Leveraging Social Power Through Wards in Chicago
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.