Why Police & Prison Abolition is a Bad Idea

The complete abolition of police and prisons has become a popular demand on the socialist Left in recent years. Many have gone so far as to argue that “abolition” should become a central pillar of the socialist project:

“We are resolute in our conviction that the police and the prison system have no place in a socialist world. Strong, well-resourced communities don’t require repression to keep order. There is nothing democratic, nor socialist about police and prisons. The abolition of the police and prison system may seem impossible, but if abolition is unworkable, then so too is socialism.” – Praxis slate for DSA National Political Committee

When most regular people hear about the idea of abolishing the police and prisons, however, they tend to respond with confusion and disbelief. What does it even mean to abolish police? Who will protect innocent people from anti-social behavior? And don’t we need to isolate dangerous people from the rest of society? These are questions which the abolitionist movement has yet to answer in a satisfactory way.

What does prison abolition mean, anyway?

Most abolitionists recognize that even in a dramatically more just society, people will still seriously harm one another, and that society must have a way to deal with this. For example, prison abolitionist Jeannie Alexander writes in Abolition Journal:

“To be clear, we recognize that when harm occurs in a community it may be necessary to separate those whose immediate physical actions have resulted in harm to another. Social separation has its place. However, successful social separation should be as brief as possible and should result in the restoration of the individual to his or her community and the restoration of victims and their families.”

This is reasonable as far as it goes. But it’s not clear what the difference is between Jeannie Alexander’s idea of “social separation” and the most humane prisons in Scandinavian countries such as Norway. Norwegian prisoners enjoy a strikingly high standard of living, with high quality private accommodations, a variety of options for entertainment and learning, and many opportunities to socialize with other inmates. The best behaved inmates even get their own home on prison property— watch!

Not only are Norway’s prisons humane, they’re effective, too. Just 20% of Norwegian prisoners are re-arrested within 5 years of being released, compared to 77% in America. The Directorate of the Norwegian Correctional Service describes its rehabilitation-centric philosophy as follows:

“Prison should be a restriction of liberty, but nothing more. That means an offender should have all the same rights as other people living in Norway, and life inside should resemble life outside as much as possible.”

Socialists should look to Norway’s prison system as a model. But Norwegian prisons are still prisons, because inmates don’t have the freedom to leave. Until medical science develops some kind of “cure” for evil— a drug that would make it impossible for people to intentionally harm one another— we will have to forcibly isolate dangerous people from the rest of society until they are rehabilitated. And even with a cure for evil, we would still have to force criminals to take it.

The fundamental fact that prison abolitionists overlook is that even the most humane societies must use force to protect the social order. While we can dramatically reduce the incidence of crime by guaranteeing a high standard of living for all, it’s nevertheless inevitable that some people some of the time will engage in anti-social behavior, and when this happens society must be prepared to use organized violence (arrest, imprisonment) to neutralize the threat. Talk of “abolishing” prisons and police allows us to engage in utopian thinking, by pretending that it’s somehow possible to do away with all force and violence in the administration of a civilized society. It’s not.

Police officers are actually good

Cop AbolitionAbolitionists argue that the function of police is not to prevent individual crime, as we might naively assume— it’s to crush popular revolts and to protect the property of the rich. This means that police are an irredeemably reactionary force that must be abolished, rather than reformed.

But if the police are simply servants of the wealthy elite, it’s somewhat of a mystery why police spend most of their time preventing theft and assault, and a vanishingly small amount of time in riot gear. This idea that police only exist to protect rich people stems from a distorted understanding of how the state works and what its function is. The state isn’t inherently on any one “side” of the class struggle. Rather, the state mediates between various different social groups and tries (and often fails) to maintain a relatively peaceful coexistence among all of them. This does mean that the state will tend to protect the property of the rich— but it will also work to prevent individual crime, and it will even give protections to workers if it feels that this is necessary to maintain order. Despite its many flaws and shortcomings, working people are better off with the state than they would be without it.

Police killings are mostly an American problem

Police abolitionists contend that the violence that American police forces inflict on poor and working people, especially people of color, is an inevitable outgrowth of the institution of policing itself which outweighs whatever benefits the police might provide. The data, however, simply do not support this view. On the contrary, they show that police in other developed nations almost never kill civilians.

US vs. UK

In the United Kingdom, for example, just six civilians were killed by police from 2016 to 2017. It’s hard to imagine that any hypothetical replacement for the police that abolitionists might dream up could ever achieve a lower civilian death rate than this. In the United States by contrast, 972 civilians were killed by police over the same period— thirty-three times more police killings per capita than the UK. This tells us two things. First of all, it’s entirely possible to have a policing system that kills civilians at very low rates, probably close to the theoretical lower limit of what’s possible. Secondly, the comparatively high rate of police killings in the United States must be due to America-specific factors, rather than universal characteristics of policing itself.

One major factor is obvious: most American police officers are armed, and they are forced to deal with armed civilians much more frequently than police in any other developed nation. It should be no surprise that police killings are dramatically lower in countries where patrol officers are unarmed, such as the United Kingdom or Japan. Unfortunately, however, disarming the police isn’t on the cards in the US any time soon. Given the high concentration of guns in civilian hands in the United States, any attempt to take guns away from police would lead to an unacceptably sharp increase in both police and civilian deaths. If we wanted to disarm the police, we would first have to confiscate hundreds of millions of guns from American civilians, followed by a dramatic tightening of gun laws across the country. Given the Second Amendment and the deeply ingrained gun culture of the United States, this is a politically impossible task.

We need better police, not no police

In recent years, some Black Lives Matter activists who adhere to the abolitionist paradigm have taken up the slogan, “Defund the Police.” The idea is that, since our end goal should be to eliminate the police, socialists should oppose all increases in police presence in crime ridden neighborhoods or additional funding to police departments, no matter the circumstances. But given the evidence from the social science literature (see Chalfin & McCrary 2012) indicating that increases in police presence do indeed reduce crime rates, the idea of “defunding the police” is positively irresponsible in most cases.

preferences-about-police-presence

Defunding the police is also very unpopular, among Americans of all races. Polling by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research has found that the vast majority of African-Americans (81 percent) would oppose any reduction in police presence in their communities, even if it meant they would pay substantially less in taxes. Strikingly, black Americans are actually more than twice as likely as whites to support an increase in police presence in their neighborhoods. These statistics clearly demonstrate that police abolitionism is an extremely fringe position among people of color, as well as the American public as a whole. The idea that it’s somehow “racist” to oppose police abolition is laughable. Abolitionists don’t speak for people of color— the vast majority of workers of color disagree with them.

How to transform the criminal justice system

Recognizing the necessity of police and prisons doesn’t mean that socialists can’t have a radical, transformative vision for the criminal justice system. The United States in particular has a serious problem with mass incarceration, and our legal system shows clear economic and racial biases. We have a lot of work ahead of us. Here are just some of the demands that socialists should be fighting for:

  1. End cash bail.
  2. End the death penalty.
  3. End mandatory minimum sentencing laws.
  4. End private prisons.
  5. Establish a single-payer legal system where everyone, including the rich, is provided with free, equal legal representation from the state.
  6. Legalize marijuana; decriminalize all other drugs. Retroactively expunge the records of nonviolent drug offenders.
  7. Mandate body cameras for all police officers.
  8. Overhaul the prison system with rehabilitation as its central goal. Norway should be a model.

The American Left would do well to take a page out of the book of the British Labour Party on this issue. Labour has taken a sharp turn to the Left in recent years, thanks to the election of Jeremy Corbyn as its party leader in 2015. But the committed socialists at the head of the Labour Party clearly don’t have a problem with advocating for an expansion of the police force. Labour’s manifesto calls for recruiting 10,000 more police officers across Britain, to reverse cuts that the Conservative government has made to police departments in recent years:

Labour understands that police officers are public servants, just like teachers and firefighters, and that our communities are safer with them than without them. Let’s be more like the Labour Party.

The Left Has a Golden Opportunity to Take Over Congress in 2020

Bernie Sanders will likely run for president again in 2020. Several reports have confirmed that he is at least “considering” a presidential run, and it’s clear that many of his closest advisers, including his former campaign manager Jeff Weaver, are strongly encouraging him to jump in the fray.

We should really hope that he is running, because polls going back all the way to 2015 have  shown that he is the Democratic candidate who is most competitive against Donald Trump in a general election match-up. He is also by far the most viable democratic socialist presidential candidate we are likely to see for the next several years. There is no other politician on the Left who has the name recognition, favorability ratings, experience, and activist base that Senator Sanders has.

When Sanders first started his campaign in 2015, one of his biggest stumbling blocks was his lack of name recognition, especially when compared to that of Hillary Clinton. He began the campaign with name recognition in the single digits, and had to gradually overcome that barrier over the course of the primary season. In 2020, however, he will likely have more name recognition than any other candidate in the Democratic primary race (except perhaps Joe Biden). This will make him the front runner from the start.

If Sanders does decide to run for president next year, he will likely win the Democratic nomination. If he wins the nomination, he is likely to become president. This means that a Sanders presidency in 2020 is a serious possibility, and it’s something that the Left needs to prepare for well in advance.

Sanders could enable a left-wing wave in Congress

As I argued in my last post, socialists can work toward capturing the Democratic Party by enthusiastically running candidates in Democratic primary elections. The usual difficulty with winning (congressional) primaries, though, is that they require a significant amount of financial and organizational resources. And in order to win a Congress that could actually enact a robust social democratic program, we will need to win hundreds of primary elections, in one fell swoop.

Bernie OcasioThis may seem virtually impossible, given the current limited capacities of the American Left. But a Sanders presidential campaign could give the Left the shot in the arm it needs to start winning primaries on a mass scale. Sanders could endorse and actively support hundreds of Berniecrat primary challengers across the country, turning his campaign into a movement to capture the entire federal government. He could invite each endorsed candidate onto the stage with him at campaign rallies, mention their names in the press, and use his campaign field offices to get out the vote for local Berniecrats, alongside Sanders himself. This would bring desperately needed media coverage, campaign contributions, and volunteer power to down-ballot Berniecrats.

But in order to make this movement a reality, we will need to start recruiting leftist candidates for Congress well in advance— ideally right now— while ramping up our mobilizing capacity for 2020. The Democratic Socialists of America in particular, with our 46,000 dues-paying members, can play a key role. DSA should prepare to flex its muscle by passing a priorities resolution at its 2019 national convention calling on chapters to recruit or endorse over 150 democratic socialist candidates in congressional races all over the country. We should do something like this even if Sanders doesn’t run for president, but if he does, it will make winning congressional primaries all the more important.

Legislative priorities for a Sanders administration

We have a lot of work to do, and we will need to be in power for quite a while in order to accomplish it all. It will be of the utmost importance that we change state policy in ways that ensure that this left-wing wave in Congress will translate into a long term shift in the balance of class forces in American society. With this in mind, a Sanders administration will need to prioritize pushing through those policies that will make the most palpable impact on voters’ lives. This in turn will win Berniecrats a lot of enduring support going into the 2022 and 2024 election cycles.

  1. Medicare for All
    Establishing a single-payer healthcare system in the United States should be the top priority of a Sanders administration. This would make a material improvement in the lives of most Americans. It would quickly become a social program that Republicans won’t dare rolling back.
  2. Raising the federal minimum wage to $15/hour
    Increasing the minimum wage would also make a dramatic improvement in the lives of millions of Americans. This would help boost turnout for democratic socialist candidates in Congress among working-class voters going into the 2022 midterm elections.
  3. Trillion-dollar green infrastructure program
    It’s well known that the United States has some of the oldest, poorest quality infrastructure in the Western world. We also desperately need to invest in transitioning our economy away from fossil fuels. We can do both, while creating millions of living wage jobs, with a trillion dollar green infrastructure program. Those employed by such a program would become very likely Berniecrat voters in 2022 and 2024.
  4. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system for federal office
    One of the biggest hurdles to getting democratic socialists elected is the need for campaign money. Neoliberals will always tend to have a fundraising advantage, since they are able to solicit donations from business interests. Establishing a robust public campaign financing system would go a long way to correcting this imbalance and ensuring Berniecrats can keep getting elected in the years to come.
  5. Making public universities tuition-free
    Ending tuition at public colleges and universities will further solidify an already strong block of Sanders voters: students and young people.
  6. Mandating two weeks paid vacation for all workers
    American workers are among the most overworked in the world. Mandating at least two week of paid vacation for all workers will endear working people across the country to the Sanders administration.
  7. Making Election Day a paid federal holiday
    Mandating that employers give noncritical workers a paid day off on Election Day— for both midterms and presidential elections— would significantly boost turnout among poor and young voters, thereby helping Berniecrats get elected.
  8. Pass a Labor Bill of Rights
    As I discussed in my first post on this blog, the labor movement has been in decline for the past few decades, for a combination of technological and political reasons. The most effective way to revive organized labor is to enact aggressively pro-union legislation. This would include a ban on state-level “Right to Work” laws and legalizing card check union drives. A strengthened labor movement could in turn mobilize workers to vote and volunteer for Berniecrats running for elected office.

If we are able to enact even half of this agenda, it will go a long way toward rebuilding the New Deal coalition that kept Democrats in control of the federal government, almost uninterrupted, from 1932 to 1968. Back then, FDR was able to stitch together a voting block that united Northern blue collar workers, racial minorities, and rural and suburban whites based on their common class interests. And we might just have an opportunity to bring these disparate groups back together again, starting in 2020.

The Left Can Capture the Democratic Party- And Nothing Else Will Work

In last week’s post, I argued that the most urgent task for the Left today is to build our capacity to win elections. This week, I’ll be tackling a controversial related topic: the relationship of the Left with the Democratic Party.

Why the Democratic Party can be captured

The modern Democratic Party, with its reliance on state-run primaries and its lack of a binding party platform, is very peculiar compared to political parties elsewhere in the capitalist world. In other countries, such as the United Kingdom, political parties have dues-paying members who vote in internal elections to determine who will be the party’s nominee in any given race. Because these “closed” parties can pick and choose who they will accept as a member, it is exceptionally difficult for outside forces to capture them.

Before the late 1960’s, the Democratic Party was even more closed than these European parties. While some states held primary elections, these primaries were non-binding, and party bosses would frequently intervene to select their preferred candidate against the wishes of primary voters. And since the Democrats had no dues-paying members, there was no direct way to put a check on the decisions of party elites.

The opening up of the Democratic Party

This system began to change in 1968. During the 1968 presidential primaries, Democratic primary voters overwhelmingly chose anti-Vietnam War candidates such as Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern. But party leaders felt that these anti-war candidates would do poorly in the general election, and at the party convention they selected the moderate Hubert Humphrey as the party’s nominee. This enraged rank-and-file party activists, leading to rioting and clashes with police during the party convention.

Reformers inside the Democratic Party gained the upper hand when Hubert Humphrey lost to Richard Nixon in the general election. They were able to convincingly argue that the existing system wasn’t working, and that a more open, democratic candidate selection process would produce more competitive nominees. Party leaders decided to make primary elections binding— thereby eliminating their own ability to veto the will of primary voters. Not wanting to be outdone by the Democrats, the Republican Party decided to follow suit soon afterward.

McGovernDuring the 1972 Democratic primaries, voters chose the left-wing anti-war candidate George McGovern— someone party elites never would have approved of under the old system. McGovern lost badly to Nixon in the general election, but by that time Democratic Party leaders weren’t able to roll back the opening up of the primary system. Voters’ expectations about how parties ought to work had shifted, and if the Democrats tried to revert to the old system, they would have be open to powerful criticism from Republicans in the media for being “anti-democratic.”

Can the Democratic Party become a “working-class party”?

Because American political parties are bound to the results of state-run primary elections which are open to the public, they no longer have direct control over their own ballot lines. This means that party bureaucrats have very little power beyond making endorsements (which are non-binding) and directing fundraising dollars to candidates.

What it means to “capture” an American political party, then, is simply to build a network of civil society organizations that is powerful enough to win a solid majority of the party’s primary elections, year after year, across the country. In the process, voters’ expectations about what the party ought to offer them will shift, making it more difficult for candidates backed by the old coalition to get elected. And since party bureaucrats are either directly elected during primaries, or appointed by elected officials, a coalition that won a majority of party primaries could quickly capture the bureaucracy as well.

There is no reason to believe that left-wing and working-class elements could not form a coalition capable of becoming the dominant force in the Democratic Party. But because of the openness of the primary system, an American political party can never be sealed off from outside forces. It will be a constant battle for the Left to maintain its dominance in the party by fighting off primary challenges from neoliberal candidates, who will tend to have a fundraising advantage. This is the downside of the post-1968 reforms: while they make it possible for the Left to capture the party, they make its re-capture by business interests easy, too.

Blair
Tony Blair‘s election as leader of the Labour Party showed that member-based parties are not immune to capture by business interests

If we wanted secure our gains by transforming the Democratic Party into a more traditional labor-based party, we would have to take steps to eliminate the primary system and restrict the franchise in internal elections to dues-paying members and trade unions only. Needless to say, this would be a very bad look politically. Republicans, who would presumably retain the primary system, would slam us in the media for opposing party democracy. It’s not even clear that “closing up” the party would be desirable, assuming that we can maintain the organizational capacity to win most Democratic primary elections. Closed party structures don’t offer much protection from neoliberal takeover, anyway— the rise of the centrist “Blairite” faction in the British Labour Party in the 1990’s demonstrates this.

The lesson we need to learn is that modern American political parties are empty vessels that turn votes into seats in office. Leftists shouldn’t try to make them into anything more than this— the tasks of mobilizing voters and volunteers can be performed by civil society organizations working outside the party system itself.

Why haven’t the Democrats been captured already?

If the Democratic Party is so susceptible to capture by outside forces, why hasn’t the Left succeeded in capturing it already? The answer largely has to do with the broader political and economic climate of the past forty years. Capturing the Democratic Party first really became possible in the early 1970’s, when primary elections proliferated and were made binding. But soon after this the neoliberal period began, in which “squeezed” profit margins and a high rate of inflation caused firms and the state to become much less responsive to pressure from the labor movement. This made it much more difficult for left-wing Democrats to get into office and make good on their promises.

1980_large
Reagan’s landslide victory in 1980 was made possible by the defection of Dixiecrats to the Republican Party

Around the same time, Southern “Dixiecrats” began to leave the Democratic coalition, which severely damaged the electoral viability of Democrats on the national level. And after twelve years of right-wing Republican governance under Reagan and H.W. Bush, neoliberals like Bill Clinton were able to credibly argue in the 1990’s that the Democratic Party must lurch toward the center in order to become competitive again. It wasn’t until well after the 2008 Great Recession that conditions became ripe for more left-wing social democratic politics to become relevant again inside the Democratic Party— and they were introduced by a little known independent senator named Bernie Sanders.

Jeremy Corbyn Resumes Election Campaign With Press Conference On Defence

It is striking to note that, even though the Democratic Party and the British Labour Party have very different institutional structures and historical origins, they both went through roughly the same kinds of ideological shifts, in response to similar social pressures, from 1945 to the present day. Given that Jeremy Corbyn and his friends were able to succeed in capturing the Labour Party, it should also be possible for the American Left to capture the Democratic Party, which is a much more open and porous institution than Labour has ever been.

Why third party politics doesn’t work

While many on the Left try to argue that it’s impossible to capture the Democratic Party, few of them even bother to make the case for why it would actually be easier to build a new third party than to take over an existing one. There’s a good reason for this: attempts to build new mass political parties in opposition to the Republicans and Democrats have never gotten very far in the United States.

Party identification

One reason for this is party ID. The political science literature on elections has shown that voters’ personal identification with political parties is the single most reliable predictor of who they will vote for in general elections, and this is especially true in countries with longstanding, entrenched party systems like the US. Most voters are working-class people who have little time to research each candidate in detail— so they use candidates’ party identifications to get a general idea of what they likely stand for.

Because of this, candidates running on Democratic or Republican Party ballot lines can effortlessly win thousands of votes based on party identification alone. Any third party or independent candidate will needlessly have to work much harder to earn those votes, by convincing thousands of partisan Republicans and Democrats to ditch their preferred party on the basis of the individual candidate’s merits. In contrast, using the Democratic Party ballot line is a proven method for electing socialists, as we’ve now seen with Ocasio-Cortez and the several other DSA primary victories in the past year. We shouldn’t make it gratuitously harder to get leftists elected— it’s hard enough as it is.

Spoiler effect

Possibly the most important reason why third parties have never taken off in the United States is something called spoiler effect. The spoiler effect occurs when there are three or more candidates in an election, where voting for the best candidate (say, a Green) takes votes away from the more viable second-best candidate (a Democrat), thereby facilitating the election of the worst possible candidate (a Republican).

The spoiler effect is a very powerful disincentive against voting for third parties. And when third party candidates do end up throwing the election to a Republican, they suffer tremendous media and voter backlash. In the 2000 presidential election, for example, it turned out that the Electoral College hinged on just a few hundred votes in Florida. Since Green Party candidate Ralph Nader won thousands of votes in that state, it was clear that if Nader hadn’t run, Al Gore would have become president instead of George W. Bush. Whatever credibility Nader had previously was destroyed.

Any serious third party that doesn’t limit itself to contesting elections in liberal cities will face this kind of problem almost every time it runs a candidate. The most successful labor-based party ever in the US, Minnesota’s Farmer-Labor Party, is an exception that proves the rule— they exploited major party primaries to get their foot in the door in the state government.

The two-party system is actually good

Many advocates of the third party strategy argue that the American two-party system constitutes an unacceptable restriction on democracy that must be replaced with a more pluralistic multi-party system. But if our goal is to make the state do things that benefit workers, and to ultimately transform the economy in the direction of democratic socialism, the evidence we have from other countries suggests that a multi-party system would actually harm the Left, rather than help it.

Angela MERKEL, Martin SCHULZ.
In Germany, a country with PR, the “grand coalition” between the center-right CDU and the center-left SPD has facilitated the rise of the far right

In countries with proportional representation (PR) and several viable political parties, it’s nearly impossible for any one party to gain an outright majority in parliament. This forces parties to join together in coalitions and make compromises. While this may sound good in the abstract, it makes it much more difficult to get any kind of radical socialist program enacted. Multi-party systems also force the Left to split its resources between multiple competing left-wing parties, rather than focusing on one common slate of candidates and legislative priorities. The ideal for the Left is to realign the American party system in such a way that there is one right-wing capitalist party, and one left-wing social democratic or socialist party.

Pathway to party capture

Civil society organizations like DSA need to strongly orient themselves toward electoral politics, and in particular toward running corporate money-free, democratic socialist candidates in Democratic primaries. The success of candidates like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez demonstrates that it is possible to win with this strategy. But in order to capture the party on a reasonable time scale— we don’t have all century, folks— we will need to think big. Winning primaries against as many establishment Democrats in Congress as possible should be a top priority in the 2020 election cycle.

Our RevolutionAll of this will be greatly helped along if there is a viable democratic socialist candidate in the Democratic presidential primaries in 2020. Such a candidate would be able to endorse and actively support hundreds of down-ballot democratic socialist primary challengers, turning their presidential campaign into a movement to capture the entire federal government. Luckily, we already have one man who would be able to play this role— and his name is Senator Bernie Sanders.

In Defense of Electoralism

Just last month, the Democratic Socialists of America made national headlines by securing its first seat in Congress with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory over Joe Crowley in New York’s 14th congressional district. Ocasio-Cortez refused all corporate campaign contributions and ran on a robust social-democratic platform that included Medicare for All, tuition-free college education, and a federal job guarantee. As a result of this victory, DSA’s membership has ballooned to over 45,000 members over the last three weeks.

Ocasio-Cortez isn’t alone. Over the last year, DSA has enjoyed unprecedented electoral successes, with 15 DSA members elected to public office in the 2017 elections. These electoral victories have substantially boosted the profile of democratic socialist politics- so much so that New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon has started describing herself as a democratic socialist! The vital lesson to draw from these victories is that electoral politics is an essential terrain of struggle, and that we need to focus our energies on it much more heavily going forward.

Movements vs. electoral politics: a false dichotomy

There are many in the socialist movement, however, who want to resist the conclusion that we ought to devote more of our resources to electoral politics. These activists tend to argue that “movement building” and “grassroots organizing” are the only true drivers of social change, and that electoral politics can only play a secondary role:

“If we want meaningful social change, or even basic progressive reforms, the electoral road leads us into a strategic cul-de-sac. Instead of better politicians, we need popular power — independent, self-managed and combative social movements capable of posing a credible threat to capitalism, the state, white supremacy and patriarchy.”

The Lure of Elections: From Political Power to Popular Power

This view, however, depends on an overly abstract and nebulous conception of what it means to build an effective social movement. “Movements” change nothing in and of themselves. For a movement to be effective, it must be organized around concrete demands on specific institutions. These demands inspire working people to get involved in the movement, and they serve as a concrete measure of the progress that a movement has made.

The failure of the Occupy Wall Street movement demonstrated the crucial need for demands. When movements lack concrete demands, they tend to quickly fizzle out without achieving much of anything. Regular people do not have patience for movements that don’t promise any material improvements in their lives.

Where does power lie?

Movements can target a wide range of institutions, but the most obvious target for working-class demands is the capitalist state. The state is the only institution in society with the ability to collect taxes, print money, and enforce laws. The entire capitalist system is at the mercy of the state for its continued existence, so if we can change state policy, we can force capitalists to do our bidding. It’s no surprise that nearly all of the concrete demands that socialists are fighting for today, like Medicare for All, tuition-free college, and a $15/hour minimum wage, are demands on the state. And in our society, the easiest way to change state policy is to win elections.

In addition to the state, working people can also make demands directly on employers. This is what the trade union movement has always been about: demanding higher wages, better working conditions, and more job security directly from the bosses. Historically, organized labor formed the organizational and financial backbone of working-class and socialist movements. But it’s important to recognize that after a decades-long decline in membership, organized labor is now a shadow of its former self. While it should be possible to modestly strengthen organized labor in the medium term, we cannot expect it to return to the strength it enjoyed in the 1950s. The transition to a service-based economy has fundamentally disempowered labor in the workplace, and the rising tide of automation will ensure that this trend continues into the future. Ironically, the one thing that could restore the labor movement to its former glory would be a dramatic change in state policy favoring unions. Indeed, it was the passage of the Wagner Act in 1935, which gave legal rights to labor unions for the first time, that precipitated the first major spike in union membership in the US.

Food_not_bombsThose who are uncomfortable engaging with state power often argue for a third strategy for socialist organizing: “building the new society in the shell of the old.” This anarchist concept involves building alternative institutions like worker cooperatives, mutual aid networks, or neighborhood councils, in an effort to prepare the groundwork for an entirely new social system at some point in the future. But while alternative institutions can often be helpful, they are severely limited as a strategy for social change. Merely demonstrating alternatives to the status quo does not build the power needed to transform society in the face of an increasingly powerful state machine. Socialists need to win state power, not make futile attempts to fight the state from below.

Building a movement to win state power

Given the limitations of other tactics, building the capacity of the Left to win elections is the single most important thing socialists should be working on. Socialist, labor, and progressive organizations should run candidates for office on platforms centered around universal social programs and class-based grievances. Whenever possible these candidates should publicly identify themselves as “democratic socialists,” even if they don’t explicitly advocate for public ownership of the means of production. At this stage, it is more important to popularize and destigmatize the idea of “democratic socialism” than it is to fill it with clear anti-capitalist content.

We should strive to aggressively primary any incumbent Democrat who does not enthusiastically endorse a robust social democratic program. The Tea Party has been very successful at pushing the Republican Party far to the right, largely through the threat of primary challenges to sitting Republicans. There is no reason we can’t do the same to the Democrats. It’s not even necessary for all of our primary challenges to succeed- as long as we can make credible threats to kick Democratic politicians out of office, incumbents will be forced to support social democratic demands.

None of this will happen on its own, of course. While the Tea Party was able to rely on the generous funding of billionaires to bankroll its primary campaigns, the Left will have to get much more creative. In order to consistently win thousands of primaries and general elections across the country, year after year, we will need to build a powerful network of civil society organizations, ideally federated together into a single coalition. Organizations like DSA, Our Revolution, and Brand New Congress can play a key role, alongside progressive labor unions and other left-wing groups at the local and regional levels.

Because of the long-term decline of organized labor, we can no longer rely on unions to be the primary source of funding for socialist electoral campaigns. But the good news is that the Internet is making big money much less important. Fewer and fewer voters are watching TV ads— by far the largest expense for traditional campaigns— and social media has opened the door to mass fundraising and outreach. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was able to unseat an incumbent who outraised her 10 to 1, because she was able to effectively leverage social media and an army of volunteers. And when socialists like Ocasio-Cortez get into office, we can enact laws that will tip the scales in favor of the Left, such as public campaign financing and automatic voter registration.

The endgame

The success of Tea Party-style primary challenges in shaping state policy should tell us something about how the state functions in capitalist society. The state is not a tool directly wielded by the capitalist class to further its immediate interests, as many orthodox Marxists have argued. Elected officials and other state actors enjoy much more autonomy than this- but their decisions are constrained, pulled and prodded by the myriad social forces that threaten the state’s order, and the careers of the politicians who run it.

As we build our power inside the state, the need for a socialist transformation of society will gradually become apparent. With each successive social-democratic reform, capitalists will feel more and more uneasy. Eventually, the state will face a collapse in “business confidence” wherein employers begin to disinvest, fleeing the country to seek refuge somewhere more friendly to business interests. When business confidence collapses, this places a nearly irresistible pressure on the state to retreat from its socialist agenda. Elected officials face a choice between familiar, stable capitalism, and a highly uncertain leap into the dark, where social unrest and economic collapse seem to lurk. They also fear that voters will blame them for the economic chaos, and vote them out of office. We have seen this story play out time and time again: Portugal in 1974, France in the early 1980s, and Greece in 2015.

The history of the socialist movement tells us that capitalism can only be ended in conjunction with a severe legitimacy crisis, wherein both the state and the general population become convinced that the uncertain leap into socialism is a more viable path to an acceptable social order than maintaining the capitalist status quo. Such a severe legitimacy crisis has never occurred in a developed capitalist country- but we can be sure that the steady encroachment of automation, which will leave hundreds of millions jobless, will create one. In the meantime, our job as socialists is to build our capacities to win elections, pushing the boundaries of social democracy while preparing for the moment later this century when society will be ready to leap into the bright socialist future that awaits us.