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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  1. Pingback: Endast det BÄSTA är gott nog åt folket! « Champagnesocialisten

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