Organizing Upgrade interviewed Kali Akuno from Cooperation Jackson about the election in June 2016.
What do you think are the dangers and opportunities of the current moment?
I think this is a very unique moment. We haven’t seen a political period like this in quite some time. One thing that sticks out in my mind most clearly is that the US (and transnational) ruling class doesn’t have a coherent strategy of its own, or at least not a long-term strategy. They are trying to make a number of quick fixes and pieces of patchwork, but - as we’ve seen since the economic crisis - the quick fixes just aren’t working. They know that they aren’t working. And there’s a mad scramble to hold the center. There’s too much at play, too much confusion amongst their own forces about which strategies and tactics to pursue. And it’s creating some dichotomies that we haven’t seen in some time.
That’s why we have a right wing populist like Trump having a certain level of success and why you have Bernie, someone, who’s calling himself a democratic socialist, actually having had a real shot at becoming president of the United States. We haven’t seen this contrast in the US in a long, long time. I think you have to go back to the 1930s or the 1940s to see anything remotely comparable. Even then, socialism was still a dirty word to most of the people who were eligible to vote in the US. It says a lot that you have so many people who identify with some variant of what they understand as socialism, given the decades of demonization of left ideas - particularly socialism and communism. It says a lot that - within the course of a decade since the economic crisis of 2008 - the limits on that have come crashing down and so many people are actually identifying with socialism as an alternative. Society is searching for some answers, and younger folks in particular are willing to consider some serious alternatives to a degree we haven’t seen since the 1960s and 70s.
It’s a unique period, but it’s a dangerous one. Trump has clearly now gotten the Republican Party nomination, but it’s also clear that there are significant forces in the Republican Party who are willing to support Hillary or to at least not mobilize in support of Trump. The Republican Party is in a crisis. Over the last 6 years, the more right-leaning forces in the party were able to gain control. That right-wing upsurge was mainly intended to undermine Obama, but now they’ve created a monster that they can no longer control. They’re trying to control it, but I don’t think that’s going to work. I think they see that, but they keep trying. This election may lead to a real split in the Republican Party. I don’t think the Democrats are that different. It’s not being talked about in the same way, but people need to pay some real attention to the people who are supporting Sanders who are saying that they won’t support Hillary Clinton on principle. The Democrats are going to have to deal with that.
Since it now seems that the election will turn out to be Hillary versus Trump, then it seems likely that it will amount to being one of the lowest voter turnouts in US history. That says a lot about the legitimacy of the American project. There are a growing number of people who just do not see elections in the United States as a legitimate endeavor. In large part, that’s because of what the two parties represent - the collaborative factions of the ruling class (now commonly called the 1%) and the perpetuation of the exploitative, racist, sexist and homophobic status quo.
Society is in a significant crisis, and I don’t think that most people on the left are seeing it for what it is. It’s seen to some extent, but I still don’t think that there’s a full grasp of it. For instance, I work with people who don’t usually relate to electoral politics on the national level (and with varying degrees on the local level), young folks we work with here in Jackson, MS, particularly through activities of Cooperation Jackson. Some aspects of their imagination has been turned on by Bernie’s campaign. But if it’s not Bernie on the Democratic Party ticket, they’re not going to vote in the Presidential election, not even for a third party alternative like Jill Stein from the Green Party. Many view disengagement and delinking as being more strategic than building an electoral alternative, and I’m not too inclined to disagree. I think we’re going to have to think about what this level of protest in the form of disengagement and attempted delinking (i.e. building institutions and communities that attempt to disengage from the capitalist system via practices of social and solidarity economics or Indigenous forms of production) means. I’ve been saying to them that it’s one thing to disengage and another thing to register a protest vote and quite another to build and promote an alternative. We need to figure out how to move people from being disillusioned with the electoral process and the status quo to figuring out how to build a movement that upends the dictatorship of capital and transforms the state. Given the nature of the capitalist world-system at present, if you are going to stay away from elections, then you need to find another way to break the back of the ruling class, which I believe entails revisiting the strengths of the revolutionary organizations from the 19th and 20th centuries and innovating new methods of organization based on the networked and horizontalist movements of our era. I’m not saying that I have the answers, but I am saying that we - the revolutionary left - need to seriously engage this question. We have to think about organizing broadly and deeply and what that concretely looks like and must entail, given where this generation is at and what conditions necessitate.
However, despite all of this, from my vantage point, it’s a damn good time. People are willing to experiment, willing to take risks, and willing to dream big in a way that we haven’t seen in quite some time. We need to find a way to further merge, learn, educate (when and where necessary), and grow with this new awakening. We need to ask ourselves: What type of organizing can really build the social and political power that we need to transform this society? I see more energy and possibility of doing that today than I have since I was a kid in the 1970s. We must think beyond the 2016 Presidential and Congressional elections, way beyond. Because no matter which one of the RepubliCrats win on November 8th the American empire will be lead even further to the right. We need to make sure that we develop a broad revolutionary program that embraces the strengths of each of the four historic revolutionary tendencies (anarchism, communism, socialism, and revolutionary nationalism), is committed to a politics of decolonization and upholds a determined anti-imperialist line and practice.
What do you think about the different candidates in this election?
From what I heard in what Bernie is advocating, he’s really called for a return to the classical features of the New Deal. He wants to fulfill the promises of the New Deal that didn’t really come through. Take health care, for example. Many people wanted to implement universal health care during the New Deal, but that got shot down. What we have today with “Obamacare” is clearly imperfect, but it was still part of this historic motion.
There’s a lot of questions about what will happen with Bernie’s campaign after Hillary’s coronation and what’s going to happen with all that energy. There are many questions we need to ask ourselves: How can we turn that momentum into an organized force? How do we not repeat the mistakes of Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign, when left organizers were deep in that fight but ultimately got stabbed in the back by Jesse? They had limited control of Jesse’s campaign apparatus, so when Jesse made his deal with the Democratic Party leadership, the local vehicles they built had to be and were destroyed. How do we not repeat that? It looks like Bernie’s strategy - post-convention - is that he is going to do everything he can to make sure that Trump does not win. He sees the greater danger being Trump. Though I can understand his reasoning, it’s fundamentally a dead end, This strategy just subordinates the motion that he has been able to help stimulate to Hillary and the DNC, and it puts the forces vested in him in danger of abdicating to Hillary’s program. Hillary will talk to the left and take safe left positions till the convention, but that won’t be her practice after it for sure. Once she secures the nomination, she will continue on the hard right march that has defined her career. The movement for Bernie is not strong enough to really move Hillary in any direction. The movement for Bernie has been dynamic, and it’s been moving and engaging a lot of younger white forces, but it’s not strong enough or united enough to force her to the left.
What I’ve been trying to advocate is that - although the two presumptive candidates’ rhetoric is different - they will both be catastrophic in office. We know from Hillary’s practical record that she is extremely dangerous, as we saw from her promotion of regime change in Libya, Honduras, and Haiti for example. She is ruthless to the core. She is prepared and willing to ramp up ventures of conquest and regime change on a level that even Obama and Bush wouldn’t do. Her frame is different than Trump’s, it’s more polished, refined and presumably cosmopolitan, but the end result would be catastrophic.
The danger with Trump is that no one knows what the hell he would do really. He would probably surprise us in many ways, and I think he’s smart enough to do that intentionally. On some things I’m sure he would crack down hard and take the most right position possible. On other issues, he would take a more left position to keep other forces off balance and to keep the white community divided on a number of issues. I think he would do a number of things to appeal to white workers to ensure that they won’t want to forge a broader program of working class unity, and he would do it in a way that no one else - including Bernie - can do at this time. Trump has been masterfully tapping into white angst and resentment, that’s what’s appealing to white people throughout the empire about his campaign. He’s adept at appealing to this base from “liberal” left positions (which are really right) and the right, in fact on several issues he is rhetorically to the left of Hillary. That’s the danger with him, his right-wing, populist, white supremacist mass appeal that might enable him to “talk liberal, but walk right” at every turn.
Now personally, I’m a supporter of Jill Stein and the Green Party. With the exception of the candidates running for President from the Party for Socialism and Liberation (PSL) and the Workers World Party, Jill Stein possess the most left platform and program in the 2016 elections by far. I was actually looking forward to working with the Stein campaign during this election cycle, but unfortunately health challenges prevented it. I was not and do not support Jill or the Greens because I think they could win the Presidential election. Rather, I support her and the Greens because I think they provide the best option for building a genuine left electoral alternative in this empire at the moment. Before Bernie entered the race, I seriously thought the contradictions of the period would potentially move millions of people towards the Green Party via Jill’s campaign. Unfortunately, by the fall of 2015 it was clear that Bernie’s campaign was sucking all of the oxygen out of that space - which was more than likely by design, as it is a historic strategy of the Democrats to periodically run left-leaning candidates to suppress third party movements and initiatives.
The current petition - to have the Green Party officially adopt an anti-capitalist platform and agenda - is just further confirmation of this potential. This is not to say that the Greens historically don’t have some issues and limitations, it definitely does, plenty of them, particularly in regards to its understanding of race and national oppression. But, there is plenty of room within the party at present to address and rectify these limitations with effective organizing. So, to the extent that I make any conscious contribution towards advancing left politics in the electoral arena in any concrete way, it is through this vehicle at present.
But, before independent party building, we - the radical left by which I again mean anarchists, communists, socialists and revolutionary nationalists - need to develop and advance an independent political program that includes electoral politics, but is not defined or bound by it. There are all these relatively newly conscious forces that are going to disconnect from the electoral process once Bernie’s out of the race. But regardless of who wins, there’s going to be a drift even further to the right than we saw under Obama. The question is: Can we be a counter-force that organizes in the other direction, uniting with the momentum from Bernie and building a broader front that engages working class people from different races, nationalities and intentional communities? Let’s figure out a solid outside-inside strategy on how to do that. That will force us to answer a number of other questions: How do you really build multi-class alliances? And how do you translate that into a program for effective governance, given the constraints of this era? From my experiences here in Jackson, that would mean that we would be trying to push a program of major experimentation with aspects of the solidarity economy and participatory democracy that strengthen self-organization amongst the oppressed and exploited.
Speaking of your work in Jackson, what can the rest of us can learn from your experiences while Chokwe Lumumba was mayor of Jackson?
There are some interesting challenges that we confront here that probably only make sense in similar-sized towns in the South and the Midwest, if people are looking to replicate the political success that we’ve had. But there are a few big lessons that other people could draw from our experience in the Lumumba administration here in Jackson.
First, we, the left in the US, don’t have a solid enough analysis of what it means to govern. We really don’t. It was very valuable to have had 8 months of governing here in Jackson. Here we are better for having dealt with that experience. After sitting in those chairs and those offices, we have a better sense of what it really means to govern and what you can do within the confines of a municipality and within the limited US and Mississippi state constitutional frameworks. We have a deeper understanding of how you can actually go about implementing a progressive program. It changed what I saw when I was watching what played out in Greece with Syriza in 2015; I could understand what was happening there from a deeper perspective than I’d ever had before. It was interesting watching the internal struggles and battles that they were going through, because we went through many of those same struggles in our short time in office. We were having the same arguments, but it wasn’t all public. A lot of it comes down to a question of revenue: where do you get the revenue you need to move a progressive program, which I’ll talk more about in a minute. But I want to really emphasize this first point: we need to engage in more serious thinking about what it actually means to govern, before we’re in office.
And when we think about governance, we need to ask: how do you combat capital as it operates on local, state, national and global levels? We got a real wake-up call on that. We did some very effective local electoral organizing, and we won. But we didn’t have a grasp on the revenue-generating mechanisms, the bond mechanisms and so on. We thought we had a grasp on it because Chokwe had been a city councilor before he was mayor, but - once he became the mayor - we saw the real books, and there was nothing there in terms of revenue. We had studied municipal revenue generation, but we didn’t fully grasp that bonds are held by international finance. And the folks that are doing these bonds, they’re making calculations based on their profit motives, that informs when they will invest and when they will sell. We learned that aspect of capital, how deeply intertwined municipal bonds are with global capital at this time. Most of the time, people are just looking at the local forces and local economic dynamics, and asking things like “Are there jobs in this city?” They aren’t thinking about what a city’s credit rating is saying to an international investor and what that means for our ability to generate revenue for a progressive program. That’s equally important. We have to understand how that’s shaping the terrain of our struggle. How do we get people to understand, what is possible within the constraints of the system that we have? What will financial capital actually allow? And how do we organize for what we need outside of the constraints and limits of financial capital? Our next city budget will be in a deficit, and we are about to be in a crisis with our water delivery system. The banks may take over the water delivery system. But revenue from the sale of water constitutes over 40% of Jackson’s budget. The banks may take control over the budget. So if we lose control of that, what can you actually govern?
We are going to have to take a whole different orientation. We need to create alternatives outside of the state to push the state; we need to build a counter-force to the right-wing elements that are using the state to push and advance their agenda. That is why we developed experiments with the solidarity economy: to push those constraints and to build that counter-force. We are really trying to learn from Syriza. I think that the program that they put out in 2014 was a decent transitional program, but I don’t think they did enough to prepare folks on a material level and to start getting the social solidarity networks revitalized and fortified for when the hard times came - which they knew they would. Once they were in power, it would have been better to think about how they could utilize the state to stave off some aspects of the demands of international finance. I think they waited too long to figure out how to meet some basic material needs via the development of the social and solidarity economy on a mass scale. We need to start getting in gear with that on the front end of these processes. We can develop some real strength at the local level; that’s where our greatest strength is, but there are limits to what a local economy can do. There are real questions: what scale can we build? Can we create a meaningful number of sustainable jobs? We are seriously thinking about developing an alternative currency here to deal with the potential deficit if they seize the water. Can we create a network that will serve some basic functions and needs, to make sure that people have enough food to survive, if the city can’t secure enough revenue? It’s been amazing to see the right’s reaction to our solidarity economy experiments. Right now, we have a small farm and three small cooperatives that are operating now, and the right is acting like we’re about the storm the gates. I’m telling people to get people prepared for the ideological and political onslaught that comes with starting these solidarity economy experiments. There are still a ton of roadblocks that keep us from growing here and growing there. There are hindrances enough, but now we’re moving in a whole other way.
And we need to stay in tune with changing conditions in our work. The political dynamics are not the same as they were three or four years ago. Back then, we - specifically the New Afrikan People’s Organization, the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, and the Jackson People’s Assembly - very much appealed to a broad cross-section of people in Jackson, and so we had a popular-front type of orientation and campaign. You’re talking about a city that is 85% Black, so most of that front was other Black people. We built a multi-class alliance in Jackson to win the election. The thing that was critical for Chokwe’s election for mayor was making sure that there was a significant Black working class turnout; that was the critical thing. That was going to stem the tide and break the normal flow and operation of the traditional Black petit bourgeois forces that had been deciding the electoral outcomes in Jackson. At that time, it was very easy to build a multi-class alliance, based in the Black working class forces in the city. This time around it’s going to be significantly different. For the 2017 Mayoral election we are not going to be able to rely on that same formulation, that multi-class formation, for Chokwe Antar Lumumba’s, Chokwe’s youngest son, campaign. Too many of those forces now have really given their pledges to Hillary, and they’ve bought into the reorganization of the Democratic Party that has happened since 2013 here in Jackson. Chokwe ran within the Democratic primary but from an oppositional place within the party structure which exists here in Mississippi. He ran as a member of Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party, which still exists as a separate entity, and it still has the ballot access it won in the 1960s. But outside of a couple counties close to the Mississippi river, it’s mostly functioned as a political club, and not so much as an organized political force. Chokwe’s election turned it into a political force. One of the things that happened since Chokwe died (and honestly it started happening even while he was alive) was that the Democrats at the national level wanted to cut it off, because it was an organized left political force within the party. So they did a lot of organizing, and they spent more money in Jackson in the last five years than they did in the last fifty years, trying to re-consolidate their power. That’s put some of the traditional forces that were close to us in 2012 - 2013 opposition to us. We’re in a context where it’s easy to be critical of what Obama has been doing over the last couple of years. We’ve been very vocal about that. That’s put us in opposition to some of the established Black petit bourgeois forces that are aligned with him and national Democratic Party. Things may change over the next few weeks and months, we’ll see. But at this point, our movements electoral salvation if you will, depends squarely on the Black working class vote. So if we do enough to deal with the crisis that our city is in, to put forth a solution that people can see a way out of the crisis, then people will say, “We have faith in them, and we trust in them to fight for us.”
Kali Akuno is a co-founder and co-director of Cooperation Jackson. Kali served as the Director of Special Projects and External Funding in the Mayoral Administration of the late Chokwe Lumumba of Jackson, MS. His focus in this role was supporting cooperative development, the introduction of eco-friendly and carbon reduction methods of operation, and the promotion of human rights and international relations for the city. Kali also served as the Co-Director of the US Human Rights Network, the Executive Director of the Peoples' Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) based in New Orleans, Louisiana after Hurricane Katrina. And was a co-founder of the School of Social Justice and Community Development (SSJCD), a public school serving the academic needs of low-income African American and Latino communities in Oakland, California.