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BILL FLETCHER: What We Need to Do

What We Need to DoJoseph Phelan of Organizing Upgrade interviewed Bill Fletcher Jr. by phone in early June 2009.

Joseph: Bill, the first thing I want to get to with you is: What do you think are the most significant things happening right now in the world? What are the shifts that left organizers in particular need to be paying attention to?

Bill: We are living through the convergence of three crises: economic, environmental and a crisis of state legitimacy.  It is a moment where we’re dealing with more than a recession or even a depression. We’re dealing with these forces that are coming together and opening up tremendous possibilities in terms of the development of a new set of politics and a new political practice. But at the same time, it’s very dangerous and very scary.


Unfortunately what’s happened within the left and among progressives is sort of an unwillingness to grapple with the dynamics of this period.  Some level of denial, some level of lack of urgency. I’d say that’s what makes this particular period unusual and that necessitates a deeper level of analysis and thinking and urgency at the level of action and organization.

J: I want to come back to that urgency and even that denial of opportunities within the left.  But you said that in the convergence of these crises, there are danger and possibilities; could talk more about the dangers that we’re facing in this time.

B: The dangers exist at a number of different levels.

We are faced with a very serious threat to the future of humanity. Not to be melodramatic. Any numbers of things that could happen. During the Cold War the big worry was a nuclear exchange.  That remains a real possibility, especially with these nutcases in Pakistan and India who posses nuclear weapons.  They could end up using them against one another.  In another part of the world, Israel could end up using nuclear weapons against one of its opponents. Nuclear war is always a possibility.

But the big worry regarding the future of humans as a species is the shift in the environment.  Will these shifts make the planet inhospitable? Will we be able to stop or reverse the damage down to the environment? These are real worries and part of the three crises. So we are operating at that level of analysis and action.

We’re also operating on the level of political dangers.  One of the biggest political dangers in the Global North and the Global South are variants on right-wing populism.  Populism’s proponents often steal arguments from the left; morph them into almost their opposite and use them to touch a sentiment in the masses of people who are feeling constrained, oppressed, dispossessed.  Right-wing populism looks for scapegoats. Those scapegoats are another ethnic group or a racial group, women, gays and lesbians…it can be any number of things.  We must expect right wing populism to become stronger unless we thoroughly defeat it [ed. Note – As we have seen with the successful targeting of Van Jones and the 9/12 movement].

Given the competition for resources on a planet where resources are limited by the ecology of the planet and the economic system that we live under there is a constant danger of a war of “…all against all…”.  When you have limited resources people have two options. One, they fight the system that handles the resources in an undemocratic way, and that’s generally the way that the Left wants to go.  Two, they identify a particular “other” ,another grouping that is perceived to be the grouping that is suppressing everyone else and is hoarding resources. So right wing populism can – under those circumstances – be very persuasive.  We on the left need to better understand it and take issue with it.

J: You just identified the big global impacts on the environment and the political levels. You also identified, earlier, the crisis of state legitimacy. In all three of these there seems to be an opening for a left response.

B: There’s actually an opening for both: an opening for a left and a right-wing response.

When I talk about state legitimacy, I’m referring to the changes in that the state has gone through in the Global North and South under neoliberal globalization.   When you start thinking about the philosophy and ideology that accompanied the development of the modern capitalist state, it is important to keep in mind that it was shaped – first of all – with the idea of a nation-state, even though capitalism has always been global.  The myth of the nation state is that the state would protect the population and that protection takes various forms.  It can mean social services or it can mean military protection or whatever the case may be. That’s the role of the state.

With neoliberal globalization and the global reorganization of capitalism, what’s happened is a slow transformation of the role of the state. In the Global South, it’s very apparent that the nation-state has been significantly weakened, particularly with regard to multinational corporations and the transfer of wealth.  The capitalist state in the Global South finds itself at wits end trying to find resources to conduct services for the population.

As the state weakens, and as the state’s ability to distribute wealth in a more equitable way weakens, you then see again the rise of left and right wing alternatives. The right wing alternative in an extreme is “war-lordism.” That’s an extreme right-wing solution to the crisis of the state, and it can be justified in terms of xenophobia, etc.

A left-wing response to neoliberal globalization can be found in things like the global justice movement, which has been challenging neoliberal globalization for years and has been raising this question about the unequal distribution of wealth on this planet: who controls it and what must be done about that.  And it rises  that while the capitalist state in the Global North is not weakening in the same way that the state in the Global South is weakening, it is weakening in a different way.

In the North we see that the state is  delivering fewer resources to the people because of policies that have been voluntarily engaged the political elite. This weakening, so to speak, is taking place at the same time that the state is becoming stronger in other ways, most especially at the level of repression.  Nevertheless, these diminishing resources combined with the ideology of neoliberalism that encouraged the privatization of services has resulted in a changing state.

When you have a situation where the state is not delivering what it once was delivering, you can have a right and a left wing response.  The left wing response, as I mentioned before, includes the global justice movement, but it’s not limited to that because it also raises the question of whether or not we need something different, and that’s where the opening exists for the left.  The Right, depending on which Right one is talking about at any one moment, may advocate a stronger, authoritarian state—even if it advances neo-liberal globalization—or it might advocate more of a balkanization along regional and/or ethnic grounds.

J: We just talked about the crisis of state legitimacy. And when you’re talking about the global justice movement, you’re identifying them as people who are raising questions around the global distribution of wealth and so on.  But you’re also saying that we can push beyond a broad global justice movement and start to demand more specific changes.

B: That’s right. Absolutely. And that exists on a couple of different levels. One is that the global justice movement is a very broad movement; it that includes anarchists, socialists, progressives, i.e., a variety of forces that do not necessarily have a coherent alternative to capitalism. And that’s OK because it’s done a great job, and it’s supposed to be broad.  That said, what we need is to have an organized radical left that is in fact posing the question of an alternative, and in my opinion specifically socialism. We need to flesh out how that socialism will look different than the socialism of the twentieth century, which was a mixed bag.  So that’s one of our theoretical challenges right now. If we don’t advance alternatives, we can only continue resisting for so long till the point comes when we’re weakened and we’re tired. In that situation, the right will take advantage.

J: Within this need for a more organized left I’m curious about the danger and possibilities that you identified with the left having a lack of urgency. I’m wondering where you see that playing out, even within the broad global justice movement and where do you see that playing out in the existing radical left.  In this moment, what are the opportunities for the radical left..

B: Part of the problem at the level of the radical left is that it is content for the most part to engage in resistance struggles within the confines of existing social movements. Part of the damage that’s been done to the left over the last 25 years has been (in addition to repression in certain places) is ideological; the growth of postmodernism and post-structuralism which basically suggested that there really is no alternative. It’s a very subjective ideology: there is no alternative; there is no overarching theory or project that can link together the various progressive social movements other than some vague resistance. This ideology fits nicely in the position of resistance.

If all you’re doing is resisting, then you don’t need any higher forms of organization; you just coordinate every so often, go to joint conferences and things like that and then go back into your bunker.  The problem is that people do not operate by and large only within a particular social movement.  They operate multi-dimensionally.  There are a lot of struggles going on, and these struggles are interconnected. At certain moments, particular struggles become primary, but that doesn’t mean that other struggles ever disappear.  So you need some sort of overarching theory that is able to help link these together. You also need organization that can link these various movements and can bring together the leaders (with a small “l”) of these movements towards the development of a coherent collective vision.

There is a comfort in networks and there is a comfort in coalitions, but there is a fear of organization. Part of that comes out of a legitimate criticism of many of the organizational experiences of the twentieth century.  Part of it comes out of anti-communism and the impact that anti-communism has had over the years in  promoting the notion that all organization is dangerous and that all organization contains within it the seeds of authoritarianism and that therefore the best route is not to promote organization at all, but to remain within loose networks.

There’s a role for networks; that relates to my earlier point about the global justice movement. There is a role for networks, and there’s a role for that level of interconnection. But in order to advance mass movements, to really challenge for power, you need a much more cohesive organization and vision.

I think that many people on the radical left don’t see that.  At the same time, you have people on the radical left that do have organizations, but in many cases, those organizations are small and relatively weak. They may have good politics or they may not, but there is what Mao Tse-tung referred to as “mountain stronghold mentality”. It was a metaphor that came out of the Chinese Revolution where you would have a guerrilla band that would be literally on top of a mountain. They would secure the top of the mountain; they could keep the enemy away but that was all they could do.  Every so often, they would come out and attack. At a point when the struggle necessitated a different form of combat, these guerrilla bands would not  want to come down from the mountain and form new forms of organization.  Part of what I’m arguing is that we need different forms of organization if we’re really going to struggle for power.

J: With that, we’re in this place with these three converging crises: economic, ecological and the crisis of the legitimacy of the state, there is an international global justice movement.  Particularly in the United Sates, what do you see as the role of left organizers?  And to be specific by what I mean by left organizers, I mean people who are engaged in practical organizing work on the ground who are probably engaged in social movement work.

B: I would say that the role of left organizers in this period is primarily involves three things.

The first is identifying the real leaders of the oppressed.  That doesn’t mean that the left organizers may not be themselves leaders, but the idea is to always be looking for the new emerging struggle and emerging leaders and again, I mean leaders with a small “l,” that is, people who have followers.

The second piece is conducting educational work and engaging those leaders in a combination of struggle but also political education, helping them to develop an ideological framework to be able to look at the world and be able to analyze it from a progressive if not radical standpoint.  The objective here is that such an analysis leads to transformative action.

The third thing is the building of organization.We on the left must always be thinking about building and strengthening organizations of the oppressed; whether we’re talking about labor unions, whether we’re talking about community-based organizations, whether we’re talking about networks and whether or not we’re talking about a left political party, a party for socialism.  We’ve got to be the ones that are building and supporting  the building of institutions of the oppressed.  When we’re in the labor unions, for example, we need to be the ones that are fighting for their democratization, for their vigilance, for their outreach to other segments of the oppressed, etc. We have to fight for organizations to have breadth, that is, they really need to represent different segments of the working class and the oppressed. But we also have to be the ones that are asking the questions like “How do we get to an alternative society? What does that mean at the level of organization? Therefore, why is it necessary to build a party of the left or parties of the left?”

So I think that we have those tasks: identifying the leaders, linking real education with progressive action, and the third is promoting the development of organizations among the oppressed.

J: So these are the three things you’re seeing as the primary opportunities in this moment.  We’ve talked about the denial about what needs to happen on the left, so now let’s talk about the urgency. I’m hoping you can relate it to the three things you just laid out.  Where is the left faulting on the urgency? What are some practical things that leftists should be doing?  Can you give some real-world examples of things that you’re seeing or things you would like to see?

B: Well, much of the left is trapped in what the old man, Lenin, referred to as “spontaneism.”  Unfortunately when people read Lenin and look at the issue of spontaneity, they often look at it very narrowly.

There’s a spontaneism that exists within sections of the left when it comes to issues of organization.  I would argue that it takes the form of the idea that radical organization will emerge when the masses realize that it needs to emerge.  Therefore, according to the spontaneists, our role is essentially to be ideological gad-flies who whisper into the ears of the masses and then at the appropriate moment, the masses will awaken and say, “Damn.  Now I get it.  Let’s form a party!”  I’m obviously exaggerating it somewhat, but only somewhat, because this spontaneism is very pervasive within the left.  So you’ll have people waiting, basically, and not posing this question. This goes to this question about urgency. Not posing this question of organization and not actively building it because they actually believe that the organization will emerge on its own or that the signs will be so clear, that the sun will rise in the west instead of the east and at that point we will know it is time to form a party.

So I think that is something we have to actively defeat and realize that we have to help to put into place those institutions that can help to strengthen the oppressed and build the Left. Now you said you wanted me to be concrete about something specific, remind me again.

J: You gave these three points and touching on the urgency point, there’s this spontaneity feel among large portions of the left.  You put out these three points – identifying leaders of the oppressed, doing real educational work and building organization.  I was wondering if you were seeing real-world examples of moving towards these three things that you’re prescribing – or if you’re not seeing them, then if you could put forward some things that you see that could be good.

B: There’s a lot of good work that’s going on.

The workers’ center movement or the social wage movement has been very good at identifying leaders among the poor, of linking those leaders to action and linking that with education.  But I think that much of the social wage movement has also been trapped within a certain kind of NGOism where the activists from the middle strata remain reluctant to give up their leading roles, so the leaders from the oppressed become instruments, even unintentionally, rather than becoming self-conscious leaders. There’s a dependency relationship that develops.

So I think that there are a lot of good things that are happening that I see out there.  A lot of the attention over the last twenty years, for example, to popular education, was very good.  It was largely inspired by the Brazilian experiences (e.g., the work of Paulo Friere). The good news there is that it’s focused on the needs of the student or the learner as opposed the idea of simply pouring knowledge into someone’s head.  The problem is that some people who have adopted the popular education pedagogy have at the same time adopted a semi-anarchist view of change and have come to believe that all one needs to do is to conduct educational work and that people will move on their own.  I think that’s a very wrong read of the Brazilian experience but also of history. So I think that what we see is that there is right now a lot of experimentation.

At the level of building organization, I’d say the votes aren’t in yet frankly.  You have some good experiences within the radical left of people talking more with one another, so that’s good.  And people are friendlier.  But our level of theoretical development remains fairly low and there remains a reluctance to push the envelope on questions of moving to higher level of organization, and I think that reflects the spontaneism as well as a level of distrust.

J: OK so we have the economic crisis in the United States and then we have the election of Obama.  The election of Obama is a point of contention within the left. Some see it as an opportunity; some see it as same-old-same-old, no big thing.  It’s now past the 100 days mark, and I know that you’re involved in Progressives for Obama. So I’m wondering what are you reflections on Obama and his presidency.  And what are the opportunities for the left in this Obama moment?

B: Well I think that there are a lot of opportunities. On many levels the Obama administration  broke with key elements of the Bush administration’s approach towards governance, towards the role of government as well as foreign policy.  It doesn’t mean that it’s a complete break, and this country is still at the heart of the global empire. So we have to be clear about all of those things.

The Obama campaign inspired millions.  The biggest challenge for the left, out of the Obama campaign, is what to do with that energy, how to really tap into it, how to encourage some level of continuity from the campaign.  And don’t think that we’ve answered that question very well, in part because most of the left remains ambivalent about electoral politics.  While much of the Left may have been inspired to varying degrees by the Obama campaign, it is really uncertain as to whether that’s a realm that we want to spend a lot of time in.  So I think that is a challenge.

The Obama administration represents additional challenges. I think that – for African Americans – there is a very particular challenge because we’re going to have to figure out how to criticize Obama when he doesn’t do something, when he follows a less-then-progressive course of action. And there’s going to be – and it’s already evident – significant numbers of African Americans who are going to remain silent about things that they don’t agree with. And I think that’s a challenge for the Black left.  You have some people in the Black left who always opposed Obama and who continue to oppose Obama, and they take on something of the form of a mosquito that flies by your ear at night, making it very difficult for you to sleep.  They don’t have a lot that’s useful to say, and they certainly don’t have a lot in terms of practical direction. But it’s enough to keep people unsettled.

The role of the genuine left is to approach the Obama administration critically, by which I mean that it’s not an approach of total support or total opposition but evaluating on a case-by-case basis where we can support the Obama administration, in which case we need to support and we can’t just remain silent, and where we need to be critical like on issues like Palestine.  I think that Obama has not gone nearly far enough on this, and he has caved into anti-Palestinian forces in the United States. So we need to keep the pressure on them around Palestine. Or take with the stimulus package.  I think on balance it was important to support it, even where we disagreed with specific provisions, but the thrust of it was the right thrust.  We need to be prepared to speak out, on both counts, when we are in agreement as well as when we’re in disagreement.

J: I agree that optimism is a crucial piece of sustaining a movement and a left movement.  And victories are crucial to maintaining optimism because if you’re constantly in defeat, then you’re going to be set back. So I’m wondering right now, what are some things or organizations or movements or actions that you’ve found to be very inspiring.

B: There’s a lot that I find to be inspiring.  I think that if you want me to name names, I’d say that the Miami Workers’ Center, the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, the Domestic Workers United, Tenants and Workers United, the Bus Riders Union as well as alliances like Jobs with Justice, Grassroots Global Justice and the Right to the City Alliance…I think that there are great examples. There are people who are trudging away in the labor unions who are attempting to fight the good fight like the recently formed National Union of Healthcare Workers that split off from SEIU after the unfortunate and ill-considered trusteeship of United Healthcare Workers West.  There is the on-going work of people who are in union reform movements like the Teamsters for a Democratic Union or the Longshore Workers Coalition, not to mention the critical work of those associated with the magazine Labor Notes.  I think that there are these and other efforts that are very, very important, but they are simply not enough.

All of these examples are very important and I’m not trying to diminish them. But we have to have a proactive organization and organizational practice that really is engaged in a fight for power. One level of that is certainly electoral and engaging in those politics. But the other level is much more long-term, and that’s where I keep coming back to the necessity for a party for socialism.

J: Well I think that covers about everything we wanted to cover in this conversation.  That’s a strong note to end on, but if there’s anything that you want to add, we’re open to it.

B: Very quickly.  Organizing in the United States has been dominated – since at least the 1960s or early 1970s – by what I call Alinskyism, which I would summarize as an activist practice that attempts to operate within a de-ideologized framework. It is an activist framework that borrowed organizing practice from the communists of the 1930s and 1940s, but borrowed left the ideology behind.

Alinskyism can be extremely militant and has been used by progressives and some left forces as an approach towards organizing that in its essence is another form of spontaneism, that is, that people will come to their own conclusions through struggle. The reality is that struggle is one part of the educational process, but engaging in struggle does not necessarily result in people developing an overarching view of society and the issues of oppression and emancipation. We need to recognize that people walk around with worldviews; they do not walk around vacuous.  They walk around with very complicated world-views, and part of our job on the left is to engage in struggle with people. Those views may be complicated, contradictory, etc., but that those world-views often help to explain to people why capitalism exists and why there’s nothing greater that we can ever win. And we need to challenge that.

J: Thanks for taking the time to talk with us Bill.

Bill Fletcher

Bill Fletcher, Jr., is a longtime labor, racial justice and international activist. He is an Editorial Board member and columnist for and a Senior Scholar for the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington, DC. He is the immediate past president of TransAfrica Forum and a founder of the Black Radical Congress.

Fletcher is the co-author (with Fernando Gapasin) of Solidarity Divided, The Crisis in Organized Labor and A New Path Toward Social Justice (University of California Press). He was formerly the Vice President for International Trade Union Development Programs for the George Meany Center of the AFL-CIO. Prior the George Meany Center, Fletcher served as Education Director and later Assistant to the President of the AFL-CIO.

Fletcher got his start in the labor movement as a rank and file member of the Industrial Union of Marine and Shipbuilding Workers of America. Combining labor and community work, he was also involved in ongoing efforts to desegregate the Boston building trades. He later served in leadership and staff positions in District 65-United Auto Workers, National Postal Mail Handlers Union and Service Employees International Union (SEIU).

Fletcher is a graduate of Harvard University and has authored numerous articles and speaks widely on domestic and international topics, racial justice and labor issues.

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