Archive for the ‘national politics’ Category

Food Sovereignty Slide Show

So yesterday I spoke to a class at the University of Maine at Orono, The Anthropology of Food, a class taught by a wonderful young woman I met at the College of the Atlantic when I was on a panel down there for their Farm Day, Cynthia Isenhour. During her introduction she mentioned that this blog has a thousand followers! Wow, that many people are interested in what I have to say about politics and agriculture, who knew?

That piece of information made me feel a little guilty about my sporadic writing in this medium so I think I am obliged to drop you a post today. Here is the slide show and talk I gave to that class yesterday, enjoy:

Passing the Food Sovereignty law

Photo Ben RetbergSo in 2009 the inspector from the Maine Department of Agriculture, which had suddenly and internally changed their definition of milk distributors, walked down the wrong farm driveway. Two wrong driveways actually but that is the other part of the story. The Retbergs, Heather and Phil, had just built their farm business up enough that Phil could quit his off-farm job as a carpenter and they thought, with their dairy and their meat bird production, that they could make a go of it on their farm income. Supporting themselves and their three children while feeding their friends and neighbors good wholesome food. What they were told was that they could no longer share their farmer neighbor’s poultry slaughter facility and they would be classified as a milk distributor because they had a sign at the end of their driveway saying they sold raw milk.

My small organization Food for Maine’s Future, then run by Bob St. Peter, met with the Retbergs (actually they were friends already and this speaks to the power of community which is such an integral part of the food sovereignty movement) and it was decided that grassroots action was going to be the most effective. They wrote and got passed in several surrounding towns the Local Food and Community Self-Governance Ordinance. This is a rights based ordinance founded on the Maine constitution’s Home Rule provision and on the work done by the water sovereignty activists in western Maine battling with Nestle to protect their ground water.

Photo by Betsy Garrold, T-shirt by Sap Pail MediaShortly after that the department of Ag decided to make a test case out of a guy, we called him Farmer Brown, milking one cow and selling it from his farm stand and at the farmer’s market in his town. The district court ruled against him, saying “milk is not food and therefore not covered by the Ordinance.” We took it all the way to the Maine Supreme Court who ruled against Dan but carefully avoided negating the Ordinance because they did not want to mess with the home-rule constitutional issue.

Photo by Betsy GarroldSo all this time we were going to Augusta, trying to get the Ordinance applicable statewide. And failing. But attracting more and more attention for our work and more and more supporters. And we were increasing the number of towns which had passed the ordinance. Maine has a town meeting form of municipal governance and these ordinances were passing unanimously in these meetings. People get it. Neighbors feeding neighbors is not only good for the local economy but also good for healthy strong people and healthy strong communities. We kept getting our bills all the way to the governor’s desk but could not quite muster the votes to override his repeated vetoes. One victory we did have, early on, was getting the 1000 bird poultry slaughter exemption passed. More about meat later.

Banner by ARRT!So once again we shifted strategies. We decided to pass a state constitutional amendment that stated people had the right to food of their choosing. A measure not subject to a gubenatorial veto. Now when we get these grandiose ideas we know we do not have the money to go up against the grocery manufacturers lobby or the dairy lobby head to head, dollar for dollar. Although we have had some good financial support most notably from Farm to Consumer Legal Defense Fund who finances our full time lobbyist (me) and from local co-operatives including Fedco Seeds we need people power to win. On the day of the vote we planned a rally. We even had Joel Salatin fly up to Maine to testify. Here he is with our lead ally and I can say one of the overall leaders in this movement Craig Hickman, farmer, legislator, all around great guy. And the other “wrong” driveway the department walked down in 2009. Craig and his husband Jop run a small farm and B&B in Winthrop and when the state inspectors told him he had to stop using his extra goats milk to make yogurt to sell in his farm stand his response was to run for the legislature.

Photo by Maine Progressive WarehouseThe real power we have is what I like to call “muddy boots in the halls of power”. We can’t turn out the numbers that the NRA does when there are gun bills getting heard at the capitol but we can turn out 100-200 people to testify on our big bills. In a state of 1.3 million people that can have an impact on our legislators. Plus we have those stalwart advocates in the legislature: Craig, Ralph Chapman, Troy Jackson, Michelle Dunphy, and a handful of republicans we can count on for votes and quiet support. And we were getting some national attention.

Photo by Ben RetbergWe did not win this fight but it was only through the political manipulations of one of our chief foes in the state senate. I have to say it was a beautiful piece of political theatre that I had to admire, I could have enjoyed a lot more if I had not been on the losing side. In the house, however, we passed this on a recorded vote with the 2/3 majority we would have needed to get this on the ballot for the people of the state of Maine to decide. So we were not entirely discouraged.

Photo montage by Nikki SekeraSo we went back, This time with water allies. And this time we had a powerful ally whom we had converted from his previous skepticism about local food control. Senator Troy Jackson was back in the lege although no longer on the agriculture committee. This is a picture of the day we met with him and he offered to sponsor the bill. Niki and Heather were introduced to the folks in the revisor’s office and we wrote our own bill this time. We included local water control. Farmers can’t farm without water, after all. Unfortunately, we ended up having to remove water protection from the bill to get it out of committee but it was educational to see the number of suits that Nestles can turn out to testify against any bill that tries to stop their theft of water from the people of western Maine.

Photo by Abigail CurtisIn this year’s session of the legislature. As we were preparing to reintroduce our statewide food sovereignty ordinance. This happened. I am not saying this had a big impact on our final outcome but the fact that a fire at a warehouse in southern Maine could lead to most of our major grocery stores in the state looking like this kind of was a wake up call for those who are paying attention to the fact that the food supply chain is fragile. People need to be able to feed themselves.

But we got the bill passed, unanimously in both houses. A bill that said essentially “if a town passes an ordinance to have control of their own food system the state will not interfere.” We were gearing up for a fight to override the expected veto from the governor when this happened. This is the signatures of our right wing obstreperous governor and his tea party ally senate president on our food sovereignty law. Victories are possible. It just takes persistence and being ready to defend the gains we make.

But as a friend of mine likes to say. You get to the top of the mountain and you think you’ve made it and then the clouds part and there is the next higher peak you need to climb. We knew this was not going to be the end. We did not rest on our laurels. We have been busy organizing the 28 towns that have come to us since the passage of the law to get their own ordinance in place. We had been waiting for the other shoe to drop. Auburn became the first city to pass the ordinance with no assistance from us at all. It is part of the zeitgeist now. The ground swell is happening.

Remember the national attention I told you about. Well this time it was the USDA. They are threatening to pull our state’s “permission” to state inspect meat and poultry processors and force them to have USDA inspectors unless the lege amends the law to exempt meat and poultry from local control. Based on the 1967 Wholesome Meat Act that put production of all red meat and poultry in the hands of the USDA at the behest of Big Ag. Leading to CAFOs. Maine runs its own meat and poultry processing program under a cooperative agreement with the feds. They were threatening to make us a “designated” state along with 48 other states.

The governor called the lege back into special session to deal with this. At the same time they dealt with Ranked Choice Voting and the marijuana legalization regulations. It was some interesting sausage making in that special session let me tell you.

Photo by Betsy GarroldAnd as Heather says “when a bully wants your milk money and threatens you, what do you do? You stand up and fight back. But what do you do when he wants your milk money and threatens your friends?” As usual this is a divide and conquer mentality that works so well for the oligarchs so often and we strategized and conferred with our legislative allies and planned our next moves.

Drawing by Jonah FertigWe went back to the legislature, took our muddy boots back into the halls of power and with the help of our friends in the legislature we amended the law to suit the USDA and not totally gut the ordinance’s power. Here we are in the gallery of the House once again watching the vote. It was a good day. Made partially possible by the fact that we were really small potatoes in the special session. They used the USDA “emergency” as an excuse to call the special session on order to gut RCV and the marijuana legislation. The legislators were anxious to get us out of the way and start carving up the two things they really wanted to mess with RCV and marijuana. And the beat goes on.

Photo by Betsy GarroldPhoto by Betsy Garrold

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Why the Democrats are Losing All the Time

So much has happened since my last post that I have decided to make this one a “themed” essay. No day by day telling of my time in The Swamp. More of an overview of what I see happening.

My theme is “Why the Democrats are Losing All the Time.” By Betsy Garrold

Here are some of the reasons that the tone deaf DNC will continue to lose to the dysfunctional, horrible, racist, sexist RNC.

#1: They are tone deaf to issues they even claim to champion like LGBTQ rights. Here is my evidence. I was at a famous DC hotel a couple of weeks ago attending a dinner/training for a legislative fly-in I was participating in. Also in the hotel were the DNC. It was not a huge group and seemed to be mostly young people so I am guessing some sort of youth caucus event. Anyhow I went to use the public restrooms in the corridor we were sharing with this group and this is what I saw:

 Not a great picture but you get the idea.   Yep, it’s okay for the “girls” to share their (Gender Neutral) restrooms but don’t you dare ask the “men” to do it. Tone deaf much?

#2 My next encounter with the DNC was at the big Planned Parenthood rally on the front lawn of the Capitol building. PP had done a great job of building up to this rally against the proposed replacement for the Affordable Care Act. There were thousands of people there in their pink buttons and t-shirts. The speakers began……all Democrats. Which was marginally tolerable but then Nancy Pelosi introduced the head of the DNC What’s-his-name Perez and I had to walk away. I scouted the perimeters hoping to run into my own party (the Greens) but instead found this group advocating for a single party payer system:

And then, several days later, I read this interesting article which explained a lot. 

So no surprise that the PP rally turned into a DNC pep rally. Only sadness at the co-opting of an organization I used to respect. It looks like this cartoon may have some truth to it…even considering the source.


And finally #3. This meme from the book of the face.   


How terrifying is that thought? Yes, if Clinton, with her smarts and her savvy and her social graces had been elected we all could have gone back to sleep and let the oligarchs continue to run our lives. She would have been so soothing and PC as she lead us into more wars and more $$$ being funneled to the wealthiest few and more of everything that Wall Street and Big Pharma and Big Argo-business etc etc wants. As I said to many of my friends on 11/9/16 “Well, at least he will be a good organizing tool for progressives.” And he has been (tool, of course, being the operative word) his blatant racism, sexism, elitism is easy to rally against. So, yes, you could have had neo-liberal, con-artist Clinton as your President. But in many, many ways this is better.

So why has the DNC lost all the special elections since 45’s inauguration?  Because they think that being Republican-lite is the way to go. They are so far up the behinds of their moneyed masters that they cannot even see the light of day and they certainly can not see, or figure out why, the masses anger at the status quo. No justice, no peace. Know justice, know peace. Figure it out DNC. Or don’t, all the better for the truly progressive parties out there who will keep growing and fighting the good fight and winning.

Ms. Garrold Goes to Washington Parts Four and Five

So it has been two busy, busy weeks down here in the swamp. I am going to change formats a bit and just hit the highlights. Believe me that will be enough.

Memorial Day weekend was a madhouse here at the Pink Village. At one point we had eleven people sharing one bathroom. I know, I know “such a first-world problem.” And you’re right.   
We had many Veteran’s for Peace  staying with us for three days of activities around the Memorial Day holiday. I arrived back in DC on Sunday evening to find a dozen or so VFP members singing peace hymns in the living room of the Pink House. The next day we went to the Vietnam War Memorial to place letters from all over the country written for visitors to The Wall to read. I was randomly given one from my friend Phil Worden a, now retired, great civil rights lawyer in Maine. Such a nice coincidence.   
On Tuesday the VFP group had a rally and I went back to the NFFC office. It was a quiet day except for one incident. On my way back from the bank mid-afternoon I walked through the entire staff and all the Senators who had been evacuated from the Hart and Dirksen Senate office buildings. Buildings which are, as I have previously mentioned, right across the street from my office building. Hundreds and hundreds of people standing in Stanton Park. I asked, and was told, that it was just a “drill.” I had to walk around the block to get back to my office as the roads and sidewalks around those two buildings were a no-go zone. So that was the excitement for Tuesday.


I am still keeping an eye on things going on in Maine. FairVote and the League are finally stepping up to protect Ranked Choice Voting. It’s about time. There was a “town hall meeting” call on Tuesday evening with some reassurance that these two groups have figured out that the only way to save RCV is by rallying the troops. It is probably too little too late but I am hoping for the best.
On Wednesday the elderly homeless lady was back in the park but the ducks have moved on. And the new episode of The Handmaid’s Tale dropped. 
Skipping to Thursday of that week I attended a Code Pink demonstration outside the Brazilian Embassy calling for the secession of extra judicial killings of peasant farmers and leaders of MST, the landless farmers movement in Brazil, by that country’s illegal government (hint: they took power in a soft coupe). Go to the Code Pink link for a picture of me at the demo.
But the best part of the day was my adventure being part of the live studio audience for Redacted Tonite. Go here to watch the episode. It was a good one. Be warned, however, if you are thinking about going to a taping it is a tiny studio and you have to sit on the floor. But totally worth it!
On Saturday of that week we had another cannibas edibles event at the Pink House. Not as well organized or attended at the Mamajuana event. But interesting none the less.
On Sunday I did laundry and grocery shopping.
On Monday the new intern for NFFC arrived at the office. And I totally forgot she was coming. My VERY bad. But she is a hard-working, low-key type and was not rattled by it at all.
Then I deserted her for two days to go to NYC for a Friends of the Earth-organized meeting with TIAA about their farmland grabs in the US and Brazil (yep, Brazil again). Here is something from NFFC about the farmgrabs in the US. 
It was two intense days of strategy and meetings. We are banned from saying anything about what went on in the meeting with TIAA staff but here is your challenge for the day: find the interactive map of their farmland holdings on their website….Go! Okay how long did you spend? My friend Tristan from ActionAid and I both spent 45 minutes trying to find it on their website after we were told it was there. We both failed. So much for transparency. In case you are interested here it is. ‘Cause you will never find it on your own!


Two other important things that happened during this trip. #1 was that my lovely daughter-in-law dropped her first podcast. Go and watch it. She is lovely, smart, charming and the podcast is a hoot! And #2 was that I got to visit ParkSlope Co-op. Notequally important   events by any means but both really good things.  


Thursday was Comey Day on Capitol Hill as you are all well aware. I was on The Hill doing serious grown-up business, attending a House Agriculture Sub-committee hearing on SNAP benefits.  But the media circus was in full swing. As one of the folks I was standing in line with said, it is a most interesting time to be in DC. I got back to the office in time to catch the end of the hearing on TV, our suite mates were watching it and we all gathered around. Reminiscent of watching the Watergate hearings. Probably won’t end as well as that episode in our sordid history did. 
Friday ended with a demonstration outside the Whitehouse marking the 50th anniversary of the total Israeli take over in Palestine known as the Six Day War. Can you say US supported apartheid?   I knew you could.
And now you are all caught up on my wild ride in DC.

Ms. Garrold Goes to Washington Part 2

So the start of my second week in DC was a lunch meeting Monday at the Farm Credit Council’s office. A briefing about the coming farm credit crisis. Interesting stuff if you’re a total nerd about this subject, which I am.  Their mantra was “we are not a leading indicator, we are a trailing indicator, we don’t know and can’t project what is going to happen.”   There were several sour notes in the report however regarding the liquidity of the farmers in many sections of the country.  I came away knowing, first of all, that I understood everything that was said, which made me feel pretty good.   And second, I was very under-dressed for the occasion.  Lots of fancy suits and very high heels in the room.   I have to decide whether to step up my wardrobe or just continue to be the frump from Maine. Probably the latter, it’s cheaper.

That evening Marta and I did Skype pickle-making. She was about to can her first batch of dilly fiddleheads and I was able to participate from DC. Bless technology. Here’s a picture of what the final product looks like, this is last year’s batch.

On Tuesday, I walked by the small park at 1st and D and saw the elderly homeless woman who seems to camp in the same spot most nights and next to her, a pair of Mallard ducks. Male and female. They were all there the next day,too. A bit further up the hill as I stood at the crossing near the Senate office buildings a guy drove by in a little silver car and I thought “That looks like Angus King.” As he turned the corner into the Senate parking spaces I noticed the Maine vanity plate that said “No Gas” and I thought, “Yep, that was Angus.”   There’s got to be some metaphor here but I just can’t quite grasp it.  

On Wednesday I spent the morning at the House Agriculture Committee hearing on the Rural Economy. With Secretary Sonny Perdue, himself in attendance.   I won’t recap my feelings about this, you can read about them in the blog post I wrote for the NFFC site as soon as it get posted. Suffice it to say there was a lot of fawning and toadying going on in that room. And the jockeying for position outside the room pretty intense, too. One guy standing behind me in line said “I could jump the line but I don’t want to be an asshole.” He later choose to manifest his inner asshole and jumped the line. I ended up in the overflow room even though I had gotten there an hour early. Maybe I’ll channel my inner bitch next time and jump the line.  Anyhow, this guy was so clueless that when, coincidently, we happened to be leaving at the same time, before the hearing was over, he had the cajones to say to me in the hallway, “there are seats in there now.” 


That evening I went up to Politics and Prose to hear China Mieville talk about his newest book “October“. The nice surprise was that Barbara Ehrenreich was his host/co-presenter. Such a treat. I kicked myself on the way home for not buying a copy of “Nickel and Dimed” and having her autograph it for my mother who is a fan.

On Thursday I went over to Representative Chellie Pingree’s office to drop off some information I had for one of her staffers. We love Chellie at NFFC. One of the few real farmers on The Hill. We had a American University graduate in the office for the day helping with our archiving project. Lots of boxes of papers to be gone through. Lots of history in this room. And the Library of Congress is already archiving our  (NFFC’s) website. We hope they will be interested in some of this paperwork, too.  The ducks and the homeless woman were still in the park this morning.

On the way home I stopped at GLUT a cooperative grocery store in Mt Rainier MD which is a quick bus ride from where I am staying. This is a real, old-fashion cooperative. Wooden floors, over stacked shelves etc. I felt very at home.

Friday morning, just for fun, I took the bus to work instead of the Metro. It was an interesting trip but not one I will be repeating soon. At least I know how to do it now if the Redline ever goes down. I also took the bus to the USDA farmers market on Capitol Hill. There were two veggie farmers there selling their lovely food. I got salad fixings for the week. The rest of the tents were basically “food trucks in tents.” But that’s okay. At least they are trying. They (the USDA) know that they have to at least appear to being supporting local farms.

Saturday was the big event at the Pink House. Mamajuana cannibis edibles has monthly events where you can buy some merchandise (hats, bracelets, bags of candy) and then for every $10 you spend you get an edible. Mamajuana edibles are tasty; Brownies, no bake cookies, rice crispie treats; and they pack a kick! 2000 people filtered through the Pink House during the course of the day. Everything was pretty mellow.

Sunday was a quiet day. I got the tomatoes transplanted in the raised bed in back of the Pink House. It is going to rain for the next few days in DC so I am hoping they will survive. But while I was kicking back in “the swamp” the kids were busy in Maine building their house. 

And on Monday it all starts over again. Having a good time, learning a lot. I now know, however, I do not ever want to run a B&B. More later.

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.
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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.
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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.

Is Populism Making a Comeback

Several years ago I started writing this blog and decided to call it The Populist Farmer in honor of a movement from over a century ago that I thought had a lot of things right.   They were against big monopolies and for the small farmer.   A stance that I spend a lot of  time in Augusta supporting.  They were among the first national movements to recognize the leadership and contributions of women.   Definitely ahead of their time.

Well it seems that the big pols have figured out that this is a good frame on which to hang all their garbage.  In an attempt to once again bamboozle the electorate.   Don’t be fooled folks,  the closest thing we have to a populist in the race for the White House right  now is Bernie Sanders.   But stay tuned, Jill Stein is about to throw her hat in the ring.

In the meantime read this nice little piece that appeared in YES! Magazine recently.

Is Populism Making a Comeback? What You Need to Know About Its History—And Its Future

  
The 19th century populists gave us co-ops and workers’ rights. Here’s how we can build on their work to solve 21st century problems.

Fran Korten posted June 02, 2015

You may have noticed. In our political discourse, suddenly the term “populism” is everywhere.

In April, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid joined 5,000 other political leaders in a call to make “big, bold, economic-populist ideas” the center of the 2016 presidential campaign. Outlets as disparate as The New York Times, The Nation, Time, and Fox News apply the label to politicians across the political spectrum.

Elizabeth Warren, known for her fiery critiques of Wall Street, is termed a populist. Hillary Clinton has a new-found interest in economic populism; Bernie Sanders has long worn the label. Even right-wing firebrand Ted Cruz gets the label, and Bobby Jindal applies it to himself. As Robert Borosage, head of the Campaign for America’s Future, put it, “We live in a populist moment.”

The term populist harkens back to the movement that formed in the 1880s in response to the extremes of wealth and power in the Gilded Age. As Lawrence Goodwyn describes in his book The Populist Moment, farmers found themselves in perpetual debt at the hands of local merchants and corporate monopolies. Many lost their land. They decried the concentrated wealth of the banks and big business and advocated policies that favored working people over the elites. Millions were attracted by the idea of forming cooperatives where they could buy goods and sell their produce at fair prices.

By 1892, the movement had broadened to include urban workers and became the People’s Party. At their founding convention, they enthusiastically embraced a platform that included a progressive income tax, the secret ballot, direct election of senators, the right of citizens to create initiatives and referenda, shorter hours for workers, antitrust legislation, postal savings banks, and shifting the power to create money from bankers to government.
  
In the 1896 presidential race, the People’s Party made common cause with William Jennings Bryan, the Democratic nominee. Bryan was defeated, and it looked like the populists had lost.

In fact, their ideas were only beginning to take hold. The next three decades saw much of their 1892 platform enacted. Their hope for cooperatives flowered in much of the Midwest. But they didn’t get everything they hoped for and they didn’t break the bankers’ hold on creating money.

Since the heyday of populism, many of its policies have been watered down and the flood of money in politics has eviscerated the effects of others. Now, the concentration of wealth and power is much like that of the Gilded Age. Americans are again awash in debt.

So we should not be surprised that populist ideas are making a comeback. We hear those ideas in the Occupy movement’s demands to rein in Wall Street and rectify our country’s extreme inequality. We see them in the grassroots opposition to the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that allows corporations to spend at will on our political process. And they are echoed by the millions mobilizing for a $15-an-hour minimum wage. The dangers of concentrated wealth and power have once again captured the public imagination.

The prospect of enacting a populist agenda is daunting. The power of Wall Street banks, giant oil companies, big pharma, and big ag seems overwhelming.

But the original populists also faced daunting challenges—cotton monopolies, Standard Oil, the railroads, and a financial system rigged against them. They came together, learned the issues, and shaped the nation. Now it is our turn to advance the populist call for economic fairness, real democracy, and a dignified life for all.

Fran Korten wrote this article for Make It Right, the Summer 2015 issue of YES! Magazine. Fran is publisher of YES! Magazine.

Big White Envelope

A big white envelope arrived in my mailbox this week. I have yet to open it. Just waiting for the right time. The little logo on the outside says “Agriculture Counts.” Too true. Inside is the USDA’s annual Organic Farming Survey for 2014.

Now, I am a very little farm, microscopic almost but I got on this mailing list a few years ago because I felt strongly that organic agriculture in the US was being woefully under-counted. I wanted to do my, albeit small, part to reverse that trend. On the fancy postcard they sent me a few weeks ago it says this: “Total organic sales by farms in the US increased by 83 percent between 2007 and 2012.” Well I would say that their counting of it increased, more likely.

As you, faithful reader, well know I am not a huge fan of the USDA. I am not a fan of their burdensome, one-size-fits-all regulatory structure that is for sure. But if they want to count and tout organic farming I am more than willing to help them out with that. To contribute my small bit to the growing pile of data about caring for the land and feeding the people in a safe, sustainable way.

Anyhow, here is what the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition has to say about it:

“IMPORTANT ORGANIC SURVEY HITS FARM GATES
January 9, 2015

On January 5, the National Agricultural Statistics Service (NASS) mailed the much anticipated 2014 Organic Survey to organic farmers all across the country. This survey is a follow-on to the 2012 Census of Agriculture and focuses exclusively on issues and trends facing organic producers. This survey was mandated by a provision of the Fiscal Year 2014 omnibus funding bill that NSAC advocated for and supported, and continues the data collection efforts on the organic sector that began with the first-ever national organic survey conducted over six years ago.

This survey is critical to organic farmers and the organic industry as a whole, because it will provide important trend data on the growth, trends, challenges, and opportunities facing the organic industry within the United States. The last time this survey was conducted was 2008, and by conducting the survey again with the same list of questions, NASS, policymakers and other data users (including farmers themselves) will be able to better identify developments and opportunities for growth in organic production.

To read more about the importance of data to the organic sector, check out our previous blog post.

The types of questions asked by the 2014 Organic Survey include:

How much land is currently transitioning into organic production;
Information on specific production practices organic farmers are implementing on their farms to control pest, weeds, soil fertility, conserve water and manage livestock;
Primary production challenges facing organic farmers; and
Value and price data on organically produced crops and livestock products.
This information not only helps the organic industry identify trends that will inform planting and other decisions, but it also helps researchers and organizations representing organic producers identify where additional resources and research are needed. Without this important data, organic producers are at a disadvantage compared with their conventional counterparts.

The data collected by this survey will also help USDA’s Risk Management Agency (RMA) as it seeks to develop more organic prices elections for federal crop insurance policies. Organic price elections on additional crops will allow organic producers to insure their crops at the full organic price, which is often well above the conventional price. RMA also needs organic production data in order to establish new crop insurance products that are specifically tailored to organic farmers.

The survey has been sent to all known organic producers, exempt organic producers and those transitioning to organic.

Farms are required by law to complete the survey and can either complete and return the paper version they will receive in the mail or they can fill out an online version using the ID number on the mailing label. If utilizing the paper version, producers must return the survey to NASS by February 13, 2015. Producers have until April 3, 2015 to complete the online version of the survey.

The results of the 2014 Organic Survey will be available in August 2015.

NSAC encourages organic producers to participate by filling out the survey or by responding through NASS’s online survey portal, to ensure that farmers, policymakers, and other organic stakeholders have access to the most comprehensive and timely information on the current state of our country’s organic sector.”

So, if you farm organically, even just a little bit, I urge you to add your voice to the growing chorus of farming the way it should be!