I believe that the challenges of how we organize now to actively build new systems of liberation and actively struggle against reproducing domination is a fundamental question of practice facing the left. The book argues for counter-hegemonic analysis and strategies and this is where we begin to bridge community based organizing and prefigurative political engagement and on this point the authors have much to contribute.

Developing a Power Analysis

Review by Chris Crass, courtesy of Z Magazine

A review of Towards Land, Work and Power: charting a path of resistance to U.S.-led imperialism By Jaron Browne, Marisa Franco, Jason Negron-Gonzales and Steve Williams Unite To Fight Press, San Francisco, 2006 (159 pages)

What is the current state of capitalism in the global political economy?  How are our campaigns for racial, economic, and gender justice impacted by neoliberalism and imperialism?  What will it take to build a movement in such despondent and challenging times?

Four grassroots organizers from POWER (People Organized to Win Employment Rights) stepped up to the challenge of answering these questions for their own organization.  They wrote this book to share their analysis with the movement.  Coming from their experience as organizers in a multi-racial membership organization of low-income tenants and workers in San Francisco they engaged in study and wrote this book by and for activists and organizers around the country.

The book is significant for three key reasons: 1.  It is an anti-imperialist analysis for local, community based organizations to help build the global movement for justice; 2.  The authors not only give us their assessment of political economy but also push us and give us insight into developing our own; 3.  The analysis comes out of both study and the practice of left organizing and gives us both a model of the kind of praxis we need and a the kind of outcome it can have.

Founded in 1997 POWER waged and won numerous campaigns for worker rights, worker safety, language rights, transportation justice and a raised minimum wage.  Members are mostly working class people of color, mostly women, who come together to fight for greater control over the conditions in their workplaces and communities.  POWER is also deeply committed to building a broader movement.  They work with local and national alliances of working class people of color led organizations and they have played an active role in the global justice and anti-war movements.

The authors are writing for “organizers who self-consciously work to build organization and movement so that the people will be able to strike back at the root causes of the problems in the community.”  They believe that in order to do this “conscious organizers must develop as intellectuals”.  Working class activists in social movements in the Third World, they write, “study and debate theory with a prowess that would shame most college graduates in the U.S.”  The authors’ encouragement to do this work is needed.  Action-to-action culture often mistakes being busy with being effective.  We need to plan before acting and reflect on and theorize lessons from our practice, and this takes time.  Additionally, the authors would assert, there is a need to make constant assessments of the conditions you are working in.

This is where they begin, with an assessment of the global political economy. They offer a brief history of capitalism and then identify its core needs: to constantly revolutionize the means of production, to obtain ever-expanding profits, and to expand new markets.  Their analysis, grounded in Marxist-Leninist thinking, is a useful primer for people unfamiliar with these concepts.  They bring the work of socialist feminist Maria Mies and her groundbreaking book Patriarchy and Accumulation on a World Scale into the center of their analysis.  Mies argues that women’s unwaged work is fundamental to the development of capitalism, and thus capitalism is deeply intertwined with patriarchy.

By their account, capitalist competition leads to bigger and stronger corporations managed by a capitalist state.  Capitalism’s need for new markets, cheaper raw materials and labor leads to imperialism.  The authors, who studied Samir Amin, Walter Rodney, Vandana Shiva, the writings of the Labor/Community Strategy Center and capitalist think-tank documents, define imperialism as “a global system of political economy based on the super-exploitation of whole nations and peoples by the world’s imperial powers and transnational corporations.  To sustain this unstable multi-national system, the imperialist state serves as a manager for global capital.”  The development of today’s imperialism came along with the colonization of Africa, Asia, the Americas and Australia by European powers.  The ruling ideology of European colonization was white supremacy and therefore modern imperialism is fundamentally white supremacist.

The next section is focused on the political economy of the San Francisco Bay Area.  It explains how this region fits into the global economy, how the different areas of the region interact with one another and then the authors develop an analysis of the San Francisco political economy based on its historical development.

A key contribution of the book is their centering of race, gender and sexuality in their class analysis.  The authors review how the local ruling class planed the development of the Bay Area and have advanced their strategy for decades.  The ruling class thinks and acts big and plans for the long-term.  The authors not only argue that we can do this, they’re working on it and share the beginnings of where they’re at in the third chapter.

Inspired by the South African anti-apartheid movement’s Freedom Charter, POWER began working on their own platform.  They developed it through a multi-stage process: first they surveyed about 800 no- and low-wage workers, then they developed a draft of the platform and took it back out to solicit feedback, and finally members and community allies ratified the final version at POWER’s Poor People’s Congress in April of 2004.

The platform articulates demands on the current state and corporations and advances a vision of a socialist society.  While the demands are vital, we should also learn from the process that POWER used in developing their vision. This is a powerful example for how we can engage in participatory, mass, collective envisioning and, in the process, develop leadership and analysis to help us create and implement strategy.  However, the book doesn’t go into their process in the detail that it deserves.  Most of us have ideas of what a better world would look like.  What we need are processes by which millions of people shape and share a liberatory vision that develops dynamically through struggles to implement it.

The authors do share with us some key concepts of the strategy they operate from.  They believe we need an internationalist left anti-imperialist movement in the belly of the beast aligned with the left social movements of the Third World.  It is the left forces in the Third World, according to their assessment, that have the interest and the capacity to defeat U.S.-led imperialism.

From their perspective, we in the U.S. need to prioritize building organizations with the capacity to take on local fights for economic, gender, racial justice, and these organizations need to have a movement building orientation.  The movement building orientation they’re arguing for “is one that understands that the struggle for national liberation, women’s liberation, gay rights, disability rights, language rights, indigenous rights, environmental protections and transgender liberation are all key parts of the working class struggle.”  The strategy of the authors is to build power in working class communities of color and I agree with them that this is strategic.  As an organizer with the Catalyst Project that works in white communities, I also believe that white anti-imperialists must step up to the task of organizing millions of white people to actively participate in a global left anti-imperialist movement for collective liberation led by oppressed peoples.

I appreciate the book’s ideas on strategy and believe that the key missing component is prefigurative politics, meaning political engagement that is building the new world in the shell of the old.  Prefigurative politics is an orientation about the goals and methods of organizing.  It is an understanding that through practice and reflection we are developing the political frameworks, relationships, processes, organizations, structures and institutions to build liberation in the here and now while we fight injustice.  This means building strong organizations that practice our politics, counter-institutions that meet needs and wants in our communities and recovering, strengthening and creating revolutionary culture that is feminist, pro-queer, multigenerational, socialist and anti-authoritarian.  It is additionally, an organizing practice that brings people together collectively to re-conceptualize power as we make revolution that is an on-going process rather than a single event. Changing the material conditions in which we live opens the space for new social relationships based on justice to develop.  Forging new social relationships through struggle must be understood as fundamental to the process of winning material changes in the here and now.  What we need is an analysis and practice that is strategic, pre-figurative, practical and visionary.

We must study the insights and lessons of social movements in the Global South as they are developing strategic prefigurative politics in many different ways.  From the practice of leading by obeying of the Zapatistas, to the worker controlled factories of Argentina, to the collective leadership structure of social movements around the world.  We need to draw from Marxist analysis of political economy and strategy as well as autonomist/anarchist analysis of political vision, organization and practice, all of which are being used in social movements around the world.

I see prefigurative politics in the practice of leadership development, the development of the platform and much of POWER’s orientation to movement building, all of which are spoken of in the book.  I believe that the challenges of how we organize now to actively build new systems of liberation and actively struggle against reproducing domination is a fundamental question of practice facing the left.  The book argues for counter-hegemonic analysis and strategies and this is where we begin to bridge community based organizing and prefigurative political engagement and on this point the authors have much to contribute.

Browne, Franco, Negron-Gonzales and Williams conclude the book with a serious prediction and strong encouragement.  Given the ecological crisis facing us, they write, we likely have another fifty years to either move towards global socialism or face ecological collapse.  They also remind us that this history is not yet written.  That we in fact have the power to shape it through our assessment of the current conditions, our vision of what can be and our organizational capacity to act on strategy to transform the relationships of power in this society from domination to self-determination, democracy, socialism and equality.  This book is an important contribution from grassroots organizers to grassroots activists and organizers; I strongly encourage you to use it.

Chris Crass is the coordinator of the Catalyst Project, a center for political education and movement building.  They prioritize anti-racist work with mostly white sections of the global justice and anti-war movements with the goal of deepening anti-racist commitment in white communities and building multiracial left movements for liberation.

This entry was posted in Reviews and tagged , .