Just Changing the Conversation or Changing the World?
Why even your favorite politicians got ‘money for wars but can’t feed the poor’
When you set out to change the world and recruit others into that process, there are two big categories of conversations you often end up having:
1. ‘How does the world actually work’ and ‘how can it be changed’ or
2. ‘How do we trick, convince, cajole, bribe, or force people into making a better world?’
Sadly, it seems that with each passing year more and more people are only interested in or only capable of having that second type of conversation. But Bob Avakian said something uncharacteristically pithy that I’ll come back to repeatedly here: “What people think is part of objective reality, but objective reality is not determined by what people think.”
Revolutionary Communism isn’t popular at the moment. The notions of scientific leadership, of putting humanity first, of critically figuring out what program and action will advance the struggle to overthrow this system — none of those are particularly popular at the moment. And for a lot of folks that unpopularity is reason enough to totally dismiss the whole package as totally unrealistic, unworthy of even a passing glance. In fact the opposite of most of those things are very popular — with individualism running amok across the American political spectrum. We have an uphill battle in changing how people think.
But these unpopular things seem to have just as much effect on actual policy as things that are polling very well — for example the demands for a $15 minimum wage (67% support) and Medicare for all (56% support). What’s going on there?
The most popular politician is a ‘socialist,’ yet…
For a brief moment in late 2019 and early 2020 Bernie Sanders would show up in a city with 3 or 4 days notice and tens of thousands of people would drop everything to come and see him. Starting in 2017, polls were clear that he was the most popular politician in the United States.
In 2018, AOC and the Squad surged into office with mass popularity and enthusiasm. Then Sanders pulled ahead of the dense pack and won the first primaries and caucuses of the 2020 Democratic primary. Meanwhile the ranks of the Democratic Socialists of America were surging. Surely their realistic, popular program would have advanced on one front or another. But in all of this, not one speck of their program has been brought into reality on the national or state level.* Not by pressuring elected officials. Not by getting elected. Not by any other means. While fascism surged forward from the highest offices in the land, these folks were alienated from any real power even within the opposition party. Many progressives and democratic socialists have referenced the philosophical framework of the Overton window, saying that shifting the discussion over things like Medicare for all, the Green New Deal, and even the term ‘socialism’ has been a major victory. Conveniently, and with the help of self-reinforcing social media algorithms, this ignores that such an Overton window was also embracing fascist ideas and delusions totally divorced from reality — with the striking difference that those fascist ideas were deeply connected to the power structure and policy implementation.
While powerful fascists disconnected from reality, the impenetrable wall separating the democratic socialists from power became fodder for the DNC leadership and fascists alike, fueling claims that the socialists are all bluster. While this isn’t the worst thing about their program, it does raise a central question; how is it that the popularity of politicians and their political programs seems to have nothing to do with what’s actually implemented? How is it that popularity and power are on two totally different tracks?
The basis of political power in this society
“The essence of what exists in the U.S. is not democracy but capitalism-imperialism and political structures to enforce that capitalism-imperialism.
What the U.S. spreads around the world is not democracy, but imperialism and political structures to enforce that imperialism.” -Bob Avakian
The US dominates the global economy, based on a dominant position in a historically evolved generalized system of capitalism-imperialism and managed via the WTO, IMF and various trade agreements and enforced through the threat of war — even nuclear war, as well as strategic coups and interventions. The United States military is the largest, most violent, most well-funded killing machine the world has ever seen. The United States “leadership” role in the world is based in military might and economic dominance, all within the confines and framework of globalized capitalism.
The governance of the United States serves those functions. Maintaining a functioning domestic society comes second and serves that. Think about a job at Walmart. The point is to sell stuff. The resources and code of conduct in the break room (or whether you have a break room at all) are secondary. Even those things that are popular and get implemented — they are implemented because they serve the rulers’ (or at least some of the rulers’) visions for the empire. But metaphors are limited. So let’s use an example.
The Home Front
As part of AOC’s campaign, she harked back to “the Democratic Party of FDR.” He was claimed as a Democratic Socialist forebear, with his signature New Deal. And now with Biden’s inauguration some are hoping for just as sweeping changes. But context matters. The 1930’s were a time of intense economic hardship, and its tempting to view the New Deal programs merely through the lens of giving people jobs and reining in out-of-control wealth inequality through government intervention. But let’s take a more global approach. Technology was advancing at an unprecedented clip. Western Europe’s colonial project was going through immense changes with a very uncertain future. Fascism was on the rise. The Bolshevik revolution was inspiring people across the globe to look for radical solutions. War was looming. The US was not yet the top-dog imperialist but the most basic dynamics of capitalism-imperialism were pushing the United States to expand its imperialist ambitions and it’s competition was facing major crises. Does it come as a shock that in this context Germany, the Soviet Union, and the United States were all making massive state-sponsored efforts to expand their infrastructure? If these were major considerations in implementing the New Deal, is it really reasonable to think that something similar could be brought into being now, when the production base of the US empire is in dependent and subservient countries of the global south?
On another tip, the mythology of the civil rights movement of the 1960s tells us that Black people began to protest some bad stuff that had been happening for a long time, and after a few years of non-violent local protests and some big national ones, some vague “struggle,” most people began to support civil rights, and the government made some concessions. Some say those concessions were good, others say not good enough, but most peddle the same history. What’s missed is that the positive change that occurred was one of a number of possible political outcome of a thick, shifting web of social and economic relations. Through the course of the Second Great Migration, things were gonna change for Black people, for the South, and really for all of the US one way or another. Sharecropping was becoming less profitable, but not everyone could go to the North, or pack into the major cities.
It could have gone from an already horrendous position to something much much worse, absolutely genocidal even. It didn’t have to go there, but it could have. And in some ways it began moving in that direction, especially between the end of World War 2 and the when the Civil Rights Movement as we know it broke through. Now, there have been courageous Black people rising up in every generation for four hundred years. But within this swirl of events and dynamics, a courageous minority of Black people seized significant political initiative. And that struck a chord thats still resonating today.
Look at the context. The battle for imperialist supremacy was heating up between the US and the Soviet Union. Oppressed nations around the world were rising up. The communist revolution in China was inspiring righteous rebellion around the world, and leading people to look into fundamental solutions. The position of Black people in the US improved in proportion to the existential threat posed to the empire by the courageous action of ultimately small groups of Black folks and some others in a period of acute international crisis.
The legitimacy of the United States government, the way it ruled, and most importantly its ability to lead the western imperialist bloc (the self-proclaimed “free world”) to victory was being called into question and therefore they acted to set new terms of what was legitimate and what was illegitimate. The southern sheriff and some other overt racist features of American society — many of which were holdovers and outgrowths of the increasingly outmoded sharecropper system — were sidelined. Often gradually, sometimes through the force of the national guard. Voting rights were secured. These forms of oppression were replaced by the the relatively faceless atomized white supremacy of redlining, de facto employment discrimination, cultural co-option, etc. with Rizzo, Daley, and ultimately Hoover shifting the narrative away from Jim Clark and Bull Conner. In significant ways this improved the lives of millions of Black people, and advanced towards even deeper changes. On the other hand, Black leaders demanding more than that were assassinated, with their organizations wrecked. The underlying contradictions continued to shift. A lot has changed since then with even many of those victories for the people, tools painstakingly carved for liberation, being transformed into weapons against us. Other forms of oppression have come to the fore, while unreformed old ones come back with a vengeance despite opposition from the majority. Even as People of Color come very close to being the majority. What does all this show?
The ruling class is not a reasonable force — there is no table to take a seat at and have a discussion. It’s not about ideas and voices, or even heated arguments. It’s not about polls and popularity and winning debates. In order to affect anything under this system, and ultimately to overthrow this system, there needs to be forces objective to the ruling class posing acute challenges to their system. Peoples’ struggle — including non-violent mass struggle — can become one of those objective forces. Revolutionary leadership can become one of those objective forces. But it’s vital that we see it in that light — as a force and not a conversation. On that basis, we can see where our force can fit into the whole scheme of things, in relation to international competition, the basic dynamics of capitalism-imperialism, the limits of the natural world, global struggles against oppression, etc. We can see the ways in which our force can change the whole game, and how that is clearly outside the avenues of change provided by the current system.
The popularity of opinions, desires, policies, programs, or figures in itself doesn’t exert force. After all, the popularity of “world peace” or “ending hunger” or “curing cancer” is sky high — to the extent that these are common compelling factors in all kinds of mainstream and cultist religious belief, because people don’t see them as possible through real-world means. But they can move beyond mere aspirations, even beyond the endlessly disappointing “rational arguments” that never get anywhere under this system. In order for that to happen, most fundamentally, the mode of production must be radically transformed to be brought in line with achieving those goals. To achieve that, a materialist political program to make those transformations needs to be brought forward and it must be fought for all the way through. Fundamentally that means we need a revolution, replacing the might-equals-right system of capitalism-imperialism with a radically new system. And we need that urgently.
As we consciously build towards that end, it means recognizing and seizing on the key contradictions and crises of this system, connecting with mass struggle for justice or bringing people into struggle. But even in those circumstances of fighting for goals short of revolution, that should be consciously serving the advance towards overthrowing their whole system. Otherwise we’re at best prolonging a doomed civilization, if you can call it that. And after the seizure of power this fight will continue in a different context and on different terms.
The use of ideas
Its true and necessary to recognize that we aren’t in a civil conversation with the capitalist-imperialist rulings classes, that we can only lay down passive or rise up and exert force (often non-violent) for change. That said, the ruling class does not only act as an objective force on us, the people. The dominant ideas of any age are those of the ruling classes. That happens in large part spontaneously. But the rulers consciously aim to shape public opinion through many means as part of maintaining their power. The assassinations of certain Black leaders in the 60s showed people very clearly where the limits of their freedom were. Different factions of the ruling class use ideas in different ways to achieve that. Taking a look at their different approaches might clarify that further.
The ideas that make Bernie the most popular politician are ideas that “make sense” for Americans within the logic of capitalism-imperialism. People should have healthcare. We should deal with global warming. And on and on. The Democratic Socialists are always subtly changing the terms from ‘people should have healthcare’ to ‘Americans should have healthcare,’ (a little reverse Overton window action) and in terms of implementation, you have to suspend any understanding of what America really is and the empire’s evolving interests, but once you do, on a superficial moral and logical level, they make sense. You could say this of Warren too, “she’s got a plan for that.” They take on the “arguments” of their opponents in mainstream American politics, and if this was all just a battle of ideas among the rulers, they would win hands down. As crises mount; it’s not absolutely out of the question that one or more of these policies might be implemented as a release valve for pressures on the system, if the country can afford it while maintaining its economic and military stranglehold on the world. But their main impact now is to maintain the struggles over these basic moral issues within limits reasonable to this system. Like the shift manager who empathetically tells you “hey man, I’ll bring up (set schedules or more hours or dealing with harassment…) at the managers meeting, but you know corporate…” they’re always more popular than their peers who act as straight-up tools of the company. But does that popularity get them anywhere? No. They never deliver on what their employees want and they don’t move up the ladder unless they change. And if any of those things ever actually get implemented, it won’t be because of them.
Meanwhile the mainstream Democrats don’t have policies or plans, at least when it comes to assuaging people. They just have ideals, aspirations. In fact they have ceded their party’s program to the Bernie wing. After all, no one would read it or take it seriously but them. The mainstream is content with the old “working toward a more perfect Union” schtick. For some reason they can never make much progress on these aspirations even when they control every lever of power. That reason is because they are doing everything they can trying to maintain the empire as stable as they can.
The Fascists use ideas as a bludgeon. For their base, they create reality. And for the rest of us, every bald face lie and bad-faith argument they get away with adds to their power.
It’s easy to look at this and dismiss it as all lies and hypocrisy. But when you recognize that these are sections of the ruling class weaponizing ideas to further their vision of the American empire, the vision they see as the strongest version of that empire, you can see the connections between the theater and the reality. And then we can put that up against our understanding of what contradictions they face and where the power lies.
The cult of popularity infects every element of this society. From celebrity worship to entrepreneur culture, from informal social media “branding” to career development to dating app profiles, from legal strategy to political advocacy, popularity is given way more than its due, if not presented as THE key to success. The charity photo-op is shamelessly used by everyone from presidential candidates to CEOs to “socialist” collectives and racial justice organizers. The logic goes that if you can ingratiate yourself to people for them to like you, then you can get whatever you want.
This reflects how we are trained to see everything, even ourselves, as commodities. In those positions where you are the actual commodity, this can be of some use. But the blunt reality is that this logic doesn’t lead to success on the terms of the awful way the world is, or for the beautiful way it could be. The capitalist path to success is through creatively exploiting people. What you produce can be unremarkable, as long as you can exploit people more creatively or brutally than others. Popularity can sometimes help put lipstick on that pig. Meanwhile the path to communist revolution lies in putting the full reality of what we face before people as broadly as possible and connecting that with struggles over the key contradictions and crises of this system, all toward the goal of seizing state power.
Just giving people what they tell you they want isn’t gonna get you anywhere with anything. Tailoring your program to what you think people want will leave you in the same place, but probably with some debts you can’t pay. Giving people a vision of the best they could hope for within the logic of this system won’t actually get you power, and definitely won’t fulfill that vision, while blinding people to what kind of better society we could really achieve. People have plenty of nice- or even great-sounding ideas that make sense in the right frame of reference, responsive to all the current debates, that could provide people with what they want and need if only… if only it weren’t for the objective reality of capitalism-imperialism, American empire, global warming, the anarchy of production, the brutality of the state, and the fact that without science people will continue to go along with all of that.
For a real revolution, you need science and to provide the people with that science. To ground oneself and a growing core of people in in uprooting and overcoming the foundational issues facing humanity — global warming, all sorts of brutal national divisions, gender and sexual oppression, endless wars, the most basic way that our world sustains and reproduces itself.
We’ve got to recognize that change must start there, anything less being cosmetic and ephemeral and then provide people the tools to make that change. That might not be popular, but it’s the only real power we could ever get our hands on. And that recognition is more powerful in terms of liberating people than any ‘reasonable’ policy proposal under the capitalist-imperialist system could ever be.
“What is important is not what people are thinking, or even what they’re doing at any given time, but what they will be compelled to confront by the workings of this system — that it is the contradictions of this system that provide the basis for the revolution that we’re working for, and it’s by working on those contradictions that we work for that revolution.” — Bob Avakian
*While I’m curious as to what victories they may claim on local levels, I’m confident it won’t reverse the findings.
Recommended for further study of these issues:
- The Five Stops: Why This System Can’t Be Reformed (video), by Bob Avakian (excerpt from this, which is text)
- The Material Basis and the Method for Making Revolution by Bob Avakian, Chairman of the Revolutionary Communist Party
- On Developments in Nepal and the Stakes for the Communist Movement: Letters to the Communist Party of Nepal (Maoist) from the Revolutionary Communist Party, USA, 2005–2008
(With a Reply from the CPN(M), 2006)
- Why America Is Not — AND CANNOT BE — a Force for Good in the World — Revolution Newspaper
- The Oppression of Black People, The Crimes of This System and the Revolution We Need — Revolution Newspaper