Vignettes from the work of rebuilding the Local Food Infrastructure in Maine.

This post is somewhat longer than my usual.   It is an essay I’ve been working on for awhile now.  I think of it as my TED talk should I ever be invited to deliver one.   Let me know what you think.

 

My grandpuppy visiting the farm.

 I grew up in a small town in Maine in the 1960’s. My mother was a farm girl from a nearby dairy farming community. As a teenager she had worked at the local canning factory in her hometown. Nearly every town with a stream that could produce hydropower had a canning factory.  

My mother was a great believer in good food. This is how I ate as a child. Every year my parents put a side of beef in the freezer. A grass-fed steer from a local dairy farm. Slaughtered at the local food locker. Best beef I ever ate. And we ate it frequently because as a single income family with four growing children a large percentage of the family budget was spent on food. By buying their beef this way my parents could feed us ribeye for the same price as hamburger. We had a milkman who delivered. An egg lady who delivered. My mom said she bought from her because she had a husband who wouldn’t work and she needed the money to feed her own kids. My godfather got us hand-churned butter from a woman in her 90’s who lived in his town. It was bright yellow and salty, creamy, melty delicious. We had a huge garden every year and my mother canned and froze a lot of fresh veggies during the summer, made pickles, canned applesauce and apple butter from our neighbors trees. They were summer folks and long gone by the time the apples on their ancient tree were ready to harvest. We ate very well in my childhood home.

The country around us, along with being dairy country, was also the last bastion of the poultry industry in Maine. Every year in the shire-town of our county they held the week long Broiler Festival. A celebration of the farmers growing and the plants processing broiler chickens in our county. As a 5 year old I was the “gift girl” at the Miss Broiler Pageant. I met my first politician there. John Reid the Governor of Maine at the time. 20 years later I was the last occupational health nurse and safety officer at the last poultry processing plant in Maine. The industry was moving south where it was warmer and the labor was cheaper. My county’s economy was devastated.

At approximately the same time the poultry industry was dying in Maine a couple called the Nearings, Helen and Scott, I’m sure you’ve heard of them, moved to a small farm out on a peninsula on the coast and started homesteading. Scott wrote a book called “Living the Good Life” which became a run away hit with the 60’s generation and lead a lot of folks to move back to the land. These back-to-the-landers started farming and homesteading using organic methods. Soon they asking the cooperative extension agents to help them improve their methods and yields. One of these agents, Charlie Gould, happens to be the father of a friend of mine. He told me years later that he had all these “dirty hippies” asking him about organic methods so he decided he needed to learn how the organic system worked. From this humble beginning, after a few meetings lead by Charlie and attended by Scott, Helen, Eliot Coleman and many others sprang the beginnings of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association or MOFGA. And the rest, as they say, is history. Having the largest and oldest organic farming association in our state leads to many advantages. We are the only state in the country where the average age of farmers is falling thanks to the apprenticeship and journey person programs that MOFGA runs. We also have the highest per capita number of female farm owners. I don’t know what to attribute that to except that the millennials are pretty gender neutral in most things this aspect included.

In the meanwhile the chicken barns were empty and deteriorating. But we have found some uses for them. One became the home for Fedco Seeds. A worker owned seed, tree, perennials, bulbs and farm supply company that has been expanding at a reasonable rate for 30 years now. A local company serving the seed, equipment and input needs of the revitalized farming culture in Maine. Other empty chicken barns, and there were lots of them, became warehouses or self storage units. One became an antiques mall and yet another became the largest used bookstore in the state.

So the work continued and the farms came back to life and the farmers grew more and more food that they needed to get to market. The holes in the local food infrastructure began to show. Since the 1960’s the local food locker had closed. There are currently only three USDA slaughter facilities in the state. Some farmers drive as much as three hours one way to take their stock to be slaughtered in a way that the government will then allow them to sell wholesale or retail in the public marketplace. The local canning plant closed int he 1950’s and as I said the poultry processing plant was gone. So we had a gap, we had farmers who wanted to grow the food and eaters who wanted to eat it but we needed to rebuild the processing and distribution system. We needed more than just CSAs and Farmers Markets.

We have over the last 10 to 20 years been slowly rebuilding the local food infrastructure. A thing that is made less difficult by the fact that we are only a generation, and sometimes less, away from a rural infrastructure that functioned quite well. My organization , Food for Maine’s Future/Local Food RULES, is one of the smaller non-profits guiding and aiding this rebuilding. Along with MOFGA, Maine Farmland Trust and a few others we are trying to keep open land in farming and farmers on the land. Some of the other components that have had to be reinvented are distribution. We are fortunate to have Crown of Maine Organic Cooperative another worker cooperative that runs several truck routes around the state picking up produce from the farms and distributing it to wholesalers and retailers around the state and New England. Food hubs are opening up around the state where farmers can aggregate their crops and sell to wholesale and retail markets. The Maine Federation of Farmers Markets is a thriving organization that supports markets for farmers around the state who wish to sell directly to customers.   

Other pieces of the puzzle include the access to infrastructure needed to create value added products. Or, on the other hand, protection from onerous regulatory burdens that prohibit the processing of food on the farm for direct customer sales. The granges around the state are going a great job with the first piece. Several, formerly underutilized, Grange Halls around the state have installed licensed kitchens and rent them out on an hourly basis to local folks who want to make a product that they can sell at retail outlets. My friend Julie just recently gushed to me about how much easier it is to make her Happy Honey in the Halcyon Grange kitchen then it was to try to do it in her own cramped home kitchen. In other communities decommissioned schools are being brought back to life as community centers and the kitchens are being licensed and rented out to local folks for food production.

In 2006 we were having one of our Mud-season Dinners and I stood with a group of young farmers bemoaning the recently introduced animal identification law. A set of USDA regulations that was forcing all farmers large and small to keep a paper trail for every animal they ever owned and to spend money tagging or tattooing those animals. One small goat farmer plaintively asked “What are we going to do?” and my friend Tim Libby, a fine small farmer who feeds thousands of disadvantaged folks with his Veggies for All program, turned to her and said “We’re going to keep doing what we we’re doing….it’s just going to be illegal.” And that is the crux of the matter. Small farmers have been skirting the onerous regulations for years. But the more burdensome the regulations get the more likely these farmers are going to be forced to become outlaws. From this frustration along with the frustration of trying to get those regulations changed at the state level came the movement to pass Local Food Sovereignty Ordinances in municipalities around the state.

And speaking of retail outlets the locavore movement is alive and well in Maine. Over the last two years we have doubled the number of brick and mortar food co-ops in the state. These small local businesses are especially supportive of local farmers and producers. In fact they are so successful that the big chain stores in the state are trying to imitate them by having pictures of in state farmers up around their produce aisles. A nice niche market for the slightly bigger producers.

I have already spoken about transportation but I have to tell you about one of the coolest new transportation solutions in my coastal state. MaineSails a project of the Greenhorns, which is a national organization of young farmers, recently (August 2015) had its maiden voyage carrying farm produce with fairly stable shelf life from Portland Maine to Boston Massachusetts. The produce was then transported via bike to the Public Market in Boston. This project was meant to emphasis the need to think outside the box about solutions in the food system with lower carbon footprints.

In 2006 the Brookings Institute published a study about Maine’s economic future. One of the main findings in the study was that what Maine had that was unique and marketable was its pride of place and open lands. They suggested that one way to keep those fields open was to keep it in farming. 

The Maine Grain Alliance is working to restore Maine’s preeminence as the bread basket of the northeast. They have opened a mill in Skowhegan and are not only grinding grain for human consumption but have filled the need of organic livestock farmers for organic feed grains. Each year in August they sponsor the Maine Kneading Conference a multi day event that brings together bakers and grain growers from all over the state and the country.

For years during the back to the land movement many of the small farmers and homesteaders I knew were growing a small crop of marijuana as their cash crop. Recently Maine legalized the medicinal use of marijuana. Becoming “care providers” under this new law has become a nice little cottage industry for many folks around the state. On the November 2016 ballot in Maine there will be a referendum seeking to legalize recreational use of marijuana. There had been two completing referendums. One sponsored and supported by the big tobacco and other firms seeking to regulate marijuana like tobacco, gambling and alcohol and restrict the number of growers in the state to a few deep pocketed folks from away. The other seeking to keep marijuana cultivation int he hands of the small farmer and allow them to continue to use a small marijuana patch as their cash crop for the year. The small farmers won this one. Big tobacco folded their tents and slunked away in the night when they realized they could not get the required number of signatures. The people of Maine were on to them and the small farmer version of the bill won the day and will be on the ballot. 

And now it comes full circle. Last year my daughter-in-law asked me to teach her to can tomatoes and make pickles. This year, for the first time she and my son had their own big garden. The other night when I called they were making gravy fries for dinner out of the all blue potatoes from their garden. Last fall, it was a very good apple year, we had a cider pressing party at my place. We pressed over 50 gallons of cider and set it to ferment so that we would have our own hard cider for the winter. We gathered the community, added value to the local apple crop, prepared for the winter, and nurtured the local food traditions. Doing the work, legal or not, to feed our family, friends and neighbors.

Right to Food Constitutional Amendment

  
Submission for February 4, 2016 Work Session Hendrik D. Gideonse, 
LD 783 calls for a constitutional amendment addressing the right of Maine citizens to food. My support remains the same, however, the evolving context has only underscored the need for adoption. Last year I analyzed the existing provisions of Maine’s Declaration of Rights in the light of the social, political, and economic context of the times when they were written. The original drafters were more concerned about the rights of protection against arbitrary authority than they were in fully articulating all the elements requisite to the pursuit of life and liberty. Everywhere they were surrounded by nature – farms, fish, timber, and so on. It just never occurred to them that access to food as part of the natural rights of humanity needed explicit expression in our constitution, not only to protect the nourished, but the farms as well.

Adding language articulating the right to food is a needed extension of natural rights provisions already in the Declaration. Two factors have changed. The dramatically changed circumstance for contemporary food production has removed it far from our daily consciousness. Its former neighborly connection has been essentially replaced by a substantially removed, complex, and not-fully-accountable-to-the- consumer corporate overlay. Additionally, many families and individuals have become increasingly knowledgeable about where their food is coming from and what kind of food the current system generates, and their commitment to access nutrient-dense food from farms that are ecologically sound has deepened. Increasingly numbers of us are seeking real food that isn’t chemically or GMO laden from farms where we can see, touch, and smell the gardens where it is grown.
Therefore, the rights of citizens respecting food now require specific attention. At the same time that nutritional and environmental consciousness about food and farming is growing, it is also true that too many families have little idea how their food is grown or produced or should be. They don’t know where it comes from, how it is processed, how it is protected (or not!), and why and, furthermore, what role our own senses and understandings and trust play in making our food choices. No longer coming from farmer neighbors, food comes under the aegis of huge corporations from thousands of miles away, regulated by agencies seeking to deny our right or authority to the fundamental choices governing what we take into our bodies for nourishment. And despite all these changes, Maine now finds itself in the unenviable position of being the New England state with the highest incidence of food insecurity.

We are now much more acutely aware of the extent to which the position of corporations relative to individuals and even government continues to alter. Critical arguments, for example, against the soon-to-be-voted-on proposed TPP trade agreement have to do with the inexorable drift toward corporate control of everything. Indeed, NAFTA and the TPP explicitly turn over to extra-governmental tribunals corporate claims over profits they believe denied them by governmental actions in defense of people and the environment. 

The articulation of the basic right to food is an important protection. It provides grounding for the development of sound agricultural and public policy. It would provide a means of protection when either governmental or corporate action should interfere with the right to food in individual cases. Passing this bill will provide constitutional support for increasing our attention to food and farming. It will foster economic growth and development by a much-needed restoration of smaller scale local farming. That will be good for employment and as a hedge against both the causes and consequences of climate destabilization. Natural rights to life and liberty are already in the very first section of Maine’s Constitutional Declaration, but addressing directly the right to food embraces our individual choices through the most fundamental kind of law. It will safeguard us against the actions of misguided corporations and government agencies which seek to keep us ill-informed about what we’re eating when they’re not actually staking untenable jurisdictional claim over our own bodily health.

Black Farmers Matter

This just in from the Black Farmers and Agriculturalists Association

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NC FARMER EDDIE WISE

For the last 40 years American Black farmers have lived a hellish nightmare deliberately orchestrated by the USDA and its local Farmers Home Administration (FmHA – now the Farm Service Agency, FSA) offices to confiscate Black owned land and homes. A review of the now historic Pigford v. Glickman Class Action by Black farmers will help one to understand the extremely vicious attack against black farmers. (For details on the Black Farmers Class Action, See https://www.blackfarmercase.com/Background.aspx or http://www.dcd.uscourts.gov/pigfordmonitor/index.htm).

The story of this 67 year old military veteran and farmer Eddie Wise and his wife, Dorothy (to whom Eddie refers lovingly as (“my Brown Sugar”), is the latest example of the outrageous action by the U.S. government against a black farmer.
On Wednesday, January 20, 2015, around 7:30 a.m., at least fourteen (14) Federal Marshals in full military gear with full scale military guns drawn, along with several county sheriff officers, descended on the 106 acre farm in Nash County, N C, and forcibly escorted Eddie Wise and his wife, who was still in bed and suffers from a debilitating medical condition, out of their home and off the land that they have owned for more than 20 years.
Not only did the Federal Marshals render Eddie and Dorothy immediately homeless and landless, but did not allow them to take any of their belongings except the clothes on their backs. They also insisted on “securing” every firearm legally owned by Mr. Wise.

A Duke University Adjunct Professor, a friend of the Wises, took pictures (shown here) and acquired some sound, but was summarily put off the property also.
For the last few weeks media coverage has consistently covered visibly armed White militants who have illegally occupied federal land in Oregon. The response by the federal government and local law enforcement officers was a kindly appeal for the White militia to peacefully end their illegal occupation and leave, but until recently to no avail.
Yet, Mr. Wise and his wife have suffered the height of indignity and racist degradation. Which leads to the question, “Don’t Black farmer’s lives and possessions matter?”
Mr. Wise is in fear of his life and the life of his wife. “I believe if I had shown one ounce of resistance, the Federal Marshals would have killed me. I actually believe that’s what they came to do. I may as well live in Russia or Syria or North Korea,” said Mr. Wise, his eyes moist with tears.
Saving their land has been a long and exhaustive process for the Wise family. The ugliness of the one dimensional unfairness, racial characterization, and mental traps set for this family and thousands of other black farmers by USDA, and a corrupt legal system, defy reason and logic.
Black farmers are a racial minority and do not represent a large political power block, and therefore are unfairly treated like terrorized slave captives in their own country, a country they were vital in building.
The farm organization, Black Farmers and Agriculturist Association (BFAA) was organized in 1997 to protect, protest, raise much needed funds, and bring national attention to the plight of Black farmers. At the time Black farmers were losing 2,000 acres of farm land per day. BFAA has come to the aid of Black farmers with such needs as groceries, to pay light bills and tax bills, travel expenses, lawyer fees, and helped buy books for college students of farmers.

How can you help? We ask you to join with us in support of Eddie and Dorothy Wise by sharing this tragic story on Face Book, Twitter, and by Email. Help us get Eddie and Dorothy out of a motel which is costing too much per week just for bed and bath; and support the fundraising to help us get their home and farm back. Please contribute at gofundme.com/jgaaq4.

S O M E B A C K G R O U N D ON THE WISE CASE

1. “In 1993 Wise and his wife applied for a loan to purchase a 106-acre hog farm. Wise said that at first the FmHA County Loan Officer didn’t let him know that the farm had been “earmarked for minority farmers.” Then officials tried to reappraise the farm to increase the value, but the value actually dropped. Lastly, a White farmer who wanted the farm paid a Black woman to apply for him. She was one of the final two applicants whose names were drawn from a hat. “We won the draw,” Wise said with a smile.

Wise continued to face resistance from the county loan office, which is now demanding that he provide a production history going back five years and a production plan for the new farm.”

2. “Eddie and Dorothy Wise raise hogs on 106 acres near Whitakers, in east-central North Carolina. Eddie is a fourth-generation hog farmer but the first to own a farm; his father and grandfather were sharecroppers. During a 20 plus career in the military, and as an ROTC instructor at Howard and Georgetown Universities, Eddie raised hogs in his spare time. It was his dream to return home to North Carolina and farm full-time. When he retired from the Army in 1991 at the age of 48, that’s what he set out to do. Dorothy Wise grew up in Washington, D.C., but she too hoped to one day live on a farm. When she and Eddie met at Howard University in the 1980s and she discovered he was a farmer, it seemed that her wish had come true.

Still, it took the Wises five years, until 1996, to secure the loans they needed to buy their farm. They were repeatedly turned down by local government loan officers who, the Wises are convinced, did not want African American farmers to succeed. It was only through determined effort and much research and legwork that the Wises were able to receive the financial help for which they qualified.
Today the Wises have 250 hogs, which they raise from birth and sell to a black-owned pork processor in the area. Eddie’s lean pork, raised without hormones or antibiotics, is sold at a premium in area supermarkets. Finding such a market niche is the only way the Wises can compete with the much-larger farms that mass-produce hogs for the large meatpacking companies.”

Happy New Year (a bit late)

  So my 2015 New Year’s resolution was not successfully met.   How’s that for blurring the truth that I blew it.   Barely one post per month never mind one a week or one a day.   Ahhh!  Such ambition.   But I have been writing and politicking so here are the remarks I wrote and presented at the Rally for Unity this month at the statehouse in Augusta:

We are at the dawning of a new populist age. Just as the gilded age robber baron railroad tycoon’s misdeeds lead to the first populist movement in the United States. A movement lead largely by farmers and spawning such great egalitarian institutions as The Grange. So we stand now at the end of the Reagan/Clinton, Citizen’s United era of the oligarch about to take back our country from the plutocrats.  

What is my proof you ask? It is in the rising of groups like Occupy and Black Lives Matter. Family Farm Defenders and The New Economy Coalition. The expansion of cooperative business enterprises across this state and the nation. It is in the popularity of presidential candidates like Bernie Sanders and, yes even, Donald Trump. People are pissed off, they are saying “Enough is enough.” They are standing together to take back their lives and their livelihoods from excessive government oversight.    

One of my favorite things about the local food movement is exactly that. People sitting around a table having a meaningful discussion about rebuilding the local food infrastructure. People who might not have ever dreamed they had anything in common with one another. But the thing is everyone eats. The lucky ones eat three times a day. What we put in our bodies matters and people from across the political spectrum get that. Food is a great uniter. When you can have a far left aging hippie liberal finding common ground with a far right tea bag libertarian on an issue then you know you have a good one. And the relationships built over those meals and conversations can translate to other less obvious issues.

  We must seek out these issues that unite us rather than divide us. It is in our best interest, and believe me it will piss off the plutocrats, if we can look beyond our skin color, social standing, economic bracket and find things we hold in common. If we listen to the concerns of people with whom we disagree and seek that space in which we can all agree we are getting equally abused then we can move forward together to fight the monopolies and the greedy rich.

One of those issues is that of local sovereignty over food and water. We are fortunate to live in a state that enshrined home rule in its very constitution. The governance of the people devolves to the lowest governmental body, the municipality. Local people taking back local control like they have in 16 towns across this state so far. Join us at Local Food RULES and Food for Maine’s Future to make it 50 towns by the end of 2017.
I’d like to quote one of my favorite people, Ben Pratt, former legislator and all around good guy. “When the rednecks and the hippies realize that they are both being screwed by the same people, then we’ll have a revolution.”

We are those people. We are that movement, standing on the cusp of history. Ready to take back our basic human rights. To eat what we want to eat sourced from where we wish to source it. To breath clean air and drink clean water. Let’s make it happen!

Greece Frightenin’ from the Free Press

I have been expressing these same sentiments about the whole Greek Crisis since I sat watching it on my friends Muffy and Bob’s couch in the UK.   Grayson Lookner says it so well in this column and throws in a nice history lesson to boot.   Enjoy.

7/30/2015 11:18:00 AM

Grayson Lookner: Greece Frightenin

  by Grayson Lookner

As I’ve watched events unfold in Greece, I can’t help but ask myself one question: “Who won the Second World War?”
Ancient Greece was where the seeds of modern democracy were planted. A system of democracy and free markets supposedly prevailed in the West following WWII. Following the collapse of the USSR, it seems as if the last 25 years have pitted the free market and democracy against each other instead of their being the two “hand maidens of liberty” as one person claimed in a response to my last column. 
By the time WWII came around, Greece was actually a monarchy. When the Axis forces occupied Greece in 1941, the king fled and proclaimed a government in exile. This vacuum of power set the stage for the Greek civil war that would erupt in the months directly following the war. 
During the war, and this was the case in much of the rest of Europe, including Spain, the left unified in Greece as an anti-fascist force. When Nazi Germany finally surrendered and the Allies occupied Greece, the leftist parties attempted to rise to power with the backing of Stalin and the USSR.
During the war, the USSR was our best friend by virtue of being the enemy of our mutual enemy. With the death of Hitler and the mad rush of the victors to claim the spoils of war for themselves in the forms of Nazi territory and scientific knowledge (and Nazi scientists themselves), the USSR immediately became the West’s primary existential threat and driving force of the cold war right up until 1989. Although, judging from his recent actions, it seems Putin may not accept this telling of history. 
Greece was the first theater of the cold war fought via proxy by the two world superpowers. Ultimately the Greek left – which had so valiantly fought against Hitler just a few years before -was defeated by the ally-backed centrist government. It seems that cooler heads prevailed, and Greece benefited greatly from the $13 billion of US aid that was allocated by the Marshall plan to rebuild Europe. Modern Germany and the entire Eurozone project would not have been possible were it not for this aid that was given by America, which in today’s dollars would amount to somewhere in the vicinity of $169 billion, indexed to inflation, by my sloppy calculations. (Incidentally, this amount is similar to the amount spent by the Federal Reserve in its own bailout to prop up global capitalism after the meltdown of 2008, according to a September 2011 Forbes article. That’s approximately $2,000 for every man, woman, and child on the planet to be spent on supporting banks across the world and hedging shady derivatives deals, etc.)
The societies of Western Europe that emerged post-war that were enabled by US assistance were remarkably civil, stable, and democratic. They all had a vital public sector characterized by socialized medicine, free or cheap education, public ownership of utilities, adequate pensions, extensive public transportation systems, etc. These public services were not viewed as privileges to be made available to a lazy and unmotivated population that didn’t want to nor was expected to work; but as the bedrock foundations of modern, civilized democracies that enabled a free market to exist.

In countries where these social services still exist, such as in France, the UK, the “social democracies” of Norway, Denmark, and Sweden – and ironically in Germany itself – the quality of life is high and civil unrest is low. In countries where these guarantees don’t exist, such as in much of the third world and increasingly in America itself, quality of life for most people is low and there is increasing social strife.
Why would anyone want anything other than to live in a stable, civil country with a high quality of life? What happened? What changed?
Naomi Klein, a Canadian author, brilliantly outlines the march of neoliberalism (i.e. “globalization”) from the 1960s onward in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism.” In the book she demonstrates how the explicit aim of globalization is to turn over infrastructure and social capital that was built by the public to private hands by creating and profiting from a series of mostly manufactured crises. 
Throughout the world, countries have been systematically forced to auction off their once publicly owned utility companies, hospitals, shipping ports, and other public resources for pennies on the dollar to wealthy foreign investors the likes of Goldman Sachs. These investors in turn use what were previously considered the bedrock foundations of a civilized state to extract more wealth from the general population without investing any of it back into the public. The rich get richer, and the poor get used up until they have nothing left to give. The globalists then move on to the next national project to exploit, and they inch closer and closer to home with each passing year. 
Greece will essentially become a third-world country because of the measures being imposed by the EU and the IMF. The British newspaper “The Guardian” said that with the austerity demands of its creditors Greece is essentially being forced to choose between being executed and committing suicide. In their recent emergency referendum, the people of Greece, in an uproar of democratic fervor, cried “No!” to the EU deal. Unfortunately, it was more of a symbolic vote than anything. Tsipras, the charismatic leader of Greece’s leftist Syriza party, has accepted another deal that requires draconian cuts and will reshape Greece for decades to come. He has said that he has no choice. He has a choice; Greece could leave the Eurozone. That is a frightening prospect for many as it harkens the impending demise of neoliberalism across the globe. 
Is there anything that can be done to stem the juggernaut of privatization? According to my respondent from last week’s column, a responsible critic is supposed to propose solutions and not just identify problems. Yes, fortunately, there is. The best thing we can do is to not fall for and be manipulated by the manufactured crises of the world’s disaster capitalists. The boy has cried wolf for too long now. Next time they sound the alarm, don’t listen, don’t react, don’t stoke the flames. It is easy to tell the difference between a real disaster and a media-manufactured one. 
Grayson Lookner grew up in Camden and now lives in Portland.

Let’s Get It Together: A Memo to Socialist Alternative, the ISO, the Green Party, and Everyone Else about Bernie Sanders

Posted on 2015-07-14 by COMMUNIQUENEWENGLAND

[This is a bit wordy and dense but well worth the time it takes to read it.    Dear Fellow Greens, let us seriously consider taking the strategic suggestions to heart and offering a sanctuary for all the soon-to-be-disenchanted left-leaning Democrats out there—B.]

If we quit the Race to the Correct Position, cool off and shut up a little bit, we might actually get something done
By Jay Monaco
(Author’s Note: I am a dues-paying member of Socialist Alternative in good standing, but the following represents my own views, and my own views alone. It should not be interpreted to reflect the opinion of any SA branch, nor CAJE, nor the other members of the Communique Collective. It is not intended to be a challenge to democratic centralism or even to indicate the beginnings of a military coup. It has not been vetted, edited, or endorsed by anyone, which is how I prefer it.)
There is a prevailing notion on the Left today that a substantive intramural debate is underway between the parties and factions as to how best to deal with the frustrating Bernie Sanders campaign and how to address the swelling ranks of his supporters. This is, at best, an illusion. At worst, it’s a self-deception. The truth is, nobody is talking in any practical way about how to deal with the Sanders campaign or how to address his supporters.
Are we going to get serious? Do we want to?
What’s actually the plan? Does anybody know?
On one end of the spectrum, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) have joined the bandwagon wholesale. Their general position seems to be that there are some positive things about the Sanders campaign, some positive things are better than no positive things (the usual), so let’s chalk it up to a win. We deserve to feel good sometimes. Don’t fight it. We’re gonna realign it all, man! Feel the Bern!
I mean, okay. It’s certainly tempting, but at the end of the day, the Power of Positive Thinking isn’t usually considered a legitimate political outlook or strategy.
The parties further to the left have primarily taken an absolutist approach of opposition. The campaign is bourgeois sheepdogging, Bernie’s an imperialist capitalist shill, elections suck, and Bernie’s supporters are a bunch of idiots, PERIOD. End of discussion, we win the socialism.
On closer examination, pretty much everybody agrees about the sheepdogging aspect, and most of us also agree that Bernie is a – de facto if not de jure – imperialist capitalist shill. The rest of the Leftist Champion approach actually boils down to the antithesis of strategy, a hollow declaration of dialectical superiority and a return to normal operations, whatever those might (or might not) be. This approach could even be made more palatable were it coupled with an alternative path forward rather than an embrace of crypto-elite obscurity, but it never is.
Somewhere tumbling about in the middle lie Socialist Alternative (SA), the International Socialist Organization (ISO), and the Greens. For those keeping score, that’s the two big Trotskyist groups aligned with the Green Party, a confusing, occasionally anti-capitalist party whose organizational acumen grants them name recognition even if nobody comprehends what exactly they’re all about.
All three of these groups should be commended for the adoption of nuanced positions on the Sanders campaign. After all, like most political matters that involve breathing people rather than mere ideas, this is a nuanced issue. There’s a lot of gray here. Any practical strategy that is to lead to tangible long-term results requires grappling with that nuance. Nuance on the left is usually a sign we are doing something right.
What has thus far proven difficult for each of these three groups is defining this middle ground, carving and claiming a particular slice of it. It started on May 5, with the ISO’s Ashley Smith penning “The Problem with Bernie Sanders.” The piece represents a concise, compelling, and effective summary of Sanders’ deficiencies, his betrayal of the version of left-wing politics that he himself espoused for decades, and makes the case that some of the end results of this campaign could be very damaging to the broader left if not mitigated. Her position (and by extension that of the ISO) differs from the dismissive purists in the sense that there is an acknowledgement that the electoral arena must not be abandoned, a recognition that some form of positive alternative strategy is needed, and no counterproductive desire to scorn Sanders’ supporters as feeble lost lambs.
This was followed, on May 9, by the Socialist Alternative position, delivered via Philip Locker, which was met with much more criticism than the ISO’s – even, in some cases, from SA members themselves. With no disrespect intended toward Comrade Locker, the critics can perhaps be forgiven for finding it confusing; the piece begins with effusive praise for many of Sanders’ policies, lightly criticizes others, denounces Sanders’ run as a Democrat while expressing a bizarre hope that he will change his mind about running as an independent after dropping out of the primary. After noting that Sanders is, theoretically at least, the furthest to the left of any national politician in at least a couple of generations, there’s a bit of a tenuous jump ostensibly connecting this notion with the importance of building mass movements, then suggesting that, for some reason, as long as Bernie isn’t going to win the nomination, he should be supported.
Yeah, there’s no two ways about it – it’s confusing. The party members’ complaint about the statement’s lack of clarity is justified. That said, the distillation of his view by those outside the party as an echoing of the DSA’s position is unfair. While it’s true that he does at times paint a rosy picture of the Senator from Vermont, the position he states is far from unqualified support. In character, it would not be properly described as blindly optimistic so much as cautiously, strategically aspirational. This aspect is most effectively stated in the statement’s final section, in which Locker calls attention to the fact that there is much opportunity in the present moment, opportunity which should not be wasted, and we should take advantage of the positive aspects of the campaign, mitigating the negative through sympathetic engagement with Sanders supporters.
You’re not alone if you detect a difference in tone but not much of one in substance. To satiate the masses demanding more of this (no), Locker and Todd Cretien of the ISO issued new dueling statements together. This serves to clarify the primary difference between the two parties as one of approach. The ISO adopts a negative (insofar as it is primarily denunciatory) focus on Bernie’s politics, the futile, dangerous, traitorous endeavor that is running within the Democratic Party, and they want to talk with Sanders supporters. SA, in contrast, adopts a positive approach focusing on Sanders’ best policy proposals, while also rejecting his politics, and they want to talk with Sanders supporters.
There’s a joke out there among the socialists that the difference between the two is actually that SA’s statement ends in a semi-colon and the ISO’s ends in a period. Sure, leftists aren’t known for making great jokes, but it’s not all that far off. One thing both have in common? Neither of them proposes anything more specific than “engaging with the Sanders people.”
Here’s the kicker – nobody actually cares about any of this. Yes, we care. I guess it’s cool that somebody does. But as virtually all the different parties to this “debate” have pointed out in one context or another, the left is tiny and weak. I would respectfully posit that we will remain so if we use ourselves as a barometer for the things the working class cares about or, even worse, if we insist on berating ordinary people for caring about the wrong things.
I mean, come on, how is this a debate? The only leftist actors actually attempting to answer the question at all are the Trots and Greens in the middle. But not only do these groups not truly seem to disagree on any major points, so much as tone, one more cheerful than the other, but there seems to be some hesitation in terms of moving on from the tonal discussion to anything specific. There are no real tactics being defined here, and surely no strategy.
This fact is underscored by the two most recent salvos in this riveting contest: the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins’ “Bernie Sanders is no Eugene Debs” on May 26 (appearing in the Socialist Worker, an ISO publication), followed after a bit of a delay by SA’s Bryan Koulouris on July 7 (“A Response to Howie Hawkins: How to Win Sanders Supporters to Independent Working Class Politics”). Both pieces are, in fairness, at least attempts at clearly-defined proposals, even if both fall short.
Both devote the vast majority of their collective many thousands of words to subjects on which they entirely agree, whether they’ll admit it or not. At times, it seems unclear as to whether they even realize this is the case. Each of the writers uses an ostensibly competing aspect of the early 20th-century Socialist Party USA, of which Eugene Debs was a member, to illustrate, as though in unison, the agreed-upon importance of an independent workers’ party. Both of them, vehemently and enthusiastically, consider the Democratic Party to be the graveyard of social movements. Both agree that there needs to be a “Plan B” for when Bernie drops out of the race. Both agree that Jill Stein, the Green Party’s nominee for president, has a major role to play in all of this. Both agree that the approach toward Sanders supporters should avoid condescension. Both agree that the present moment is an important opportunity for the left to seize.
Perhaps the most significant development to be found here is the fact that both, each after their own fashion, seem to agree that we need to be organized, politically realistic, and even (gasp) politically savvy.
If you searches hard enough, of course, you can discover a few emergent differences worth noting, although a few of them might actually be based in misunderstanding rather than legitimate disagreement. When Hawkins writes, “Unfortunately, too many self-professed socialists in the U.S. have abandoned the socialist principle of independent political action. They argue instead that whether or not to support a Democrat or an independent candidate is a question of tactics, not principle,” he sounds as though he is arguing with the DSA, despite calling out Socialist Alternative by name. Whatever the deficiencies in the SA position’s clarity, it is sufficiently clear that they have indicated no such thing.
From here, Hawkins launches into an exploration of the heroic Debs and his maintenance of principles rooted in strategy throughout his participation in electoral politics. Debs’ denunciations of the major parties sound nearly identical to our “two wings of a single Corporate Party” mantra, and his approach by running with the Socialist Party was sound and admirable. To this point, however, Koulouris points out that the SPUSA of Debs’ era was itself the kind of inconsistently leftist party prone to damaging compromise that Hawkins decries. So is, it’s worth noting, Hawkins’ own Green Party. In fact, the SPUSA was something of a left-leaning umbrella sheltering everyone from left-liberals to ultra-leftists. Many people held dual membership in SPUSA and either more radical parties or even, yes, the Democratic Party.
LetsGetittogether2
Koulouris does not suggest, as DSA members might, that the Democratic Party can itself be transformed into such a wide left-leaning canopy, but he does effectively demonstrate that Debs’ independent party membership is itself more of a gray area than some of us would like to admit. He points out that the “party also did not emerge ‘fully-formed’ as a working-class organization…it came about through splits in populist and progressive movements that consisted of farmers and small business owners alongside working-class people.” It is here, in particular, that Koulouris and SA have the edge and perhaps come closest to the heart of the matter. Their focus on Bernie’s best policies, the things even more of us agree upon, enables greater flexibility to “address consciousness as it actually exists rather than as we wish it would be.”
As I previously stated, both pieces are strongest in the sense that they aspire toward actually playing the game of politics. Things like analysis, intentional planning, competent organization, and even something as lowly as cleverness are required, not merely for victory, nor even merely for our advance, but perhaps it is required if we are to have so much as any hope of avoiding outright extinction.
Their mutual recognition that the current position of the left is one of marginalization, weakness, and diminutive numbers does not lead them fully to the question nobody is answering. That’s why, at long last, this is still not a debate. Posed seriously, the question is: What must we do to become less marginalized, more strong, and greater in number? The follow-up: How do we do those things?
Both Hawkins and Koulouris dance around the problem. While others outside of this exchange have suggested Bernie’s claim to be a socialist to be an important step toward normalizing the word in our cultural discourse, Hawkins is correct from a political perspective in recognizing the flip side, the harm inherent to confusing people as to what socialism truly is. He is practical about this, putting it forward as a necessary key component in any interaction with supporters who might be confused about the word’s meaning.
He is also correct, from the position of political reality, to scoff at the insistence held by Koulouris and others at SA that Bernie could be persuaded to run as an independent after the primary. “How can it be ruled out that if Sanders comes under intense pressure from his supporters he could be pushed further than he currently intends?” Koulouris asks. As though anticipating the question, Hawkins had previously written, “By trying to get Democratic politicians to say and do what the left wants them to say and do, the left has been engaged in a pathetic and hopeless attempt at political ventriloquism.”
With more refreshing political realism, Hawkins goes on to point out that such an independent campaign is not even logistically possible. Several states ban candidates from appearing on the ballot as an independent after running in the primary of a major party. In the states that remain, an effort would need to be started now to ensure a ballot line. No one is doing this, Sanders least of all. Hawkins here presents his party’s candidate, Jill Stein, as a central component of the political path forward, pointing out that efforts based exclusively around someone running in the democratic party might be hindering Stein – who is actually going to run as an independent candidate in this universe – in her efforts to marshal volunteers to gather the signatures required to get on the ballot.
Koulouris counters with tepid support for Stein’s candidacy, but a disinclination toward diverting time and resources to the Greens’ ballot drive when the Sanders campaign is garnering so much more attention than Stein and the Greens can hope for. Here, finally, we arrive at the closest thing to a brass tacks discussion. Here at last is a political disagreement. In dispute is which has greater strategic value, a ballot line for the kind of independent left party that both claim to be of central importance, or communicating with people where they are – in this case, as distasteful as it may seem, around a democratic primary campaign.
Getittogether1
The possibility explored by neither as they talk past one another is that both might be important, and with the right plan and effective implementation, both might be doable.
Further along these lines, Hawkins teeters between the brilliant and the obtuse:
“Some argue that we should just build movements outside the electoral arena for now, and that when they get big enough, an independent left party will emerge from them. Social movements making demands on the system are simply lobbying the Democrats in the absence of an independent left electoral alternative. An independent left party is needed so the Democrats are forced to respond to movement demands or lose votes to the left. Movements ebb and flow. A party is needed to keep activists organized and engaged during the downturns in social movements and provide organized support and perspectives when movements expand.”
Not only is no one arguing any such thing, but we have again the mistaken assumption of a zero-sum situation. Building non-electoral movements – recent examples being the nationwide minimum wage fight, Black Lives Matter, even Occupy to a certain degree – have, at this point, sufficiently demonstrated themselves to work a tremendous effect. Those socialists, in SA or otherwise, who advocate for issue-based mobilization, are not doing so instead of trying to form a party, or because they don’t want to form a party.
Sometimes, to be honest, I think it’s because they don’t know how. Hawkins, to be sure, has more electoral experience than virtually anyone on the Left besides Stein. He has undoubtedly been exposed to the finer points of the broader politics game, but little of this is apparent from the argument presented in his piece. I do look forward to hearing more from him on the subject.
Both Koulouris and Hawkins wrote at length about the SPUSA of a hundred years ago, but neither gets into the weeds of how we might replicate that relative success. The fact is, if we quit the Race for the Correct Position, maybe cool off and shut up a little, maybe even kinda get our act together, we can effectively reach out to Sanders supporters, lay the preliminary foundation for the long process of building that party we all say we want, get Jill Stein on all 50 state ballots so the Left is at least tacitly represented in the Big Vote, and maintain our ideological purity.
In other words, we’d better be careful or we might risk actually being able to get something done. And while I, sadly, have no magical formula to hawk here today, I do have some specific strategic and tactical proposals I would present for consideration and (actual) debate.
Selectiveness, Precision, and Clarity in Communication

Everyone participating in the discussion so far agrees that we should be attending Sanders events and talking with supporters. But what is our overall objective? If we’re serious about this, we shouldn’t be trying to convert the hopeful enthusiasts of relatively compassionate Keynesian capitalism into born-again Marxists. Not overnight, at least.
What I mean to say is, do we want people to listen to what we are saying? Do we want our words to be heard, much less considered? If so, we need to be deliberate. Hawkins and the ISO folks provide few specifics in this regard beyond the need to tell people that the democratic party is bad for the working class. Koulouris, on the other hand, wants to talk to them about a $15 minimum wage, a “massive jobs program”, socialized medicine, and rejecting austerity, with simultaneously presented demands that Bernie be better about police brutality and Israel and refuse to endorse Hillary.
Neither approach is sufficient. The SA approach guarantees that the audience will be confused, while the Green/ISO approach guarantees the audience will be bummed out. We’ve got to do better than that. And if it seems like I’m sounding an awful lot like mainstream political strategists with regard to “messaging,” that’s because I am. I don’t apologize. There are plenty of political tactics and methods which are inherently immoral or unjust, but most are simply tools, neutral but for the hand that wieldeth them.
I’m not talking about deceiving anyone. It’s just a matter of identifying the best way for our message to be heard and to have maximum impact. Since people don’t like to feel stupid or condescended to, we must not take a dismissive approach to their enthusiasm for Sanders. Since people don’t like it when their bubbles get popped, we can’t show up shouting about how evil the Democratic Party is or rail about how Bernie supports Israeli apartheid. Personally, these facts are of crucial importance, but it’s not about me. Our audience will hear these words and promptly tune out the rest.
In fact, because people tend to resent the feeling of being told what to do, we shouldn’t even be shaming people who want to vote for a Democrat in November ’16. “Vote your conscience,” we should tell them. “Only you can decide what’s right in the ballot booth. Just remember that real power, real democracy, and real freedom can only come from the people and the streets.”
Again, I’m not suggesting we obscure or withhold information – far from it. Whenever we encounter responsive people, we will be asked questions, and we will answer them simply and honestly – about Bernie’s foreign policy, the evil democrats, Marxism, whatever. We just have to see this more as relationship-building and less as preaching a sermon.
“Bernie’s a great guy,” should be our approach. “Aren’t we all grateful we have someone running in the primary to say all these wonderful things and advocate for all these popular social programs and key society-transforming reforms? It’s too bad he’s not going to win, though, and the other democrats are just going to preserve the status quo. We don’t want all this to die, though, right? We need a real, lasting movement to carry this on. Isn’t that what you want?”
It’s not a sales pitch for Sham-Wow or anything, nor is it a script to be copied verbatim, but it’s the kind of communicative attitude that will make people like us without realizing it – and consequently interested in what we have to say. Koulouris is right to suggest we need to discuss specific policy movements and working class causes, but we can’t rattle off 27 of them and expect anyone to walk away remembering any of it. Let’s pick three. Minimum wage is pretty good, an especially strong choice due to the recent successes in cities and states nationwide. Universal Basic Income might be an even better choice, given that it’s a more radical and destabilizing reform – and also because it is actually a much more popular notion than many people realize. What about talking to them about a support system for workers who don’t have the benefit of unions – which is most of them – a system that leads toward more easy unionization and democratization of the workplace? Rent control? Public internet? Child allowances?
We can legitimately argue what our talking points should ultimately be. In fact, that’s precisely the kind of debate I wish we were already having. It doesn’t ultimately matter which of our awesome policy proposals we choose, nor are we bound by those that Sanders is supporting. The key is to pick a small number of easily digestible concepts and present them simply, as though each were common sense (which they are, more or less).
We can’t try to be the evangelists of socialist conversion, and that’s an approach that rarely works in the long run, anyway. What we want to be is the people they remember when they’re in despair because the ride is over and Bernie’s with Hillary and the world is crashing down.
Maybe We Can Cooperate

Seriously, SA, the ISO, and the Greens should work together during this election cycle. We all agree that the Sanders campaign is an opportunity to reach more people than would otherwise be possible, and we also agree that Jill Stein’s candidacy is a net positive and should be supported. Working together, in whatever fashion or form that takes, we can track Sanders campaign events, ensure there is representation from the true left, and we can collectively determine where greater focus must be allocated toward pushing Stein’s line on the ballot.
Ideally, we’d go even further than this and embark upon some actual collaboration, where we meet together, plan together, form committees together, and resemble something of a unified effort. Maybe that’s too much of a stretch. Cooperation, however, manifested in a looser affiliation, affinity, affection, and broadly common goal, should be feasible.
If even this basic level of unity is not possible or desirable, at the very least we should coordinate with one another, communicate regularly, keep all the sister parties generally informed of one another’s activities and endeavors.
How else can a true independent workers’ party begin? Surely, we all realize that there are national media cameras at these things. If we put on a good enough show, they’re gonna eventually have to talk about us, which will boost our collective position considerably.
Get Their Names!

It’s important to recognize that party-building and political organization goes well beyond the warm and fuzzies of speaking truth to fellow people into the much less sexy realm of data collection. Besides straight cash, the biggest operational advantage the major parties have on us is their voter databases. They know who everyone is, where they are, how they vote, and how to get hold of them. Just as we lack access to their millions (billions, really), we cannot expect such a resource to fall into our laps any time in the foreseeable future.
One advantage of being in our insignificant little position politically is that we’re not even trying to reach the broad voting population. That’s years away. What we need to do is figure out who our people are, the ones who are sympathetic but don’t know it or haven’t yet made the leap or, maybe, nobody’s talked to them yet. For the next six months, all of our people will be at Sanders rallies.
It’s important to maintain perspective with regard to Sanders supporters and their willingness to leave the two-party system. I would estimate, optimistically, that 75% of Bernie supporters will happily, or at least quite willingly, vote for whomever the democratic nominee turns out to be. But the other 25%? Those are our people. We need to go and meet them, we need their names, email addresses, contact info, etc. I’m not talking about recruiting people into one party or another. If any of us find new members organically at Sanders events, that’s great, but if we’re showing up just to try to swell the ranks of our particular sect, we’re wasting our time.
It is here, as many other areas, in which cooperation becomes especially important. Let’s worry about who wins which recruits further down the line. For now, let’s share the contact info we get. Let’s experiment with ways we can communicate with the people we identify, be it through a Facebook group or an email list or some other more effective medium.
When the day comes, and it will, when our people experience crisis as Bernie drops out, we not only want the disappointed masses to know how to find us, we want to know how to find them.
Party building. It’s worth a shot
Tangible Resources

No, I don’t mean pamphlets about the dangers of the two-party system. I mean cash money, I mean people, and I mean food and supplies. I’m not trying to be flippant. We’re all limited on the Left, and I know that, but I also know neither SA, nor ISO, nor especially the Greens, are broke. Everybody has some money, it’s just a matter of it being spent where it can do the most good. Funds for printing original, creative, carefully-worded and visually appealing literature – preferably kept to one page – would go a long way if executed properly. Cash can do many things, of course, whether it’s purchasing food or coffee for groups of people we wish to reach, social media advertising, even to seed the kind of grass roots local initiatives that are likely to boost our credibility while at the same time, perhaps, likely to outlast the Sanders campaign and provide us a bridge to our post-crisis efforts.
All three parties have people, and we need them – dedicated, committed people who will sign up to cover events and follow through so that we have a substantial and noticeable presence, especially the larger ones. One of the strengths of the Left is precisely this relatively high level of commitment among party members. Between our organizations, we can find plenty of people willing to do the work. We just have to be organized and aware enough to get people where they are most needed.
Perhaps I’m biased, but New Hampshire itself provides the perfect example. Because of the first in the nation primary, a substantial percentage of the events Sanders holds in the entirety of his campaign will be held here. The state is geographically small and easy to cover, especially considering the fact that most of the events are held in the southern part of the state. Get up here. Get the money here. Everybody – SA, ISO, Greens, and anybody else who wants in.
* * *
Everything we seek to accomplish, from educating working people, to building the strength of organized labor, to running independent campaigns, to taking advantage of the campaigns of others depends upon action. We need not hesitate. Yes, we will screw up. Mistakes encountered through tangible efforts are inevitable – but preferable to paralytic inaction without missteps. This will be a learning process for all of us, but it’s a process that can’t begin until we stop talking and actually try things. We definitely don’t have anything to lose.
Few things, after all, are as likely to draw people into a movement, to gain their confidence and enthusiasm, than seeing that movement do things. At the end of the day, it’s up to us to be that movement, the one that does things – or, at the very least, tries.

Never on a Sunday

Watching politics from this side of the Atlantic has been interesting. I spent a day walking around the Yorkshire Lancashire countryside with farmers (thanks to my super hostess Muffy and her friend Abby who arranged the day.) One in-town dairy farm (more about that later) and one hillside beef and mutton farm. Speaking with these third and fourth generation farmers confirmed my belief that small scale farms face similar hurdles and concerns around the world. It seems the same in Yorkshire Lancashire as it is in Chalatenango and Maine.   
  
As I told you earlier I met Boris Johnson. When he becomes Prime Minister I will be able to say I have shaken hands with a President (Jimmy Carter) and a PM.   

  

But the most “fun” I have had was watching the returns of the Greek referendum yesterday. We turned on the TV after all of our “4th of July on the 5th” party had gone and the apartment was cleaned up. I was very excited that the Greek people said a loud and resounding NO to the oligarchs and are willing to go it on their own terms. They know that either way their economy is in trouble and they want to have more control over the kind of trouble it will be. I am reminded of the old film “Never on a Sunday” about a free spirited woman in Greece who is pounced upon by an Englishman who wants to “reform” her. She said no thank you and continues her loose and happy life-style as he slinks off into the sunset. Watch the film and see if you think it is a good metaphor for what is happening in the European Union and the Grexit (Greek Exit) as it is tagged over here. I am sad that they allowed the EU bullies to shove the finance minister, Yanis Varoufakis, out of his post. But proud of him that he is enough of a statesman to realize it is best for the country to get out of the way and let the PM negotiate whatever solution he can with the EU banksters.

Watching the impeachment proceedings against our Governor has made me wish I could be in two places at once. But I can’t. It was nice of the Brits to have lovely weather for me and a nice political crisis to watch while I am here.

Update:  Well the Greeks blinked.  So sad.  But the investigation of our Governor seems to be proceeding apace so that is good.  And the Yorkshire Lancashire mix up, well, I’m sorry about that.

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