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GIHAN PERERA: Get in the Game


Joseph Phelan initially interviewed Gihan Perera in person in September 2009. Gihan further developed these ideas after leading a get out the vote effort, in Miami, in November 2009.

We are living in very particular political and economic times. What do you think are the most significant shifts that are happening right now?  How are they changing the context for left grassroots organizing?

I think there are two bipolar opportunities.  On one hand, there is the possibility for mass, large scale electoral participation based on progressive values. The Obama Movement (very different from the Obama Administration) that a year ago had so many inspired, showed that core left values, a broad multi-racial constituency, and anti-corporate sentiment may be forged as a mainstream popular movement within the existing political system.

On the other hand, we have the deep economic and ecological crises which expose the fundamental fault lines of capitalism: its wasteful production processes, and its basic inhumanity in deference to pure greed by the powerful.  The conditions beg for inspirational, morally just, and militant acts of resistance.  It is the best time in decades to expose and highlight the need for a new moral, political, and economic order.

These openings may seem to be opposite choices, but really they are two parts of what we can see as a larger strategy, a larger movement. We must be, at once, engaging the state as it rules and contest for more power in governance as it exists today, while at the same time demonstrate, through inspirational action, the world we want to be living in. This is a dual approach of engaging power and prefiguring a new world with different power relations. It is from this grounding in a two pronged strategy that I want to engage the question and lessons of electoral participation.

THE OBAMA MOVEMENT: The Obama Movement produced an absolutely amazing level of local, national, and global excitement; including a major uptick of young people’s involvement in politics. This movement was a sound indictment of the Bush regime which if continued (by others of his ilk), would have surely escalated its level of regressive policies. It put fundamental questions of race, the role of government, militarism, and unilateral United States aggression on the table. And, I would say, the Obama campaign moved those questions solidly in a left direction on a mass level. The contradiction for the left is that this mass movement came in the form of a Democratic Party electoral campaign for President of the United States.  And in President Obama’s electoral victory, it put the future of those questions largely in his hands.  Now we must answer: did the Obama Movement present a huge breakthrough or just provided a way to coopt an opportunity for real, radical change?

I would argue that this would have been a cooptation if we (the left) had something to coopt.  In fact the left was in a tailspin, with no ground game to speak of, no mass movement, and little critical mass of left activism.  The immigration, labor, post-Katrina, gender, anti-war, and environmental movements were all fragmented. The Obama electoral campaign not only gave them life but a possibility to go back on the offensive.  In that sense I think we have to understand the campaign/movement and the administration as to different beasts.

Just because a consolidated left didn’t produce Obama’s campaign doesn’t mean we should not learn from it.  Organizers trying to build grassroots-left organization in working class communities of color, saw a dramatic shift on the ground. After years of struggle the sense of possibility for change was absolutely palpable.  That feeling shifted the context of organizing. People were in motion, and expectations raised, both in terms of what was possible and what they wanted.  Every grassroots organization that engaged in the presidential campaign experienced a spike in activity and membership at that moment.

The “new technology” components of that campaign showed that we can move ideas and raise political money from regular people at an enormous scale in new ways. We should be using these technologies in a concerted effort to put out bold demands, ideas, and possibilities.  We need to unleash our creativity at the level of mass communications, and learn to use new, cheap, mass accessible technologies to do that.

Finally, we still have not recognized the impact of the Obama campaign in terms of race possibilities in the United States.  We should be asking ‘what was right about Iowa?’, where a solidly white state in the heartland, went for Obama against all odds and conventional wisdom.  The conventional wisdom on the left is based on a theory that the white working class has always sold out communities of color here and abroad, in order to satisfy their own private deal with corporate America and the government.  Iowa showed that that pattern may have real cracks, that now with clear betrayal of banks and manufactures, there are wide opportunities to organize white people to support a multi-racial popular and potentially progressive platform.

Looking at the Obama campaign, we can learn to make strategic interventions in electoral politics, especially at the local level, as a way to shift the broader political climate in the areas we’re working. It can significantly raise the scale of our influence and be a medium to engage a broader range of our constituency base and be a central arena to build alliances, raise resources, and learn how to impact ‘real’ politics in cities and states across the country.  Through electoral opportunities we can significantly expand our reach. There will be a learning curve, but tying this arena to our ongoing agitation and issue organizing is the key to building a movement with enough people and impact to shake things up.

DIRECT ACTION: Now, the second point, the need for out of the box direct actions, may seem completely counter to the first.  But we should be developing a range of strategy and tactics to inspire, win, and build.  As we build mass scale through electoral work we need to maintain deep bases that engage in direct challenges to the state and/or challenge hegemonic ideas.

The door is now open for actions that are both moral and militant: actions like the Republic Windows and Doors worker takeover in Chicago, eviction defenses, the squatting of foreclosed houses and buildings, and recent street movements to directly go after the Banks and their lobbying institutions. These actions inspire and have huge impact on ideologies and values. More importantly they show a way for people to do something very concrete, at the level of body and soul and their own power.  These actions are in stark contrast to the unfathomable amounts of dollars that were stolen and spent on the crises, the confusing policy discussions, and the mud of politics that get stuck while people continue to suffer.  These actions allow a smaller group of people to take a stand, assert our own thinking and values, and potentially spark much broader engagement. We need to ask ourselves, “Who are our strategically placed morally indignant forces who can speak up and change the debate?”

Beyond the direct action nature of these actions there is a huge possibility for people to start demonstrating and actually building the world we want. These practices in new forms of governance, economy, and simply ways of relating to one another are needed experiments and lend vision to the large scale electoral work.

How has the shift from the Obama Movement to the Obama Administration changed how the left should engage with the administration?

As we are now almost a year into the Obama Administration it’s important to understand the difference between the “Obama Moment” and the “Obama Presidency.”  Many on the far left point to his centrist positions and appointments, his weak stances and commitment on health care, climate, immigration, and the continued wars abroad and claim they were ‘right all along.’ This position is ideological comforting but it doesn’t do much to forward a real powerful alternative. The politics of the Obama administration are wholly predictable. I don’t find that very interesting, nor surprising.

We must understand that like any politician, Obama’s going to be a product of power battles raging at the national level. The right is correctly applying and leveraging pressure, but we are not pulling our side of the rope to force him left.  We don’t know how to play that game while still maintaining a relationship to the administration itself where there continues to be incremental and some important opportunities to engage and make some real differences.

As the Right attacks Obama, liberals and many progressives will have a tendency to simply circle the wagons around him, to try and protect him as an individual and to protect his positions at all costs.  They will shut down and ostracize any staking of alternative positions by the left and shut down our own discontent with what the administration is doing, even if ultimately serves the broader interest.  But the left will make our usual mistakes, in our difference and disdain, we will tend toward pure polarization as a principle. It’s what we do, but in this time it could easily play into the hands of the right at a time when we are not strong enough to sustain anything on our own.  This would be a cardinal mistake.

With that said, our role can’t just be in relationship the administration.  We need to go to the source.  Only we can directly challenge and call out the right and their institutions.  This is both around their political program which will not resolve the economic crisis, and around their political and racial witch hunt.  Whether it is ACORN, or Van Jones or immigrants or whoever is next on the list, there needs to be an organized response that draws a common line.  Initiatives like and others that are emerging to directly confront the structural nature of these attacks should be supported. This is not a rallying around a particular organization or individual but a collective response and call out and targeting of the hate-mongers.

What do you think are the priorities in building left electoral work, and how does it allow us to shift ideas and values in this time of crisis?

For those of us who see serious potential in the mass electoral work, the main questions are: What vehicles are we creating for that electoral work?  I don’t think we’re in any place to create a mass independent left or progressive electoral party, but what we can and should start building the functions of an organization that can provide practical political information and direction to our communities, and at scale. At the most general level, we need to build operational infrastructure that will enable us to simultaneously engage masses of people in electoral and issue politics and use that infrastructure to promote alternative values and visions that are fundamentally different from the logic of how electoral politics currently operate.  In doing so our goal should be to build at two levels of scale: to build our own autonomous power to influence ‘vote shares’ in local and state politics, and to utilize these processes to grow and strengthen the relatively small numbers of core community activists in left community grassroots organizations. This difference is most possible and needed at the local and regional levels where the major parties are largely non-existent and/or non-important in the functioning of local politics.

I’ve found that electoral work is very different than the usual activism and organizing that I’ve done in community and labor organizing.  In the kind of organizing we’ve done in the past, we’ve become very practiced at defining an issue, taking the morally correct position, explaining why we’re right, and campaigning targets to agree with us by shame and through positive mobilization. To do this, we often work long, slow, and hard with relatively small groups of leaders to promote a deeper vision and to expand the realm of what is politically possible.  That work is extremely important and will provide leadership to the broader movement and will set our direction.  However, that has to be combined with other levers of power to be effective.

In our initial efforts at electoral organizing, I’ve learned that you have to build operations that effectively and efficiently reach people at a large scale. The trick is to employ simple messages that still align with our core values.  The issues have to be moved in an actionable way. The windows of opportunity are much shorter in electoral organizing than they are in community organizing, and to win you have to operate within the realm of what’s presently politically possible, even if you are at the edge of it. It feels and is much more transactional than what I’m used to.  I find that being clear about this is very difficult for most activists. We want every part of our program to be our maximum program, and electoral work clearly is not that. But as part of our strategy it can be extremely effective, especially in giving us much greater leverage on local elected officials and policy. It is effective as part of  larger two pronged strategy.

A veteran Civil Rights Movement leader helped me understand this. He was telling me about organizing SNCC [the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee] in Mississippi in the early years.  He talked about his key lessons from Ella Baker, and he raised something that was incredibly enlightening for me.  He said that the basis for the success of the Civil Rights Movement was that they were able to find the edge of the current community consensus in those small rural areas.  The consensus was around some set of core values and political sensibilities, but not everything they thought was right and needed. They deliberately rode on the edge of that consensus and worked to expand it, but never went outside of it. That was the strategy of the Civil Rights Movement in its building phase, and that should be the role of our electoral work now. Our other organizing work, and other forms of organizing and organization can focus on shifting that consensus altogether, from both within and outside the current consensus. That’s the real inside/outside game.

If our electoral work is riding on the left edge of what our communities believe is important and what is possible, then our deep community organizing work is actually trying to shift the parameters of the consensus altogether and expand community consciousness and vision of what’s needed and what’s possible. We may sometimes choose to stand outside of the consensus and push it from the outside, and sometimes we may be coming from within that consensus and riding with current values knowing that they actually converge with our longer-term visions. That work of shifting ideas – which is as much “organizing consensus” than it is “community-organizing” – needs to continue in a deep way. One way this happens is through inspiring prefigurative actions and projects.

So you are saying there is an imperative to do electoral organizing in this moment.  What should be the approach of left community organizers to electoral work?

We need to ground ourselves in who we really are politically and what kind of work we prioritize as organizers. As left organizers, many of us will feel uncomfortable with the constraints of electoral organizing: working within the window of an election cycle, building different kinds of operations, using different messages and staying within the limits of what’s currently politically possible. We need to shift our culture to do this work, to be able to organize voters at scale and within the constraints of time and politics and electoral rules, but we need to keep a clear read on how this work relates to our longer-term visions.

If we do so, there are other dangers for the left movement as we move towards taking up electoral work. It can be seductive. There is such little actual organized base in our communities, that parties and candidates and demagogues are able to count on very small organized pockets, usually seniors and homeowners associations, to win the right to govern.  On our side, translating our organizing skills to establishing voter bases can quickly make us players in that realm. A relatively small organized electoral force can make a big difference, which comes with the seduction of being part of the power-brokering. We can easily narrow our demands rather than expand them. We need to guard against that drift away from our issue organizing, from our ideological work, from our movement-building work and from our long-range view.

We need ideological and structural guards against political drift. Our collective intelligence on how to do this well is pretty low right now. In the short term, we will need to be grounded, and ensure that our practice remains accountable to our base and to other leftists, both in the lessons and power and when the danger signs emerge. But we can’t figure out these dynamics in a vacuum. We need to get out there and start doing the work.We need to grapple with these questions and try to figure out how to do things right. It doesn’t mean that we’ll always land in the right place, but the practice of the work will help us to develop an advanced approach to electoral work and a sharper analysis of our current political system.

What are some examples of the new approaches to the work that are happening right now that you’re finding inspiring?  What are some old tactics or strategies that left organizers should turn away from?

Overall, it’s an amazing time for innovation and experimentation. I think there’s a tendency on the left to say, “You have to choose one. Either it’s radical outside tactics, or it’s electoral work within the system.’  Either it’s base-building work, or communications, or policy, or legal fights, or leadership development; the movement or it’s building strong institutions.”  In fact, we need a range of strategies to make a complete package for a movement. We may have a division of labor within that range of strategies; different people and different organizations will have their specific focuses and specializations.  But, for a mass movement, all of these different strategies would be seen as related aspects of that movement.

Currently, the existing organizations neither constitute a mass movement nor a mass electoral party. These experiments may spark one, but that’s the point. Since we don’t, we can’t actually have a coordinated strategic view except through fragmented lenses. Now is the time to re-imagine, both the forms and the strategies to win.

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