Beyond the Ballot: Making the Movement Matter, Conference Report


From February 27th to March 1st YDS held its national outreach conference entitled “Beyond the Ballot: Making the Movement Matter” at the Academy of Environmental Science in New York City. The event, attended by over 150 people, focused on developing strategies for building progressive and radical social movements to push the Obama administration to the left.  This year YDS successfully increased the prominence of socialist politics in workshops and plenaries while articulating the need to build a democratic socialist organization to achieve even moderate reforms, let alone a serious power shift from capital to labor.

Amy Goodman, host of Democracy Now!, spoke on the plenary “Now, the Hard Part: Movement Building Under Barack Obama” with Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member Bill Fletcher Jr., a veteran radical trade unionist, and DSA Vice-Chair and Temple University Professor, Joseph Schwartz.  Goodman reminded the audience that the media plays an important role in making and breaking progressive change.  She encouraged activists to use grassroots forms of communication, while admitting the limitations of mainstream media in promoting anti-establishment viewpoints even when they are popular.  Fletcher reminded the audience that socialism is more than just a topic for study groups.  He also spoke about the need to critically examine social movements and organizations in order to better the movements that we already have.   Schwartz proclaimed there is already social democracy in the United States -- but it is isolated to the affluent American suburbs with their excellent public schools and services.  He told listeners that a key democratic socialist goal is to expand such social benefits to all.  All speakers agreed that the Obama administration offered an opening to progressive social movements, but that we need to have one foot in the system and one in the streets.  Visible protest with direct demands would help distance Obama from his corporate backers.

The next plenary was “Student Debt: The New Indentured Servitude.”  This session fit right into YDS’ national programming as the organization, at the YDS Summer Conference voted to make student debt a national priority.  The panel featured academics Christine Kelly and Jeffery J. Williams, and was moderated by leading YDS and New Jersey intercollegiate activist Michael McCabe.  Kelly, a historian of student activism, discussed the fight against tuition increases in the days of Roosevelt and afterward.  She articulated only organized student bodies could successfully fight against raises in fees and for increased funding.  Williams, in a popular experiment, asked the audience how many had graduate school debt, then undergraduate debt.  Combined, a good portion of the auditorium raised their hands.  Then he asked how many had high school debt.  No one had their hand raised.

Williams used this moment to highlight that our society views education as a right until the age of 18.  He also said that skyrocketing debt is a new phenomenon born over the past few decades.  He and Kelly connected the dominance of neoliberalism to the shift from grants to loans in subsidizing an individual’s higher education.  When asked by an audience member about the need to increase funding for technical schools because higher education is “a privilege,” both answered that the role of socialists and progressives is spread the idea that college education is a right to those who qualify.  Kelly, who recently joined DSA, ended by telling the audience her family directly benefited from the GI Bill which enabled her father to attend college.  She stressed that young socialists must remind a generation that grew up with anti-government rhetoric that the state can be a force for good.

On Sunday, DSA Youth Section (YDS’s old name) veterans addressed the issues of America’s weak economy and imperial wars.  Mark Levinson, the first DSA-YS chair and current chief economist for labor union UNITE-HERE, and Dr. Schwartz, the first DSA-YS national organizer, spoke on “The Economic Crisis and the Wars: Seeing Through the Misdirection.”  Levinson told the students that only starry-eyed conservative economists did not predict the housing crisis and the stock market collapse.  He added that growing income inequality contributed the economic crisis.  The stagnant wages of the working class forced people into debt.  Higher wages at the top and deregulation of financial instruments led to more speculation.  This proved to be a dangerous combination as the economy tanked largely due to bad debts and poor investments.  Schwartz, who filled in for an injured Frances Fox Piven, told the audience the “dirty little secret” that the U.S. could be perfectly safe with a drastically cut military budget, as the United States currently outspends all other nations combined on “defense.” Most current foreign policy dilemmas faced by the U.S. are not solvable by the brute use of armed force, he argued; rather, a sane U.S. foreign policy requires sophisticated multi-lateral diplomacy, sound economic policy, and intelligent “intelligence” gathering.  A great deal of federal spending is dedicated to maintaining a Cold War style imperialist army, ready to invade developing nations.  Schwartz also said socialists should also push for more democratic control of the capital that our government is now investing in failing banks.  He reasoned since it’s our tax money, we ought to have control over how it is used.

The closing panel was “We are an Intergenerational Movement!” with DSA Vice-Chair and Midwest Academy trainer Steve Max and journalist and author Liza Featherstone.  Max said he would offer no advice to student activists on how to organize themselves.  He did, however, tell that the socialist movement had helped change the U.S for the better.  While not always featured prominently in textbooks, socialist organizations helped activists become smarter and more organized movement builders.  Featherstone stressed the critical role that socialist organizations play in building organic activists and intellectuals.  Both Max and Featherstone reminded us that there is a strong anti-intellectual current in American politics on both the right and left.  They agreed that being active in YDS is a great way to build an educated democratic left and to counter reactionary and misguided anti-intellectualism.

The conference also featured fourteen workshops with topics ranging from labor, immigration, gender, sexuality, and race, healthcare, the economy, the environment, the war, and more.  One of the most successful workshops was “Strike While the Iron is Hot: How to Build a YDS chapter.”  Over twenty chapter activists and those interested in starting chapters from ten schools came together to discuss how to build a socialist organization through political programming and intellectual development.  The attendance of younger chapter activists, including high school students, showed that there is a new generation ready to build YDS.

The atmosphere of that workshop and the entire conference was one of hope -- even if that hope was cautious.  Gone is the anger and resentment of youth activism under Bush.  YDS is ready to play a strong and visible role in building progressive social movements and a democratic left under Obama.  We know that we are socialists and Obama is not -- no matter what the right wing says.  We’ll continue recruiting and building DSA as a multi-generational socialist organization.  “Beyond the Ballot: Making the Movement Matter” only emphasized our belief that elections play an important but limited role in making social change.  Obama’s election created many opportunities for social change.  Now our job is not only to prove to him that our ideas are right; we must build the movements to make him enact them.

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