Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at

Building Participatory Democracy in Chicago

We live in a unique time in Chicago history; finally we are witnessing the erosion of the political machine in local politics. After decades of scandals, an increased eye turned towards city hall from federal investigators, and the defection of many major labor unions from Daley’s coalition, the political machine is limping along on the major contributions from downtown developers. Another blow to the political machine has been the mobilization of the progressive Hispanic community over issues of immigration and assimilation. Similarly, Chicago’s progressive white community has been invigorated by the anti-war movement and is engaged in a myriad of “greening” projects which have largely been frustrated by Daley, either used solely as symbolic propaganda tools, or totally fumbled like the city recycling program.

Frustration in Chicago’s black communities is also coming to a head, with rampant gang and police violence wracking neighborhoods already suffering from limited school resources and an increasing number of school closings. Although the problems of Chicago’s predominately black neighborhoods are dire, hope is being restored as Obama’s campaign, along with other rising local black figures like Jesse Jackson Jr., are bringing a new momentum towards the impetus for change in Chicago.

Most importantly, Chicago’s youth are again paying attention to politics and are becoming active participants in politics. The Jena 6 mobilizations saw hundreds of student across the city organize busses to Jena, Louisiana, in addition to organizing solidarity actions to support the defendants. Much of the energy of the recent immigration rallies was from the youth, organizing by the thousands through myspace, text messaging and at high schools and shopping malls. Mobilizing this generation more than any other issue however has been the occupation of Iraq and imperialistic foreign policies of mainstream politicians of both parties. Barack Obama has managed to direct this upsurge in youth enthusiasm to launch a historic presidential campaign, which has already trained hundreds of dedicated youth/student volunteers from Chicago, who will be returning from positions around the country as seasoned electoral veterans after the election in November. We are in an exciting time; we need a strategy that can combine our peers’ heightened expectations from politicians and an enormous reservoir of trained volunteers returning from Obama’s campaign into a lasting transformation of society.

Substantive political change is possible only through political organizing at the most fundamental levels. In Chicago the most fundamental political identity is the ward, or neighborhood district that is guaranteed a representative on City Council. Our focus has largely been on challenging corporations like Boeing, or on challenging national political figures like Dick Durbin. This approach has not yielded results because we have not challenged the source of these institutions’ power, the Chicago Democratic Party Machine. Boeing is in Chicago because of the enticement package given to it by City Council, and Durbin banks on the turnout efforts of the machine each election. Our explicit agenda outlined in SDS’s name is to build a democratic society, but we have ignored the fact that the most logical launching point for a democratic society is the neighborhood we live in and the precinct we cast our vote at. Instead we have made “radical demands” on City Council, only to have our demands fall on deaf ears. Without building our own power in Chicago we will forever be at the mercy of the well organized political machine that will never deliver a resolution against a war on Iran, or for supporting military desertion, nevermind materially support such efforts, no matter how “militantly” we “demand.”

We can change direction however. Not only are we students, but we are situated in Chicago wards. Together with others in our communities we have the leverage to build a democratic society beginning in the wards in which we live. If we can use our talents and energies to build a democratic society in our wards we can present a new challenge to Daley’s machine, one that is directly democratic and empowering to everyone in the ward community. We have the potential transform the role of alderman from an authoritarian “representative” of the machine, into a delegate on City Council voting the wishes of a participatory ward assembly where the entire community can be empowered. Precincts, or district divisions within the ward with a physical location where people can vote, can be organized as the basic units of political deliberation within a new democratic framework for a ward.

Changing the identity of the ward into a directly democratic community, with a candidate selected from the ward assembly to serve as a delegate on city council would be revolutionary. Almost all social services received by Chicagoans are directed by all-important departments of city government. If we are serious about improving public housing, ensuring quality public education, ending police harassment, and transforming our local economy, organizing along ward lines is imperative. Ignoring City government will only make us irrelevant as we will continue to be locked out of making the decisions materially affecting our communities. Revolutionary organizing means working to build directly democratic institutions today, and building these institutions will require engaging and challenging the power of the machine in the wards.

The success of this campaign depends on the energy of those interested in making participatory democracy in Chicago a reality. Our success will hinge on our ability to engage in meticulous and democratic project planning, including our ability to execute our decisions. The rest of the document is structured as a project plan for the initiation of a local, ward-based political organization, tentatively called Chicago Solidarity Movement (the name is irrelevant).

If you are interested in organizing for local power in Chicago please get in touch with Nick Kreitman at

September/October 2008

-Attract around a dozen interested organizers to hold an initial meeting of the Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Hold a weekly or biweekly study circle on Chicago politics, focus on Harold Washington’s campaign in 1983, Richard J. Daley’s Democratic Machine, and the contemporary “growth-coalition” of Richard M. Daley

-Establish an online domain where directed reading sessions can be followed by those unable to attend meetings

-Outreach to graphic designers to begin designing thematic graphics for organization

-Debate and select which ward to begin the initial ward organization

-Build a database of 200 potential student volunteers at campuses across the city through organizing successful social events like movie showings, parties and activities like softball/Frisbee

-Make contact with every existing student group on each university campus across the city

-Outline a budget for the next two month period, write a provisional constitution for Chicago Solidarity Movement

-Map out points of interest in the selected ward with volunteers and local establishments who offer to host events

November/December 2008

Dedicate time from the study circle to research issues within selected ward

-Make contact with all influential social organizations in ward, identify allies and begin discussion about creating a process for a creating a search committee for an aldermanic candidate for 2011 election

-Identify provisional structure for resident participation in ward assembly

-Build a database of 100 ward resident supporters

-Expand student volunteer database to 500 names

-Create orientation program to student volunteers about the ward, its history and its issues

-Begin outreach (canvass) effort to ward residents about a ward specific platform, and a city-wide platform

-Identify opportunities for student volunteers to build social programs to help serve ward issues, begin recruiting students specifically for Chicago Solidarity Movement operated social programs (for example free SAT tutoring)

-Identify space within the ward to use as a temporary office, begin planning to move to a permanent office space

-Begin full scale fundraising operation to finance temporary/permanent space and draft compensation procedures for organizing expenses e.g. gas, coffee for meetings etc.



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Draft Article for Platypus, Leveraging Social Power Through Wards in Chicago

Leveraging Social Power Through Wards in Chicago
Nick Kreitman

Chicago is a city of opportunity and has a unique potential to fundamentally change how people relate to each other and to political institutions. The social power sustaining contemporary political institutions is a matrix of personal relationships between those identifying with the institutions and those on the periphery of such institutions. Those on the periphery perceive a marginal benefit from participating in relationships defined by those institutions. Successful efforts at building social power will begin with an understanding of where social movements have the most leverage to engage and alter our political institutions and the web of relationships nourishing them.

Towards this end, identifying which institutions are the most relevant in people’s lives and building the social power to transform their operation is critical. Social transformation occurs when enough people live and experience alternative ways of life. Revolution will only materialize once enough people live in institutions that are based around the revolutionary principals of democratic cooperation and mutual respect. This is a process that requires organization, which in turn takes political strategy. Revolutionary Democracy (Rev Dem) is a political strategy of building a dual power. Dual Power builds alternative institutions in our communities with the goal of building commitment from the people towards a social transformation while also leveraging our social power to engage existing institutions.

Think of an organization as a rope connecting two people together, two families, two neighborhoods, or whatever scale you want. The more strands in the rope the stronger the bond between the two. Rev Dem asks organizers to identify the relationships in their lives, and asks them to reshape them around the principals of mutual respect and democratic cooperation (relationships like how you treat your partner, how your job is organized, how your education is organized, how you find housing etc.). Each relationship based upon these principals is another strand in the rope. Each strand advances the larger goal of the rope, tying people together, transforming society. Rev Dem employs the strategy of building dual power, creating new institutions that connect people around revolutionary principals, strengthening their relationships with each other, realizing our own strength and realizing our own society. Dual Power is about creating new institutions and reorganizing how we relate to existing institutions.

Chicago’s recent social movement history has been in contrast to the strategy of Rev Dem. Our powerlessness has been the result of a strategy emphasizing critical advocacy petitioning existing institutions and fetishizing the tactic of protest. In Chicago alone, hundreds of thousands of dollars have been expended, with the movement banking on the success of mass demonstrations. Costs for these demonstrations (in the “radical” community mass “direct actions”) have only escalated each year bankrupting organizations and individuals. While many regressive politicians (like the 06’ Congressional Republicans) have had their political careers evaporate because of their support for the war or for racist attacks on immigrants, it has largely been the result of progressive organizing within the Democratic Party that is more parallel to Rev Dem than the mass demonstration mentality of ANSWER, mainstream “radical” thought or UFPJ.

A phenomenon of particular interest to Chicago has been the path of our progressive immigration movement. During the debate on the fascist Sensennbrenner bill that would have turned the undocumented into felons, it was effective to create a visual reminder of the cost of racist legislation to uncommitted voters and legislators. Additionally in Chicago the large coalition supporting the undocumented threatened to use its electoral weight to win concessions from the City government; forcing it to neglect its obligation to enforce immigration law through the Sanctuary City ordinance. These victories however have not translated into further success because of the failure to identify where the movement could employ the most leverage; constructing a dual power to challenge the City Government. While there are a myriad of programs that address particular needs of Chicago’s immigrant population there has been little coordination of these programs to substantively challenge the most relevant institutions in the city, City Council and the Mayor.

Chicago has a long history of a powerful local government, composed of a county government, a City Council and Mayor. Chicago City government is the most ubiquitous set of institutions that social movements have a formal opportunity to participate in. While opportunities to challenge the capitalist relationships commanding Chicago’s economy are available, without control of the local government such efforts would necessarily remain on a small scale.

Chicago’s ward divisions facilitate the construction of dual power. Although the wards do not necessarily align with self-identified communities, they present the opportunity for the growth of directly democratic neighborhood committees which can direct the decisions of movement aldermen (such committees could be organized around existing voter precincts). Aldermen could be explicitly run by our movement on the promise to be directly accountable to these neighborhood committees until their power could be formally amended to reflect this relationship, adding the ability to immediately recall aldermen. The obstacle that has prevented a sustained challenge to City Hall has been Chicago’s infamous Democratic machine. While manipulation of elections has played a significant role in the supremacy of the machine, it has also relied on an extensive network of relationships, leveraging its resources to employ armies of city workers in elections, obstructing services and investment in politically rebellious areas and harassing challengers through inspections, spurious legal challenges and outright intimidation.

Two other important obstacles face a Rev Dem challenge to City hall; the lack of a reputation in Chicago’s communities and the lack of infrastructure (including financing). Confronting Chicago’s political machine would be quixotic at best without a reputation in the community, the all-important name recognition, without a strong commitment from community allies who would have to deal with consequences of the machine, and without any infrastructure such as office and meeting spaces.

Understanding the concept of concentric interactions is important since our challenge to the city machine does not have to rely exclusively on electioneering. Commitment towards a political idea is engendered through increasing the number and intensity of relationships sharing similar dynamics. Commitment from neighborhoods to a Rev Dem ward organization can be built through community programs managed by the ward organization in a directly democratic manner. People can become involved, and more importantly stay involved, in the ward organization in off election years through programs like free SAT-prep courses, free yoga and nutrition classes, community gardens, legal clinics, etc. Existing social programs can also be invited into the ward organization’s network with each benefiting from the other’s resources.

Critical to implementing an effort to build a political dual power through Rev Dem ward organizations will be the participation and massive mobilization of Chicago’s students. There is clearly a huge potential for mobilization when outfits like World Can’t Wait can routinely bring out hundreds of students while having no identifiable goals except “Driving out the Bush regime.” Our movement must engage students in ways that encourage long-term commitment. Instead of just asking for another body in a march we need to apply the skills of students. Organizing departmentally and at-large at universities will be crucial to this effort, as we will need students who can staff community programs like legal and medical clinics, and who can share important project management skills. Students will be an invaluable component in building the ward organization as community canvassers. Only through utilizing the free time and disposable incomes of hundreds of Chicago students will we be able to match the visibility and outreach of the political machine. Obama’s campaign has both politicized and trained hundreds of Chicago students in canvassing and community outreach, whose student manpower must become involved in our effort.

Since our ward organizations will rely so heavily on student participation it is necessary to focus on potential wards where there are significant numbers of students. A cursory look at which wards have aldermen that are not progressive in proximity to students reveals around ten wards where we could begin building a ward organization and community social programs. To win an election in the most favorable wards would require around 3,500 votes. Each ward should be evaluated for potential student support, the strength of the machine ward organization and existing neighborhood institutions that our organization can network with.

Clarity of purpose coupled with effective cooperative management and a strategy that can command the most leverage towards building our own social power will lead to our movement’s success. By engaging people on multiple levels, through student supported social programs directed by the ward organization and by community allies, as well as through neighborhood committees to ensure community control over aldermen, we will be able to overcome the obstacles posed by Chicago’s machine and build a directly democratic dual power in Chicago.

Revolutionary Democracy can be further explored at and at


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A Chicago Response to “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization.”

Read the Adbusters Article, “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization,” at

A Chicago Response to “Hipster, the Dead End of Western Civilization.”

One of the few things more depressing than the explosion of the Hipster consumer culture is the collapse of the critical engagement with this culture. Instead of acknowledging our movement’s enormous influence on the mainstream hipster culture and using it as a springboard towards organizing we have reverted to the same elitism that is so pervasive in the Hipster scene. Adbusters, have you forgotten that it was you that helped give birth to the Hipster culture? You have finally become popular but your response has been to toss away your opportunity to reach millions of youth because of your own subcultural snobbery. Who do you think made those bandannas so fucking hip? Who brought Che back from the garbage bin of history after the cultural wasteland of the 90’s, Nelly and popped collars? We did, it was our sweat, blood and tears, our bricks through their windows, our blackspot sneakers and our insistence on wearing only USA made, lifted shit and thrift store clothing. Our ideas have finally started to become mainstream and now you are demanding that we march back into our ivory towers of radicalism.

This isn’t a letter in support of the superficiality of the Hipster culture. Chicago is home to more hipsters than anywhere in the Midwest; they have overrun Milwaukee avenue with the trendy thrift stores, their clubs dot Wicker Park and Lincoln Park (and are making inroads into Humbolt Park, the South Loop and Pilsen) and their chic, yet totally confusing, band stickers are on every light pole and every abandoned store front up and down Division, Grand, North and Milwaukee for blocks in Wicker Park. Most hipsters in Chicago are refugees from the choking consumer culture of the suburbs, home to more people in Illinois than the rest of the state, who are mostly working and middle class white folks. Contrary to Adbusters’ demographers, Hipster culture is definitely not an exclusively white, upper class phenomenon. Many Hipsters are refugees from oppressive working class cultures. You’ll find that most born and raised Chicago hipsters are people of color trying to build their own identity from the stifling expectations of their parents and importantly, the church (And if you forgot, white people are a minority in Chicago). Chicago Hipster culture has taken from “radical” punk, emo, metal, hip-hop, Puerto Rican, Mexican and many more cultures.

From reading your essay it seems that the reason you judge Hipster culture as the “dead-end of Western Civilization” is because it lacks an ambiguous and undefined notion of “authenticity” and that it lacks an explicit challenge to authority. Hipster consumer culture does not challenge capitalism, but why you single out people who wear skinny jeans, bug sunglasses, or shop at thrift stores over those who wear Cubs jerseys and fight after nights of drinking at Wrigelyfield bars seems unfair. Clothing, music taste, etc. seems pretty value neutral. My opinion is that your singling out of Hipsters is a Freudian projection our movement’s secret, collective shame at creating Hipster culture and our subsequent failure to mobilize it politically.

One could say that my own organization, Students for a Democratic Society, is largely an expression of those that helped define the current Hipster culture. Unlike the old SDS, which took flight in college towns in the 60’s, the new SDS has largely exploded in urban centers, from students who live in Hipster neighborhoods. You’ll find more SDSers at an art institute than at a state school; you’ll find more skinny jeans and bug sun glasses at our conventions than blue jeans or Adidas sportswear. SDS however, like the rest of America’s political left (including Adbusters), has largely failed to expand past our own cultural ghetto, and now we have adopted our own past time of jeering our cultural progeny, the Hipsters. But we haven’t asked why most of these people have chosen to opt out of “politics”.

First, we have to drop the double standard. Expecting more from one community over all the other communities we could have singled out is patently unfair. We should ask with the same conviction why sports fans, or why metal fans, or why most women have stayed away from politics. Blaming a lack of political commitment on an entire group’s superficiality is a sorry and dangerous rationalization, especially when Hipsters are becoming the dominant demographic of global youth. We need to break with our traditional excuses that have reinforced our own “radical” elitism. Political organization is a process of building relationships with people and then progressively leaning on those relationships to build a similar commitment towards liberation from those being organized.

Your article is part of our collective, though irrational, set of higher expectations made on Hipsters. Why should Hipsters be more disposed to join the merry-go-round of stale and pointless meetings, protests and police stompings? Building relationships starts with meeting new people, something that has been de-prioritized by our movement behind online debates on the meaning of “violence” and criticizing irrelevant Marxist wing-nuts. If the same energy was put towards throwing parties when most schools start on September 2nd, where we could meet a hundred new contacts at each SDS chapter, as will be put towards driving all our people to the DNC/RNC and subsequently paying their legal costs, SDS could expand ten-fold. People haven’t come to our protests in front of empty recruitment stations because they know it won’t make a difference. We need to be out in the neighborhoods where those going into recruitment centers live, organizing them to engage in power structures that affect them.

As a movement we need to reevaluate our targets. Sure multi-national corporations need to be toppled, but so do our corrupt local aldermen, who win Chicago elections in student wards(voting districts in the city) with a meager 3,500 votes. Our movement talks a big talk about direct democracy; why can’t we start holding neighborhood assemblies to talk about how to challenge the crooks in local office and local boardrooms? Empty lots in student wards can be used to grow food that can be stored and cooked at community meals at the lofts that Hipsters throw parties at. Hell, why don’t we get in with the best DJ’s in town and make a few jones off those Hipster parties we so despise? All politics are local, and local politics means encouraging people to vote early and often.

Adbusters, you are free to take me up on my suggestions and to call me on my own bullshit if I don’t live up to my own talk. But right now you are in the hot seat and I’m calling out your condescending bullshit. Hipsters are people too, and criticizing them without suggesting a strategy to transform and mobilize them makes you come off as pompous and arrogant as the Hipster connoisseurs of cheap plastic jewelry, thrift store fur jackets in July and obscure emo-core bands we all lament.


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Students and Dual Power in Chicago

Students have a unique role to play in building dual power. Contemporary social movements have overlooked the capacity of the university and especially students to participate in building alternative institutions. Student organizing has chiefly taken place in a vacuum, outside of a coherent strategy of building power. This lack of a larger strategy has been highly problematic and has been responsible for the stagnation of our movement. Building power and creating alternative institutions such as legal and medical clinics, cooperatives, education programs etc. are impossible tasks without the professional and occupational expertise learned through higher education. To say the least our movement has not taken an appropriate inventory of our strengths and capacity to transform society. Law students, pre-med students and engineering students have only been as potential sign holders; or if they are truly committed to the struggle, punching bags for the police. These limited opportunities for long term participation and the extremely limited career options offered through existing movement institutions have significantly bounded our demographics. This has favored those who can make a career dealing with social justice, lopsidedly fine arts and liberal arts majors.

Students do not need to wait until graduation to engage in building community power. Universally acknowledged is the fact that universities can do more to benefit their surrounding communities. Offering positions in the cafeteria, even with a union contract, is a sorry excuse for community engagement. Students within the university have a special leverage on the direction of their institution, as well as the direction of individual departments. Changing how the university interacts with the surrounding community takes organization. One example of such student faculty collaboration in Chicago is the New Life Volunteer Society at University of Illinois at Chicago (NLVS). NLVS is now a national student organization of students in the medical field emphasizing service to the community. UIC’s chapter worked with the university and the faculty to open a registered community health clinic on Chicago’s northside that is largely staffed by UIC students for internship credit.

Similarly most law schools in the Chicago offer students the ability to obtain course credit for staffing the school’s affiliated legal clinics. While such opportunities are valuable to low income Chicagoans, their reach is limited, as most law students do not want to sacrifice an opportunity to intern at a high paying law firm internship to work at the schools’ clinics. This represents the clinics’ problem with orientation. As most clinic work is done within the context of a permanent welfare state and not as part of an effort to fundamentally change the dynamics of society, the majority of students are not interested in sacrificing their careers. Few people have the wherewithal to make a career out of being the proverbial thumb in the dam. The story is the same for almost every skilled profession. Our movement desperately needs the skills and talents of students enrolled in universities, but students as struggling individuals almost universally prefer a well paid, secure position at a firm over a lifetime of toil, frustration and projected failure being a “social worker.”

If our movement is to overcome the psychological barriers separating our communities from those qualified to operate the necessary institutions in our communities we need a political strategy. Revolutionary Democracy is a political strategy of building a dual power. We aren’t interested in drawing ourselves and our colleagues into being the footsoldiers of the welfare state; we want an equitable, participatory society, one that ends the exploitation of contemporary capitalist society. As organizers we need to be relevant through orienting ourselves and our neighborhoods around the dynamics of the society we envision. Revolution will only be materialized once enough people have transformed their daily lives around the values of cooperation. This transformation is only possible through participation in alternative institutions. Progress towards a revolutionary transformation can be benchmarked by the public adoption of the dynamics championed by our alternative institutions.

Student organizing has to take another direction, one that is parallel to organizing and building alternative institutions. Not only should organizing be done through at-large chapters at universities but also by professional and occupational interests. Such a tactical orientation recognizes the greater potential of students in the same department cooperating together on the same project. Organizing on campuses should be related to organizing in the larger communities in which the universities are embedded.

In Chicago one immediate goal of SDS could be to organize students in the medical field to reopen one of the cook county satellite clinics closed because of the county’s fiscal mismanagement. Federal subsidies are available for such efforts, as well as loan and tuition reimbursement for those students who guarantee they will staff such community health clinics after graduation. Knowledge of how to run such clinics efficiently can be shared between SDS and student organizations like professional student unions that already coordinate internships, and groups like NLVS at UIC.

Another idea would be to recruit students with plans for small scale green enterprises. With the help of the revolutionary ward organization, they could approach local banks and credit unions for lines of financing to start operations in the neighborhood, with the affiliated campus organization pressuring the university to lend its support to the new enterprises. Leveraging support from specific departments at Chicago’s major universities for local green entrepreneurship would be a great initial goal for such a community development effort. Most likely however, qualified local entrepreneurs will be found in the Chicago City College system, or at less high profile institutions like the Illinois Institute for Technology. Making inroads at such locally focused institutions would also be a great objective for our student movement which has virtually ignored organizing on such campuses.

Focusing on connecting students with entrepreneurship opportunities would be a winning tactic for a dual power strategy. In Chicago such a dual power strategy would probably take the shape of ward organizations. Such organizations would work with affiliated student groups to bring investment into their wards, and would reap the collateral benefits of successful endeavors. Each successful community entrepreneur would bring the ward organization closer to its goal of being a substantive political alternative to the incumbent alderman. Eventually enough people in the community would be connected to the ward organization through social and economic cooperatives and institutions that they would be willing to participate in a political cooperative. Such a cooperative embodied in the ward organization, would make decisions in a directly democratic manner and communicate decisions to a delegated alderman that would run to replace the incumbent alderman who acts on the alderman as representative model.

Coordinating the expansion of the ward organizations is another opportunity for student involvement in building dual power. Although the ward organizations were conceived as efforts initiating in student neighborhoods, they should also work to attract students interested in local politics from around the region. The Summer in the City project out of New Brunswick New Jersey, is a model for Chicago’s revolutionary democratic ward effort. Students from across the country are participating, canvassing neighborhoods, organizing events like bbq’s and concerts and bringing people out to Empower Our Neighborhoods meetings. Something similar in Chicago could involve the ward organizations putting up students on semester breaks to work building ward organization.

Students have a crucial role to play in building dual power in Chicago. They will be the lifeblood of the ward organizations since they are at the heart of the new institutions being built. Students have the ability to leverage the university to support the efforts of the ward organizations. Realizing this powerful capacity will take a shift in strategy in the contemporary student movement. We have to move away from the strictly reactionary politics of protest and move towards a strategy of building power in our neighborhoods. Initially such power building efforts should take place in wards where students live, taking full advantage of the position and resources of the existing student movement. A successful dual power strategy will coordinate the parallel efforts on campuses in neighborhoods, and would effectively harness the potential for the university to transform our neighborhoods.

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Architecture of Dual Power in Chicago

Dual power was a phrase coined by Lenin, referring to alternative revolutionary institutions functioning in competition with the institutions of the established power. In his work, “The Dual Power,” he outlined the basic qualities of a people’s dual power, first that it cannot be legislated into existence. It must be a “direct initiative from below,” a direct, local seizure of power. This initiative seeks to replace “officialdom,” or the bureaucracy of the state with the direct rule of the people. Local councils in geographic areas and in workplaces, called Soviets in Russian, were the base of this dual power, operating on direct democracy principles when convenient, when it was impractical representatives were selected and were to be immediately recallable, to be simple agents of their constituency and were to be remunerated similarly to any other worker. Similarly if these local councils were to participate in the established power, through the legislature or any other branch the individuals elected were to be directly responsible to their constituency and were supposed to be held to the same standards of accountability as representatives of the local councils.

Lenin also wrote about the importance of arming the people by the dual power as a counter to the reactionary and class oriented institutions of the police and military. Though this question was eminently relevant in April of 1917, its relevance is not as immediate for 2008 Chicago. What is important however is the long term strategy thrust forward in “The Dual Power.” Lenin was arguing that revolutionary situations were the result of acute clashes between powers in society . Such situations were only possible through the diligent construction of institutions responsible to the people within the context of conflict with repressive established institutions.

As organizers our roles are to be the engineers of the dual power. We have to use our limited resources to build durable, lasting institutions. Revolutionary upheaval will materialize when we can replace the institutions of capitalism and corporate government and make their institutions irrelevant enough to either topple or to quietly fade away. Generations of organizers have been involved in the struggle to build alternative power. We’re faced with what’s left of the old and questions about where, when, and how to begin anew.

Concentric Interactions: Importance of Building Revolutionary Identities

Whether we are transforming the economy, social relations or the government our strategy must be to build our dual power at the most basic, tangible levels available. Without starting at such constituent levels our engagement faces needless abstraction and theoretical confusion as we over extend our resources and begin to treat people as numbers, statistics and “data.” Revolutionary communities are built through the adoption of revolutionary identities by individuals. Any identity is constructed through social interactions, whether revolutionary or reactionary. More interactions means a stronger affiliation with the identity being constructed.

Our strategy to build dual power must be oriented around the idea of concentric social interactions. Commitment towards a political idea is engendered through increasing the number and intensity of relationships sharing similar dynamics. This can help explain the paradox of how such broad based organizations like can wield so little actually power. Movements that fail to build institutions that people interact on a consistent basis have small returns on the limited investment of their members.

The literal construction dual power necessitates an understanding of the how power is exercised by different institutions in society. The first step is identifying the fundamental actors in each institution and how they are related. Next we have to envision our own institutions framing new dynamics between these fundamental actors. Each new relationship someone has with our revolutionary movement, the more invested they become in the idea of social transformation.

Dual Power in Chicago: Where to Begin

In Chicago, the first decision to make about organizing is geographic, where to begin. Chicago has many rich and diverse neighborhoods, but the most fundamental units of government are the city wards. City Council is composed of alderman from each ward, with a mayor elected from an at-large vote every four years. While neighborhoods often overlap with wards, to be politically relevant we have to work on the level of the ward. Politically, our goal must be to build a directly democratic institution alongside the representative aldermanic one, essentially creating a revolutionary democratic ward assembly to replace the dynamic between alderman and constituent.

Chicago’s political realities and the privileges and powers yielded to the aldermen and mayor necessitate a nuanced approach to building dual power. Although our goal is to transform our City Council, and eventually our country, we have to build institutions in ways that won’t overstep our resources. Taking on an alderman connected to Mayor Daley without adequate preparation would not only lead to an embarrassing defeat but also alienate many potential supporters who can’t afford to alienate the Mayor and his allies without having alternatives already in place.

The solution: Ward based organizations whose identity and membership are built through economic, social and other dual power institutions. Applying the concept of concentric interactions, we can build revolutionary power without immediately confronting the power of the aldermen. Under the economic institution of capitalism, the basic actors are producers and consumers, with their relations determined by individual market transactions. Challenging capitalism using a dual power approach means organizing consumers and producers to act collectively. Dual power applied within this context would have our ward organizations creating purchasing cooperatives, building institutions that could eventually replace their capitalist counterparts (Sam’s club, Costco etc.) Consumption of services like childcare, healthcare, as well as education can also be reorganized into cooperative alternative institutions. Similarly changing the context of production in our society would necessitate not only organizing unions to balance the power of management, but engaging in entrepreneurship and employee ownership to change the dynamics of ownership and management altogether.

Exactly which institutions should be organized first should be answered only after a careful analysis by organizers working within a particular ward. The general idea however is to start with those institutions that have the greatest return on invested resources for the residents and to continue introducing new institutions until there is enough commitment on behalf of the ward to engage in a challenge against the seated alderman. Once a person or group is involved in one institution, for example a grocery or childcare cooperative, it is less of an effort to get the same people involved in a workplace or political campaign championing the same ideas and relationships. Social mapping techniques can shed valuable insight into building new institutions and engaging in existing institutions in neighborhoods. Not simply an academic exercise, social maps of neighborhoods can be crucial tools towards leveraging influential individuals and institutions to either participate or at least not oppose organizing in neighborhoods.

Connecting with Existing Institutions

Luckily brilliant and inspiring efforts have been undertaken across Chicago by people who share the ideals of participatory democracy. What has been missing has been the focused coordination around such efforts to build tangible power. An initial inventory of a ward for organizers would include existing institutions that could serve as allies in building dual power. Within the context of sympathetic institutions, for example existing purchasing cooperatives, our goal would not be to outcompete them but to engage their members with revolutionary democracy and our objectives for building a ward organization. Even if the existing institutions in question fail to support our mission or endorse our goals, we could almost be certain that some members within such institutions would be sympathetic and we must be ready to involve them in building dual power.

A key task is to support our natural allies struggling to change how power is exercised in existing institutions, for example in unions or schools while also maintaining a critical distance from the agendas of such institutions. We want to simultaneously organize within the base of these institutions while also working to involve those who are more invested in these institutions in our organization. To this end, we want to involve them, like anyone else, in as many dual institutions as possible to cement their identification with and commitment to social change. One relevant example of this happened during the heyday of the CIO and the Communist Party, along with other revolutionary socialist organizations. These groups recognized the power wielded by the industrial unions and sought to build their membership within the unions. Our contemporary organization should also work to build memberships within unions and within other sympathetic organizations with the aim of solidifying relationships between our organizations.

Criteria for Initial Ward Organization

Choosing exactly which ward(s) to begin organizing is a decision with important consequences for the long term development of the campaign. The first ward would ideally be one controlled by a Daley machine alderman so we wouldn’t be challenging a potential ally on City Council. Choosing a Daley stronghold would be a foolhardy decision however, since there are many wards with machine aldermen which would be more receptive to our message of revolutionary democracy and participatory democracy. We want to choose a ward that has resources we could tap into, for example a ward near a major university so we could tap into the resources of the student movement, or a ward with allies who are already mounting a challenge to the ward organization. One tool to suggest potential wards would be social maps of neighborhoods, allowing organizers to make decisions on which wards to begin with through comparing inventories of networking resources available. Once an initial ward organization is started through the efforts of a number of organizers within the neighborhood and through organizers loaned from other neighborhoods, the model could be transplanted to other wards across the city. Each planned expansion into new wards would mean collateral benefits for existing ward organizations, for example, 100 people can purchase goods and services for less than 50 people. Economies of scale will accumulate if we can establish solid initial ward organizations that can anchor future growth.

Prospect for Success of Ward Organizations

The prospects for the success of our revolutionary democratic movement in Chicago are bright. Daley Jr.’s machine is in a state of decomposition after being weakened by federal hiring probes. Contributing to the decomposition is the defection and counter mobilization of Daley’s traditional constituencies, labor unions and Chicago’s Hispanic communities. Although the administration is courting the white liberal vote through initiatives like free rain barrels and bike paths, there has been little commitment to Daley shown by those constituencies with little over 15% overall turnout in the last mayoral election. Our short term goal is to create a number of localized ward organizations that will be engaged in building revolutionary communities. These communities will be built through engaging ward residents in alternative institutions such as free childcare programs, purchasing cooperatives and free education initiatives. While the ward organizations are growing it would be appropriate to lobby the specific aldermen of those wards to become more independent of the machine. Long term however, the goal is to create a more directly democratic ward organization whose will would be expressed in the City Council through a delegated Alderman, maintaining the integrity of the decisions made at the level of the ward organization. If the initial efforts at building ward organizations prove successful, Chicago can become a model for transforming local governance, as well as transforming capitalism into a more participatory economic system.

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Methodology and Epistemology of a Neighborhood Social Map

Methodology and Epistemology of a Neighborhood Social Map

Catalysts serve to spark organizing in new and important directions, overcoming the inertia of the old. A social map of our student neighborhoods aims to serve as the catalyst towards SDS engagement in the neighborhoods where we live. Moving from protest to building power requires a more systemic sharing and application of our collective knowledge relevant to organizing. Many of the insights that will compose a project like a social map will be discovered through organizing activities.

What exactly do we need in terms of data for this project to be a success? We do not need an academic endeavor divorced from organizing. No walking around aimlessly at protests asking people to fill out surveys, no sitting in a room making millions of follow up phone calls like a market researcher. We need information that can be gathered through the experience of people’s everyday lives. Insights relevant to organizing are gathered whether or not you wear an organizing hat or have a stack of flyers. These insights into how social networks work or what waterholes would be best for an event are often concentrated in the hands of a few exceptional organizers. Without a formal way to record this knowledge it often leaves with the organizers crippling the organization mid campaign.

This project aims to employ two tools to help record information about neighborhoods and will allow organizers coming into neighborhoods (for example college freshmen or out of towners) to come up to speed with the dynamics of where they are organizing. The first tool is one being pioneered by groups like AREA Chicago and Precarity: Chicago, a physical map overlayed with information. Literally it would be a “social” map, local points of interest would be identified in a neighborhood like bars, clubs, coffee spots, restaurants etc., colors might be used to identify the amiability to organizing of certain city blocks, relationships between scenes and points of interest would be identified, potential locations for events would be identified, socially connected people/houses might be identified, high visibility intersections might be identified etc. Most of this information is gathered through simple observation, and sparing our organizers the academic trappings of boxes of surveys, low response rates, and awkwardness. Everyday experiences in the lives of organizers can be translated into productive information for building social power.

The second tool used would be a spreadsheet application that would basically be a list of the information on the map with more fields for detailed explanations of why the data is displayed as such on the map. Such a spreadsheet could easily be envisioned as a Wikipedia that people could compile their information on. Most of the data inputted initially would not be coded, to maximize the total amount of information that people could later cull for readability.

What is the timeline for this project? For the next month this project will largely still be an idea to be tossed around and refined by interested participants. To facilitate this process there will be a google group created, but hopefully people who are interested can meet in the flesh to hash out questions around the project. The first step is to select a neighborhood to create a pilot project around. Once participants can agree to focus their resources on a neighborhood the next step would be to create the infrastructure necessary to the project, like a Wikipedia spreadsheet application and a google map or another map application. Interested people in the project would then contribute their knowledge of the neighborhood to the project, and those with the most commitment would help organize contributions into the applications. Ideally this project would also prompt organizers to use their “downtime” from organizing to explore the neighborhood. Exploring new places, meeting new people outside of the context of organizing for a meeting or specific event will be key resources for the success of the project. Insights from active campaigns will also be important contributions to the social map, and hopefully the reflections derived from the project will help propel further organizing and success on campaigns.

Divorcing this project from actual organizing in student neighborhoods would result in its failure. This process is a first step to building a more professional, sustained and more effective student/community organization. Expanding our organizing past the physical campus to include the neighborhoods we live is a crucial step in building student power. With the correct application of social mapping we can maintain our organization’s integrity when key organizers move on, and we will be able to effective involve new participants in the core work of organizing instead of delegating them busy work until they catch up with their more seasoned colleagues. Using this information will allow us to mobilize more effectively, and will help us build power in our communities through understanding how spaces relate to different people and social networks.


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Politics of Scenes and Introducing a Chicago Student Neighborhood Social Map

Removing radical politics from the exclusive grip of social scenes and subcultures to expand its appeal is a popular topic of discussion. What is often missing however is a clear understanding of how critical scenes are to the communication and expression of political ideas. Everyone’s life is composed of the interaction between the different scenes they participate in, from their own family scene, to their school friend scene to their work friend scene to possibly an explicitly cultural (punk rock, hip hop or jazz scene etc.) or political scene (anarchist, socialist, obamaist scene etc.). At the lowest common denominator, scenes are just social networks of people who share similar interests, situations and relations. There’s nothing particularly insidious about scenes, its more important how individuals balance their engagement in scenes and how they deal with personal and social identity.

Political ideas are usually introduced to individuals in two ways, they can either be introduced into an existing scene or social network through someone they have a relationship with, essentially politicizing a scene or a politicized individual can participate in creating an entirely new scene centered around political engagement. Discussions of the exclusivity of scenes do not usually include the dynamic of the particular scene being discussed and whether or not such a scene was created explicitly around political relations. Unrealistic expectations about the appeal of newly created political scenes can lead to cynicism when the scene doesn’t realize the expected levels of growth and participation. These expectations of explicitly political scenes have to be tempered with the understanding that many people who are receptive to politics already have a full plate so to speak of social networks and scenes and that they may not be willing to neglect other social relationships to engage in a new and unfamiliar political scene.

An important task of the political organizer therefore is to learn how to identify existing social networks and scenes. We need to politicize such networks and attempt to connect them with explicitly political scenes to increase the capacity for mobilization of our political movement. The radical catch phrase, “meeting someone where they are” is an expression for pushing someone who is outside of an explicitly political scene to become more political. Although most politicized individuals will eventually either becoming related to, or participate in an explicitly politicized scene over time; their initial interaction with political ideas should not have to hinge on adopting a social identity. Identifying social networks is a useful exercise for political organizers because it allows the organizer to understand relationships of influence between people. If the goal is political mobilization and political consciousness then relationships of influence are important to influencing people’s attitudes towards mobilization and their commitment to political ideas. While such ideas are nothing new to the science of organizing as practiced by most labor unions, they have largely have fallen outside the purview of radical political organizing.

One such story of frustration that is familiar to many other white anarchists is the dilemma of the punk scene. Like it or not, the anarchist scene in Chicago has a strong relationship with the punk scene. At different times over the past five years of my political organizing I’ve found myself with my punk rock friends banging my head against the wall, “why aren’t there more anarchists/anarchist punk rockers?” The anarchist punk scene in Chicago was an example par excellence of a scene created explicitly around political ideas, though we didn’t grasp that during those frustration sessions. Being in such an explicitly political scene was helpful for our personal, political and social development and helped to reinforce our commitment to a better world. What we needed to understand however was that such participation came with a high social overhead. People who may have sympathized with us politically but did not have the extra energy or time to participate would not join the scene. As organizers we need to create an organization that can value the positive aspects of an explicitly political scene while consciously expanding to connect itself to other social networks based around other situations and relationships.

One example of how political organizers are successfully mobilizing political and non political scenes towards political goals is in the neighborhood of Pilsen. In Pilsen many of those in the radical political scene have made conscious attempts to create social spaces where those uninvolved in the scene can come and be exposed to political ideas. These social spaces include house parties where the neighbors are invited and encouraged to stop by, events like block parties and progressive programming held by community institutions like Radio Arte. While the immigration attacks have helped to cement the neighborhood’s largely Hispanic and liberal white communities together, much of the credit has to go to the conscious effort of political organizers. Political mobilizations reflect the diverse constituencies and networks mobilized, from punks, to gangbangers to families and hipsters. The vibrancy of the political movement is due to the efforts of political organizers to expand their social networks, talking to social networks on the block, family networks, punk and hipster networks and radical political networks etc.

The solid success of Pilsen’s political organizing can be contrasted to other neighborhoods with significant radical political scenes like the Wicker Park/Humbolt Park area and Hyde Park. There are many committed political organizers in both the Wicker Park/Humbolt Park area and Hyde Park, but what may be missing are the social spaces where different networks can be exposed to each other. Since I haven’t had the same kind of exposure to either neighborhood I can’t speak very precisely about the political efforts going on in those communities, but there is significantly less cross pollination of social networks compared to Pilsen.

Answering the question of why some neighborhoods are more politically vibrant than others (or why Chicago is the center of attention when (gasp) far more people live the suburbs) first requires an appreciation of how individuals can become more politically effective. One resource that identifies a process on how to overcome obstacles to communicating to others is the book Becoming a Moral Cosmopolitan by Depaul professor Jason Hill. It is a philosophic work but has many insights on personal and social psyches that can encourage or discourage one’s organizing potential.

Hill recognizes that the only permanent feature of the human condition is the potential for adaptation. People however, frequently discourage themselves from adapting to change through the adoption of a tribal identity that reinforces set characteristics and stereotypes on a person or group. The remedy to overcome one’s tribal identity is the process of moral becoming. Moral becoming is a process where an individual creates a critical distance between oneself and their tribal identity, challenging assumptions based on morally arbitrary differences about those outside of the tribal identity. Hill emphasizes that overcoming tribal identities is not only a moral imperative and mental exercise, but a social activity.

Moral masking is the social process advocated by Hill where the individual constantly pushes themselves to explore relationships with others through masking one’s tribal identity, forgetting inherited constructions and abandoning moral assessment based on arbitrary qualities of a person. Personhood is defined by the process of moral becoming for Hill, with individuals pushing past their inherited identities and expanding their networks of friends and acquaintances.

Being socially proactive in connecting other people is a moral obligation for Hill because it’s the only way to avoid stereotyping others. One can see how such a moral imperative can be a useful for new organizers trying to build a lasting philosophic foundation for their work and life. Such a philosophy has many practical applications and is easily translated into situations we face everyday.

Political apathy in America is derived from a sense of skepticism, but also from a sense of isolation and alienation. Reinforcing apathy has been a breakdown in the sociability of Americans. More time than ever is spent by youth doing activities that are essentially anti-social, or reinforcing clique behavior, like watching tv and playing game systems. Digital technology has also created many more opportunities for clique behavior on otherwise social mediums such as through fantasy sports leagues, online forums and myspace and facebook applications. There’s obviously nothing wrong any of these outlets in moderation, but these activities insular nature limits an individual’s potential for participation in broader communities. Our technology and how it has been applied has created a society of introverts. Its problematic because insular people and insular groups of friends are not interested in messages of social power since they don’t want to participate in the wider community. Throw in existing class, race and sexuality barriers and you have political stagnation from disenfranchised youth.

Massive public spectacles have ironically contributed to the increasing insularity of American society. Rock concerts drawing tens of thousands like Lollapolloza at first glance provide an opportunity for thousands of relationships to be built and for communities to be created and strengthened. Only the opposite has happened with these enormous events, cliques are not broken down and communities are not built up, the dynamic more resembles just a massive collection of insular groups all being passive spectators to the same acts they previously watched on tv or played on guitar hero.

Struggles to change people’s psyche’s towards each other and sociability are nothing new, it’s the same struggle Saul Alinsky faced when trying to organize extremely insular neighborhood communities in Chicago. The suburbization of Chicago has multiplied the difficulty of the task of bringing people together because the suburbs were intentional designed to be insular communities. If we are going to be successful in reversing this trend of insularity in American society we need to explicitly oppose it. Organizers have to emphasize that it is not only a personal goal, but a political necessity that we break down cliquish boundaries separating and dividing communities.

Diving into unknown territory and going to spaces where one doesn’t know anyone isn’t an act of social desperation or social inauthenticity but an opportunity for building relationships that will pay dividends in community political power. Organizers and leaders within Student for a Democratic Society need to legitimate these new social norms through actions and explicit appeals for such sociability from the rest of SDS’s members. For the most part SDS members share this insular nature with the rest of society, we have to strategically leverage SDS’s organization and identity towards changing ourselves. We have to have a doctrine of personal transformation that creates better and more effective organizers.

Being uncomfortable in a social situation is largely due to not being familiar with the people or etiquette of a particular scene. Such awkwardness is a natural part of personal and social growth and should be seen as a challenge by organizers instead of as reason to stay home. Sometimes however, people do legitimately feel uncomfortable, especially when there’s open bigotry in social spaces. Almost universally every social group, clique and individual, to quote an SDS conference, “has some work to do,” on anti-oppression, but again as organizers we have to be mature enough not to be mortally offended and break off from the rest of society. Instead we have to build relationships with people and leverage moral and social arguments to turn social spaces into safe spaces free from the negative –ism’s fragmenting our society.

The most effective organizers are cosmopolitan, they move fluidly between scenes, cliques and work to construct social identities and spaces that encourage participation. Being so committed to a particular identity, whether it be hipster, jock, bro, punk rocker, etc. that one doesn’t see a need to expand past it to reach other communities and if one is so bound up in one’s identity in a particular scene that crossing over to others is impossible, limits the resources available to the organizer and the organization. Its not asking individuals to be inauthentic or pretend to be some identity they aren’t; its about learning enough and participating in other identities enough to feel comfortable around those you don’t primarily identify with.

Our strategy must be one of using our individual actions to build new social constructions. We don’t want a society of introverts holed up infront of HDTV’s playing Grand Theft Auto. We want a vibrant community where people know and care about each other enough to be willing to die for each other’s freedom and liberation. Cosmopolitan organizers have to engage insular groups and scenes and connect them with inviting social spaces. Sometimes we need to create our own explicitly political spaces and sometimes we need to work to politicize existing ones. Social spaces in the context of organizing are like spokes on a wheel connecting different scenes and people, those that have influence and participate in constructing these social spaces will have the ability to mobilize a community for political liberation (though the same principals work if your goal is reactionary).

Introducing a Chicago Student Neighborhoods Social Mapping Project

The creation of new social spaces and the connection and politicization of existing social spaces have to be priorities for SDS. We need to stitch together communities that can wield enough power to topple the institutions we are fighting against. In order to consolidate our progress towards these goals and to sustain the momentum of our movement we need to envision systemic ways of data collection and organization so we encourage participation without overwhelming new organizers.

Chicago SDS has a significant network of organizers who have expressed interest in the organization. Each organizer undoubtedly is a valuable source of insight into the communities they are embedded in. We need to start systemically collecting this information and make it accessible to other organizers. Collecting information about social spaces in neighborhoods would be an invaluable tool towards helping us plan campaigns in neighborhoods and would be invaluable for mobilizing large numbers of students. In addition, knowledge of such neighborhood social spaces would be our primary ways of comfortably interacting with more insular groups that may be willing to stop by a nearby party or show but not drive across the city for a book discussion.

This is a call out for anyone interested in creating social maps of student neighborhoods in Chicago. Ideally this should be a national SDS priority. Information on different social spaces can be collected and compiled into spreadsheets, and visual representations of these can easily be mapped onto google maps or any number of other graphic design applications. As much data as possible should be collected on the social spaces of neighborhoods, as organizers we need to become social scientists and experts on the communities we want to build and mobilize for political change.

Hyde Park, Wicker Park, Humbolt Park, Lincoln Park the South Loop and Pilsen are solid initial candidates for this project as there are large numbers of students living in these neighborhoods and many social spaces that are not always accessible to organizers unless they are “in the know.” Any neighborhood with organizers and students however would be a good candidate for this type of work. In Chicago there are already allies working on similar “mapping” projects and the synergy between our projects should be mutually beneficial. These social spaces will literally be the launch pads of our future campaigns, no matter what their goal, and are our most valuable assets as social and political organizers

If we can start organizing with a working knowledge of the communities we are embedded in, we will have an incredible advantage. This social mapping project will be an absolutely necessary resource to overcome the obstacles presented by insular scenes and cliques to forming a unified student community and  towards political mobilization for a participatory democracy.

If you are interested in participating get in touch with me,

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