Mass Movements & Affinity Groups

“You don’t have to have a deep and intimate knowledge of the left or any of its manifestations to be part of its future. If you disagree with my values, if you think the left should change from what it has been, the path is simple: do the work. Convince people. Convince me. Organize. Get off of social media and into real-world spaces, otherwise known as your actual community. Do the shitty grunt work that real activism entails, the boring, dispiriting, exhausting trudge to slowly winning over one convert at a time. Lose and actually experience losing, by which I mean experience the pain and humiliation without dulling it with the numbing poison of irony. Organize with people who are not like you, people who you have fundamental disagreements with, passionate disagreements with, but who you recognize as sharing a significant degree of self-interest with you. Articulate your values and why they’re superior. But don’t show up online, sneering at everyone else as a way to hide your lack of confidence, and snidely make assertions about a history you know nothing about. And stop fucking asking “what happened to you?” like you know or care how people used to be. That’s just bullshit internet social control and I have no patience for it.

I love newcomers to socialism and organizing. I always have. But I also know my history, and ours, and will not let myself or my movement be defined by anyone else. Sorry. Not here, not about this. I am a leftist, a socialist, a Marxist, and will remain so. I was born here, and I’ll die here.”

-Freddie deBoer, “I’m Still Here.” freddiedeboer.substack.com. November 1, 2021.

I enjoy Freddie deBoer’s writing, and I’ve been thinking about this piece for a bit since I read it. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it’s not my job to convince you. I’m not interested in a mass movement, where we all collectively convince each other on some course of action and take it. Ultimately, I think that’s what’s wrong with leftist politics.

If you want to change the world, you start on the ground you are on and find fellow travelers. You find people that, in the main, agree with your political point of view. In anarchist circles, these are called affinity groups:

“An affinity group is a small group of 5 to 20 people who work together autonomously on direct actions or other projects. You can form an affinity group with your friends, people from your community, workplace, or organization.

Affinity groups challenge top-down decision-making and organizing, and empower those involved to take creative direct action. Affinity groups allow people to “be” the action they want to see by giving complete freedom and decision-making power to the affinity group. Affinity groups by nature are decentralized and non-hierarchical, two important principles of anarchist organizing and action. The affinity group model was first used by anarchists in Spain in the late 19th and early 20th century, and was re-introduced to radical direct action by anti-nuclear activists during the 1970s, who used decentralized non-violent direct action to blockade roads, occupy spaces and disrupt “business as usual” for the nuclear and war makers of the US. Affinity groups have a long and interesting past, owing much to the anarchists and workers of Spain and the anarchists and radicals today who use affinity groups, non-hierarchical structures, and consensus decision making in direct action and organizing.”

-Shawn Ewald, “Affinity Groups.” The Anarchist Library. 2008.

Affinity Groups are a completely different model from major party, first past the post politics of liberal “democracies” that impose various forms of tyranny of the majority on the world they inhabit or the communism with its vanguards, opening the path for the hoi polloi.

I don’t have any illusions that there is anyone on this planet that is going to agree with my politics. But, there are enough people that might get close, who believe in decentralized organization, home rule, direct action and who have views that large governments, on balance and looked at over the course of their entire histories, are probably more a force for harm than for help for the vast majority of people. Say this to any person that identifies as Democrat / Liberal / Labour or what have you, and you’ll immediately get labeled as some variety of conservative. Maybe, but not the kind you are thinking of.

If you are busy, like Freddie, trying to convince Trump supporters and people like me to join your political cause, whether that cause is socialism, party politics, abortion or your political action of choice, then it’s unlikely you’ll spend a lot of time developing an affinity group because you are looking to be part of something larger.

This is why affinity groups aren’t more common. The politics of the day are designed to suck out the energy that would go into creating small groups and forming the bonds where the politics we wish to see in the world manifest and can be used to create real change for the people in those affinity groups. It’s not dependent on the will of Congress or your local politician, who are beholden to moneyed interests that fund their campaigns and get them elected.

When’s the last time you’ve seen a political argument that you should focus on the 5 to 20 people nearest and dearest to you and try to remake the world in some small way with them? We don’t because our lives have been atomized to the point that most of us probably don’t have five people in our lives we would want to form an affinity group with. That’s not an accident.

Geriatric and/or Managerial Socialism

“Letting firms fail, and share prices fall to their market level, also provides younger generations with the same opportunities that we, Gen X and boomers, were given: a chance to buy Amazon at 50x (vs. 100x) earnings and Brooklyn real estate at $300 (vs. $1,000) per square foot. Just as we pretend our service men and women are heroes, and then treat them like chumps, CNBC advertisers and Peter Navarro want to pretend they give a sh[i]t about younger generations so they can protect the wealth of old people and management/advertisers. Enough already.”

-Scott Galloway, “I’m not Done Yet!profgalloway.com. March 19, 2021.

While I don’t subscribe to free market fundamentalism, the strength of capitalism is supposed to come from the creative destruction that comes from driving underperforming firms out of business. If you save those firms, then you have a form of socialism, and if you are going to have socialism, the question is who is the socialism for? If it’s geriatric and management socialism, one has to wonder why that’s the value.

How Many Licks…?

On reflection, I look at the support that Donald Trump received during this year’s U.S. election and the inescapable conclusion I find myself coming to:

Given the U.S. population, perhaps socialism isn’t a good idea and people are right to be against it.

Conversations on Political Economy

Capitalist: Capitalism provides for the most efficient allocation of resources, wealth creation and individual choice. It’s the best economic system we’ve got.

State Socialist: There are other values than efficiency, prosperity and choice. Capitalism tends toward oligarchy and monopoly. As industries concentrate and gain economies of scale, wealth creation is concentrated for the benefit of society’s elite, and non-elite individual choice declines, and over a long enough time period, with limited or no competition, resources are not allocated efficiently. State socialism solves these problems.

Capitalist: State socialism is inefficient. There are few incentives and options to create wealth, and it limits individual choice. State socialism tends toward dictatorships and state monopolies. When the state takes over an industry, it benefits elite government officials rather than society as a whole. Bureaucracy and corruption lead to a squandering of resources, and kills individual initiative.

Small Socialist: Small socialist enterprises — such as employee ownership, cooperatives, and collective ownership — solve both the problems of Capitalism and State Socialism at the cost of economies of scale. Decision-making is distributed across the industry or enterprise. Employees and/or customers are also owners and have incentives aligned with the business. What’s not to like?

Capitalist: Without economies of scale, small socialists remain small. Some industries cannot exist without economies of scale. In others, it is impossible to compete with capitalist or state enterprises without them. Small socialists will stay small, with all the poverty that entails. Capitalism solves this problem.

State Socialist: Small socialists also have the problem of capitalists, except it concentrates power into decision-makers hands. They, in-turn, have incentives to collude to extract benefits for themselves or for their industry at the expense of the enterprise or society as a whole. Good stewards and state ownership solves this problem.

[Continue, ad infinitum and adding in small capitalist, communist, anarchist, fascist, etc.]

Discussions of political economy are ultimately discussions of what you value and which system you believe is most likely to give it to you. See also: Revolution for One.

Leading Marxist Scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street, and Debt Peonage

“I remember watching a speech that Castro gave in which he was talking about, he was lambasting a report by Human Rights Watch, the U.S.-based human rights organization, which often does do the kind of ideological bidding of the U.S. government in the way that it applies its filter to different societies versus the United States, although less so now than it was before. And Castro said that there is essentially a “Western” meaning, like, white-Anglo states’ view of human rights and then there is a different version of what it means to have human rights in countries like Cuba. And he basically was saying, in the West they cherish freedom of speech and freedom of assembly and these things that are sort of of the mind. And here [in Cuba] we would list as human rights, housing, education, health care, etc. Does that absolve Castro of the need to — I mean obviously he’s no longer with us but to embrace the idea that freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are in fact somehow inherently human rights that we all are entitled to just because they’re giving people affordable or free healthcare, affordable or free education, affordable or free housing? I mean is he correct in saying, “Well, these are two different views of what the priorities are in human rights.”

—David Harvey. Interview by Jeremy Scahill. “Leading Marxist Scholar David Harvey on Trump, Wall Street, and Debt Peonage.” The Intercept. January 21, 2018.

Interesting throughout.