WCU Reading Group - Omelets with Eggshells: On the Failure of the Millennial Left - April 24, 2024

During our 2024-04-04 General Meeting the Membership voted for Omelets with Eggshells: On the Failure of the Millennial Left by Alex Hochuli as our next Reading.

Here is the original recommendation:

The original article can be found here: Omelets with Eggshells: On the Failure of the Millennial Left - American Affairs Journal

I also ran it through a text-to-speech program. It is not perfect, but I wanted to offer up that option. You can either stream the audio from Youtube here or download the audio directly here from our Google Drive.

As we discussed in our previous meetings, we strongly encourage continuous participation in the Reading Group throughout the month. If you can start reading ahead of time, please consider sharing your thoughts and insights in this thread, even if you have not finished the entire article. Moreover, we invite all Members to engage in the discussion, regardless of whether or not you plan to do the reading.

The Reading Group was established to deepen our understanding of the theories and practices that underpin our work and to generate fresh perspectives on our ongoing projects and our overall trajectory. To fully realize these objectives, it is important that all Members actively involved in our various campaigns also participate in the Reading Group discussions, so we can better merge theory and practice.

As with the Labour Party, anyone is one click away from joining Working Class Unity and one click away from dropping out.

Back when we were doing review of our Bylaws, I disagreed with the interpretation that good standing was something that was automatically conferred onto members when they sign up. I thought that new members should at least have to attend one meeting to trigger good standing status, so that they could vote at future meetings. Because, with the way things are now, anyone could join WCU the same day we hold elections and still be able to cast a vote. And, sometimes, I question if we’ve set the bar too low–even if it has been for well-intentioned reasons like lowering dues to $1 for those who are financially unable to pay $10 per month.

We may not be a political party, but are our current standards creating a recipe for instability in the future? Should it mean something more than filling out an online form and making a monthly transaction to be a part of/maintain membership in San Joaquin County’s first socialist organization?

No right answers, just things to think about.

The Problem of Media

It is hard to assess whether or not the presence of a hyperleader is a current issue for us because both internally (within the org) & externally, we just don’t know how folks see Working Class Unity. Do they see a democratically structured mass membership organization? Or do they see followers operating under the direction of our most vocal and visible member? Are they connecting with our message or a messenger?

A lot of the comments, from attendees at the New Member Orientation, were similar in that many people had said that, before attending the event, they had found out about us or had been following us on social media. And if our presence in people’s lives–and how the organization is viewed by the public–is largely shaped by social media, that leaves us susceptible to even the flimsiest online rumor or accusation with mild traction.

All the more reason for us to schedule another meeting of the Temporary Working Group on Public Facing Material (*I’d propose having a Zoom call after the next Steering Committee Meeting.). Until we have something in place, the lack of structure and clear lines of decision-making will be a source of future fighting.

Many of the Palestine rallies have taken place at the mall for, arguably, the same reason: visibility. But is shouting in front of a local Starbucks really strategic? What power centers are being confronted by another round of rallies in front of City Hall?

From my perspective, the most impactful action taken locally was when pro-Palestinian supporters showed up to JH’s office hours. I know there was a concern that going to him directly would lead to protestors being pacified into submission by his empty words. But that didn’t happen. And, ultimately, he drove away in shame as he was shouted down by the crowd. We need to break up the monotony of marching around Pacific Avenue with direct actions that will hold more significance for participants and audiences.

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I think once you pay your dues, you are entitled to a vote. Otherwise, we are just holding your money hostage. But I think there is something to doing things like the Oddfellows, where you have to go through an initiation period before you are a full member.

But I think Alex was coming at this from a slightly different perspective. The problem is not that you are one click away from registering and becoming a full member, it is that you have no reason to be one click away from dropping out.

One can move between DSA-like orgs, online anarchist spaces, Twitch streamer communities, and on/off mutual aid all within a couple of years. That is an illustration of how easy it is for people to enter and exit political communities with little sense of obligation or responsibility slowing them down. It is an untethered approach to politics.

Contrast that with the 20th century, where membership in unions, parties, churches, and other civic associations came along with significant social and material commitments. Your union membership was tied to your long-term job (one you hoped to pass down to your kids); your party affiliation strongly shaped your social circles. Leaving these kinds of organizations came with steep costs, both in social costs but also material consequences. Having real stakes in these organizations helped foster a sense of long-term obligation and collective identity that kept people together during challenging times. That is what is largely missing today. Although this is a long-term problem faced by both the left and the right, the left did not try to address it; instead, it embraced it. Hence the click in/out critique.

Social media has made political atomization worse. Online spaces make it easy to find like-minded people and make it easier to silo yourself in a community. But it also makes it easy to disconnect and find a new community. There are few mechanisms to hold people accountable or to keep them invested in a long-term vision.

Without that, how do you build durable and long-lasting political movements? Without the social and material cost combined with the sense of responsibility and obligation that helped keep prior organizations together, it’s difficult to build anything durable and longterm. Politics today is much more characterized by affect, self-expression, and personal comfort than discipline and sustained commitment.

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The Problem of Organization

During the 2010s, there were movements that were horizontal, leaderless, spontaneous, and organized via social media. This can be seen again in the recent Palestinian struggle, particularly in campus protests. Locally, there is no organized movement, only chatrooms and individuals with social media pages making decisions.

Jäger and Borriello highlight that these “super-volunteers” or organizers create local oligarchies. The mass of online supporters and protest attendees have little influence on the actions or tactics decided by these individuals.

Even when the left engaged in electoral work, a similar system persisted. Despite discussions about organizing through canvassing and building lists and building organizations that way, the orgs did not materialize. People interacted with lefty politicians as they would with any other politician - briefly, maybe once a year. It failed to convince most people to join a larger organized project.

After Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns, there were complaints that his campaigns did not build any long-lasting structures. While the campaigns did not attempt to build them, I am not so sure they could have created a long-term alternative to the DSA even if they tried. The diverse class backgrounds and political perspectives of campaign volunteers would have made it challenging to maintain unity and common cause without the campaign’s top-down directives.

This leads to Alex’s point about hyperleaders, which Hochuli should call Bonapartist figures. These figures seek legitimacy by appealing directly to a base, bypassing democratic processes or parties. Bernie and Trump emerged in response to the lack of democratic accountability in their parties. Bonapartist figures bind together groups that may not share the same class or would otherwise oppose each other. Without these leaders and their ability to let various groups project their goals onto them, the coalition collapses.

The Problem of Media

The piece understates the left’s reliance on media. The left’s ideas and talking points are primarily transmitted through media and social media. Instead of organization leaders accountable to a membership and elevated for their accomplishments, we have podcasters with little to no organizing experience who are presentable and content-savvy and know how to maintain an audience.

Fights over social media account control occur because these groups were set up for one-way communication, while relying on algorithms for content visibility. Real organizations with membership rolls, where ideas can be transmitted from member to member, would make social media accounts less important. And as Meta starts to crack down on the reach of political content, we cannot keep relying on social media.

A key takeaway (for me) is that we should not rely on social media for growth. Social media’s overly stimulated engagement is no substitute for the hard work and high barriers of real-world organizing. It encourages individualized and fickle online engagement for and against us.

A media party is a fake party. No amount of care about posted content will protect us. If people join because we enable them to fight for something they have a stake in, online narratives or smears matter less. The organization’s reputation should be based on its people, networks, and real-world impact. You cannot out post the shit-posters.

The Problem of Rupture

“The left-populist gamble may have represented an attempt to seize power, but it also evinced a radical underestimation of power.”

This problem persists today. Proposals like “we should abolish the Senate” or “Abolish Police” are downright silly once you think about what needs to happen for those proposals to succeed. People believe the moral clarity of their call is sufficient for it to happen.

Even if Bernie had won, his coalition would have been unprepared for the backlash in pushing through his policy proposals. Passing Medicare for All would require extensive public inoculation and the support of current and new unions. Something as simple as some workers making less under M4A than they do today could derail the effort.

Alex also dives into the left’s reliance on urban, highly educated youth (now in their 30s), with geographic concentration in places like CA/NY. Bernie failed to bring together the un/underemployed, the mass of the working class, and the “PMC”/NGO-left. The left has not overcome this failure since his campaigns. The demands of an educated, well-off left will always differ from those of the mass working class.

The Problem of Tradition

The left continues to repeat actions that the left used to do before because… the left did them before. Without really critiquing whether certain tactics worked or if the conditions today will allow them to work, we are setting ourselves up for failure. Things like wanting to do Fordism or New Deal again are a mistake. Those material conditions do not exist today and are unlikely to exist again. (I would put continuing to do mass protests under this category as well).

The left may not be the last defender of neoliberalism, but it is one of its defenders. Almost all organizations are neoliberalized. We need to build our own organizations and institutions. However, people have been attempting this for decades with little success. We are trying to rebirth the workers movement, but there has been more militancy than there has been growth (and segments of the left have not been honest with themselves about that).

Commonsense Communism

To address Alex’s questions in this section, I believe the first step is to reconstitute civic association as a building block of a mass left political party. Attempting to skip this crucial step by “organizing” through the internet or relying on Bonapartist leaders has been proven to fail. Only with those would we have the credibility and roots in the mass working class to “seize authority” and lead when the status quo is rejected.

Leftists typically reject the language of “Make America Revolutionary Again,” as they are almost uniquely anti-American and even anti-American people. Personally, I think that is something we should change on the left.

But how can you have an initiation period when full voting rights is automatic upon joining with dues? What’s the point? What’s the incentive to get to the next step?

Actually, I do not really know the order of when you pay dues, initiation periods, and when you become a full member in Oddfellows; @Robert_H would know better.

I am not saying we should change anything about our dues > full member rights set up we have now. We already have bylaws against coming in under the control of some other organization to stop a takeover. And I do not think we offer anything substantial enough where people would be willing to jump through hoops to join.

I meant there is something to going through some sort of initiation ritual, for lack of a better word, that aids in helping new members understand the organization better, lets them meet some of the new/older members, and at least leaves them feeling like the org is a new social circle they would like to be a part of.

I didn’t have the chance to deep dive into every section. But my takeaways were similar to Harpreet’s. Particularly when it comes to organization, the article emphasized the lack of working class groups into orgs and movements. One the other hand there were some that lacked momentum when only certain people were able to participate (unemployed for example) for only so long.

I do also agree with the problem of media as its central point for meetings, planning, etc fill in the gap. While I still have beliefs that social media allows possibilities of seeking groups and some community (especially for disabled folks), it also allows for hyper permeability within groups. With this permeability, there is flexibility to be in and out of groups, offer support and mutual aid in some cases. However it then also creates a sort of selectivism to “sign off” and on when we choose to.

Using myself in this example, I could choose when to participate and dedicate my time and resources to WCU ( like how I am not making it to the meeting tonight lol). And separately, I can loosely build a sort of community in some way. But I would like to challenge people to think and ask themselves: have we as general “Leftists” emphasized the possibility of creating larger community networks? Whether that be with WCU or other groups we are part of. How I see it, any leftist group that is organized MUST also be deeply embedded within the culture and community in order to last. If we are to emphasize our ways of existing by our video likes and views then we risk disappearing easily.

This felt a little ramble-ish I apologize I was in a rush to add some things in. If there’s more time for me to add more I will try to!