Mobilizing vs. organizing around health care

Jacobin Magazine recently published a series of essays, written by members of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), about whether or not socialists should plan a national march for “Medicare For All”.  First, Dustin Guastella wrote an essay calling for socialists to lead this national march in Washington D.C.; then Michael Kinnucan responded, arguing that socialists need to do more organizing and less mobilizing, and that a march would not be a good use of time/energy; then Guastella wrote back, affirming and clarifying the usefulness of planning a big march, and was joined by Ethan Young who also wrote an essay arguing the potential benefits of a Medicare for All rally.

Guastella’s first essay argues that socialists (particularly the DSA) need to recognize the widespread popularity of the idea of “Medicare For All”, and use it to not only shore up their brand, but to connect with health care workers, who are currently among the most radical of American organized labor.  It acknowledges that oftentimes marches and rallies and protests tend to be rather boring and useless, but argue that if done correctly, a “Medicare For All” march organizing effort can lead to concrete connections being made between dispersed constituencies and segments of the working class, and socialists in general.  It also pre-empts the argument that socialists should do more local organizing around health-care, pointing out that health care is something extremely difficult to do on a local or state level, and a national “Medicare For All” platform has the least contradictions and obstacles.  Its nice that this article acknowledges the routine pitfalls and habits that affect marches and rallies today; even as somebody who tends to stay away from demonstrations, I’m willing to buy the idea of using a march as a way to build and plan and network between the DSA and health care workers.

Michael Kinnucan’s response is pessimistic on the usefulness of a nationally coordinated health care protest.  It argues that the DSA is not in much position to influence Washington or organize a large rally, especially compared with those that have already been organized this year by other organizations and networks, and that organizing a march without organizing locally first is putting the cart before the horse.  It also points out that the nurses union, which Guastella wants to organize a march with, has shied away from these kinds of actions, and has done much more locally, especially electorally.  Which is related to another problem, that organizing a “Medicare For All” march risks rolling up the DSA into the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and doesn’t allow for the development of an actual anti-capitalist socialist alternative to the Democrats’ welfare capitalism.  Citing Jane McAlevey’s arguments about organizing vs. mobilizing, Kinnucan argues for locally-rooted struggle around not just health care, but also housing, so that the DSA can reach out to new constituencies, rather than simply mobilizing their existing and relatively small base to travel across the country for a protest.  I think a lot of this makes sense, particularly the point about whether the nurses’ union would even be down for organizing a big rally in the capital.

Guastella’s defense of a “Medicare for All” mobilization against Kinnucan’s critiques goes into more detail about the underlying logic, but oddly enough it seems to move away from what I thought were the more persuasive points, in favor of a somewhat vague and undeveloped argument about the importance of national demands and national coordination.  A crux of this second essay is that the socialists absolutely need some kind of national campaign, otherwise they’ll remain fragmented and localized.  Buts its never made clear why a campaign focusing on a march in D.C. will help build a base in the localities where most DSA chapters will be doing day-to-day work.  There is also an argument made about how large organizations like the AFL-CIO can ignore small, local actions, but can’t afford to ignore big nationally-coordinated actions, but its not clear why the DSA needs to care about whether these big establishment organizations are participating.

The clarification on the most persuasive points in the original essay, around using a big rally as a means to an end of building connections and networks, should probably have been focused on more.  This clarification revolves around acknowledging how most big demonstrations do, in fact, lead to nothing (i.e. the Womens’ March and the March for Science), but if the DSA takes these lessons in stride, a “Medicare For All” march can be different, and focus more on networking for the longer-term political campaign over the march itself.  But this raises an important concern: what if there is something inherent to organizing marches and rallies and other symbolic demonstrations that stifles the ability for longer-term campaigns and coalitions to emerge?  Its easy to say that liberals will of course hold useless demonstrations, but without a deeper dive into the actual mechanics of why these demonstrations fail to build longer-term campaigns, its not clear why a socialist-organized mass demonstration will be able to avoid the same outcome.

Ethan Young’s essay was particularly unpersuasive.  It argues that a “Medicare For All” march could launch a protracted, national movement around health-care in the same way that the 1965 anti-war march organized by the SDS allegedly pushed the radical left into the forefront of US politics and launched a militant anti-war movement.  But this narrative ignores the fact that day-to-day, local organizing had been going on for many years prior, during the Civil Rights Movement, and it was out of this infrastructure that the SDS and other leftist groups grew.  The 1965 march emerged out of a long period of quieter, local organizing, which formed the basis for the highly publicized demonstrations lead by MLK and others, and subsequent movements relied on this localized network as well.  The real question should be, do socialist groups like the DSA have the pre-existing infrastructure and connections that the SDS had in ’65?  I’m not convinced that’s the case.

If you ask me, I’d say that organizing for big demonstrations should take a secondary position to consolidating local projects that bring immediate, concrete benefits.  R.L. Stephens made a very similar point in a recent essay in Jacobin.  Socialists can’t just bear witness to the horrors of capitalism and shout about the benefits of socialism and related programs — they have to actually act, in the here and now.  Organizing around immediate problems — wages, rent, police violence, food access, etc. — can connect with a much larger base than can organizing around showing up for a rally that may or may not get the attention of politicians (let alone actual societal or political reforms).

And in the context of health care, why not actually strategize around actually bringing class struggle into the mix?  The nurses are already among the most militant segments of the modern US working class.  If there is a capitalist industry that is ripe for collectivization, its health care.  Instead of planning for a rally in D.C. to beg scraps from politicians who have no interest in listening, why not connect with local health care workers and plan out how to get to a point where workers are occupying the hospitals and drug factories, and are destroying the functionality of the health insurance companies?

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