Power Not Pity: Organizing the Poor to Abolish Poverty (Part 4)

By Willie Baptist and Kristin Colangelo

History, primarily through the economic impact of the micro-electronic revolution, has broken down the capitalist system into two globalized and hostile camps. One camp is the ruling class, which has been able to concentrate and centralize onto itself the greatest accumulation of capital and wealth ever. This accumulation has far surpassed the earlier capitalist periods of industrial technology revolutions. One of, if not the main, manifestations of this accumulation of big global capital is the interconnected network of financial centers that function like Wall Street in different countries around the world, in both the so-called “Global South” and “Global North”. 

The other camp is now constituted by a globalized workforce that has been increasingly proletarianized (made propertyless) and deindustrialized. The wages of this new workforce are being consumed in a “race to the bottom” as they are now having to directly compete with the ever-lowering production costs of computers and robots. This proletarian camp now includes whole sections that are being rendered superfluous industrial human waste. 

Although there continues to exist other definite disparities and conflicts, the growing class antagonism between these two camps defines our times. In other words, the predominance of this class antagonism now permeates and shapes all other major global contradictions and antagonisms, such as the continuing disparities between the developed, developing, and undeveloped countries, as well as the racial, gender, and other inequalities within all these countries.  

Political leadership must take into account the current reality of these two camps of class conflict that has now, through advanced “high tech” transformations, become globalized. This includes the old and newly emergent forms of struggle that each of these camps are compelled to take up under new and developing conditions. This new era of class struggle is also a new era of advanced internet communication, which is compelling the two camps to take up new network forms of organizing and educating, and new netwar forms of struggle and class conflict. In other words, this new era of the internet, networks, and netwars has brought to the forefront of today’s class struggle new forms of the battle of ideas. 

Today, the main battlefield is the mental terrain of the world’s masses. As a military historian once noted: all wars in history have been ultimately won in the minds of the people, when the combatants have been convinced by whatever combination of means to quick the battlefield. In the digital age, this fact of the battlefield has become more magnified. Today, those who win the contest are those who master the combination of online/offline forms of political education and organization. 

In this internet era, we are already witnessing the political impact of the rising mass organizing drives of those on the bottom of the economic ladder. This impact is primarily ideological, largely in the form of nonviolent political agitation and education. And this is confirming the nature and effectiveness of the current netwar forms of struggles. Anthony Prince, the lead organizer and attorney for the new National Union of the Homeless, reminds us of the historical parallels of the Underground Railroad to the struggles of the homeless today. The political and organizational assistance that the abolitionists gave to the development of the Underground Railroad enabled it to exert tremendous ideological influence on the mass of American society. There is a similar battle being waged by the most oppressed and immiserated today. 

Political Strategy and Tactics 

A set of basic principles on the science and art of war and conflict were formulated by Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese philosopher and strategist, in his ancient book the Art of War. This book has become a basic text in major military academies around the world. In this classic text, Sun Tzu offers several basic time-tested principles of strategy, including his most famous one: “know your enemy, know yourself and in one hundred battles you will never be defeated.” He further writes, “to win one hundred victories in one hundred battles is not the acme of skill. To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” He also emphasizes that this skill involves the ability to “avoid your enemy’s strong points. Concentrate your attack on his weak points.” 

In other words, Sun Tzu’s main principles of the science and art of strategic and tactical leadership can be summed up as: “to out-fight your enemy you must out-smart your enemy.” This simple conclusion necessarily involves short and long range plans of operations, with a line of march that renders the enemy vulnerable by first isolating them from forces formerly allied with them, before directly attacking and defeating them. We can see this lesson being carried out through political strategy in, for example, Dr. King’s organizing leading up to the 1968 Poor People’s Campaign. His insistence to “get the poor to take action together” was oriented around a strategy of organizing the poor as a united class force that could then become a powerful rallying point for unsettling the masses of the middle strata and winning them to their side. This middle section of the population is the main social base of the U.S. state. Through united actions and campaigns, the poor and dispossessed could become “a new and unsettling force” for winning the middle strata, and thereby weakening the present state apparatus while isolating the ruling class. 

To win the social conflicts we are being confronted with today requires knowing who our class enemy is and knowing who we are. This means first having a clear and accurate estimate of the central fact that society today has been broken down into these two increasingly globalized and hostile camps. An accurate assessment allows us to see how the antagonism or hostility between these two contending class forces has been shaped by a new era of basic and comprehensive technological shifts in the global economy. 

This new situation is exposing a weak point of Wall Street, which is that now even in the United States the ruling class can no longer provide high levels of living standards and social bribery to the working class, as it once did. Much worse, it can no longer provide the basic economic necessities of life for impoverished sections of its working class. Consequently, the political influence that Wall Street has exerted through various governmental and nongovernmental institutions is weakening among increasing segments of the population, including families of the middle-income strata. 

This is primarily the case with the poor and dispossessed, where the denial of the basic economic and social necessities of life is most acute. They have been placed by history in a social position that lies at the Achilles Heel of Wall Street. A political strategy to defeat Wall Street must find the means, emerging out of the ebbs and flows of the struggle, to effectively concentrate all of its main forces and energies on this “open flank” or weak point. The word “strategy” comes from the Greek word strate’gia meaning generalship. The Webster Dictionary defines generalship as leadership. Today, the most vital need of our social and political struggles for survival is for leaders who can master the science and art of political strategy and tactics. This expanding core of political leaders is necessary to counter the united group of generals that lead our enemy. 

The boxing champion Mike Tyson once expressed a fundamental principle of all conflicts. He said that “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” War or political conflicts generally are not harmless shadow boxing exercises. In the case of boxing, a boxer is in the ring with a physical opponent intending to harm or knock them out. Not for a moment can the boxers take their eyes off of each other. They must be at all times combat ready, anticipating the blows and counterblows of real enemies with real strengths and weaknesses. 

When organizing to fight as well as when fighting to organize, we are at all times up against an actual adversary who seeks to be better organized than we are while striving to keep us disunited and disorganized. Not knowing and keeping an ongoing study of the enemy is like going into a boxing ring blindfolded. Yet many activists insist on shadowboxing “capitalism,” “imperialism,” and poverty as general abstractions. They go into battle armed only with righteous anger and moral demands. They go into struggle with sentiments and slogans not backed by the power of organization led by concrete and specific knowledge of both who their class enemy is and of their own thinking and fighting capacities.

To be successful in this life and death conflict, leadership must be mastered as the science and art of the conduct of the class struggle, which operates on two basic levels: political strategy and tactics. Similar to operations of military strategy and tactics, strategic political plans are long-term operations, while tactical plans are short-term. Like steps of a staircase, tactics are part of and serve strategy. Accordingly, the organizing approaches of political leaders have to be carried out on both of these levels. 

Liddell Hart, a much-noted military historian, defined strategy as, “…the practical adaptation of the means placed at a commander’s disposal to the attainment of the objective in view.” This is the ABC of any strategy, military or political. No end or objective can be accomplished without the appropriate means and resources and their proper utilization.

One of the main differences between military strategy and, in our case, political strategy is that for the most part (except in certain cases of guerrilla warfare waged by the non-ruling or oppressed classes) governments place resources at the disposal of military leaders. In other words, in military strategy, the armed forces are placed at the disposal of generals by governments. In political strategy, it is history that places potential means and resources at the disposal of political leaders who, in the course of struggle, realize and direct them. 

How does history place means at the disposal of political leadership? What are these “means”? The strategic means are the people themselves, with their social needs and fighting capacities. The forms, methods, and resources of struggle and organization that people strive, out of necessity, to take up are the tactical means. History positions these means in the course of economic and social development. History is the unfolding of the periods, stages, and phases of the development of society. Since the times of the prehistoric tribal communal structures, each historical period has been defined by a particular economic class structure and the constant struggles between the exploiting and ruling class and the exploited and oppressed class of that period. In the course of these class struggles, the oppressed classes are formed and forged into political forces.

5 Main Ingredients

The October Revolution in Russia was the first time in world history when the poor and dispossessed masses rose up and were actually united as a organized social force to defeat and totally dismantle the political and economic power of the ruling classes. It did this by, among other things, mastering the advanced communication media of its time and mastering the newly emerging Soviet (Council) forms of struggle and organization of the impoverished masses of the Tsarist Russian Empire. 

Parallels in world history show how in the course of class struggles the political armies of the dispossessed and impoverished have been organized and strategically directed. In this network, studies have been conducted on the lessons of the successful revolutionary processes of Russia, China, Vietnam, and Cuba, as well as the defeat of Reconstruction in the U.S.. Further, the Kensington Welfare Right Union’s Political Education Committee added to these lessons a study of the rise and demise of the first organizing drive of the National Union of the Homeless. It found that at least five major ingredients have to be considered in the formation of the poor and propertyless masses into an organized political force. They are 1) teams of indigenous organizers that play a leading role in building the different mass organizations of the impoverished; 2) bases of operation; 3) politically independent lines of communication; 4) mutual support networks; 5) and the sun around which these ingredients orbit, an expanding core of political leaders

This core of political leaders constitutes a network of revolutionaries which today must be built throughout the entire country and necessarily connected internationally. This is due to today’s immediate global character of the class struggle of the poor and dispossessed. The task of this politically conscious core is to build and hold together all the other ingredients through ongoing political education. That political education must ensure a strategic unity and coordination of the five ingredients along a definite line of march that can ultimately result in the abolition of poverty and the economic system that produces it. 

The first step in this line of march is a mass organizing drive to unite the poor and dispossessed as a class, which begins with teams of indigenous organizers. The core of political leaders would expand itself by politically educating, training, and organizing these organizers. Inseparably connected to this process of development is “base building.” That is to say, teams of indigenous organizers would set out to construct mass membership organizations of the poor on the different fronts or issues of the class struggle. Each of these mass membership organizations would constitute themselves as bases of operation, “fortresses” or power bases of the class struggle of the poor and dispossessed. The expanding core of revolutionaries would connect and coordinate all of these fronts of struggle through independent lines of communication and mutual support networks. Again, central to this political organizing is political education.

The cutting edge of this political organizing is mass nonviolent agitation activities. Teams of indigenous organizers must master and constantly wield this weapon of political education to awaken and move the poor and dispossessed. Due to their economic and social position in the capitalist system, the poor and homeless are mostly confronted with problems of bare survival. These problems translate into constant personal crises. Teams of indigenous organizers must be able to identify “issue problems”, as opposed to “nonissue problems.” The problems that are issues are the ones that most agitate the group of the poor being organized at any given moment. An issue problem tends to stir them into some form of resistance or protest as a group. The issues that are focused on as a starting point or at any other point in an organizing drive must be those that the poor and dispossessed are most prepared to be politically educated and organized around. 

For instance, when the National Union of the Homeless launched its local organizing campaign in Chicago, Illinois, it engaged homeless men and women in many different venues, probing and agitating to see what problem most aggravated them. This probing culminated in a meeting prepared by the Union’s national organizers. Free food and drinks were collected for the gathering at which this central organizing point was discussed. People spoke up about the problems that most concerned them. For example, a group of supporters from a local group called the Coalition for the Homeless offered their current lobbying campaign in the state legislature in Springfield, Illinois as such an “issue”. It was a campaign to get a housing bill passed into law. They also offered to pay for buses for homeless folks to be brought down to add strength in numbers to their lobbying efforts. 

Many of the homeless knew that they did not have adequate housing because they had inadequate or no income and that they had shitty jobs or no jobs, etc. In other words, they were well aware of the many problems that assaulted them daily. However, it turned out that the most burning problem for most was not this policy issue, but the fact that every morning, between the hours of 5 to 7 AM, homeless adults and children had to get up and get in line, suffering the human indignity of receiving just five sheets of toilet paper for the day. This is what most aggravated and agitated them into action and protest. This was the starting point, while other issues subsequently provided similar points of agitation and education for the conduct of the Union’s local organizing drive throughout different phases of the campaign.

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