The Stacks

The Stacks – Issue 2

Welcome to the second edition of The Stacks, produced by the DSA Political Education Committee. We’re glad to see the teachers’ strikes highlighted in our last issue are still making waves, and we’re also glad to see democratic socialism in the news again: this time in the form of Bernie Sanders’s proposal for a national job guarantee. It’s a big issue with a long history in socialist thought, and it’s inspired a little bit of controversy within the movement. As always, we’re here to help you make sense of it all, with some readings by socialist scholars and readers — going all the way back to the Communist Manifesto — that touch on the case for a job guarantee as well as other ways of achieving a similar goal. And read on for national education updates, a spotlight on Hudson Valley DSA’s chapter education efforts, and another Martin Shkreli Award, where we recognize a Texas state official as our class enemy of the month.

The Extremely Offline

It’s hard to find time within the 24-hour news cycle to examine the deeper lessons of the day’s big political events. In this section, we connect you to the commentary of socialists — past and present alike — and highlight the enduring ideas beneath the most-tweeted topics of the month.

Bernie Sanders recently announced a plan to create a federal job guarantee, where the government will directly employ anyone willing and able to work for a living wage. The idea is that anyone who wants a job should get one, and why bother with the middleman — private employers skimming “stimulus” money off the top — when the government could just employ people directly?

But the goal, known as full employment, is about more than just providing individuals with jobs. If implemented, it has incredible potential to shift the balance of power between the capitalist and working classes. When the working class as a whole is less desperate, it’s easier for individual workers to confront the boss or even strike without fear of being replaced by scabs. In his 1943 essay “Political Aspects of Full Employment,” Michał Kalecki wrote that the introduction of full employment would not just be an economic change, but would introduce radical social and political changes as well:

The “sack” would cease to play its role as a disciplinary measure. The social position of the boss would be undermined, and the self-assurance and class-consciousness of the working class would grow… “Discipline in the factories” and “political stability” are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the “normal” capitalist system.

Bosses will fight tooth and nail to prevent full employment, because what it would really strip them of is power. As long as the employer can decide whether a worker eats or goes hungry, they can dictate the terms of the employment relationship. But if the workers have the security to walk away from any given job, they’re in a much better position to fight for their interests against the boss.

Full employment was a central demand of the 1963 March on Washington, and was included in the 1967 Freedom Budget spearheaded by A. Philip Randolph. Writing about the prospects of the civil rights movement, Bayard Rustin warned that he failed “to see how the movement can be victorious in the absence of radical programs for full employment.” And in the introduction to the Freedom Budget, Randolph wrote:

The tragedy is that the workings of our economy so often pit the white poor and the black poor against each other at the bottom of society. The tragedy is that groups only one generation removed from poverty themselves, haunted by the memory of scarcity and fearful of slipping back, step on the fingers of those struggling up the ladder.

Rustin and Randolph saw that by removing the scarcity of private employment, a common form of racial antagonism — motivated by a competition for artificially limited resources — could be turned into a collective fight for a shared cause.

For all these reasons, thinkers across the socialist tradition have embraced the goal of full employment. One of the Communist Manifesto’s ten demands, after all, was “the equal liability of all to work.” But not all would have settled on a federal jobs guarantee as the method for achieving it. The New Left theorist Andre Gorz, for instance, instead emphasized campaigns for a “1,000-hour working year with no reduction in income.” This would function in two ways: to reduce individuals’ time spent on wage labor, and to force companies to employ more people. This is another historic demand of trade unions and socialist parties alike.

Gorz distanced himself from the kind of public jobs programs Sanders advocates. In fact, he was attracted to the “1,000-hour working year” in part for its ability to remove the need for tasks like childcare, elder care, and even environmental protection to be handled by the state, rather than by citizens. “We must ask ourselves,” he wrote, “to what extent our need for the care and help provided for by these services […] is generated by our lack of time; to what extent, therefore, that need would not be met if we increased the time we had available rather than employing people to take care of our children, ageing parents, mixed-up adolescents and distressed friends in our stead.” It was better, in his view, to give people the time to meet these needs themselves, rather than making them the responsibility of the state.

Where these thinkers come together, though, is the urgent need to, in Gorz’s words, “arrest the division” between exploited employed workers, on the one hand, and “the marginalized mass of the unemployed and semi-employed on the other.” Full employment does that by working against the logic of racialized labor reserves, and by bringing greater numbers of people into a position where they can confront employers together. In this way, Bernie’s demand comes from a long history of socialist thought — but that doesn’t mean it isn’t more relevant than ever.

National Updates

  • The national organization is reviving Socialist Forum, DSA’s political discussion bulletin. It will supplement the Democratic Left blog by publishing longer-form articles on the broad strategic and political questions facing our organization. For the first issue, they’re soliciting 3,000–4,000-word submissions on the question: “What would a political revolution in the United States look like today?” To pitch your answer, provide a 200–300 word abstract here by Friday, June 1.
  • The Democratic Left blog has new reviews, editorials, reporting, and calls for submissions up. The next print piece is on DSA’s electoral work, and it should be arriving on your doorstep soon.
  • Our national labor and Medicare for All organizers teamed up to create a pamphlet on “Labor and Medicare for All” to share at April’s Labor Notes Conference. The pamphlet was a huge success with attendees, so organizers have now shared it for general use online.
  • May was an amazing month for DSA in the press. The New Yorker published not one but two stories on our victorious candidates in Pennsylvania. That story was also picked up by the Washington Post, which also covered DC-DSA’s organizing against Amazon’s HQ2. Yahoo! covered our “guerrilla warriors fighting for health care.” We earned mentions in local papers across the country. And the NY Post… well, they just made fun of us. (Not to fear. We still have the memes on our side.)

The Ground Game

Each month, we’ll highlight a political education event, resource, or project developed by a local DSA chapter, in the interest of inspiring new ideas, collaboration, or just jealousy. This months contribution comes from New York State’s Hudson Valley DSA. (If you have a story about your chapter’s political education program, email [email protected]).

This summer Hudson Valley DSAers are going to relax in parks and read some Marx!

Really, it’s that simple. We’re putting on “Marx in the Parks,” a study group spanning three Sundays aiming to provide a basic introduction to Marx’s ideas — and help us build up our tans.

Our chapter tries hard to incorporate political discussion and reflection in all of our chapter activities. But we think it’s also important to set aside time just for political education.

Some of us have read Marx before, and some of us haven’t. We’re aiming for breadth, not depth, with this study group. Both of the organizers came of age politically in the ’90s, when many radicals rejected Marx as too intellectual. Many still do! So we want to make the point that Marx and his writings are accessible to any activist willing to put in the work.

We’re starting with Engels’s “Socialism: Utopian and Scientific,” an introduction to Marxist thinking. Next we’re reading “Value, Price, and Profit,” a lecture Marx gave to the International Workingmen’s Association while he was finishing up Capital. And then we’re wrapping up with “The Civil War in France,” where Marx draws lessons from the Paris Commune, the first socialist government.

These texts leave a lot of questions unanswered. If our summer study circle goes well, we might start a Socialist Night School this fall. If you’re curious to hear more, you can email [email protected].

— Cori Madrid and Dan Lutz, Hudson Valley DSA

Class Enemy of the Month:
or, the Martin Shkreli Award

Bless his heart — for someone so dedicated to “small government” and “fiscal responsibility,” Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton sure is fucking it up.

Never mind that Paxton has spent (and is continuing to spend) millions of dollars on dumb lawsuits, from his perpetual war against Planned Parenthood to terrorizing Dreamers and DACA recipients to disenfranchising the poor, elderly, and voters of color with discriminatory voter ID laws. He’s also finding new and innovative ways to waste public money by getting embroiled in securities fraud charges.

Ken Paxton’s latest target is the statewide campaign for paid sick time. Austin, Texas’s city council recently approved a paid sick time ordinance — which the Austin DSA had a huge and decisive hand in getting passed — which makes Austin the only major city in the South to have any mandatory paid sick time. Dallas and San Antonio have similar initiatives in the works, with the difference that both cities opted to go through ballot initiatives. DSA comrades and their counterparts in various progressive groups in Austin and Dallas have the formidable task of getting around 65,000 signatures in each city in the space of 60 days.

Here’s the thing, though: we know our pal Kenny P. will almost certainly at least attempt to preempt this in the most time-consuming, wasteful way possible. Several years ago, Denton (a college town north of Dallas) passed a fracking ban that the state preempted almost immediately, despite the fact that it was democratically passed at the ballot. In 2015, a bill, HB 540, was introduced in the Texas House that would have made any municipal ordinances subject to — you guessed it — approval by the Attorney General. Luckily, it died in the House, but it’s a signal that the Texas GOP doesn’t think much of cities democratically exercising their autonomy.

So why fight, besides getting mad miles on our Fitbits knocking on doors? Why wear out the soles on our shoes for paid sick time when we know there’s a good chance that the state will take it away from us? Because we have a bigger vision, one Democrats and “progressives” really don’t have. Local initiatives are great; they provide measurable, actionable goals that engage the local population. But they have to be linked to a long-term strategic vision if they’re going to lead to meaningful, lasting changes. The Democratic Socialists of America offer that vision. Paid sick time is an immediate material benefit, one that everyone who works for a living can get behind. But it’s also a stepping stone toward Medicare for All — and if Ken Paxton chooses to rip that from the hands of working Texans, he will have played right into ours.

That’s all for this month, folks! Remember to share with your friends, and send any comments or questions to [email protected].

Editorial team:
Ella Mahony, John Speranza, Ajmal Alami, Andrej Markovčič, Zoe Holden, Stephen Gose (graphic design).