Storefront Socialism: A Road Map for the Green Party and the Left

A lecture on social movements being given at the Mohawk Valley Freedom School in Utica in 2014. (Photo: Derek Scarlino/Love and Rage)

by Christopher Casey/Guest

In a recent article for Truthdig, Chris Hedges reiterated what many of us on the Left have been saying for some time. The Bernie Sanders campaign will NOT bring about any fundamental change, and represents a tragic diversion of social justice energies into the Democratic Party, a place where progressive movements go to die. Hedges also has some very sharp words about the current state of my Green Party, saying it is “crippled by endemic factionalism and dysfunction”. While I think Hedges’ latter comments are inaccurate and hyperbolic, he is correct in suggesting that the Green Party in the United States has yet to become the political force we envision it to be. Indeed, there are some divisions within the Green Party, but to talk about “endemic factionalism and dysfunction” is to harken back to the in-fighting days of 2004 when Nader ran independently and Cobb became the GPUS nominee.

While there is always vibrant political disagreement within the Greens, there is a great deal of unanimity and collective focus at the present time. Are we small? Yes, indeedy. But that is as much about the exigencies of American history, and the aggressive dismantling of the Left by the elites over the past 50 years. We all know that in the heyday of the relatively small, funded-from-above Tea Party movement, the media would cover their every burp and bellow. The Greens and the Left in general have been systematically excluded from the national and local media, and this has had no small impact on our growth.

Despite all this, the spirit of Hedges’ critique of the Greens can hardly be dismissed as completely inaccurate. So what is wrong with the Greens and the Left in general? Are we tone deaf to Hedges’ clarion call for overthrowing the entire corrupt political order? Yet while Chris Hedges talks eloquently about being “in the streets” and “making a revolution”, he has yet to provide us with any kind of a road map of how to get there. In my years of political organizing, I have come to develop my own pre-digital GPS unit for Left praxis navigation, and I would like to share some of it here.

First, I think effective praxis means not putting most of our eggs in the “let’s get a real progressive elected” basket. Unfortunately, I do believe that, unless we decide as a party to modify our dominant electoral focus vis-à-vis political strategy, we will continue to flounder and remain predominantly white in our demographic, and frail in the kind of political power we have built. Let me be clear. I am not saying we should jettison our electoral efforts in any way, shape or form. But what I am saying is that they need to be organically connected to the kind of praxis that grows power in local communities. I have dubbed it “storefront socialism”, but it is hardly a novel idea. The Black Panthers (think free breakfast programs for children), Hezbollah, the Italian Communist Party and many other political organizations have known for some time that in order to build political capital, you need to become part of, and directly service, the communities in which you live.

To cut to the chase, I believe strongly that, in addition to ongoing union organizing (admittedly more than ever an uphill challenge in this economic and political era), we need to focus on real base-building in the community. The old fashioned Marxist economic contradictions are only going to worsen over the next two decades, and the Left needs to position itself so that it can play a critical role in addressing same. We need to stop wasting our energy every four years supporting capitalist politicians, and instead become more service-oriented by growing roots in the community, and engaging in real base building. But this also means that the Green Party needs to invest as much money and time in creating these community centers as we do in trying to get people elected.

dorothyday

Dorothy Day, of the Catholic Worker Movement.

The storefront socialism model I have been advocating for some time looks to develop community centers that address pressing social needs, such as the opiate epidemic tearing apart neighborhoods everywhere. Such storefronts would seek to provide food banking, referral counseling, mental health and substance abuse counseling, clothing assistance, housing aid, and even some basic health care services (if the proper medical volunteers can be garnered to participate). These community centers would also hopefully become gathering places where education (think the Mohawk Valley Freedom School), art, poetry, dance, and a host of other creative endeavors could be pursued. Rather than being run by one progressive political organization only (such as the Greens), I would assume they would frequently be operated by a coalition of progressive groups, like the Social Justice Center in Albany.

The world’s poor and the planet are running out of time. We have to stop being sucked into the black hole that is the Democrapublican Party’s electoral charade every four years, and get smart as a movement. But this means we ourselves in the Green Party have to temper our historical addiction to a largely electoral strategy, and begin to embrace an Occupy Sandy approach to building a movement. We need to listen to what Chris Hedges has to say, but we also need to develop a new road map for the revolution he is talking about, something he himself is clearly lacking as well. We need to grow a real revolution, but we must always remember that putting those seeds in the ground will not be completed overnight. Electoral fixes in the belly of capitalism and the American Empire, have been, and will continue to be, cosmetic band-aids on the face of the beast.

Working to service and assist those who have been marginalized by the system, those who have been victimized by the dog-eat-dog realities of capitalism, is the best way to build political capital and grow a movement. As the economic and social conditions worsen over the next few decades in the United States, and the palpable suffering of the average American increases with it, we would be offering another palliative option besides opiates or cable television. Dorothy Day called it “direct aid”, and the Catholic Worker Movement she built with it had a powerful and lasting impact on the communities they served. In the final analysis, it is not just about revolutionary praxis and overthrowing a corrupt and evil system. It is about doing what is desperately needed, what is consistently moral, and what is certifiably right.


Christopher Casey is a social worker for the New York State Office of Mental Health, and works as a therapist at their outpatient clinic in Herkimer, N.Y. He is a long time activist, and is involved locally with the Herkimer-Oneida Green Party and the Utica Activist Coalition.

5 Comments on Storefront Socialism: A Road Map for the Green Party and the Left

  1. Good article, but I do not share the same opinion. I am confused as this seems as if you want a social movement more than a political party. Do we have to choose? And should the two be intertwined?

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  2. John de Clef Piñeiro, Esq. // February 16, 2016 at 1:54 pm // Reply

    I say we need to catch the wave of anti-establishment/anti-status-quo wave/zeitgeist that is growing before us and ride it as far as it will take us.

    I lived and was part of the community organizing during the late 60s and 70s, and can say that storefront activities were only the small waves of those days. I can get into nostalgia as much as anyone else about street-level organizing, but as things now stand, I’m not about to propose a storefront model to the literal hordes of working class folks who are now energized and mobilized to support the kind of engaged people’s political revolution that Sanders is advocating.

    Frankly, this is not the time to disconnect with what’s happening. On the contrary, it’s time to flow together, and if the nomination eludes or is stolen from Sanders, then at least non-Greens can see and will know first-hand that the common themes found in our 10 Key Values (http://gp.org/tenkey.php) brought us together to make them a reality through Sanders’s candidacy. From the perspective of a long-time community organizer, making Green a friendly face and an ally for common outcomes when there is already an energized and mobilized citizenry is critically important, more effective in creating affiliations and channeling grassroots support, and much more timely than setting up storefronts. With that said, let the fireworks begin.

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    • John de Clef Piñeiro, Esq. // February 16, 2016 at 3:38 pm // Reply

      Please use the following link for the Green Party USA’s Ten Key Values (the link in the comment is defective): https://www.greenparty.org/values.php

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    • John: Admittedly my short article was meant to start a conversation, and to say I left out a great deal is an understatement. One of the simple ideas that I failed to emphasize about the storefront concept is the simple value of having a base of operations. In some areas, a social service model might not be as relevant or needed as a solar/ alternative energy co-op, or another collectively owned Green enterprise. Such an enterprise clearly has the potential to be self sustainable by paying the rent and utilities, or the mortgage payments if the collective is looking to buy the building outright. But even a service oriented model with a food co-op and/or a referral counseling service has the potential to generate some income via donations, sliding payment scales, barter currency etc. I would also point out that if the space is large enough, there’s potential to raise money in other ways. As a sometimes community theater actor, I have had the privilege of being involved with a wonderfully successful local theater, the Ilion Little Theater. A big enough storefront not only has the potential for doing theater, it could also run open mike nights and even small concerts to raise money. This would be an awesome way to get young people involved as both performers and audience members. While I hinted at all this, one thing I forgot to emphasize is this: having a stable base of operations is HUGE when it comes to the kind of political organizing you are alluding to John De Clef Piniero.I learned this first hand at the Social Justice Center (SJC) in Albany. New York in the nineties. Without the SJC, so much of our anti-war work and our other progressive organizing would have never happened. The SJC used a left-wing gift shop/ book store model but no matter. It worked and it’s still going strong, sustaining an impressive number of environmental, feminist, pro-Palestinian and pro-peace groups under its roof. I should have been clearer in my article that this storefront socialism model should not be limited to a purely social services model. In more affluent upper middle class communities, it will look different indeed. But I emphasized the social services model because of the dire straits of communities such as those in Herkimer County, where I am privileged to provide mental health counseling and crisis case management on a daily basis. I also believe that the social and economic conditions are only going to get worse over the next 20 years, and the Greens have a real historical opportunity to position ourselves in a manner where we are truly relevant. The model I am proposing, however, is not a cookie cutter one set in doughy stone.It is meant to be a fluid one that will evolve and grow over time. And most importantly, it will adapt to the needs of the community it is situated in. In regard to your comments, one of those needs will be to organize those “hordes of (energized) working class folks” you spoke of. Believe me, John, having a store-front gives any political organization or coalition of groups a huge advantage tactically and practically. Is it something that will or can happen overnight? Of course not. The obstacles will be many. And the start up resources will not be easily raised. However, I firmly believe that when this base building approach is integrated with a judicious electoral strategy, the Greens, along with whatever left-wing coalition emerges over the next two decades, can really build the kind of mass political capital and people power strong enough to throw the bastards out.
      – Christopher Casey

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I agree with Christopher’s assessment and analysis. For my part, I believe the mistake that we’ve made is in not building a radical social / political movement alongside the party. My experience in the Bronx and NYC is that grassroots community activists do not want to work with a political party, even if it is the Green Party. They don’t trust it any more than they do the corporate parties. A political party cannot also function as a broader movement. The requirements are different and not compatible. We need to build an inclusive movement based on the Ten Key Values / Four PIllars, allying ourselves with like-minded groups — just as Christopher explains — and using that movement as the springboard from which the Green Party will find and run candidates. In NYC, Greens are closely allied with various Socialist and Ecosocialist groups. Many of us who are enrolled Greens are also members of these groups as well. This is the next chapter in growing the Green Movement / Party.

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3 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Storefront Socialism: A Roadmap for the Green Party, and the Left | the Punk Patriot
  2. Storefront Socialism: A Roadmap for the Green Party, and the Left | green thought
  3. Love and Rage: Storefront Socialism: A Road Map For The Green Party And The Left | American Third Party Report

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