offers virtually no culture, no community and no assistance for people who are in need. Collectives can offer all three.

I lived in New Orleans after Katrina where I would occasionally volunteer at Common Ground – a hippie organization that set up collectives across the poorer regions of the city to help folks recover from the flood. As far as achieving their stated mission of helping people, Common Ground was a miserable failure. I think I saw them gut two houses the entire time I was there. They didn’t do shit: there was no central leadership, no organization. Their collectives however — houses they refurbished and lived communally in — became neighborhood cultural hubs. It was like Zion from the Matrix – without all the leather and techno-sexy. Asian math PhD’s teaching little black kids how to hack into computer networks. Geriatric illiterate men cooking group meals alongside the white, upperclass, hairy-armpitted, lesbian children of the ruling class. Everyone eating together, playing music together, hanging out together.

Common Ground would throw parties in the ghetto, (and I mean GHETTO) bring dozens of the liliest, organic-chickpea-salad-toting-white-folks you’ve ever seen, and no one ever had any trouble. If that doesn’t sound like that big a deal to you, I dare you to wait until the next disaster inflames racial tensions in New Orleans, when people are broke and hungry, then park your car outside an Algiers housing project and take a stroll after dark. 50 Cent wouldn’t make it.

My point is that collectives can capture the attention of a community in ways shallow political rhetorical and generic, angry ideology never can come close to achieving.

I generally despise people who use the cliché “be the change you want to see in the world.” No problem with Gandhi, but when you hear this phrase these days it’s usually uttered by vacuous liberal scum who think driving hybrids and bringing reusable grocery bags to the farmers market are the end-all-be-all of a responsible, sustainable existence. This is why people hate Democrats – because they’re fucking hypocritical bourgeois turds. Ariana Huffington can talk about environmental responsibility all she wants, but I’ve been to her house and seen how she lives. It takes armies of 10-year-old boys and girls around the world mining and sewing and fighting and burning the rainforest to keep Ariana’s Greek revivalist mansion in proper order. Sustainability is not a bourgeoisies nicety.

But I digress.

For all the socialists out there, I’ll throw the Gandhi cliché your way. Be the change and whatnot: collectivize.

Now the real work starts.

Solar panel your compound up. Start an organic garden. Raise chickens and goats and whatever other animals you can. Build a cistern for rain water capture. Get your compound off the grid. Show people the wonders of socialist collectivity. It’s possible to live a borderline subsistence lifestyle in an urban environment. Show people how to reject the capitalist infrastructure. Apply for environmental grant money. This is why your collective shouldn’t be formally affiliated with the party. Campaign finance laws would probably interfere. No formal party affiliation, no problem. That’s the best part about this whole idea. Get the government and industry-funded non-profits to pay for your revolution.

Next, start a breakfast program — every day of the week if possible. Invite the whole community into your compound to eat before work and school. Straight of the Mao playbook. The Black Panthers pulled it off perfectly in the 60s. Feed people and they will come back – whereupon you can eventually propagandize them. Feed them from your organic garden and you’ll be eligible for all kinds of environmental grant money.

Next, set up a tech room. Libraries across California are closing. Free Internet access is an invaluable commodity. Set up computers, find some geeks to teach the neighborhood how to surf, hack, job search – whatever. As they say, information is power. Give people access to that power, and they will be appreciative.

It wouldn’t hurt to leave a few copies of “The Jungle” laying around this room for people to read either.

See if you can find a doctor to live with you and offer basic medical care to people on weekends. Stitch up the neighborhood kids if they fall off their bike. Write prescriptions for anti-biotics if someone needs it.

Once people in the neighborhood get to know you, start throwing block parties. Become a cultural institution. Put the social in socialism (wocka wocka wocka!). Show people that your way isn’t all work and sweat and Ivan Drago from Rocky IV.

As you garner goodwill and word of your deeds spread, start more collectives throughout the city, replicating your original model. This will win you good favor in all corners of the city and will eventually lead to the creation of (duh-duh-dah!) a political base for you to run candidates off of. Those tech rooms can double as campaign centers, and, since you’ve been training folks how to use the computers, you’ll have no shortage of community campaign volunteers.

Replicate this model in every city, in every state and then, maybe then you’ll have a shot at politically capitalizing on America’s national discontent.

Or, by all means, continue your ineffectual support for social justice and freeing Mumia.


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  1. collapse expand

    It’s all been tried. There is not one example of how collectivism works in a sustainable way. I liked your article and your passion, though. You are young. It will pass.

    • collapse expand

      Israeli kibbutzim worked effectively for years. Only when their country went neoconservative and the cost of living went up did they start to fail. People forget Israel used to be a socialist nation.

      That said, I agree the technology isn’t quite there for people to live a life of complete urban self-sustenance. Folks in a collective would still have to drive cars, buy groceries, use the sewage system and have day jobs. But they could still build something powerful. I’ve seen it work in America. There are religious collectives living in San Francisco that support 20-30 people. The key is finding a few rich folks willing to make big money and share it all with the group.

      In response to another comment. See in context »
      • collapse expand

        20 or 3o years of kibbutzism not “sustainable”. Finding a few rich people to share is also not a sustainable model. Rich people don’t get rich by being generous (unless of course they are guilt-ridden old money). You need to invent a different mouse trap. Now the Amish, there is a sustainable collective society. Why they are never thought of is a mystery. The Amish don’t give 2 lumps of horse shit what the price of petroleum distillates is. When I ride my bicycle past their farms, the young ones like to make friendly wisecracks about “saving on gas”.

        In response to another comment. See in context »
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    'Nobody walks in Los Angeles' you may have heard or read or said to yourself absentmindedly. This is entirely untrue. Plenty of crackheads walk in Los Angeles. Any number of schizophrenics too. And so do I. I'm a journalist who came up through the alternative weekly world, first as a staff writer with the LA Weekly and then as a senior editor of the LA City Beat. I currently write for the Los Angeles Times Magazine among other publications. When I'm not writing I wander, usually by foot.

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