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What Is a “Universalizing Politics” and Why Does the Left Need It?

We need a universalizing left to transform society, says Charles Derber.

Protesters rally against Trump's immigration ban in Seattle, January 29, 2017. (Photo: Scott Lum / Flickr)

Charles Derber ​offers a guide to the new era of organizing in Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times. With guest contributions from Medea Benjamin, Ralph Nader, Gar Alperovitz and more, this book makes a compelling argument about how movements must come together. Order your copy today with a donation to Truthout!

This is a perilous period but also a time of opportunity. If we become activists for an altered society, we can usurp the excesses of capitalism. The following is an interview with Charles Derber, author of Welcome to the Revolution.

Mark Karlin: What do you advise to those persons in the United States who are too dismayed and despairing to resist in what you call these “perilous times”?

Charles Derber: There’s no better antidote to despair than joining a rally. Feeling sick about Trump, I went to a rally against his travel ban. It was full of people carrying beautiful, inspiring signs, singing and hugging each other. I came away feeling joyful and hopeful, eager for more protests. Try it and I’ll bet you, you’ll have the same reaction.

In addition, many people have given up on voting — in part because the Democrats as an organized party seem better than the GOP, but far too corporate and tepid. What is your response?

Charles Gerber. (Photo: Routledge)Charles Derber. (Photo: Routledge)It is true that the two parties, since at least the time of George W. Bush, have been what I call Bush and “Bush lite.” This reflected the Clinton administration’s rejection of the New Deal in favor of a centrist corporate-friendly “Third Way.” But in the 2016 presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders showed that a populist call for “democratic socialism” could attract workers who voted for Donald Trump and [sink] Hillary Clinton. Senator Elizabeth Warren told the Netroots convention on August 11, 2017, that progressives had “taken over the heart and soul of the Democratic Party.” This is wishful thinking but there is a new emerging “united front” linking social movements and progressive Democrats. It is one major element of the universalizing politics I discuss in the book, involving the always contentious question about whether social movements should be involved with electoral politics and mainstream parties. The answer is yes, but with clear recognition that the movements must maintain their autonomy — and push the Democratic Party leftward from inside and the outside.

What does it mean to “universalize resistance” as compared to “silo organizing”?

Since the late 1960s, left groups have fragmented into mostly separate movements…. They have accomplished important gains, but have not [consistently] unified to transform our capitalist system that helps breed and institutionalize poverty, racism, misogyny, militarism and climate catastrophe. A universalizing resistance brings these siloed movements into a coordinated struggle against the system that represses all of them…. Universalizers attack the ruling system and seek to regain the political power that Trumpists and the GOP have seized at local, state and federal levels. Indeed, Trump won by creating a right-wing universalizing politics that brought together “alt-right” economic nationalist class politics with “alt-right” white supremacist and Christian civilizational identity politics. We need a left universalizing politics to counter the right-wing universalizing version as more and more Americans turn against the establishment of both political parties. Studies of left activists show a keen recognition of the limits of silo organizing among activists themselves, more than 50 percent of whom believe that it is severely limiting their vision and mass appeal.

Revolution implies many different meanings to many different people. What does it mean to you?

Revolution seeks to overthrow the existing system and create a different society, whether from the right or left. Left revolution is a universalizing nonviolent fight to transform our militarized capitalist system and create “democratic socialism” — a new system founded on universal rights, economic democracy, and equality, respect and love for all social groups. It requires both strong class politics to win over beleaguered workers and strong identity movements to end the institutionalized discrimination and violence against people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, the disabled and undocumented immigrants. It promotes values of equality, solidarity and love — and it is responding urgently to the emergency created by climate change and nuclear war that could end the human experiment. It is, in this sense, a common-sense survival strategy for anyone who loves and seeks to preserve all life on the planet.

How do you suggest reaching out to white workers who vote against their economic interests because of their attachment to people such as Trump on white and Christian nationalism issues?

Ah, the ever-present question that my book seeks to address in many ways. In the book, I interview Noam Chomsky about this question, and he argues from personal experience and history that shared interests can overcome longstanding cultural differences and ideological prejudices created by the right. This requires a vision of a new economy that empowers and provides good jobs and security to white workers…. Note that many of Trump’s working-class Rust Belt voters voted for Obama, and also for Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primaries. A Sanders-style class politics can restore hope [to] white workers about realizing their economic interests. As Trump’s policies fail the workers who voted for him, there is a fertile opportunity to win them to the left universalizing politics I describe — one of the book’s most important subjects.

Not all white workers can be reached, and the racism and cultural conservatism of many workers is deeply entrenched. But … many workers are part of progressive multiracial service sector unions, such as the nurses, teachers and government workers. So, too, are industrial workers in unions such as the United Steel Workers, which is working intensely to unite labor and civil rights groups. The executive vice president of the United Steel Workers, Fred Redmond, writes movingly in my book about his life-long work uniting labor with anti-racist and peace movements.

Unions help to shape worker culture. And even when the majority of workers are not in unions, unions can promote universal rights for the entire working population, as in France and Sweden, that help shape a culture of solidarity in the entire population. Such a European-style universalizing labor agenda will also attract white working-class people in the US.

But winning white workers also requires a universalizing politics that links social movements to the Democratic Party and to Sanders-style “revolution.” These political organizations will be driven by universalizing grassroots movements, which always shape mainstream parties and the culture they promote in elections and campaigns. As younger Democratic candidates from the working classes run for local, state and federal elections, they will resonate culturally with working-class constituencies; they may be in their constituents’ churches, bowling leagues or PTAs. [Candidates who are both white and working class will] know how white workers see the world and how to help them understand that universal health care and other social benefits can be seen as consistent with Christian values of community and helping the most vulnerable among us. In terms of transforming capitalism, wasn’t it Jesus who said that it “is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to get into the kingdom of heaven?”

In what way does “super-universalizing” capitalism offer an opportunity for revolutionary change?

Super-universalizing capitalism spreads capitalism into all nations of the world, into outer space and deep beneath the seas, and far into our own psyches. Everything is “corporatized” and reshaped for profit, including medical care, education, child care, transportation, the environment, the military, the media and, of course, all business and community life, as well as personal identity itself. This leads to ever more degradation of society and increasing repression and violence — economic and military — at home and abroad. Living standards decline for the vast majority, as secure jobs vanish, wages decline and social welfare systems are brutally cut.

This breeds despair in the population but also a rising anger against the system. It undermines the system’s legitimacy and the credibility of mainstream national elites, fueling strong anti-establishment populism and anti-systemic politics on both left and right.

Trump won, as noted above, by universalizing a right-wing populism rhetorically aimed at the Establishment and supporting workers. His economic and white nationalism exploited the opportunities created by “super-universalizing” capitalism as it batters workers and the health and welfare of the population. We have just seen its ugliest side in the neo-Nazi, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville and other towns, such as Seattle and Boston.

But this same ruthlessness of the super-univeralizing system creates even greater opportunities for the left, which can end the system’s brutality and truly better the lives of the population. My book argues that a universalizing system can fuel right-wing Trumpist populism but can only be challenged successfully by a universalizing left politics.

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Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy in Perilous Times

“A must read for anyone serious about building a meaningful and positive future!” – Gar Alperovitz

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Bernie Sanders talks about “revolution” and “democratic socialism,” and he is moving toward a more multicultural model of socialism…. The resonance of his appeal — polls show he is the most popular politician in America — shows the remarkable level of disenchantment with capitalism. As the system has super-universalized over recent years, Pew, Gallup and other leading polls show that people have more and more negative response to the word “capitalism” and more and more positive response to “socialism,” — with more than 50 percent of millennials and of the Democratic base positive toward socialism and less than 50 percent positive toward capitalism. This is a natural response to the erosion of so many people’s economic security, sense of safety and social respect, and quality of life.

Only social movements can create the transformation we need. As the system universalizes, the connections between its intertwined toxic hierarchies of racis[m], sexis[m] and class power and violence —what feminist Patricia Hill Collins calls the “matrix of domination” — become more apparent. This helps movements see the necessity of connecting and coordinating a universalizing mass resistance against the system itself. It also helps create a “unified front” connecting movements and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, as well as other electoral groups, such as the Green Party and the Working Families Party.

But there is no guarantee that a progressive universalizing “movement of movements” will triumph. It must fight not only the enormous financial and political power of the super-universalized system itself but [also] the universalizing power of the GOP and “alt-right,” which controls now the White House, Congress, Supreme Court and the majority of state legislatures and governors, while uniting evangelical Christians, libertarians, white supremacists and corporate elites.

The left offers not just rhetoric but real solutions. Moreover, the majority of the US population is progressive on both social and economic issues, as mainstream polling detailed in the book clearly documents over the past decade. This means that if we organize and overcome our own fear and despair in the Trump era and beyond, we can have genuine hope to win over a majority of the public. The future of democracy and even human survival depend on our seizing the very real opportunities to mobilize universalizing resistance and create a society based on universal human rights, political and economic democracy, vibrant multiculturalism and the respect and solidarity that we all crave.

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