When Our Allies Are Not Like Us

by Robin Hahnel

Can the occupy movement be both inclusive and politically radical?

First published: 07 March, 2012 | Category: Activism

In the recent fight against SOPA and PIPA avid believers in the right of free speech who view the internet as an antidote to the corporate owned media found themselves in an alliance with some of the largest and most powerful corporations in the world. Moreover, it was apparent that Google, FaceBook, Twitter, et. al. provided the critical clout needed to turn the tide of battle and deliver a remarkable victory.

Last year leftists participating in occupations in hundreds of cities across the country in solidarity with OWS discovered that many expressing themselves in the General Assemblies had, shall we say, less than perfectly politically correct positions on many issues. Some were not die-hard anti-imperialists. Some were not committed anti-racists. Some were not fully feminist. Some even exhibited a hostile attitude toward the labor and environmental movements.

What is surprising is how often US Leftists seem caught off guard whenever this happens. After all, we on the Left in the US are painfully aware that we are still, unfortunately, a minority – even here in Portlandia! So why should we be surprised to find others who do not think like us when we venture outside our own little world? Moreover, this has been going on from time immemorial. Leftists are almost always in a minority whenever we participate in mass movements and reform struggles.

One counterproductive response is for leftists to denounce allies we dislike, explaining why they are “politically incorrect” and untrustworthy on many issues. In effect, leftists too often feel compelled to dismiss all who are not “us.” This response is no doubt self-soothing since it strokes our own egos. Unfortunately, it is sanctimonious and guaranteed to perpetuate our isolation.

A second counterproductive response is to assume that all who participate in any struggle we are involved in do so for the same reasons we do. Leftists who respond in this way assume, in effect, that all our allies in a struggle have miraculously become “us.” This response is not only naïve, it leads people to drop out when they are disillusioned by what they experience as betrayal.

What is needed instead is a more mature – I am almost tempted to say Machiavellian – response.

(1) Welcome allies, and don’t look gift horses in the mouth. We need more people and more organizational muscle -- both to win battles today and to win the long war ahead. Any behavior on our part that is off-putting to those who do not yet agree with us on some issue carries a heavy cost.

(2) Acknowledge differences and seek productive ways to discuss them. A good place to start is to review what has brought us and our allies together. But this is not to say that differences should be ignored. Only if those engaged can find ways to discuss and overcome differences can reform campaigns turn into transformative movements. We do want to change people’s minds. Moreover, the most opportune time to do so is when we are actively engaged in struggle as allies. Therefore, we should never hesitate to speak our mind, and insist that others respect our right to do so. In particular, we should never accept gag orders from allies, no matter how important they may be in the campaign of the moment. However, while there will be some who come into movements willing to accept us as their “teachers,” most will not. Consequently, treating allies with whom we do not always see eye-to-eye as if they were our students is not only arrogant but also counterproductive. We must learn how to discuss and overcome differences while treating allies as equals.

(3) Be prepared for inevitable “partings of the way.” When the issue changes, for example, from fighting to put a price on carbon emissions and secure government funding for a massive Green New Deal, to fighting for better wages and more worker control, most corporations in the solar power and wind turbine industries will no longer be marching with us. And even while we are discussing demands, strategies, and tactics to avert climate change, we will often disagree with allies who have different interests and goals, and want to limit and shape the struggle in ways we do not.

Moreover, in broad coalitions we will often not get our way. In coalitions who gets things more their way is usually determined by who brings more resources to a struggle. When we are out voted we should be prepared to “suck it up” and go along with the majority. Of course when the majority agrees with us and a coalition ally tries to use its greater financial or organizational strength to get its way, we should be in the forefront of those screaming bloody murder about how this is not the democratic way we all supposedly believe things should be settled. And sometimes we should be prepared to leave a coalition if the majority insists on some course of action we find unacceptable. But the main point is we should not be surprised when others disagree with us or when we do not get our way, and we should not waste time and energy grousing when this happens.

Our road is a long and hard road. We will engage in many struggles along the way. Allies in one struggle at one juncture in the road will not always be allies in later struggles. On the other hand, those who are not with us today may well be with us tomorrow. Over the next few years a great deal depends on how quickly US Leftists mature regarding our attitudes and working relations with allies who do not agree with us: Will the Occupy Movement prove capable of attracting new participants who have long been hostile to the Left? Will the environmental and labor movements prove capable not only of working with each other, but also with companies doing business in clean energy and energy conservation? Just as internet censorship would not have been beaten back in January 2012 without a powerful assist from Google, climate change will not be prevented before it is too late without the active support of major corporations willing to oppose the fossil fuel lobby. Getting ourselves tied up in psychological knots over who we find marching beside us is unproductive and unnecessary. The US Left needs to “grow up”… and the sooner the better! 

Robin Hahnel is Professor of Economics at Portland State University. His most recent book is Economic Justice and Democracy and he is co-author with Michael Albert of The Political Economy of Participatory Economics. This column originally appeared in Portland's 'Street Roots' newspaper and exclusively available online at NLP.

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