Unity or Solidarity

By David Swanson

Actions mean more to me, and to the millions affected by them, than words. If Obama had voted to toss out the Fourth Amendment and Clinton had voted to keep it PRIOR to the primary in Virginia, I would have voted for Clinton. Yes, I know, Obama didn’t vote to invade Iraq, but that is because he was not in the Senate at the time. As soon as he got there, he voted hundreds of billions of our dollars to fund what he supposedly opposed, as of course did Clinton who had also voted for the invasion.

FISA has nothing to do with Clinton supporters’ reluctance to fall in line behind Obama. During the primaries, Obama was the bigger opponent of warrantless spying. And in my opinion most of the motivations of Clinton supporters for holding out are misguided, foolish, petty, or all three. And I think, primarily, we need to shift our focus away from a single election to other priorities. But there is a perfectly good point being made that “unity” isn’t inclusive if it just means agreeing to support what somebody else wants. Progressives too are having trouble swallowing “unity” whole and are setting their funds aside in escrow to deliver to Obama if he shows any indication of supporting progressive positions: http://democrats.com/obama-escrow-fund

Supporters of Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney and other candidates, as well as the majority of Americans who don’t back any candidate have the same point to make. There is a plausible argument that no matter how far Obama moves to the right, as long as McCain is still further to the right, everyone – whether grinning or holding their nose – should vote for Obama (just as there is a plausible argument for backing the candidate you actually prefer). But will an act of voting, or even giving money and sending emails and filling stadiums, give us unity or build a movement? Election campaigns, even if we had candidates with substantive and principled positions, may not lend themselves to building the sort of movement that can actually impose the will of the people on elected officials. The single biggest self-organized group of Obama “supporters” on his website was built around the demand that he preserve the Fourth Amendment, and he proceeded to trash it. The Obama movement doesn’t exist as a movement, and if voting were any sort of challenge to corporate power, the trains in DC wouldn’t be carrying ads from McDonald’s urging you to vote.

Our focus should not be on whom we elect but on building a movement powerful enough to impose our will on those we have elected. Rather than whistling and looking away as Congress funded another year of war because the eternal election season was more important, we could have had a bigger impact, both on the world and on the candidates, by exerting massive pressure on Congress to stop funding death and destruction.

But even in the area of non-electoral activism and organizing, the question of “unity” is one that plagues us. It’s a question we need to work on. I’ve met hundreds of people – there’s at least one in any crowd – who give me a speech that you’d think,from the near uniformity of it, they’d all purchased off an infomercial. And yet, they didn’t. They each thought it up, and they each feel extremely passionately about it. The theme of the speech is that we must all unite, and primarily that all activist organizations must unite. We’ve reached a point, I think, where we could create a brand new sizable activist organization consisting solely of people whose primary work is haranguing everybody else about the need to unite. But, then, of course we’d have one more organization to add to the list of groups that all need to be united.

I agree that we need to eliminate pointless and counterproductive lack of coordination among groups working toward similar ends. I’ve spent a great deal of time building coalitions, joining coalitions, and trying to find common ground on single issues among groups that disagree on numerous other issues. And yet I’ve come to the conclusion that getting every activist group to join with every other one is neither possible nor necessary, and that far more important is getting more people active, getting more money directed into actual people-driven activism, and getting more of our voices into media outlets of various types.

Organizations have human egos and budgets and cliques to overcome. They also have legitimately varied missions, not to mention problematic tax statuses. I’ve been asked countless times to unite groups that focus on different issues when neither group has any interest in or agreement with the other group’s mission. If someone wants to split their time between fighting election fraud and creating health coverage, they can join two groups, but a permanent institutional “unity” of the two groups should not necessarily be our top priority. Sometimes it does make sense to form coalitions and avoid working at cross purposes, and to cross fertilize and educate to build a broader and more coherent movement. We could stand to do a lot more coalition building and we could be a lot better and a lot more selfless at it. But I’m not sure real selflessness is found in the comment one unity promoter recently made to me and a group of allies: “Every one of you has an agenda. I am the only one without an agenda!”

Of course, the institutional core of each coalition inevitably devolves into one group among many, even while resisting ever joining another coalition, because it IS the coalition. And so it goes, and it’s the least of our problems. I don’t think our failure to all cohere into one single mobilized force is as big an impediment to social change as various other weaknesses, including the problem of astroturf – that is, of pseudo-activist organizations taking their instructions from elected officials rather than the other way around. Astroturf groups don’t necessarily need to join a new coalition, but they should radically alter their method of operations or shut down.

Electoral candidates should be figuring out how to reach the masses who do not vote, and Obama has done a little of that. Activists should be figuring out how to reach the masses who sit back and watch TV. The problem is not so much that the directors of organizations can’t agree as that there are not enough people active at all. We do need peace groups to work with justice groups and workers’ unions to work with environmental groups, and U.S. groups to work with groups abroad. But major mass actions develop through multiple organizations and include the activities of people not forming part of any organization. We need a fundamental change in our culture from one of disengaged observation to one in which we all constantly defend our rights and create our visions. And we are helped in that endeavor by the richness of our civic life, by the variety of groups, and by the ability of people from various backgrounds and organizations to work, not in unity, but in solidarity, recognizing our differences while joining together for the greater good.

In our hands is placed a power greater than their hoarded gold,
Greater than the might of armies, magnified a thousand-fold.
We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old
For the union makes us strong.

Our cry should be for solidarity. We should build alliances. We should share our needs and our strengths. We should include people in a movement that they own, not unify them in a operation that belongs to someone else.